Stuttgart's new sporting director will take charge of the Swabians' rebuild this summer. Sven Mislintat's contract will be valid for the second division as well, a sensible decision given the team's latest performance.
The Stuttgart supporters in the Cannstatter Kurve spent the first five minutes of the second half singing the melody to the "Great Escape," but their team's 1-0 defeat to Bayer Leverkusen did nothing to assuage their relegation worries.
Maintaining Stuttgart's Bundesliga status and avoiding a second relegation in three years remains the primary objective for coach Markus Weinzierl, but Thomas Hitzlsperger, the club's board member in charge of sport, has already taken steps to reshape the club's future – regardless of which league the Swabians find themselves in and regardless of the coach in the dugout.
This week, Hitzlsperger announced the appointment of Sven Mislintat as the club's new sporting director. "I don't have the necessary experience in squad-building so I've hired someone who does," said the 37-year-old, demonstrating a refreshing sense of self-awareness.
In Mislintat, Hitzlsperger has obtained the services of a big name with experience at top clubs, albeit behind the scenes in scouting and recruitment roles at Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal. Stuttgart's drab performance against Leverkusen demonstrated just how much work lies ahead of the 46-year-old.
Since taking charge in October, coach Weinzierl has now taken a mere 16 points from 22 games and the 44-year-old's contract isn't valid for the second division. Back in 2011, Mislintat completed his German coaching license in the same class as Weinzierl but will now have a say in whether his former classmate will keep his job or not.
Since defeat to RB Leipzig in the first game since Hitzlsperger's promotion from head of the youth academy, Stuttgart had gone three home games without defeat, including a 5-1 hammering of Hannover and a laudable 1-1 draw against Hoffenheim. "We've found a structure and a style in recent weeks which has given us a degree of stability," said Hitzlsperger on Saturday.
But despite more encouraging defensive performances, especially from 19-year-old Ozan Kabak, changes are needed. Holger Badstuber and Pablo Maffeo have no future in Stuttgart while Benjamin Pavard will join Bayern Munich for €35m, money which Mislintat and Hitzlsperger will have to spend wisely.
Stuttgart's slight defensive improvements owe much to a more stable midfield. Against Leverkusen too, Gonzalo Castro and Santiago Ascacibar again shielded the three center-backs well and Stuttgart's rare attacks came as a result of their transitional play, but both were at fault in the second half. Castro's unnecessary and clumsy challenge on Kevin Volland led to the penalty which Kai Havertz converted, before Ascacibar was later sent off for spitting at Havertz.
Not as concerning as Ascacibar's inexcusable behavior is the Argentine's age. But at just 22 he is virtually the only young midfielder in the squad. Castro (31), Christian Gentner (33) Dennis Aogo (32) are all approaching the end of their careers, so midfield replacements will also be on Mislintat's wish-list.
As will more offensive quality. Only Hannover and Nuremberg have scored fewer goals than Stuttgart this season (27) and it speaks volumes that teenage center-back Kabak (five goals) and on-loan Hoffenheim wing-back Steven Zuber (three) feature among the team's top four scorers.
The other two members of that quartet, Mario Gomez and Anastasios Donis, both started on the bench against Leverkusen and Gomez stayed there for 90 minutes. Daniel Didavi is one player who Mislintat may still be keen to work with. The 29-year-old shows plenty of attacking intent and has an eye for goal but remains notoriously injury-prone.
The new sporting director has a lot to be getting on with and it will be important that Hitzlsperger provides him with the right environment in which to work. That wasn't the case at Mislintat's previous employments in Dortmund and London, where a lack of clarity as to the scope of his role led to personal disputes and acrimonious departures. "In his long professional career, Sven has earned his reputation," said Hitzlsperger. "With his knowledge, his contacts and the way in which he thinks about football, he's a perfect fit."
Mislintat's contract starts on May 1 and is valid for both the first and second division, whether Stuttgart manage their Great Escape or not.