VfB Stuttgart's Pellegrino Matarazzo: The best US coach in European club football?
Pellegrino Matarazzo has developed into one of the top American coaches in the world since taking charge of VfB Stuttgart. bundesliga.com explains why he deserves his new deal with the club...
The 2006/07 German champions have risen from the second tier to the upper reaches of the top flight thanks to Matarazzo, who is the son of Italian immigrants to the United States.
The 43-year-old has certainly taken a road less travelled to become a leading figure in the Bundesliga. He started off in New Jersey, graduated with a maths degree from Colombia University in New York, and then played in the German lower leagues.
With Stuttgart 10th in the Bundesliga over halfway into 2020/21, Matarazzo told club magazine Dunkelrot that he is now living the dream by working at a top European club.
“Yes, of course,” Matarazzo said. “I sacrificed a lot on the way to getting this job. I’ve invested a lot of sweat and blood.
“So I’m grateful every day to be a coach at this level, to be a coach at this club, and to experience everything that goes with it.”
Watch: Pellegrino Matarazzo on Stuttgart's attack-minded philosophy
Matarazzo’s rise is all the more impressive when you consider he had both plenty of setbacks and other opportunities along the way. His love of the game started during kickabouts with his extended family as a child, and from 8.30 a.m. on weekend mornings in New Jersey when he watched Italian Serie A games with his father.
Talent for football afforded Pellegrino access to the prestigious Columbia University - though top marks in school helped too - and he moved to New York at 17. While he excelled when playing for Columbia Lions near The Bronx, he also graduated with an Applied Mathematics degree.
Matarazzo turned down a job offer from an investment bank, though, to pursue his dream of playing professional football in Europe. He told bundesliga.com earlier this year that he “wasn’t ready to go into the office.”
A “spirit of adventure” drove him on too, although one of many forks in the road came when the promise of trials with a second division side never materialised during six months in Italy.
Today Matarazzo is happy that he persevered and made a leap of faith in moving to Germany as a 22-year-old. He first lined out for Eintracht Bad Kreuznach in 2000, and - after a few years of scrapping away below the top two divisions with various clubs - joined Nuremberg’s second team at the age of 28.
It was that switch, according to Matarazzo, that finally put thoughts of a move back to the USA behind him - in favour of learning about coaching.
“I was able to experience a very broad education there,” he told Dunkelrot in an interview to mark his first anniversary as Stuttgart boss. “Whatever the task was, I wanted to do it - and I was allowed to as well. I was extremely curious and wanted to soak up any knowledge and experience that I could.”
Gaining coaching licences and working his way up the ranks, Matarazzo learned about every role possible.
“I wanted to do everything,” he said. “I had a thirst for knowledge that I couldn’t quench until I realised that I’d come to the point where I wanted to be a head coach.”
Having come up against Julian Nagelsmann’s youth teams before later rooming with him on coaching courses, Matarazzo took up an offer to join the current RB Leipzig boss at Hoffenheim. Having made the move in 2017, he described the experience as “extremely productive”.
After six months as U17 coach, he says Nagelsmann filled in a couple of gaps in his coaching outlook once he joined him as an assistant to the senior team in January 2018.
The American then felt ready to take the plunge, becoming head coach of Stuttgart in December of last year.
“When you decide to become a coach, there are risks involved,” he told Dunkelrot.
“I’m a very ambitious person, and I was ready to take those risks on.”
Matarazzo successfully guided the Swabians to promotion, and in 2020/21 his inexperienced side have continued to impress. They are closer to the European chase than the relegation battle after 23 rounds of fixtures, while three opposition coaches have been dismissed the day after a loss to the Schwaben: Achim Beierlorzer (Mainz, 4-1), Lucien Favre (Borussia Dortmund, 5-1) and Christian Gross (Schalke, 5-1).
Not bad progress thus far, then, especially for someone who said earlier this season that anything beyond staying in the league for another year would be a “positive surprise”.
Highlighting the need for a modern-day manager to have a holistic approach, Matarazzo credits the 11 years he spent at Nuremberg - studying every department at the club - with helping him make the transition to head coach.
Tacticians without a glittering playing past, however, often need a lot of skill to win over senior pros. Stuttgart’s supremo previously told bundesliga.com that his academic background was useful because a lot of coaching decisions are “based on logic and systems”, but that running a team is “more about leading a group of human beings”.
He expanded on that need to “feel, talk, and communicate” in his most recent interview with Dunkelrot.
“Professionals have usually experienced a lot in football,” Matarazzo said, when explaining how he gets players to buy into his ideas.
“First and foremost you have to convince them - both on a human level and through the content of your work - about your coaching ability.
“Youth players, on the other hand, are ready to soak up and implement whatever a coach tells them.”
Watch: Highlights of Stuttgart's swashbuckling win in Dortmund
With parents hailing from Avellino and Salerno in the south of Italy, it’s no surprise that Matarazzo was passionate about football. A young and hungry squad at Stuttgart now seem passionate about his vision for the game.
Twenty-three matches in, VfB are comfortably among the Bundesliga's top five for goals scored with 44, and knocking at the door of the European places.
While former Leipzig assistant coach Jesse Marsch is making a name for himself as the main man at Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg, Matarazzo - equipped with a new contract through to summer 2024 - is another American scaling even greater heights in European football, in the Bundesliga.
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