Stuttgart packed off its third coach in three seasons when Christian Gross was shown the door after a woeful start to the season. But the club's position is unlikely to improve until deeper problems are resolved.
Holding Gross accountable ignores deeper problems at VfB
Given that VfB Stuttgart never really get going in the Bundesliga until after Christmas, the sacking of Christian Gross after just seven games could be construed as jumping the gun slightly.
In the last few seasons, the opening months of the league campaign have always been a slog for VfB, only for the team to discover form and stability in the latter stages. Look at Markus Babbel's tenure as coach: Stuttgart was wallowing in the lower reaches of the Bundesliga in autumn 2008 under Armin Veh, the coach who had won them the title two seasons prior. Veh was sacked, Babbel took over and at the season's end Stuttgart had qualified for the Champions League.
Then again, look at Markus Babbel's tenure as coach in another light. The following season, Babbel oversaw a similarly slow start to that which eventually undermined Veh. The former Stuttgart defender was out of the door before the winter break with the team in the relegation zone with only two wins from 15 games and the fans carrying burning torches and threatening to storm the gates of the club - figuratively at least.
Enter Christian Gross. The Swiss coach of great intellect and renown took over from Babbel with Stuttgart third from bottom and led them to a sixth place finish and qualification to the Europa League. VfB must have hoped that Gross was the man to finally find a cure for the split personality which consistently renders the team useless in the run up to winter and sublime by the time spring had sprung.
The fact that Stuttgart has endured an even worse start to this season than at any time in the previous three suggests that Gross was equally at a loss to reverse the bi-polar nature of the team. With just one win from seven games, Gross is now looking for new employment while Stuttgart's management is once again left looking for answers.
Stuttgart need to look beyond the coach
Something is very wrong at the heart of the Swabian club
One yo-yo season can be excused. Two can be shrugged off as a coincidence. Three in a row becomes an alarming trend. The fact that three different coaches, of varying style and experience, have failed to get a grip on Stuttgart's baffling schizophrenia suggests that something is rotten in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.
With Assistant Manager Jens Keller installed as caretaker boss for Saturday's basement showdown with fellow underachievers Schalke 04, the question is whether VfB will continue to believe that the choice of coach is at the heart of their seasonal problems, or if the powers-that-be will look closer to home for the source of the rising damp which is threatening to engulf the club.
At first glance, it appears that the club is set to don the blinkers again. Gross had shown "no signs of finding a solution" for the numerous problems plaguing the team, said Sporting Director Fredi Bobic, a statement which suggests VfB still believe that the quality of coaching is still the issue.
Perhaps it would be more useful to look at the lack of depth and quality of the squad, the allocation of revenue and the boardroom rivalries which are unsettling the whole club.
Thin squad, fat stadium investment
Stuttgart had a busy summer in the transfer market but it was the exit door which saw the most action. Real Madrid snapped up Sami Khedira after his World Cup exploits, veteran goalkeeper Jens Lehmann retired, and a host of adequate but uninspiring squad members (Sebastian Rudy, Martin Lanig, Roberto Hilbert, and so on) all trundled off to pastures new. While many were unlikely to be missed, they did leave VfB short on numbers.
Stuttgart failed to find a quality replacement for Khedira
"In each of the past two years, VfB have sold their best player," Clark Whitney, a Bundesliga expert at Goal.com International, told Deutsche Welle. "In 2009, it was Mario Gomez and more recently, it was Sami Khedira. Khedira and Gomez were club icons. Even when out of form, Gomez was worth a goal every other game. Khedira, with his tremendous work rate and skill in transition, was a perfect fit for VfB. Pavel Pogrebnyak and Zdravko Kuzmanovic just haven't been good enough as replacements."
Considering the acquistions Stuttgart brought in to replace them, simple mathematics showed that Stuttgart was in the minus column in terms of quality and cover before the season even began. Despite bringing in Johan Audel, Philipp Degen, Mauro Camoranesi and Christian Gentner, none of these players have made much impact.
Audel and Degen have yet to play for the club since arriving due to injuries while the Italian Camoranesi has found it hard to bed in. Gentner, brought back from a loan spell at VfL Wolfsburg, has struggled for form and appears too inexperienced to step into the shoes of Khedira and run the midfield.
Some blame should then be passed onto Fredi Bobic, who may be a former club favorite due to his past efforts on the pitch but is still hugely inexperienced in his role as sporting director. Giving Bobic the responsibility to conduct transfers has backfired and clashes between Bobic and Gross regularly brought up the differences between the two men over their demands in the transfer market.
Bricks before legs?
Stuttgart's current crop of players don't make the grade
In his defense, Bobic has been struggling himself to loosen the club's purse strings, held possessively by a board committed to remodeling Stuttgart's home ground, the Mercedes Benz Arena. Christian Gross told the local Stuttgarter Zeitung in the days before his sacking that it was clear "the club's priority has been pointed toward finishing stadium renovations."
Gross never said where he thought the 22 million euros accrued from last season's Champions League campaign went to. Perhaps he didn't need to - it was obvious this was a team built on the cheap.
"Stuttgart's decline has resulted primarily from a disconnection between the club's sporting and financial goals," said Clark Whitney. "Between the sales of Gomez and Khedira, Stuttgart made nearly 50 million euros. During the same period of time, Stuttgart has been reluctant to reinvest. If their 3.5 million-euro offer for Mladen Petric wasn't laughable, their 1 million-euro maximum bid for Andre Ayew certainly was. To further the comedy, Stuttgart sent 20-year old rising star Sebastian Rudy to Hoffenheim, and signed 33-year old Mauro Camoranesi as his replacement."
"Naturally, one is led to ask what happened to VfB's transfer earnings, as well as the 22 million euros earned in the 2009-10 Champions League," Whitney added. "The answer is quite a shock. Delusions of grandeur have prompted the management to invest 73.2 million euros in stadium renovations and expansion. Of course, the Mercedes-Benz Arena could use a bit of refurbishing. Still, you have to wonder whether the management expect 60,000 fans to show up for a second division match."
Failure of leadership
To blame the club's hierarchy is to open another can of worms. It is no simple matter to say that the board members responsible for the revenue at the club are wholly responsible for draining funds from the playing squad and pumping the euros into the crumbling stands and infrastructure.
In fact, it has been alleged that rivalries in the boardroom have been exacerbated over just this matter. Rather than the suits being all-for-one, one-for-all in their determination to give an ailing team a beautiful home, it appears that Club President Erwin Staudt and Chief Financial Office Ulrich Ruf were in favor of investing more in the squad this summer, but that their moves to divert cash budgeted for renovation into team building had been vetoed by Chairman of the Supervisory Board Dieter Hundt.
It’s an accusation the Hundt has strongly denied, arguing that the club had spent 12.5 million euros on new players, the fifth-highest figure in the Bundesliga.
Stuttgart's Hundt (l.) has some powerful friends
Perhaps it has less to do with how much is spent than which players the money is spent on. Stuttgart lack quality, and many players appear to have lost belief that they can rescue the season. Moreover, there are rumors of chaos in the dressing room. One ex-VfB star claimed in a recent Sports Illustrated report on the team’s troubles that the current Stuttgart squad is "a rowdy, undisciplined bunch."
It certainly sounds like Stuttgart's problems run far deeper than the inability to find a coach with the know-how to rescue the club from its momentary malaise. Time will tell if those with the power to save the club will realize in time what those problems are, and manage to solve them.
"I personally believe that the board should follow Gross out the door," concluded Whitney. "In sporting terms, Stuttgart have regressed in recent years while other teams have all improved."
"The relegation of Hertha Berlin in May was no mistake - they felt safe with the previous year's fourth place finish, opted not to sign adequate replacements for Andriy Voronin and Josip Simunic, and paid the price a year later. The Stuttgart management have taken the same risk; if VfB are relegated, they can only blame themselves."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann