Could VfB Stuttgart be the Bundesliga's Surprise Package?

Could VfB Stuttgart be the Bundesliga's Surprise Package?

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chief scapegoat of the past few years gone – former sporting director Fredi Bobic and his laughable transfer policy has been replaced by Robin Dutt, who has so far done reasonably well as a sporting director in comparison to his managerial stints at Bremen and Leverkusen – Stuttgart are, it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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