Stuttgart vs. Union ROUND 2

a recap of the first match, the road to relegation, tactical analysis and preview in one

Earlier today, I looked at the brief history of Union Berlin, who are on the verge of an unprecedented promotion to the Bundesliga.

In this decade, die Eisernen have solidified themselves as a 2.Bundesliga team - and if you read the first part that’s no small feat - and despite some great individual seasons from club legend Torsten Mattuschka, the likes of Bobby Wood, Sebastian Polter and Steven Skrzybski they could not get over the hump with either Jens Keller or Andre Hofschneider. Hiring the experience Swiss coach Urs Fischer was perhaps not a sexy appointment, but the former FC Basel coach put together a solid but unspectacular outfit. They have the second division’s stingiest defense by some margin (33 goals allowed vs second best HSV’s 42). Only 28 of 55 goals have come from open play and 71% pass completion success also suggests that it’s not often been pretty. Yet, beating Union is a tough ask, it’s only happened FIVE times all season, while the top 2 promoted teams Paderborn and Cologne both lost nine times. Union also did not lose a match in the Hinrunde, conceding just 12 times, while drawing on a whopping TEN occasions. Much like the other top teams not named Paderborn in the 2.Liga, (sorry HSV) their Rückrunde was also not great - 27-21 goal difference and 26 points were good for the 6th spot. The losses to Darmstadt and failure to score another goal after coming back from 0-2 down against ten man Bochum on MD 34 meant that Paderborn had beaten them for automatic promotion. They would be forced to play in the relegation\promotion playoffs against Stuttgart, who had known their fates for a while now.

Stuttgart were entering the relegation playoff after a ridiculous Bundesliga campaign: many experts, including myself, (538 had them 9th, Goalimpact 5th) picked them to compete for Europe, after Tayfun Korkut’s great Rückrunde, where the Swabians picked up 34 points from 17 games. A summer transfer haul led by the experienced squad planner Michael Reschke saw an infusion of youth - Marc-Oliver Kempf (free) Nico Gonzalez, Pablo “the Messi stopper” Maffeo and Borna Sosa - mixed with veterans such as Daniel Didavi and Gonzalo Castro adding to a solid core of Zieler, Pavard (fresh off winning the World Cup), Baumgartl, Badstuber, Aogo, Insua and Mario Gomez. Yet failing to beat Freiburg, Mainz and F95 plus some expected losses to Bayern and Leipzig saw Stuttgart stumble out of the gates. Beating Bremen proved to be a mirage much like Didavi’s great game.

They would score one and concede 14 in the next four matches, despite one of these being against Hannover. Thus during the two week international break, the board and chairman Wolfgang Dietrich pulled the trigger and replaced Korkut with former Schalke and FCA coach Markus Weinzierl. It just so happened that Weinzierl, who was in the running for the Gladbach job earlier that summer, is represented by an agency that employs Thomas Gentner, brother of Stuttgart captain Christian Gentner. Weinzierl has long had a reputation of an excellent tactician with a poor relationship with players (often not talking to some of them) and in his 24 game tenure, he tried more or less every formation in the book. The upside was that it was no longer the cookie cutter 4-4-2 deep block of Korkutball, the downside was that whether it was a double six, a 3-4-2-1, a 4-4-3 or another “telephone number” (Guardiola) there was NOT A SINGLE FORMATION THAT WON MORE THAN ONE GAME. Weinzierl would pick up 16 points (vs expected points of 14.78), nine of which came in the end of the Hinrunde against Hertha, Augsburg and Nürnberg and enter the winter break on 14 units in the 16th spot, heading for the relegation playoffs. Reschke reinforced the squad with castoffs like Hoffenheim’s Steven Zuber - who went on to be their second leading scorer with 5 goals - and Alexander “ESSIAS” Esswein from Hertha who immediately got starting jobs alongside the 18-year-old Turkish wonderkid CB Özan Kabak. The 11 million signing actually looked strong against Lewandowski and VfB somehow hung tough with Bayern for 54 minutes, before losing 4-1, starting another downward spiral (or just continuing it from the Hinrunde). The 2-2 draw at Freiburg saw them lead until the 93rd minute, but Freiburg “won” the game by 1.5 XG. The 3-1 losses against Düsseldorf and Leipzig were a bit harsh on the Swabians overall, who took revenge on Hannover with a 5-1 beating on a Sunday afternoon in early March. The problem for VfB was that relegation rivals Augsburg had upset BVB on Friday and were two points ahead for 15th. Weinzierl’s men put together a decent 75 minutes against Dortmund the next weekend, but the Black and Yellow domination eventually wore them out and they lost 3-1. Two fortunate draws against Hoffenheim (-1.5 XG) and Nürnberg (-1 XG) were sandwiched between a three goal loss to Frankfurt and although the defeat to Leverkusen was only by one goal, it was an absolute beating tactically and every other way. Weinzierl’s fate was finally sealed in the relegation six pointer against Augsburg, which turned into a SIX-GOAL-er that readers might remember:

The new coach was U19’s Nico Willig, the THIRTEENTH since the last fixture, Bruno Labbadia, left in 2013. If you can name all of them, I’ll mail you a package containing hair products used by “der schöne Bruno”. Willig actually improved the results - surprising wins against Gladbach and Wolfsburg (three stunning goals by Castro, Donis and Didavi serving as reminders of the talent this squad still has) and another clean sheet against Schalke saw them gain 7 points from 4 matches, but by then Augsburg were TEN points clear (and promptly go on vacation, with just one point from their last four with a -13 GD). Prior to the Gladbach win by VfB, Schalke beat Dortmund and thus ensure a six point gap with four to play, which proved enough as they ended with 33 points, FCA finished with 32 and Stuttgart capped of the disappointing 2018\19 season with 28 - just one more than the worst recent 16th place finish of HSV 2013\14.

In the meantime, Dietrich sacrificed everyone around him: Reschke got the boot in February, moving club legend Thomas Hitzlsperger from youth coordinator to sporting director, and then signing Sven “people call me Diamond Eye because I take credit for all the successes and none of the failures” Mislintat, fresh off his dismissal at Arsenal to help. Their new coach from the summer will be the excellent Tim Walter of Holstein Kiel aka everyone’s favorite 2.Bundesliga hipster team, which doesn’t make them any less great.

Breakdown of the first leg (2-2 in Stuttgart)

Fischer and Union entered the match missing top CB Florian Hübner, who was replaced by veteran Michael Parensen in a 4-2-3-1 initially, morphing into a 4-3-3 as the game progressed Defensively, it could sometimes be a 4-5-1 in the deep block, but more often it was a 4-4-2 in midfield pressing. The plan for Union was to defend aggressively in pressing and force turnovers. In the buildup, Union would try to find Schmiedebach as the number six, but mostly use Gikiewicz with his feet and or long balls by the CBs to Sebastian Andersson, who would partake in FIFTY challenges on the day.

For Willig and Stuttgart, the 4-2-3-1 saw Mario Gomez relegated to the bench, as they opted for the speedy Donis supported by Didavi, Akolo and Gonzalez. That clearly was an indication on both trying to dominate possession and potentially catch Union on the counter via the matchups on the wing. Donis, Akolo and Gonzalez would attempt 17 of the team’s 24 dribbles on the night.

here is how it looked like initially:

The plan for VfB was to attack the 4-4-2’s first line of pressing by dropping Gonzalo Castro back in the right halfspace to create a 3v2. While that’s not an unusual approach, given the ball-playing ability of Kabak and Kempf, not to mention that of Pavard at RB it was a curious one, even if Andreas Beck was unavailable.

After a sideways pass from one of the CBs bypassed the press, Castro would initiate the attacks from the right halfspace. Alternatively, Gentner from the middle, would often try floated balls in the direction of Donis or Akolo, who often switched positions with Didavi on the left side of Union, behind Reichel. Yet, it often looked rather slow and haphazard with suboptimal distances and Union also found some decent answers by moving Robert Zulj up to press. Stuttgart’s pressing did work quite well against Union, where Schmiedebach quickly lost the ball twice in the first 10 minutes, leading to dangerous transition moments for Didavi and co. with Donis forcing a nice save from Gikiewicz As a reaction, Gikiewicz, the goalkeeper with the most clean sheets in the 2.Bundesliga, helped out by acting as the third man in buildup. Marcel Hartel was also occasionally useful in ball progression via dribbling, but by and large Union were forced to lump the ball forward in the direction of Andersson. Kempf was the main opponent, winning 67% of his 30 aerial duels on the day, but wt was striking how Kabak struggled: the young Turkish defender won just 53% of his 15 aerials. 40 of Andersson’s 50 challenges came in the air and the Swede won 38% - a good, but for him slightly below average number, (48% for the season on a league best 7.6 aerials won) considering he was alone all the time.

The 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2 shape of VfB controlled the Union buildup well in the first half, forcing numerous long balls.

It was a high tempo game with lots of action and mistakes: Stuttgart resorted to crosses - TWENTY in the first half and 32 total - while Union was mostly effective from set pieces via Trimmel. Abdullahi’s tremendous nutmeg and cross saw Andersson with the best chance of the game in the 21st, but Zieler made a stunning save. In the 26th, Zieler had an easier time from a low cross that Andersson still got to, but could only poke it on goal under pressure from Insua. The game would get even more hectic and out of control towards the end of the first half, with Pavard playing really high on the right and Didavi helping out on the left. As Union also played with high fullbacks, transition chances came left and right. After a rather harmless throw-in situation, Gentner won the ball with a sliding tackle and it fell to Donis. With four Union defenders around him, nobody expected this.

But, the flamboyant Greek speed demon decided to burn everyone and five seconds and four touches later he was in the clear:

Gentner, who started the play with the slide tackle, to his credit got all the way into the box and finished with a sliding goal. However, the lead lasted literally less than 20 seconds - replays were still showing Willig and the fans celebrating when Union had restarted the game. Marvin Friedrich received the kickoff and launched the ball forward. Kempf was a step off Andersson who flicked it onto Abdullahi. After a great first touch by Insua and the ensuing near post shot, it was 1-1 with the all important away goal. Shots were 8-6 in favor of the visitors, with SOT edge 3 to 2 as well.

Gomez solo goals?

Willig made a key sub at halftime, taking off the ineffective Didavi and bringing on the battering Gomez, dropping Donis to the number ten spot. Gentner played a little deeper and tried to find his veteran teammate with chipped balls over the top (46’). If that didn’t work, Gentner was also eager to penetrate by dribbling through the press (48’) and using Donis’s wide movement to create chances for Gomez.

Stuttgart were knocking on the door, yet it was another transition moment they would capitalize on. Raise your hand if you had Gomez taking this baby all the way!

With a little help from the unlucky Marvin Friedrich, whose slide tackle/block ended up as a headed own goal, VfB were 2-1 up! Donis when he was not showboating was a constant threat and Trimmel picked up a costly yellow - due to the idiotic rule that somehow a player on four yellows in the 2.Bundesliga can get a fifth one in the first playoff\promotion\relegation match and miss the return leg. Schmiedebach struggled to break up Stuttgart counters and Union were somewhat fortunate to survive. Yet, Urs Fischer made a great sub, bringing on the tricky Joshua Mees for Hartel, immediately yielding a nice shooting chance for Stuttgart native Grischa Prömel in the 62nd minute.

The other decent answer for Union came in the buildup via the aforementioned Friedrich who found a great vertical pass to Abdullahi:

The problem was that for Union to attack, they needed to almost “sell out” defensively, due to structural issues. Look at this example after Trimmel gives the ball away in the 64th: ALL THE SPACE to counter, nobody in position to counterpress.

The aforementioned tricky dribbling Mees would also beat three players in the middle in the 66th and earned a corner for his efforts. Unfortunately for Stuttgart, defending set pieces was a problem all night and thanks to Kabak’s poor effort on Marvin Friedrich in the 68th, Union got its second away goal:

As Trimmel strikes the ball, Friedrich has already separated from Kabak and darts to the penalty spot to head home the equalizer.

Stuttgart naturally turned up the tempo in the last twenty minutes, but it mostly resulted in Gonzalo Castro chipped balls to Akolo or bad crossed by Pavard\Insua. Gonzalez’s 78th minute header was straight at Zieler. Union introduced Akaki Gogia - a fixture in the side in the Hinrunde - and his dribbling created problems. Another substitute, Felix Kroos (brother of Toni Kroos, who would also pick up that fifth yellow) created another huge chance for Andersson. The Swede tried to score with his head of course, but Zieler saved Stuttgart’s hopes with a brilliant 93rd minute stop. At the end of a wild game, it was 2-2, which based on the XG totals of 0.75 for VfB 1.48 for Union was perhaps a tad unfair to the visitors, who still are ecstatic thanks to two away goals.

What to expect from the return leg?

Even with the suspensions for Kroos and Trimmel (should be replaced by Norwegian Julian Ryerson) Union should be the favorites. They are also boosted by the return of Florian Hübner who should deal with Gomez better. Joshua Mees could also take over the front left side of the 4-3-3. For VfB another relegation could be disastrous financially and they will try to avoid it by any means necessary. In terms of tactics, I don’t expect huge changes - Ascacibar could come in next to Castro and Gentner could take over the 10 spot behind Gomez, with Donis or Esswein competing for the RW position. Union are the best home team in the 2.Bundesliga as they have lost one game in 17 tries and conceded just 11 goals and won’t get a better chance at their first ever promotion than this.

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