Having been relegated to the Bundesliga 2 at the end of the 2018/19 season, the future was not looking particularly good for Stuttgart fans. They had only come up to the Bundesliga two years prior, and in their first season, managed an impressive 7th-place finish. They then slumped down to 16th in the league the following season and lost to Union Berlin in the play-offs. They were back to square one, back into 2016.
However, another resurgence has seen them win the Bundesliga 2, and return to the Bundesliga in fighting fashion. They currently sit eighth in the Bundesliga, and have only lost once in their first six games back; a run which included a win against Hertha Berlin.
This analysis will take a look at how Stuttgart have turned to a five at the back, and taken on the spirit of the high intensity Bundesliga, to gather ahead of steam as they look to kick on from here, and not slip back into the old habits which took them down only two years ago.
Pressing high with 5 at the back
Stuttgart this season have (mostly) used a 5-3-2 out of possession to try and win the ball back. Somewhat unusually, the two strikers (including the attacking midfielder) would be staggered, with target man Sasa Kalajdzic staying higher and to the left, and to the right and a bit deeper.
As with most 5-3-2 high presses, the aim is to filter the opposition into wide areas, and use the wide areas as triggers to step up. The wing-back would push very high, and look to press the opposition player on the ball, or cover of the passing lane to the winger.
The ball-side striker would look to cut the passing lanes to the goalkeeper and other centre back(s), and the ball-side wide central midfielder would come into cover a central passing lane. This would leave the man on the ball suffocated, and either conceding possession in their own half, or playing a long ball.
The strength of Stuttgart’s three defenders is that they all are imposing defenders, who can be physical. The three main starting centre backs all have an aerial duel success rate of over 50%, and so forcing the opposition into long balls favours the Stuttgart defence, who aren’t particularly fast, but can cover for each other. Let’s take a look at some example:
Here against Köln, the left striker is on a lower line to the one pressing. Daniel Didavi, the right striker, is also coming from an inside angle, thus blocking off the inside passing lane, in an attempt to force the ball wide, causing a pressing trigger and hopefully, leading to Stuttgart regaining possession.
However, there are risks to doing this. For example, if the timing, or the depth of the right central midfielder is off, it could leave the half space unprotected, into which the centre-back can play the ball, as was the case in this example.
In this case, Orel Mangala had pushed up to prevent the Köln defensive midfielder from receiving the ball. The midfield was slow to shuttle across to make it a double pivot covering the half space, and so this space is left available for the Köln midfielder to come into.
The ball is then played into him, but here, it is not too much of an issue, as although Stuttgart’s right wing back Silas Wamangituka had pushed further up the field in an attempt to press the full back who might have received the ball, the full back had not made a run into the space. Additionally, the man in possession for Köln has his back to goal with Pascal Stenzel now pressing him.
This results in the ball being played backwards, from which Stuttgart can move their block up the field and intensify the pressure at the front to regain possession deeper in the opposition half, as is what happens when the misplaced pass backwards falls straight into Stuttgart striker Kalajdzic.
Ideally however, the midfield would either shuttle across quicker, or Mangala does not step up at all. In the situation below from the same game, we can see that Stuttgart have now titled to the ball-side.
As opposed to staying on a different horizontal line to Didavi, Kalajdzic comes inside to close off the passing lane to the defensive midfielder, allowing Divadi to press slightly wider. As a result of this, and Mangala being in his right central midfielder area, the only passing option is to the wide right.
This acts as the pressing trigger for Wamangituka at right wing-back to aggressively push forward, which forces Köln into a long ball, and regains possession for Stuttgart as Marcin Kaminski wins the aerial duel.
Rotations in build-up
Stuttgart’s setup when building out from the back uses positional rotations to allow progression both through the lines, using players between the lines after having moved the opposition around using wide rotations and the numerical advantage that comes with the three at the back, but also through qualitative advantages.
They do this by constantly trying to set up scenarios where their best players on the ball creatively and in one on one’s can start to have a significant impact on the game (such as Tanguy Coulibaly and Gonzalo Castro).
Above, we can see a scenario in which the goalkeeper has played the ball into his left centre back, and that Köln have started to press higher up the pitch to regain possession. The centre back has an open body position, as he moves to carry the ball wide, as he notices the Köln striker pressing him.
Also, Stuttgart’s deepest midfielder also makes a run in a similar direction, but veering slightly rightwards. This is to ensure he is in a position from which he can rotate with either the centre back on the ball, or with the left wing back Coulibaly. It also opens space centrally for Mangala, who can drop into that space and provide a passing option if there is a lack of progressive passing options one the ball is wide.
Once the ball had reached the wide area and been passed to Coulibaly, we see Castro come slightly deeper, and also brings the Köln midfielder out with him to open up space for him. As Köln looks to close the space, they tilt to the ball side, and to the left central midfielder closes off that space, at the costly expense of central space, a high-risk high-reward choice.
Focusing in on Stuttgart’s deepest midfielder again, we notice he has now checked his run. He sees Castro drop deep, and so instead of committing another body to a tight space, looks to lose his marker with a blindside run back towards his own box to provide an option outside of the tight space.
Left centre back decided to provide an underlap, and so left his space vacated, as he noticed his midfielder dropping into the space at centre back, as to not leave it exposed to a transition.
At this point, Mangala’s passing lane, as well as the one to Didavi, have pretty much been covered off, leaving with the option of either winning a one on one with the Köln striker to open up the lane to Mangala, or, the simpler and more effective option, to play the ball back to and let him drive into the space that Köln had vacated centrally.
Now, the high-cost aspect of Köln’s midfielders decision become clear, as his teammate at centre back is holding the defensive line and so cannot preemptively push up, leaving Didavi with a good chunk of space to receive the ball in. Right wing back Wamangituka is also holding the width on the right, giving Didavi a clear option to play the ball into, from which Wamangituka can drive into the space that had been left when Köln both pressed high and tilted to the ball side.
The general concept is one that is widely used, and yet still very effective. Stuttgart played the ball to the left, forced Köln into committing bodies to the overloaded side as wing back Coulibaly dropped deeper, quickly played through the spaces vacated, and switched the ball to the underloaded side. This was a common theme through Stuttgart’s games this season.
Involvement of Attackers
Stuttgart generally use a front two in possession – with Kalajdzic operating as a target man, and Didavi operating in between the lines. This relationship draws parallel with Diego Simeone’s use of a front two, with Felix operating between the lines and Luis Suárez being more of a target man, offering selfless runs, and linking up play when needed. Obviously, Kalajdzic provides the key advantage of being significantly taller than Suárez, meaning Stuttgart can more easily benefit from long balls, and crosses into the box.
Whilst Stuttgart don’t necessarily avoid long balls, they have a preference to keep the ball on the ground, and draw upon the physical presence and strength of Kalajdzic. In the example below, we see Castro making a run to move the Köln midfielder away from the passing lane to Kalajdzic.
The Austrian forward also then stands still between the right centre-back and the right back, to receive the ball with his back to goal. Coulibaly holds the width to prevent the right back from coming inside, whilst both Castro and Mangala provide third man options for Kalajdzic.
Then, we see that despite looking over his shoulder, Kalajdzic notices Köln had tightened the space around Castro, and so decides to lay the ball off to Mangala who has a few yards of space as the centre back cannot press him due to the presence of Kalajdzic.
This leads to Mangala being afforded both the time and space early on in the game to have a shot, which he places into the top left corner. We can also notice here, the alternative options in the final third, which are a through ball to Castro, as the passing lane slightly opened up when the right centre back came out to stop Mangala’s shot.
However, the other option was a pass to Coulibaly. As the Köln right back became drawn to the ball, he left space in the left half space for Coulibaly, who then could have put in a cross, or taken a quick shot too. This just shows us the number of options for the man on the ball in the final third.
Another example of the involvement of Stuttgart’s attackers is through dynamism between the lines. In the video below, we see the ball be played straight into the feet of Kalajdzic, who plays a first time pass to Mangala, who lets it go across his body and into the feet of Didavi.
Kalajdzic’s movement to drop deep, pass and immediately go forward as his teammates fashion the ball into a wide area is very similar to what we see with Romelu Lukaku at Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan, who also use a 5-3-2. Indeed, the similarities do not stop there, as the wing back dynamics in the final third also draw parallels between the two teams.
Coulibaly provides the more bursting option, and seems to play at left wing when his team beat the first line of pressure, whilst Wamangituka provides the more cautious option, who is usually slightly more reserved, similar to the way Achraf Hakimi and Ashley Young operate at Inter.
As the 5-3-2 does provide the advantages in wide areas, this approach to break through the lines and initially progress centrally using a target man, followed by playing it wider when approaching the final third to make use of numerical advantages provided by the formation and the outside centre backs overlapping, is generally a good strategy, that has proved successful so far in the Bundesliga this season.
On the whole, Stuttgart have returned to the Bundesliga in strong form; like the side their fans would have wanted to see after they finished 7th in their first season back three years ago. Their side, inspired by some of the best clubs and managers worldwide, including Conte’s Inter, will now look to succeed in their goal to survive and thrive in the Bundesliga for the foreseeable future.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Christian Kaspar-Bartke / Getty Images