Matchday 13 saw Serhou Guirassy and Deniz Undav start together for the first time for VfB Stuttgart, having previously impressed with their goals while working alone. bundesliga.com takes a closer look at the tactical changes Sebastian Hoeneß made to get the best out of his in-form strikers...
Guirassy currently sits second in the Bundesliga scoring chart with 16 goals from only 11 appearances. Only Harry Kane has outscored the Stuttgart man so far. Deniz Undav, who missed the first three games of the season injured and didn’t start until Matchday 9, is on eight for the campaign, which ranks him fifth alongside Victor Boniface and Leroy Sané. Bayern Munich are, therefore, the only other team to boast two players in the top five for goals.
The fact that Guirassy and Undav would play together at some point was only a matter of time, really only being delayed by an injury to the Guinea international.
The moment finally came this past weekend, with Hoeneß even announcing ahead of the game that he would field both from the start in the 2-0 win against Werder Bremen. It meant the coach had to make some tactical tweaks from what had, for the most part, been a consistent 4-2-3-1 formation so far.
There were a number of good moments between Guirassy and Undav, but it wasn’t completely clicking for Stuttgart in attack. It’s not to say the experiment was a failure, more a step in the right direction for working together as they and the team adapt again.
A 2-4-4 in build-up
Some injuries meant Stuttgart had used a back three in their last two games. Hoeneß reverted to a four-man defence this time to provide a better foundation for the front two. It saw Maximilian Mittelstädt drop back to a conventional left-back position and Pascal Stenzel come in on the right, with Hiroki Ito now out until the new year.
Hoeneß leaned on the fact that Stenzel was once a central midfielder in his youth, while Mittelstädt has also demonstrated that he has composure on the ball in central areas. As such, both full-backs often tucked infield alongside the midfielders.
Stenzel in particular had fulfilled a similar role at the start of the season before an injury. On the left, Ito had been much less inclined to step forward centrally, either going up the wing in a back four or on the left of a three.
The reason for the switch was because it was holding midfielder Angelo Stiller instead of No.10 Enzo Millot who made way for the second striker. Millot dropped a little deeper, but it was Hoeneß’s use of full-backs infield alongside Atakan Karazor that provided security and allowed Millot to get more involved in the attacking play. Undav was operating as the second striker between the lines, but when he moved alongside Guirassy it allowed Millot greater freedom in the hole.
Watch: Highlights from the win over Bremen
The way the front two operated was very much what you’d expect from a classic pair of centre-forwards. Guirassy was the target man and mostly furthest forward, being tightly marked by the defence, and often drifting to the left. Undav would drop between the lines and be the man to link the play, but then run in behind himself whenever Guirassy had made a move deep. As such, he was often right of centre.
Gegenpressing makes the difference
A big advantage of this formation is that the four narrow midfielders can quickly apply pressure when possession is lost. When Stuttgart then won the ball back, they were able to get forward quickly. One example was in the 11th minute when Dan-Axel Zagadou hit a ball long towards Chris Führich, which was headed away by the Werder defence. But Mittelstädt was in position to pounce on a mistake by the Bremen midfield and play Führich in again for real. Although the long ball didn’t work, the Gegenpressing ensured the desired outcome.
The fact that Führich lost the ball also wasn’t a problem, with the midfield again compact and allowing the visitors no exit route. Again, Mittelstädt got the ball and this time started an almost magical move with a pass through to Undav, who dribbled past two men before exchanging a one-two with Guirassy. The Guinean moved in behind the defence and got the ball back again, once more returning it towards Undav, who had made a curved run to the right. The Brighton & Hove Albion loanee tried once more to play the ball through to Guirassy. A deflection off a Bremen defender almost ensured it found VfB’s top scorer, but he wasn’t quick enough to react.
This was also a sign of one of the problems with the strike duo. They were still playing a bit too intricately. Or as Undav himself explained: “We had to shoot more instead of always playing one-two after one-two.” But the promise is there to see. “It’ll come with time,” the 27-year-old said.
A special role for captain Anton
Yet even away from the front two, the tactical tweak helped revive some of Stuttgart’s strengths of the early weeks of the season. Captain Waldemar Anton had an important role there. You would’ve thought in a formation that looked like a 2-4-4 in possession meant that a centre-back’s job was just to sit back. However, the skipper is good at reading the game and is always happy to step out and intercept balls or take on opposition strikers.
Again, the positioning of the full-backs helps, since Stenzel was very rarely far up the pitch on the right. Instead, he was generally found in the inside right channel, level with the holding midfielder. So, when Anton saw the chance to step out and win the ball, Stenzel would drop back and fill in for his captain. As such, even at times when Stuttgart looked to defend aggressively, they were always covered at the back.
Anton provided numerous examples of that throughout the game. His first came after only five minutes when Bremen had the ball deep on the right and played infield up to Leonardo Bittencourt. Those watching from the elevated angle of the TV cameras will have immediately seen Anton lurking and waiting to go. Communication in defence was perfect as Stenzel dropped wide and covered, Anton stepped out of the back like, won the ball and sprinted away towards the Werder goal. However, his distribution was lacking here.
Another memorable moment came after an effort from Guirassy was saved and the Green-Whites tried to build up down the left. Felix Agu played the ball inside towards Bittencourt, but Anton was immediately there applying pressure, this time with Mittelstädt to the left dropping in to cover. The centre-back intercepted the ball, drove forward and had a shot from the edge of the box. Michael Zetterer again saved but couldn’t hold, allowing Undav to turn home the loose ball.
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On first viewing, this tactically astute 2-4-4 system doesn’t just allow Undav and Guirassy to play together, but also appears to further improve a team already flying high in third place.
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