Bundesliga MD 26 Preview: Bayern vs. Stuttgart

Justin Separator March 20, 2021

When people talk about the Bundesliga’s positive developments of the season, the names Union Berlin and VfB Stuttgart tend to come up a lot. Two relative newcomers with Union having been promoted before the last season and Stuttgart before this one. However, the word “newcomer” does not seem quite appropriate for Stuttgart. This is the 58th Bundesliga season since its inception in 1963, and Stuttgart are currently playing their 54th season in the top flight. After relegations in 1975 and 2016, the one in 2019 was the third in the club’s history.

In the club’s history, the single-digit final table positions and three championships outshine the failures. Even though things have been anything but consistently good in the last decade, Stuttgart cannot be considered a common promoted team.

But precisely because the last few years have been marked by personnel changes, power struggles, and poor results, Stuttgart are seen as a surprise team this season and as a positive example of how a traditional club can return to the top from times of crisis.

Europe will look to Stuttgart again

9 wins, 9 draws, 7 defeats – that does not read badly for a promoted team. With 36 points, staying in the league is virtually a done deal, and the club can even dream of qualifying for Europe. Because the performances of Dortmund, Frankfurt and Leverkusen have not been marked by consistency, there is still a small chance.

Regardless of whether Stuttgart will qualify for next season’s European competition this season, people from all over Europe will undoubtedly be looking to Stuttgart again. One of the club’s great recipes for success in recent years has been their squad and team planning.

Thomas Hitzlsperger has played a big part in this. One of his major transfer coups: Sven Mislintat. The former Dortmund head scout (2006 – 2017) landed a job as sporting director at Stuttgart in May 2019 after a brief stint at Arsenal FC.

A lot of quality for relatively little money

Already in the following transfer window, the club was able to sign a lot of interesting players. On the one hand, the squad was thinned out considerably. Expensive players who could not really deliver on their promise left for a lot of money. Ozan Kabak, for example, was moved on to FC Schalke for €15 million. In total, the club made almost €80 million – not least thanks to the €35 million transfer of Benjamin Pavard to FC Bayern.

On the other hand, many young players, some of them quite unknown, found their way to Stuttgart and now play a central role in the starting eleven or the places 12-15. Silas Wamangituka (€8 million), Philipp Förster (€3 million), Saša Kalajdžić (€2.5 million) or Wataru Endo, who was initially brought in on loan (loan fee and transfer fee in the following year add up to approx. €2 million), proved to have been absolute top transfers.

Mislintat had already proven in Dortmund that he had the skills and the network to be able to identify and bring in talented footballers with great potential. He confirmed this impression by doing the same at Stuttgart.

Stuttgart fits the Zeitgeist

The squad is highly advanced in its composition of different player types. In almost every position there is at least one type of player who almost ideally represents the development of tactical trends in contemporary European football.

Endo, for example, is an almost complete midfielder who can hold and distribute the ball under pressure, and at the same time has the physicality and dynamism to be effective in gegenpressing. With Kalajdžić, Stuttgart acquired a classic number 9 with modern skills: Robust, tall, strong at finishing with his feet and head, but also technically strong and agile within the limits of his stature. He is good with his back to goal, but also always finds good finishing positions in the penalty area. All in all, a player who is difficult to defend.

On the flanks, the search also went far beyond the usual attributes of “pace”, “agility” and “crosses”. Wamangituka is an extremely flexible type of player who can play on the left or the right and has a large repertoire of solutions for different situations.

Will the high be quickly followed by a low?

You could go on like this throughout the squad, but then this text would soon turn into a small book. At Stuttgart, they all did a really good job – not only Mislintat, but he played a big part. No wonder, then, that he has aroused the interest of other clubs. Dortmund is said to be very keen on bringing Mislintat back. Mislintat, after all, is still very attached to the club and the region, being a child of the Ruhrgebiet, and only left because of a dispute with Thomas Tuchel. Hitzlsperger has been confident that Mislintat will stay, but also pointed out that he is aware of this bond.

Despite all the praise that Stuttgart are rightly receiving at the moment, the coming summer will be trend-setting. The big question will be how they can keep the squad together and strengthen it further, given that the they have already set the bar so high. It will be important for Stuttgart not to become overconfident, but to try to stabilize their current success.

If the spine of the team on the pitch or on the executive floor – or both – comes apart, things could quickly go downhill again. The last few months indicate that Stuttgart has learned something new. But the moment could be fleeting.

Stuttgart, a coach’s club?

Another indication of the recent good work is that Stuttgart knew full well that modern player types are of little value without a modern coach. So Hitzlsperger, together with Mislintat, brought in Tim Walter as their first hire for the coaching position.

The former coach of the Bayern second team is exemplary for a young generation of coaches who, in addition to tactical experimentation, stand for attacking football and entertainment. At Stuttgart, however, Walter did not become the hoped for success story for various reasons. He was dismissed in December 2019.

The upward trend then followed with Pellegrino Matarazzo. The 43-year-old knows how to form his players into a team. Although the team also developed slowly under him and the promotion to the Bundesliga was hard marked by frequent setbacks, things are finally looking up for Stuttgart this season.

Stuttgart’s style of play under Matarazzo

Matarazzo himself had planned for this, speaking very openly before the season that he believed the Bundesliga suited his team better than the 2nd division. He was proved right. The big difference this season is that his team has the ball less often. With 60.3 % possession, Stuttgart were the clear league leaders last season. After their promotion, possession has gone down to 50.5 % – an average value.

This suits Stuttgart because Matarazzo’s style of play is strongly geared towards risk-taking and vertical play. They are good at closing down the opponent and in gegenpressing situations and are very capable of capitalizing on transition situations. Due to their high work rate and frequent positional changes, they also constantly open up spaces which they usually are able to use immediately. They are very flexible: sometimes they build up with short passes, sometimes with long balls, in both cases with high and low variants. Sometimes they advance down the wings, sometimes through the center. Stuttgart is difficult to pin down. This also shows in the question which formation Matarazzo prefers: All and none. Stuttgart constantly change positions and formations, always adapting to the situation at hand without really losing their rhythm.

It is quite possible that the coach will take an example of Eintracht Frankfurt’s pressing for the game against Bayern and start in a variety of a 5-2-3 formation. Matarazzo could thus focus on a high presence in midfield. If the opponents are able to block the passing options in the center of the field by cleverly occupying the spaces – especially Endo and Mangala (the latter will be out injured against Bayern) – they are on a good path. Here, the pressing runs of Kimmich, Goretzka and Müller will be of great importance for Bayern. Stuttgart tend to make rash decisions under pressure and the experienced Bayern side can take advantage of that.

Three core issues for FC Bayern

At the same time, when Bayern push out is exactly the moment when Stuttgart will want to bring their qualities to bear. In the midfield center, they have extremely agile and technically gifted players who can cleverly play around Bayern’s pressing.

Based on the last games, lateral switches of the play to the fast wingers are the best way to do this. Wamangituka in particular should be a frequent target for these balls. Once they have the space, Stuttgart should not be lacking for passing options. However, crosses and passes to Kalajdžić are the weapon of choice at the moment, as the 23-year-old is currently in impressive form. He scored eight times in the last seven Bundesliga games. A striker who seems tailor-made for FC Bayern’s defensive problems.

For the Bayern team, there are three key aspects: First, they will have to find solutions against Stuttgart’s aggressive and high pressing right from the start. The more confidently Bayern can move the ball around, the more likely it is that Stuttgart will drop off a few metres or open up spaces for the league leader’s attack. If Bayern manage to do this, everything else is almost secondary.

The old chestnut: maintain protection out wide and at the back

Second, it is still important to keep an eye on the defense. Bayern’s back four too often tends to defend aggressively forward instead of taking pace out of the opponent’s attack by collectively staying back while keeping their shape. The goal they conceded in Bremen was once again the result of such an inconsistency: first Jérôme Boateng unnecessarily charges forward towards midfield, then Bouna Sarr is in a completely awkward position – neither positioned well for a backwards sprint nor for springing the offside trap.

Lucas Hernández is not without fault either. Like Boateng, the Frenchman also pushes out, although he and Sarr are clearly outnumbered. Especially when they are outnumbered, it should be the first priority of the defenders to keep the center as compact as possible and to take speed out of the opponent’s attack by delaying their approach and allow their teammates to track back. For Bremen, however, a few passes were enough to break up the poorly coordinated Bayern back four. The problem occurs too often, even with the first eleven, to be simply ignored.

Third, against Stuttgart, the wide defensive positions will again come into focus. Bayern’s vulnerability here is brutally laid open in the second goal conceded against Borussia Dortmund is particularly exemplary.

Important match for the weeks ahead

Stuttgart will take to the pitch at the Allianz Arena with a lot of self-confidence, a bravely set up team, and a willingness to tackle aggressively. They bring much of what teams like Gladbach, Kiel, Bielefeld, and Frankfurt did in their encounters with Bayern.

Stuttgart proved that in the reverse fixture already. They defeated Bayern with 1.8 to 1.0 on expected goals. In terms of actual goals, however, they were narrowly outscored by the record champions. Nevertheless, the 3-1 win of the Bayern team does not reflect the course of the game. Stuttgart were courageous, offensively strong and would have deserved at least a point.

The prospects are actually quite similar this time. Back then, Bayern were in poor form without Kimmich. And this time, too, the tactical conductor in midfield is in danger of dropping out due to muscular problems. It seems likely that he will have to out the game, according to media reports.

It would be a bitter setback for the game. Bayern can take a big step towards the championship on Saturday. Leipzig did not do Bayern the favor of a misstep at Bielefeld, so the pressure is on. Going into the clash with Leipzig with a lead of only two or even one point would be unfavourable. However, if Bayern win against Stuttgart, the cushion will be four points and they would still be in a position to clinch the title regardless of the outcome of the match at Leipzig. A win against Stuttgart is therefore imperative.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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