It’s safe to say that VfB Stuttgart haven’t had the best few years in the Bundesliga of late. The 2007 Champions have had to settle for relegation scraps in each of the past two seasons, following on from an altogether unconvincing season in 2013 too. For a club with typically high ambitions – with five German titles and three DFB-Pokal trophies to their name – this, obviously, hasn’t been seen as acceptable. Die Schwaben making managerial changes has, in recent years, become almost as regular as bin collection day, with the club having employed six managers since the start of the 2013/14 season.
That’s right – none of Bruno Labbadia, Thomas Schneider or Armin Veh were deemed good enough, while two stints by Dutch manager Huub Stevens were only short-term in nature, as Stevens saved the club from relegation twice before his ultimate exit this summer. The man in the hotseat is now Alexander Zorniger, a young manager who is, as yet, untested at the top level, his only Bundesliga experience actually coming from a brief stint as assistant to Markus Babbel at Stuttgart in 2009. Having since managed lower league club Großaspach and RB Leipzig – who, with huge investment for a fourth tier club admittedly, he guided to the 2. Bundesliga in successive campaigns, going unbeaten for a season in the fourth tier along the way.
With Leipzig’s bid for a third promotion, this time to the Bundesliga, fast unravelling at the start of 2015, however, Zorniger was informed his contract would not be renewed at the season’s end. Rather than do another man’s work, Zorniger stood down as Leipzig manager and has clearly landed on his feet in the hotseat at a larger club. Nonetheless, he’ll have a lot of work to do to win over a group of fans who’ll want (at least moderate) success to return to Swabia, and to also prove his mettle as a top level manager.
With a contract until 2018, though, Zorniger is an ambitious appointment by the Stuttgart hierarchy, and, with the chief scapegoat of the past few years gone – former sporting director Fredi Bobic and his laughable transfer policy has been replaced by Robin Dutt, who has so far done reasonably well as a sporting director in comparison to his managerial stints at Bremen and Leverkusen – Stuttgart are, it seems, a club on the up. Could they prove to be one of the Bundesliga’s surprise packages this season?
Well, maybe. There are, at least, a number of reasons to be hopeful for fans of VfB.
The club ended last season, under Huub Stevens, particularly well, with a forward line including Daniel Ginczek, Daniel Didavi, Filip Kostic and Alexandru Maxim (as well as, admittedly, dead weight like Martin Harnik) hauling the side over the survival line with three wins in the final three fixtures – after a slightly unlucky loss to Schalke the week before. Stuttgart finally started to play the attacking football which they were very clearly capable of – until then hamstrung by cautious management by Veh and Stevens respectively – and showed great fortitude in comebacks wins against (similarly in-form) Hamburger SV and SC Paderborn, both direct rivals in the relegation scrap.
Ginczek was the club’s outstanding goalscorer of the Rückrunde, with seven goals in the final nine games of the season, Didavi returned from injury with a few weeks of the season remaining for a second season running to just help them over the line, Kostic impressed throughout the season and Maxim only found space in Stevens’ plans towards the end of the season as it became clear Stuttgart needed a flair player in midfield, and it is essential that this quartet are kept together and fit this season. With Ginczek and Didavi’s perennial injury struggles, this shouldn’t be taken for granted, but both players greatly improve the team when available.
Add to this the talented young forward Timo Werner – who, it should be remembered, is still just nineteen, and so despite flattering to deceive in the past couple of seasons, has a fairly good reason not to turn up in a relegation scrap – and an experienced midfield of Serey Die, who had an outstanding Rückrunde, Lukas Rupp, a new signing from Paderborn who joins off of the back of an impressive season in spite of his club’s relegation, and Christian Gentner, the club captain who picked up his below-par performances before the end of Stevens’ stint as manager, and Stuttgart actually have a very competent top half midfield and attack.
The concern in recent years, at least, has been the defence; Stuttgart conceded sixty goals in 2014/15 and sixty-two in 2013/14. Steps have been taken to bolster this, with two new goalkeepers and a further two new defenders joining the club. Much has been written about a potential battle between Australian deputy Mitch Langerak and Poland stopper Przemyslaw Tyton for the starting role under Zorniger, and this will probably remain unclear for some time, as neither keeper has been an automatic starter at a top level club. Both have, however, shown promise, and at 26 and 28 respectively, are at the right age to be solid additions to Stuttgart’s backline following the losses of last year’s goalkeepers; Sven Ulreich has left for Bayern and Thorsten Kirschbaum has gone to Nürnberg.
Philip Heise and Jan Kliment, who are both young full backs, have joined the club – Heise has impressed at Heidenheim in recent years and has the most experience of the two, while Kliment joins from Czech club FC Vysonica – but Stuttgart will also command a slightly more experienced centre-back pairing. Timo Baumgartl and Antonio Rüdiger are both relatively young and have at times been error prone, with Baumgartl famously being consoled by fans after a gaffe against Dortmund and Rüdiger famously being a frankly ridiculous call-up to the national team by Joachim Löw.
Baumgartl is still just nineteen but is a bright talent who, with a year of Bundesliga experience, will be much more solid in the coming year. Rüdiger has slowly become less of a liability defensively for the club, and if he can stay fit – and indeed, if he stays, thanks to a battle for his signature from clubs including Wolfsburg and Chelsea – could become a leading player in the defence for Zorniger’s men. If Rüdiger were to leave, the fee would be huge, and it’d be expected that another player would join, but even so, if the defence were to be evaluated as a whole as it currently stands, Stuttgart are in a stronger position than twelve months ago, and should begin to look at improving their defensive record.
So, a strong attack joined with an improving defence, a young, seemingly talented manager who should be given time thanks to a three-year contract, and the potential that Robin Dutt will swoop once more in the transfer market; it could definitely be said that VfB Stuttgart will be the Bundesliga’s surprise package this season. A top half season would be a huge improvement on the past few seasons, and a finish in the European places could even be possible if all goes to plan. Of course, as has been the case in recent years, even if things look good on paper, Stuttgart can still contrive to finish near the foot of the table, but the signs are that the club are finally moving in the right direction.
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Three talking points as Tottenham secured top spot with a Champions League win over Borussia Dortmund
Tottenham ensured that they progressed to the Champions League knock-out stages as Group H winners after coming from behind to see off Borussia Dortmund in Germany on Tuesday night.
Dortmund – who were reliant on Real Madrid dropping points at Cypriot minnows APOEL Nicosia in the evening’s other fixture to stand any chance of progressing to the last 16 – took the early advantage when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang finished smartly from Andriy Yarmolenko’s clever flick.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side nearly crafted an equaliser before the break, only for both Christian Eriksen and Eric Dier to be denied in the space of a few minutes after superb work by ‘keeper Roman Burki.
But it didn’t take long for the visitors to draw level in the second-half, with Harry Kane afforded too much space on the edge of the box as he arrowed an effort into the corner with his first real chance.
Son Heung-min’s effort 15 minutes from time, a fine curling finish after tenacious work from Dele Alli, then sealed the turnaround and condemned the hosts to a shock early Champions League exit.
Tottenham bounce back after derby disappointment
After Saturday’s harrowing and disappointing defeat to old foes Arsenal, manager Mauricio Pochettino summed up Tuesday’s performance perfectly by labelling it as the ‘perfect reaction’.
It is hard to disagree with the Argentinian either, with his side displaying far more grit, determination and character at the Westfalenstadion to forget about their Premier League defeat and come from behind to beat a strong Borussia Dortmund outfit, securing their surprise status as Group H winners.
It seemed like they were suffering a North London derby hangover of sorts when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fired the hosts in front on the half-hour mark, but Spurs dug deep and showed that they are aiming to do more than just make up the numbers in the Champions League this campaign.
All of a sudden they burst into life after the break, with Harry Kane and Dele Alli – who were both anonymous at the Gunners – getting involved more and causing problems for a tiring home defence.
It was the former who levelled things up when Kane’s neat low drive found the back of the net, signalling his sixth Champions League goal in five appearances this season, whilst Alli was influential in assisting both goals, seeing off two Dortmund defenders before laying off to Son Heung-min for his winner.
It wasn’t a match that needed to be won, considering Tottenham had already secured their safe passage into the knock-out stages, but the manner of victory will no doubt send out a message across Europe.
Dortmund’s decline ends in Champions League exit
Yet, whilst Tottenham will be buoyant and nervously await the draw for the last 16 next month, Borussia Dortmund will be reflecting on where things went wrong after a dismal European outing this season.
Despite having a number of world-class individuals in their ranks – Aubameyang, Shinji Kagawa, the young Christian Pulisic, Mario Gotze and the injured Marco Reus are all part of the squad at the disposal of manager Peter Bosz – it’s been a stuttering season both in Europe and domestically too.
Their inability to beat Cypriot minnows APOEL Nicosia across two matches all-but put an end to any aspirations of knock-out football, and it seems that the Europa League will now be their next destination.
Add this to their woeful Bundesliga form of late, losing four of their last five matches and drawing the other one to leave them nine points adrift of the top of the table, and warning signs are now flashing.
It’s all a stark contrast to 2013, the year that the German side fell narrowly short in the Champions League final, and it’s clear for all to see that something is fundamentally not right just four years on.
The fact that Aubameyang – who was left out of the Dortmund squad for their Bundesliga defeat at Stuttgart last week after being sanctioned by Bosz – barely celebrated a sublime goal tells its own story of the club’s affairs, and it seems that the head coach could be walking on a very fine tightrope.
Pochettino’s conundrum after Aurier impresses
One thing that was clear from Pochettino’s team selection on Tuesday, other than the clear fact that he was looking for a quick response to the Arsenal defeat by selecting a strong side, was that summer signing Serge Aurier seems to be the preferred right-back option for the Champions League this season.
The £24 million man may have garnered a reputation for being a bit erratic but, contrary to some of his rash moments this season, he played with an element of maturity and care on Tuesday evening.
He certainly warranted his selection at Dortmund, always offering an outlet on the right-wing and constantly finding himself with a wealth of space to run into behind their captain Marcel Schmelzer.
Aurier’s delivery was generally accurate too, forcing the Dortmund defence into last-ditch blocks inside their own area with Kane lurking, whilst he kept things compact alongside Davinson Sanchez at the back.
It would no doubt have hurt the Ivorian to have been omitted from the side for the mightily impressive win over Real Madrid after playing in Tottenham’s opening three European matches, but on Tuesday’s showing he’s laid down a marker for rival Kieran Trippier ahead of the knock-out stages.
Considering the question marks hanging over the head of boss Pochettino about whether Kyle Walker could be replaced it’s certainly not a bad dilemma to have, and a bit of healthy competition between two viable wide options could prove key for Tottenham as the season goes on.
Analysing Tottenham striker Harry Kane’s two-goal heroics against Borussia Dortmund
Much had been written about Harry Kane’s barren August, in which he failed to score. However, the drought is well and truly over now September has arrived. Since finding the net for England during the international break, the 24-year-old has rediscovered his scoring boots in spectacular fashion.
His brace against Borussia Dortmund in Tottenham Hotspur’s opening Champions League Group H clash was as impressive as it was timely, providing his side with the perfect start to their European adventure and banishing the Wembley Stadium hoodoo.
It’s no secret that Tottenham are heavily reliant on Kane (perhaps overly so) to be their chief attacking threat, but he rarely lets them down. Manager Mauricio Pochettino will be relieved that his star man is back to his best.
The England striker had a hand in all three of their goals against Dortmund, setting up Son Heung-min for the first before netting either side of half-time to ensure Spurs sent home their supporters happy.
Both goals underlined Kane’s natural ability as a finisher, which has earned him the Premier League’s Golden Boot trophy in the previous two seasons. His first was a carbon copy of Son’s, cutting in from the left and unleashing a rasping drive that beat Roman Burki at his near post.
Perhaps the Dortmund keeper’s positioning was questionable, but such was the power and pinpoint accuracy of Kane’s strike that it would have taken some stopping wherever he had been stationed.
Although Dortmund looked vulnerable at the back, their attacking prowess had caused Spurs problems all night and a 2-1 lead seemed precarious. So Kane’s second of the night was mightily important because it effectively killed off the game.
After being put through by Cristian Eriksen, Kane still had work to do to create enough space to get his shot away. Once again, the accuracy was such that it left Burki with little chance of preventing it from nestling in the back of the net.
Kane could have completed his hat-trick before he was substituted to a rapturous reception from the Wembley faithful, but the damage had been done. Everyone knows Kane likes to shoot from all areas of the pitch, but opponents seem powerless to stop him.
His two goals from four efforts – as well as an assist – represented an excellent night’s work for a man who has grown in stature to become one of the most prolific strikers in Europe. Kane will remain fundamental to Spurs’ hopes of honours this season, both domestically and in Europe.
“The Wembley curse is over” – Three things learnt from Tottenham 3-1 Borussia Dortmund
Tottenham may face a tough Champions League group including Real Madrid and APOEL alongside Borussia Dortmund, but they could not have gotten off to a better start than with a 3-1 home victory over the Germans.
Son Heung-Min raced clear in the opening minutes to give Mauricio Pochettino’s side the lead, but that lead was quickly pegged back after Andriy Yarmolenko looped an effort over Hugo Lloris and into the corner of the net.
That sparked Harry Kane to life, shrugging off two challenges before firing the ball into the back of the net for a third goal inside 15 minutes. After that the game calmed down as Kane’s second goal midway through the second half put the tie to bed.
A late sending off for Jan Vertonghen, who saw a second yellow for a flailing arm, marred things slightly but Spurs still got off to a dream start at Wembley on Wednesday night.
Here are three things that The Boot Room learnt from the game…
The Wembley curse is over
The tag of a Wembley curse has dogged Tottenham at the start of this season, not helped by defeat to Chelsea and a draw with Burnley, but there is no more emphatic way to put an end to such concerns than by wiping the floor with a difficult Champions League opponent.
Tottenham got off to a dream start through Son Heung-Min and even after conceding an equaliser they reacted well to rapidly re-take the lead. Such a win will give a huge confidence boost and Spurs fans will hope that it will remove any Wembley hoodoo too.
Dortmund continue to disappoint
Gone are the days when Borussia Dortmund were a force to be reckoned with in Europe under Jurgen Klopp, but their performances at Europe’s most elite level have been underwhelming for some time. At Wembley, they once again failed to deceive.
For all their possession and time on the ball in the Tottenham half, they failed to create many clear cut chances, with even their goal coming courtesy of an inspired strike from distance. Defensively they were poor too, with Tottenham scything the back four apart on the counter attack. Mauricio Pochettino will be confident of qualifying from a tough group on the back of that display.
Fernando Llorente offers an entirely different option
He may only have got a few minutes, but right from the off it was clear that the Spaniard’s introduction for Harry Kane would give Tottenham a different dimension in attack. Spurs immediately went for a more direct style with Llorente giving a real focal point in attack.
It’s likely that Llorente will have to wait until the Carabao Cup clash with Barnsley next week for his first start in Tottenham colours, but such aerial presence and power could come in handy against sides like his former team Swansea, who his new club face this weekend.
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