In 2020-21, VfB Stuttgart finished 9th place in the table, with a team of overachieving extraordinaries. Gregor Kobel, among others, departed the club following the excellent campaign, and that left Die Schwaben in a heap of trouble when injuries curtailed their 2021-22 campaign. Many of the standout stars of that stellar top half finish, from Silas Mvumpa to Sasa Kalajdzic, missed large parts of last campaign, with the club stuttering out of form toward the bottom of the table. Now one year on, Pellegrino Matarazzo is still trying to rebuild his team back to stability. While they’ve endured a difficult start to the season, they’ve surpassed expectations in terms of tactical nous and game IQ since the start of 2022-23. Here is an analysis of Pellegrino Matarazzo’s tactically intriguing VfB Stuttgart.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-5-2
VFB Stuttgart have started all three of their matches so far this campaign in a 3-5-2 formation, with minimal tactical tweaks in shape and style between their early season encounters. In goal, Florian Müller will be hoping for better days ahead, after conceding 4 goals in 3 matches thus far, with a negative Post-Shot XG +/-. Ahead of him he’s been put under less pressure due to the excellence of the back-line, including three brawny, burly central defenders. Konstantinos Mavropanos is perhaps the most impressive of all Stuttgart performers once again, completing 100% of his tackles in 1v1 duels, and 66.7% of his dribbles going the other way. His confidence on the ball manifests in many positive outcomes for his team, and his tireless running power makes him one of the most revered defenders in the division.Embed from Getty Images
Waldemar Anton anchors the defensive line at the back, organizing, leading and shepherding danger away at every turn. Like Mavropanos, Anton has moments of brilliance in possession with his long passing class and composure, even if he can be in haste to go long. Speaking of long passing composure, Hiroki Ito has been one of Stuttgart’s most impressive players in possession, completing more passes under pressure than any other player in the squad. In addition to constantly having the opposition endeavour to stop his efforts out from the back, he’s dominated quieter moments by brilliantly switching the play on a beautiful long diagonal.
The wing-backs have been the only change within the starting eleven this season, with Borna Sosa now looking to have established his place back in the side ahead of Silas Mvumpa, who’s moved up top to play alongside Kalajdžić. Sosa is an out-and-out wing-back who loves to hug the touchline and work his magic through left-footed intelligence, and can be a key crossing threat for his team when in full flow. Down the other side, Stuttgart have deployed more of an off-the-ball roamer, who enjoys a physical battle in the air. Josha Vagnoman is the name of the player who never quite made it at Hamburg, but has enjoyed a positive start to life at Stuttgart in 2022-23.
In central midfield, Pellegrino Matarrazzo has achieved his best mix of balance. In Chris Führich and Naouirou Ahamada, Stuttgart have two ‘Box to Box Midfielders‘ responsible for galloping up and down their respective half-spaces – one who is more threatening and intelligent in his passing and carrying on the ball, and one who exudes more class in picking up pockets off the ball.
20-year-old Ahamada just so happens to be the influential man on the ball in midfield, after making just 3 substitute appearances last season. The energetic midfielder has often made himself the one assisting the assist as he ventures box to box, and remains key to build-up phases. Führich meanwhile has needed to be more tactically flexible and adaptable than any other Stuttgart player, even stepping up to the front-line in certain pressing moments. Anchoring in between the pair of midfielders is team captain Wataru Endo, the essential piece to breaking up the play and organizing team shape out of possession.Embed from Getty Images
Up front, Tiago Tomás started the season as the man alongside the team’s cult hero in Saša Kalajdžić. The Portuguese forward showed moments of promise throughout both of his opening two matches, but also found himself dispossessed more than any other player in the team. Considering the natural chemistry that Kalajdžić has with Silas, perfectly balancing out the movement of one another, it makes all the more sense why Matarazzo favoured the 23-year-old in the third match of the season.
With this background in mind, let’s now delve deep into the many intricacies of Matarazzo’s system and style of play, beyond what you see on first glance.
While they’ve changed their pressing structures to match the opposition, Stuttgart have remained consistent in their build-up play since the start of the season.
The initial shape that Die Schwaben create would best be described as a 4+1 ‘Bowl Build-Up’. A slight variation on the commonly deployed 2+3, the defenders remain low throughout the process and achieve movement with a sense of fluidity and intelligence as they adjust for one another. It will become even more clear why we’ve classified the shape as a four once we describe the personnel involved.Embed from Getty Images
Unlike most teams that build out from the back in a three-man defense, Stuttgart push their outside-centre-backs wide toward the touchline. Mavropanos in particular will hug the touchline on the right side, as Ito then waits for either Wataru Endo or Naouirou Ahamada to drop toward his position so he too can shift wide. Once in this stance, the remaining central midfielder not named Führich will position themselves in front of the back-four build, becoming the ‘1’ to advance play in between the lines of the opposition’s press and present moments for progressive carrying. As the opposition adapt their shape and style to suit the demands of Stuttgart, Matarazzo’s men will then intelligently rotate positions to cause further chaos to the equation.
The most common rotation would be between Ahamada and Endo, with both seamlessly dropping into the back-line to aid circulation. But Ito will also look for moments to drift in-field, as Anton swaps between anchoring low and going on a journey to receive a forward pass. If the opposition’s press becomes too much to handle, Führich can then add to the equation, or Die Schwaben can go long, as they are naturally inclined to do anyway. Ito, Mavropanos and Anton are all solid long passers of the ball, and frequently search for either the wide areas or Saša Kalajdžić through the middle. They can then use Kalajdžić’s aerial presence to escape pressure and advance the team up the pitch, as the second striker (Tomas or Silas) prepares to roam in behind. Kalajdžić is excellent in drawing defenders away in all phases of the game, and that continuously opens up the opportunity for his partners to wreak havoc and fire the ball toward goal.Embed from Getty Images
In progression phases where their circulation remains patient and calm, Ito and Anton will often be the ones most involved. They pass the ball around in looking for angles to deploy a sense of one-touchness in the wide areas, before switching play and allowing someone like Ahamada to carry the ball up the pitch. Those one-touch combinations may involve the wing-backs, but more likely the central midfielders as the near-sided player shifts to the side of the ball. Their progression shape therefore becomes more 3+3, resembling their initial starting positions; as the wing-backs push high and wide into the attack.
In stretching the field, they then have more avenues for progressive carrying through the middle, and natural outlets for someone like Ito or Mavropanos to drop a long diagonal on a dime. While Stuttgart had issues in generating quality chances of note against Freiburg in their third match, their build-up always remained impeccably concocted.
Stuttgart have achieved a distinct attacking style since the start of 2022-23, without detracting from the potential variety in their shot creation and tactical fluidity. In some ways, they rely on long passes out from the back to advance the team up the pitch, where Kalajdžić is asked to use his 6’6 height for both good and evil.
Again, that then allows someone like Silas or Tomas to always be ready to burst the bubble and sprint in behind the back-line, as the big man remains an excellent back-to-goal ‘Target Man’. But beyond Kalajdžić’s extraordinary height, he’s also proven himself to be quite the playmaker to start off this campaign. It even inspired me to write a piece on the ‘Evolution of the Target Man‘, emphasizing the Austrian’s role in receiving in between the lines and then playing progressive passes forward to advanced runners, or bouncing the ball-back on a perfectly picked out layoff.
Adding to their aerial presence, Josha Vagnoman has also been able to compete positively, particularly as Anton and Ito float long passes toward his noggin. Ahamada and Führich prefer to play with the ball on the ground, and act as the engines that keep the train moving from back to front in a few short seconds. But in some ways, the team are still finding their way toward full fluidity in the attacking third.Embed from Getty Images
Ahamada oozes class every time he picks up the ball, while Borna Sosa always looks likely to threaten and intimidate his opposite number. But the connectivity between players like Sosa and Kalajdžić, has failed to reach full fluidity in 2022-23. This is disappointing when considering the pair are a match made in heaven. Sosa just so happens to be one of the best deliverers of a whipped cross, and one of the most dynamic, high-flying wing-backs around. Kalajdžić meanwhile possesses the imposing frame and intelligence of movement to get on the end of any cross, which normally makes him a magnet to the type of deliveries that would be expected to come from his teammate out wide. Perhaps somewhere along the way of Kalajdžić’s transformation into a playmaker, he’s forgotten to fully impose himself on the box and cater to the likes of Sosa in the penalty area.
The partnership of Silas and Kalajdžić has however been fruitful and dynamic, with the versatile wing-back coming up with more shots and shots on target per 90, of anyone in the team. The Austrian forward himself has been savvy in creating for the likes of Silas, with 1.89 goal-creating-actions per 90 in his first two matches this season – the most in Stuttgart’s ranks.Embed from Getty Images
If they wish to throw all their weight around in the quest to make something memorable, Konstantinos Mavropanos also loves an adventure forward, bulldozing his way through the opposition defense and everything in his wake. Alongside Anton and Kalajdžić, Mavropanos has also made himself a useful target from set-pieces, as the likes of Sosa and Führich threaten with their delivery.
Stuttgart therefore have the quality and intricacies to hurt their opposition from any direction. 4 goals in 3 matches isn’t a bad start by any means, but they will still need to find a route into greater connectivity between their lines in the final third. If they can strike that balance, Stuttgart’s goal-tally will likely take them up into the top half in no time.
Out of possession, Pellegrino Matarazzo has only increased his tactical flexibility and fluidity. The team primarily defend in a 5-3-2 shape to accommodate their 3-5-2 starting shape, but this has taken on many different forms in the past three matches. Principles clearly remain in place to enact pressure when closest to the ball, except in immediate losses of possession. Stuttgart have almost no degree of counter-pressing to their game, preferring to fall into their shape, hold their compactness, and enact the alarm bells when the ball advances closer to their goal.Embed from Getty Images
But finding their shape can take on different forms depending on where players left off in the attacking phase. This means that fluidity exists in moments where the shape may become more or less a 4-3-3 to 4-4-2, rather than that strict 5-3-2 formation that we would expect from a defensively organized structure.
Silas is perhaps one of the most frequent out of position adventurers, particularly when deployed as a wing-back. He would often make the shape look momentarily 4-3-3 in his first two matches before switching to striker, while Chris Führich has also shown a willingness to step up out of position and block higher up the pitch alongside the front-men.
Meanwhile, the 4-4-2 may also come to life as the near-sided wing-back holds a higher position. This caused several issues in the opening moments of their match against Werder Bremen, with Die Werderaner using Anthony Jung to stretch the width of the field and cause chaos down Stuttgart’s right. To an extent, the same could be said of using Führich in an advanced role against Freiburg, where the half-spaces were then more easily exposed in the team’s low-block. On both occasions, switches of play became particularly deadly, and Anton could have taken more control and command of the situation in shaping the team and clearing the ball out of danger when required.
When it comes to pressing, Stuttgart are not the most fervid or combative. They prefer to hold their shape and force the opposition to boringly circulate the ball or go long, where their centre-backs are prepared to dominate duels in the air. Matarazzo’s men have completed the fourth lowest amount of pressures in the attacking third per 90 (23), and have only won 1.5 tackles per 90 in that end. But encouragingly, they’ve won the fourth most tackles so far this campaign, on 11.7 per game. This showcases that when it matters most, Stuttgart are incredibly successful in regaining possession and restarting attacking moves.Embed from Getty Images
Anton, Endo and Mavropanos also boast pressure success rates above 40% so far, which is exactly what you want in a team that aims to break up play in the centre of the park and patiently force their opposition into errors. This record remains in-tact even despite the aforementioned fluidity and fluctuating shapes.
Against Freiburg, Führich played firmly alongside the front line in a 5-2-3 high-block. Kalajdžić then had the task of screening the opposition’s defensive midfielder, but he struggled to find the balance between shaping up and holding his defensive stance, and becoming bored of that and nonsensically pressuring the goalkeeper when not required, thus vacating the space for Freiburg’s Nicolas Höfler to receive. Führich stuck to his task well in shuffling with the play, but his advanced role again created some holes in the Stuttgart machine, particularly in creating too much for Endo and Ahamada to handle on their own.
Stuttgart probably operate best when firmly in that 5-3-2, where Ahamada isn’t required to cover for the spaces that Silas neglects as a wing-back, and where Führich can combine in shuttling danger away from the half-spaces. As the season evolves, it will be interesting to see whether or not Matarazzo continues to adapt his blocking strategies depending on the opposition, or if he finds consistency in a 5-3-2, that might appropriately cover the gaps most worth addressing at this time.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Pellegrino Matarazzo has enjoyed a positive start to this season at Stuttgart, even despite a disappointing run of matches and a winless streak to kick off the campaign. The problem for Matarazzo moving forward will be in establishing connectivity between the likes of Sosa and Kalajdžić; particularly as the centre-forward balances the line between dropping in to play-make, and still remaining that ‘Target’ himself. They will also need to sew up the defensive gaps created from their fluctuating pressing shapes, and take greater control in the goalkeeping and ‘Libero’ positions. If Stuttgart can get these necessary facets back to full fluidity, we should expect to see Matarazzo’s team skyrocket up the table.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Pellegrino Matarazzo’s VfB Stuttgart so far in 2022-23. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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