VfB Stuttgart — The Rückrunde Strikes Back

Stuttgart

“I find your lack of faith disturbing.” –Bruno Labbadia

It’s been an exciting season so far in the Bundesliga. Eintracht Frankfurt are neck and neck with Borussia Dortmund. Wolfsburg rebelled against Felix Magath’s tyrannical management. Bayer Leverkusen somehow absconded with 33 points and second place, while Freiburg and Mainz edged into Europa League berths ahead of Schalke. And Bayern Munich have set the bar beyond even Per Mertesacker’s reach — that is to say: high.

Amidst all this excitement VfB Stuttgart have scuttled by under the radar, with hardly a headline to their name beyond the requisite defeat at Bayern. Before season’s start there was speculation that Stuttgart would be one of the stronger contenders of 2012/13. So what happened?

One word: Hinrunde. In recent years the Swabians have made a habit of shooting themselves in the foot during the season’s first half, only to come back in sensational fashion after the winter break. All in all, 25 points and 9th place after Hinrunde can be considered achievements indeed for Bruno Labbadia’s side. It leaves them in a great position from which to launch their Rückrunde campaign. And if past patterns hold, Stuttgart should be well on their way to qualifying for European competition.

Unfortunately what works on paper almost never works out on the pitch. Let’s take a closer look at Stuttgart’s season so far, and what it portends for their Rückrunde.

The Good

Stuttgart deserve some credit: nabbing 9th place after kicking off the season with a five-match winless streak is no mean feat. Stuttgart held both Leverkusen and Dortmund to draws, and put three goals in Schalke’s net when the Royal Blues came for a visit (final score: 3-1). Vedad Ibisevic holds the third highest goal tally in the Bundesliga. The youngster Ibrahima Traore has proven a minor revelation with 15 chances created, 3 assists and one goal to his name. What’s more, Bruno Labbadia managed not to get fired.

Stuttgart furthermore went into the winter break still alive and kicking in the Bundesliga, the DFB Pokal, and Europa League. Granted, Köln very nearly took Stuttgart to extra time in the Pokal, and the Swabians did not run so much as limp over the finish line to qualify for the Europa League knockout rounds. But however they got here, Stuttgart are one of an elite trio of Bundesliga teams to have stayed alive in three competitions.

But this also means that Stuttgart will actually be competing in three competitions this spring — a new challenge for Labbadia and his roller-coaster ride of a team. Stuttgart can thank their lucky stars, however, that they drew VfL Bochum in the Pokal quarterfinals. Nothing is guaranteed when it comes to the Swabians these days, but Bochum are readily manageable even by their standards. And with Bayern and Dortmund set for a quarterfinal knockout, Stuttgart could be one great performance away from their first Pokal final since 2007.

This winter break also saw several Stuttgart players pen contract extensions: Gotoku Sakai, Georg Niedermeier, and Christian Gentner are in until 2016. Stuttgart have developed a strong core of familiar names, with the aforementioned three alongside Serdar Tasci, William Kvist, Sven Ulreich, Martin Harnik, and Vedad Ibisevic.

The Bad

The one glaring deficiency in Stuttgart’s core line-up, however, is that of a vivacious creative midfielder. Traore with his 15 goalscoring chances currently clocks in as Stuttgart’s third best creator: Ibisevic created 17 chances, while the hard-working Gentner lead the charge with 22. To clarify, Ibisevic is a center forward while Gentner is a central midfielder; they are not players expected to be creating the lion’s share of chances.

A contributing factor may be that Martin Harnik, the jewel in Stuttgart’s battered crown, has had trouble maintaining consistent top form this season. And the player’s personal struggle mirrors his team’s collective problem. On any given match day, it’s a toss up as to which Stuttgart shows up: the fearless competitors, or the feckless self-annihilators. Casual fans and faithful alike will be praying for some consistency, as Stuttgart with an in-form triangle of Gentner, Harnik, and Ibisevic is a mouthwatering prospect.

However, even in that situation the team still lacks a real creative engine. And for all his merits, Tamas Hajnal is not the answer: his propensity for going incognito in the middle of a match leaves much to be desired. More often than not the fullbacks bombing forward present more of a threat than Stuttgart’s nonexistent attacking midfield. Stuttgart’s saving graces at the moment are Gentner’s workrate and Ibisevic’s clinical finishing. Imagine how many more goals the Bosnian would have scored by now, if he’d only had the chances.

On the other end of the pitch, Labbadia will be dealing with more immediate problems to do with season’s restart. Maza has departed for Club América, Arthur Boka will be playing the African Cup of Nations, Gotoku Sakai is suspended, and Tim Hoogland has chicken pox and may not be match fit come January 19th. This leaves Stuttgart stretched rather thin across the back line. The manager has been calling up and fielding reserve defenders during Stuttgart’s training camp, and some of these youngsters may well see Bundesliga action next week.

But a sobering statistic remains this: in 2012, Sven Ulreich played 3,060 minutes, saved 122 shots, and conceded 54 goals — the most of any goalkeeper in the Bundesliga. All of which says rather little about Ulreich’s goalkeeping, but speaks volumes of Stuttgart’s defending.

The Ugly

The fact remains that Stuttgart have actually done little to convince anyone of anything this season, beyond their ability to get booked. Last year, Stuttgart were the team to watch if you wanted to see goals; this year, Stuttgart are the team to watch if you want to see fouls. Stuttgart earned themselves 37 yellow cards over the course of the Hinrunde. Their competitors for dirtiest team of the Bundesliga are currently Mainz and Nürnberg, clocking in at 38 and 39 yellows apiece; but the Swabians are alone in having already earned three straight reds. Furthermore, 20 of Stuttgart’s 32 fouls came in away games: a league high.

All told, fans would not be remiss to dial back expectations for the Rückrunde. January will likely merit very little fanfare, given that Stuttgart’s first two matches are Wolfsburg and Bayern — the former an away match, and the latter, a perennial nightmare. Furthermore, balancing three competitions will be a challenge for players and manager alike. Expect Stuttgart to bow out of Europa League sooner rather than later. A Pokal semifinal and European qualification, on the other hand, are not only realistic but imperative.

Of course, the Bundesliga is not so easily predictable, and Stuttgart in their current incarnation even less so. Stuttgart are only five points adrift from Borussia Dortmund and could very well abscond with a Champions League spot before it’s all over. Stranger things have happened — this season included.

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