Experience-youth-even-more-experience: that’s relegation-threatened Stuttgart’s coaching trajectory. But can Huub Stevens succeed where his predecessors Bruno Labbadia and Thomas Schneider failed?
If Stuttgart do go down at the end of this season, it won't be because their final coach was green behind the ears. The 60-year-old Dutchman Hubertus Jozef Margaretha Stevens is a familiar figure in Germany, having coached four other first- and second-division teams here. He's best known, of course, for his two stints at Schalke, with whom he won the UEFA Cup and was voted the fans' "coach of the century."
Stuttgart management and fans know exactly what they're getting with the man nicknamed the "growling dog of Kerkrade." He's the author of the German football saying "die Null muss stehen" (the nil must stand), meaning that the first step to victory is preventing opponents from scoring. Players who don't track back or do engage in reckless forays forward will quickly find themselves with a spot on Stevens' bench.
Stevens previous job was in Greece with PAOK Saloniki, where he failed to unseat Greek powerhouse Olympiakos Piräus and was fired one week ago. Even though he's used to competing for titles, Stevens is a logical choice for the role of savior. In 2007, he took over last-placed Hamburg and kept them in the Bundesliga by winning nine of the final fourteen games.
Stevens will have to perform his phoenix-from-the-ashes act a bit more quickly this time round. Only ten rounds remain in the 2013-14 season, and Stuttgart's opponents include Bayern, Dortmund, Schalke, Gladbach and Wolfsburg. If the southern Germans are to survive, they'll need to get points against their fellow strugglers. Their next three matches are must-point affairs against Bremen, Hamburg, and Nuremberg.
"There isn't much time to save the club," Stevens, who will be officially presented on Monday (10 March 2014), told the Bild newspaper. He also had some words of consolation for his predecessor: "I felt bad for Thomas Schneider. It's a shame that a young coach from the club's own ranks didn't make it."
A mentality question?
Indeed, the manner in which the 41-year-old Schneider received his marching orders shows how thin the line is between success and failure in football. Stuttgart may have won only one and lost eight of their last ten, but with two exceptions, the losses were all close. That's why management was so reluctant to part ways with their former youth coach.
After Saturday's disappointing draw with last-placed Braunschweig, something had to be done. Still, it's worth remembering that Stuttgart's Christian Gentner missed a penalty early in the second half of that match, which would most likely have sealed a win. If Gentner's aim from the spot had been more precise, Schneider would probably have lived to fight another day.
In a nutshell, Stuttgart's problem is their inability to hold on to leads. In the waning moments of the Braunschweig match, Stuttgart's fear of making a decisive mistake was palpable, and they duly conceded an 82nd minute equalizer. That was after blowing a lead to Frankfurt the week before by letting in a pair of last-minute goals.
Stevens will have to combat that anxiety. He'll also have to address on-field discipline issues, which saw Stuttgart's top scorer Vedad Ibisevic recently pick up a five-match ban for elbowing an opponent.
If he can do that, Stuttgart have a good chance of escaping the drop. Whether Stevens can help fix the long-term problems at Stuttgart is another question entirely.
In search of a philosophy
Stuttgart started the season with high hopes. They seemed to have found coaching stability with Labbadia and entered the campaign having rebooted with what looked to be quality additions in Mo Abdelloaoue, Moritz Leitner, Konstantin Rausch, and Daniel Schwaab.
But Labbadia failed to blend the new with the old, and Big Bruno was history before August was over. With Schneider, Stuttgart followed a strategy adopted by most successfully by Mainz - promoting a coach from in-house, someone who knew the club's youngsters and could help codify a team philosophy.
Stevens may prove to be the right man to keep the Stuttgart in the first division. But it's hard to see how a veteran this grizzled will be the one to usher in a new era of modern football at a club that has consistently failed to meet expectations of late. Stevens' contract only runs until the end of the season.
Stuttgart sports director Fredi Bobic is probably right when he insists that the squad has enough quality to beat the drop. But the medium-term future has once again been put on hold in order to avoid imminent disaster. That's a disturbingly familiar scenario for Stuttgart fans.