Cast your mind back to May last year, when Tim Walter was appointed head coach of VfB Stuttgart.
Stuttgart were really still a Bundesliga side at the time; the fateful relegation playoff defeat to Union Berlin had yet to come, although it was Nico Willig instead of Walter who presided over those two matches. Thomas Hitzlsperger, Sven Mislintat, and the other figures behind the scenes in Bad Canstatt chose Walter, who had trained Holstein Kiel to an impressive 6th place finish despite losing lots of first-team players.
Now, after half a season of second division football, Walter is goneas Stuttgart parted ways with another coach.
In Walter, Stuttgart saw a young coach who had a definite footballing philosophy, with the midfield generally in a diamond shape and players encouraged to keep hold of the ball, building play in the back. Not since Ralf Rangnick was appointed has there been a Stuttgart coach with such a well-defined idea of how to play soccer. It didn’t always help, however.
There was always the suggestion that some of the senior players might not be completely convinced by his personality, although whether there is any truth in that is unclear. As Walter actually was appointed prior to the relegation playoff loss to Union Berlin, some observers believed that VfB may have chosen him expecting to be in the top flight this year, where his style might work better.
Walter’s commitment to his system caused him other problems, too. Walter wanted his deepest midfielder to help start the slick passing moves that his Holstein Kiel team had become known for. Most of the time, he used Atakan Karazor, who came with him from Kiel, in the base of the midfield. This meant that Argentine international Santiago Ascacibar (who has now joined Hertha BSC), was frequently forced to play further forward and wider than he would have enjoyed.
The other issues, though, were largely from Walter’s control. Ideally, Marc-Oliver Kempf and Marcin Kaminski are the first-choice centre-back pairing, but Kaminski suffered a serious injury on Matchday 1 and will miss most of the season, meaning Holger Badstuber has played more than Walter would probably have liked. Which is less than ideal as both backup players Nathaniel Phillips and Maxime Awoudja have struggled.
At the opposite end, not one of the high-profile attackers in the squad has been able to consistently deliver. Nico Gonzalez, Hamadi Al-Ghaddioui and Silas Wamangituka (who, like HSV’s Bakery Jatta, have had to deal with questions about his identity) are all tied as VfB’s top scorers with five goals each — there are 25 other players in the league who have scored more.
And there were instances where Stuttgart were just plain unlucky — like in Sandhausen, where Mario Gómez had three goals ruled out for quite close offside calls.
Why Walter Went?
Stuttgart is only three points off the top spot, but expectations are higher than that. On paper, a team with the standard of Stuttgart should be able to top the branch comfortably. Looking at the bigger picture, Stuttgart is still in the hunt for the title, with leaders Arminia Bielefeld well within reach. Despite that, it has felt for some time that Walter might be sent packing at any moment.
VfB’s performances in the very start of the season were not overly impressive, but they remained unbeaten until October and moved to that month as league leaders. In October, but they dropped all three of the league games they played, every reduction more embarrassing than the last. First of all was a devastating 2-1 loss to Wehen Wiesbaden, who was rock bottom of the league at the moment. Then came a 1-0 defeat at home to Walter’s old team Holstein Kiel, followed with a 6-2 loss to Dieter Hecking’s HSV. Not long afterward, they lost to newly-promoted Osnabrück and dropped again a few weeks later in Sandhausen.
At a club the size of Stuttgart, each and every one of those defeats is treated as a crisis, which is not entirely unfair, given the financial advantage, the Swabians have over the likes Wiesbaden, Osnabrück, and Sandhausen. But in addition, it suggests that a poor 90 minutes can derail the club completely. The additional pressure makes things harder for Stuttgart than they are for most 2. Liga sides.
That’s why it’s so different from the job that’s asked of a coach at Kiel, as both Markus Anfang at Köln and now Walter has found out. It’s not enough to play decent soccer, not enough to be in the top 3; it isn’t enough to win the league.
The New Coach
Pellegrino Matarazzo is the guy Thomas Hitzlsperger has selected as Walter’s replacement. Born in the state of New Jersey of the United States, Matarazzo has worked behind the scenes at 1. FC Nürnberg and TSG Hoffenheim, serving as the assistant to Julian Nagelsmann and present TSG trainer Alfred Schreuder, but this is the first time he’s been put in charge of the first team at any club.
Last time Stuttgart were in the 2. He is not available this moment, now managing KRC Genk, although his record with HSV last year suggests he wouldn’t be the ideal candidate anyway. He’s also an unknown quantity. Undoubtedly that Stuttgart fans will be hoping he has learned a few tricks from Nagelsmann.
Appointing a young trainer for their first senior job is usually seen as a movement made by teams looking at their long-term future. Not necessarily so at Stuttgart. Though he won’t take charge of any aggressive games before the end of the month, Matarazzo was the club’s fourth head coach of the calendar year (or fifth, if you include caretaker Nico Willig).
Perhaps Tim Walter wasn’t the perfect man for the job. Had the club stuck with him, they’d at least have some stability, which has been sorely lacking in the Mercedes-Benz Arena throughout the previous decade. The last time Stuttgart went through a whole season without altering managers was 2012-13 when Bruno Labbadia was in charge (he was subsequently sacked 3 games to the next season). It is no coincidence that the worst years Stuttgart have had in recent memory have come during this period of regular coaching changes.
Hamburg have had a similar experience. HSV’s disastrous Rückrunde last season is the case to Stuttgart fans of where poor coaching decisions can take you. They’ll be praying that the club has considered and studied HSV’s plight to avoid making the same mistakes.
New decade, new VfB? Hopefully. Let’s see if Matarazzo can last the season.