Fresh off the winter break, the 2. Bundesliga is the last of Germany’s top three divisions to return to class. An encounter of important significance comes from the south of Germany as 3rd placed Stuttgart host 4th placed Heidenheim. Stuttgart have had a busy winter, most notably the releasing of Tim Walter with Hoffenheim assistant Pellegrino Matarazzo becoming the first American born manager in the 2. Bundesliga. Heidenheim have had a less eventful winter but are poised at making promotion run.
This tactical analysis looks at this intriguing match-up between the two southern clubs and how Stuttgart kicked off 2020 with a bang.
In Matarazzo’s first game in charge of Stuttgart, he made seven changes from the side which drew at Hannover. The most notable absentees come through defensive midfielder Santiago Ascacibar who leaves for Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin and strikers Silas Wamangituka and Mario Gomez making way for Nicolas Gonzalez and Hamadi Al Ghaddioui. Gregor Köbel was given a reprieve under the new management as Fabian Bredlow is dropped.
Frank Schmidt made only the one change from his sides 3-1 win over Osnabrück at the end of 2019. New signing Tobias Mohr who joined from Greuther Fürth during the winter break gets the nod ahead of Jonas Föhrenbach.
Ironing out defensive kinks
There was a lot of intrigue with how Matarazzo would tactically set Stuttgart in defence. The issues aren’t as big as those going forward. However, Stuttgart was susceptible to teams quickly countering when an overload in numbers going forward occur. In our first look of Matarazzo, let’s look at his side’s defensive shape.
The first of two examples showcase a Heidenheim attack with Tim Kleindienst holding up position allowing Marc Schnatterer and co. to press forward. From the immediate outset, Marc-Oliver Kempf is more linear to the centre-backs in Atakan Karazor and Nathaniel Phillips. This forms a hybrid back three as Pascal Stenzel is caught out of position. One note with Stuttgart is Stenzel is given attacking freedom to play in more advanced areas. However, if quick transitions occur, this leaves Stenzel and Stuttgart’s defence vulnerable. As seen here, Stenzel is out of position which allows Mohr to stream past and become a dangerous attacking option.
The final image shows much of the same, as the defensive transition is still exploitable. As the ball is played to the near side, Karazor and Phillips shift across to help Kempf. This ensures attacks down the flank through Schnatterer can be dispelled temporarily, forcing him to play backwards or winning back possession for Stuttgart. While not a huge factor in this scenario, the aggressive cross pitch ball to Mohr is very much on with Stenzel out of position.
It’s a small sample size, yet with this style of football that Stuttgart wants to play, the defensive cohesion needs to be resolved. As showcased above, Stuttgart were vulnerable in defensive transition and the back four at times, were unable to keep their cohesive structure. This resulted in long balls and quick play through the midfield by Heidenheim, allowing them to create attacking opportunities.
Heidenheim were forced to play on the counter-attack. Stuttgart were able to maintain possession for considerable periods and as a result, Heidenheim were forced to get creative in finding ways to bypass the midfield and create opportunities on goal. Schmidt’s side was able to do this on several occasions despite failing to scores. This section of the analysis looks at the variety of ways Heidenheim were ready to attack Wednesday night.
The initial situation comes with a quick transitional play, it was the go-to when on for Heidenheim, and they had some success in exploiting the defensive transition as mentioned earlier. From the outset, there is a variety of option to which Norman Theuerkauf has at his disposal. Theuerkauf could play centrally to Niklas Dorsch and expand the width of the play, thus stretching the Stuttgart defence. Or the left-back can drive at the defence, forcing Stenzel to come and play the ball. This opens a 2v1 situation with Mohr and Konstantin Kerschbaumer with one creating an overlapping run.
Our last situation is far more straight forward, and yet it enabled Heidenheim to several things. One being clear out of their defensive third, with Stuttgart having numbers within the danger area a missed placed pass from playing out from the back could quickly turn into an attacking opportunity. More importantly, this allows Heidenheim to bypass the midfield set-up.
It looks like a clearance, yet it’s much more than that as Kleindienst runs to the space left vacant by the high pressing Stuttgart defence. The areas in behind are significant enough for Heidenheim to create either a scoring opportunity or hold up possession and allow for the cavalry to arrive.
A criticism of Stuttgart’s play under Walter was the sophistication of certain aspects of the build-up play. Something which club captain Kempf hinted at during an interview in the winter break that this particular Stuttgart squad was not capable in implementing his plans. As a result, Stuttgart’s style of play seemed to get lost at times and players getting caught out in the wrong positions. Has Matarazzo managed to simplify the build-up play going forward for Stuttgart?
First, we shall compare the positional maps of Stuttgart under Walter in their 2-0 win over Greuther Fürth earlier in the season to the win on Wednesday night. On the left is the game vs Fürth, noticeably we see Gonzalo Castro playing far more profound and to the right alongside Stenzel. This allowed for either Kempf to carry the ball as is typical in the Walter system with a centre half penetrating with possession; it also provides for cover if Stuttgart lost the ball. To the right vs Heidenheim, far more of a spread with the full-backs far more active going forward. Karazor is acting as the last man, but more importantly, the number six, Wataru Endo is dropping deep to start the attack. The Japanese midfielder was focal in this encounter, here’s how.
As Stuttgart look to build from the back, Heidenheim are inviting the hosts to bring possession up. With Karazor on the ball, Endo looks to drop in front of the Heidenheim line to present an option and open up the second phase of the build-up. This will allow the triangle of Kempf, Mangala and Gonzalez to stretch the field of play creating secondary options. With Stuttgart persistent enough to push the ball up the middle, Endo has a variety of options going forward.
But what about inside their attacking half? How does Stuttgart look to move possession around? With Heidenheim compact in defence and no way forward in this situation, Stuttgart will be forced back. Endo plays in front of the central defenders, and Kempf tucks in to make a back three with Stenzel further up the pitch. This invites a potential switch to the far side or with quick play, Stuttgart can attack the space directly.
Our first glimpse of Matarazzo’s tactics in the 2. Bundesliga relies on having a single pivot ahead of the defence. Endo plays a vital role in this system by sitting in front of the centre-backs in defence but also facilitating the attacking moves with direct and laterally passes.
One aspect of the Matarazzo influence, at least for the encounter with Heidenheim was the willingness to attack centrally. Under the Walter system, Stuttgart averaged 26% when attacking down the middle. Peaking at 33% in a 2-1 home defeat to Wehen Wiesbaden and at it’s lowest, a measly 18% in a 0-0 draw at Erzgebirge Aue. In just one game under Matarazzo, Stuttgart equalled the seasons best with 33% of attacks coming direct.
Shown above is an attack graph from the game against Heidenheim, Stuttgart were at their most dangerous when attacking down the middle. Stuttgart’s expected goals (xG) pre-match for this encounter was 2.38. The probability of scoring for Stuttgart was 1.90 xG, with a danger level probability of 80%. This is a minimal sample size, but perhaps it’s a sign of things to come from Stuttgart under Matarazzo.
A pivotal win for Stuttgart who looks to make a promotion push and close the gap to league leaders Arminia Bielefeld. A simplified plan of attack certainly benefited this Stuttgart side who seemed to play with far more freedom while being disciplined when required. Much like Stuttgart’s promotion run in the 2015/16 which saw Hannes Wolf take over from Jos Luhukay. Can Matarazzo be the answer after a difficult period under Walter?
It wasn’t to be for Heidenheim who were at fault for some poor finishing and far to often gave possession away. As a result, Heidenheim succumbed to only its fifth defeat of the season. It’s not all doom and gloom; they are still in the hunt for the top three. Heidenheim will look to get back to winning ways at home to Dynamo Dresden on Sunday.