Bruno Labbadia has done a great job, all things considered. When he first took the reins at VfB Stuttgart in December 2010, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone willing to put their money on this young coach to succeed — or even to keep his job for longer than a few months. Understandable, seeing as Stuttgart had already gone through four coaches since Armin Veh in 2008. A job at the Neckarstadion, it seemed, came with a speedy expiration date.
Not for Labbadia. The team he inherited was one on the verge of the drop, as for the second time in as many years, Stuttgart spent the first half of 2010/11 flirting with relegation. Labbadia, like Markus Babbel and Christian Gross before him, lead the Swabians to a typical Rückrunde resurgence. He then outdid his predecessors by managing what they had not: a respectable, non-relegation form in the following Hinrunde. Going into the winter break sitting comfortably mid-table, Stuttgart then put together one of the best runs of the Rückrunde to end the season in sixth place.
Year Three in the Reign of Labbadia
After a quiet summer transfer window, Stuttgart kicked off 2012/13 with good results in cup competitions. Labbadia’s men hit sixth-division SV Falkensee-Finkenkrug for five in the first round of the DFB-Pokal, then defeated Dinamo Moscow 3-1 on aggregate to qualify for the group stages of Europa League.
And then there was the Bundesliga. Stuttgart hosted Wolfsburg at home for the first match of the season. Unfortunately for the Swabians, it proved a game to forget. After 88 minutes of attritional football, with the score still deadlocked at 0-0, Stuttgart won a penalty and a chance to wrap up the game. But it was not to be: Vedad Ibisevic missed the penalty, punted the rebound into Row Z, and a minute later, Wolfsburg hit Stuttgart on the counter for a last-gap winner. It was the first time since April 8th, 2000 that Stuttgart has lost to the Wolves at home.
The following week saw Stuttgart travel to the Allianz Arena for a 6-1 spanking at the hands of an imperious Bayern Munich. Arthur Boka and Shinji Okazaki formed an uneasy partnership, as the frequent changes in lineup have given the left flank little time to gel. Between Boka being perpetually out of position and little to no cover from the midfield, Bayern ripped down the right with the ease of a hot knife through butter. To put the cherry atop a miserable afternoon, Ibisevic earned himself a red card in the 74th minute for a bad tackle against Jerome Boateng.
Director of Sport Fredi Bobic has now faced Bayern a total of 30 times, as player and director, and not a single one of those encounters has fallen in the Swabians’ favor. Of the 45 times that Stuttgart have played Bayern, they have only ever managed to win five. But Labbadia was resolute in his vision for the team, saying after the 6-1, “We’re not about to change our plan because we had a bad game.”
Stuttgart stuck with Labbadia’s possession-based strategy in the following match against newly-promoted Fortuna Düsseldorf. Ball-hoarding did Stuttgart little good, however, as they failed to come up any good ideas in the final third of the pitch. The Swabians looked hesitant, psychologically hammered from their trip to Bavaria still. Düsseldorf only had to sit back and defend to run out a 0-0 draw and claim their third clean sheet of the season.
Which leaves VfB with one draw, two losses, and a pile of looming questions. Is Labbadia’s strategy flawed? Or is it the individual players’ mistakes? And either way, what now?
Where Have All The Young Men Gone?
Stuttgart’s gem for the past two years has undoubtedly been Martin Harnik. Purchased from Werder Bremen for a mere €300,000 in 2010, the 25-year-old has since blossomed into one of the best wingers in the Bundesliga, racking up 26 goals and 17 assists in just two years. His talents were further augmented by the purchase of Bosnian striker Vedad Ibisevic last winter. The attacking duo quickly formed a great partnership, terrorizing defenses across Germany in the latter half of 2011/12.
Apart from Ibisevic, Fredi Bobic has also found some quality bargains in William Kvist and Gotoku Sakai (on loan, with option to buy). Kvist is a proverbial midfield metronome, dictating play with his great workrate and vision, while Sakai has established himself as an outstanding full back and regular starter after just half a season with Stuttgart.
The club’s fiscal prudence in the transfer market is commendable, and also in keeping with tradition. Stuttgart’s greatest footballing successes historically have come with teams anchored around a few veteran lynchpins, while relying on home-grown talent for flair and dynamism. After being relegated for the first and only time in 1975, Stuttgart’s resurgence under President Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder saw a young, free-scoring team knock in 100 goals one season to earn promotion back into the Bundesliga. What followed was a string of top-four finishes, and the club’s third national title in 1984.
When finances grew tight again at the turn of the millennium, Stuttgart rebuilt their team by drawing on an extremely successful youth program. Felix Magath’s Stuttgart in the early 2000s — featuring the likes of Timo Hildebrand, Kevin Kuranyi, Andreas Hinkel, and Alexander Hleb — finished runners-up in 2002/03, and earned themselves the nickname “the young and wild.” And in 2006/07, Stuttgart won their third Bundesliga title with another generation of young talents, including Mario Gomez, Sami Khedira, and Serdar Tasci, alongside veterans like Antonio Da Silva, Pavel Pardo, and captain Fernando Meira.
Fast forward to 2012, and the obvious question for Labbadia’s Stuttgart is: where have all the young men gone? The current Stuttgart team is on the senior end of the Bundesliga spectrum, with the average age of the first 11 being 27.4. Promising talents such as Raphael Holzhauser and Kevin Stöger have had a hard time breaking into the first team, while others, like Bernd Leno and Julian Schieber, have left for greener pastures.
Apart from bringing Sven Ulreich and Gotoku Sakai into the fold, Labbadia has done little for Stuttgart’s tradition of excellence in youth development. Even in the first-round Pokal match against a sixth-tier regional side, Labbadia chose to field his starting 11 rather than give youngsters a chance to test themselves. There is, of course, a good argument for the coach’s strategy: that Stuttgart are fielding one of the few teams in the Bundesliga which has remained largely intact from one season to the next. Cohesion is essential, and players have often spoken of the good chemistry in the current team.
Nevertheless, a lack of commitment to youth will be crippling for Stuttgart in the long run — and, for a club known for their “young and wild” image, it is tantamount to a crisis of identity.
A Question of Courage
“We have a lot of work to do,“ said Christian Gentner, after the toothless draw against Düsseldorf. “We knew that Düsseldorf would defend deeply and there will be other teams that have problems dealing with them. We weren’t courageous enough and at times made the wrong decisions.“
But the problem did not seem to be one of courage, so much as a complete lack of ideas when confronted with an organized defense. The loss of Ibisevic due to suspension certainly played a major role in the 0-0 result. Yet when the loss of just one player proves so crippling for a team — which, on paper, looks as strong as any in the league — then questions must be asked, of players and management alike.
It is still early in the 2012/13 campaign, and given the Swabians’ habit of Rückrunde comebacks, it is certainly too early for the word “relegation” to hold any true terror. The strength and depth of the squad make betting against Stuttgart a hazardous venture, even with recent results. And with Daniel Didavi on the mend, and Holzhauser, Stöger, Rüdiger, etc. waiting in the wings, the question of the season may be whether Bruno Labbadia can find the courage to give a new generation the chance to lift Stuttgart into glory days once again.