VfB Stuttgart head into the October international break in second place in the Bundesliga, after a blistering start to the season. bundesliga.com looks at how Serhou Guirassy, Alexander Nübel and Sebastian Hoeneß have helped turn the Swabian giants from relegation candidates to top-four challengers.
"He will quickly find the right approach," said Stuttgart's sporting director Fabian Wohlgemuth in April when lauding the qualities new coach Hoeneß would bring the club that he narrowly guided to safety via the relegation/promotion play-off last season, albeit with a thumping aggregate win over Hamburg. Wohlgemuth has got a lot right since being appointed last December, but surely even he didn't think his words would ring true quite so quickly and so emphatically.
In fact, when you look at Stuttgart's opening seven games, you have to wonder what is going on. The Matchday 7 defeat of Wolfsburg means they head into the October international break in second place boasting a club record 18 points - one off leaders Bayer Leverkusen.
Watch: Stuttgart secured their top-flight status via the 2022/23 play-offs
Following the 5-0 thrashing of Bochum on the opening day, Stuttgart were beaten 5-1 at RB Leipzig, no doubt prompting fans to curse themselves for getting a little carried away. But Hoeneß' men followed that up with a 5-0 defeat of Freiburg - fifth last season - and rattled off five straight wins, their best top-flight run since early 2010.
They have been in the top four since Matchday 3 - a first since 2008/09 - and have featured in the top two on successive matchdays for the first time since Mario Gomez, Sami Khedira and Co. won the Bundesliga title in 2006/07. In football terms, that's ancient history, but somehow Stuttgart have revived the good ol' days, and are entertaining as they go.
"How they're playing football right now, makes your heart smile," said Uli Hoeneß, Bayern Munich grandee and, yes, Sebastian's uncle. "I have to confess that I'm really enjoying watching Stuttgart games right now." And with good reason.
Only Leverkusen and third-placed Bayern have found the net more times - 23 to Stuttgart's 22 - and they have been almost ludicrously clinical: they have six goals more than their xG, and have found cutting through opposing defences easy with 20 of their 22 strikes so far coming from open play.
Collectively ruthless in front of goal, individual performances have significantly exceeded expectations too, and none more so than Guirassy's.
The Guinea international, 27, had only recorded double figures for goals in a single season once in his career before joining Stuttgart on loan early last term. He hit a valuable 11 goals in 22 Bundesliga appearances in 2022/23, but he has already found the net two times more in the first seven matches of the current campaign.
“Thirteen goals in seven games – it’s unbelievable," said Guirassy, who has broken Robert Lewandowski's record tally at this stage of a Bundesliga campaign and put his name ahead of the prolific Pole and another Bayern legend, Gerd Müller, thanks to his unprecedented purple patch. "I’m benefitting from my team-mates, who keep setting me up well. It’s just a lot of fun to play for this team in front of these fans.”
Guirassy has enjoyed himself, and certainly more so than when he found the net just nine times in 45 competitive appearances for Cologne in an underwhelming three-year spell between 2016 and 2019. In fact, he has more goals than anyone has ever achieved in the opening eight matches of a top-flight season in Germany, never mind seven. But as the rangy striker said himself: his supporting cast has been superb too.
Watch: Guirassy's record-breaking hat-trick against Wolfsburg
Stuttgart fans love to reminisce about the Magische Dreieck – the Magic Triangle – of Giovane Elber, Krassimir Balakov and Fredi Bobic, whose incredible connection brought 49 goals between them in the DFB Cup-winning season of 1996/97, when they finished fourth in the Bundesliga. Guirassy's telepathic and selfless union with Enzo Millot and Chris Führich is starting to get Stuttgart fans just as excited.
Millot played just two first-team games for Monaco before joining Stuttgart in 2021, and had not found the net for the club in 29 league appearances before this season. His two goals in the play-off against Hamburg suggested he might hit the new campaign running, and the 21-year-old Frenchman now has two strikes in his first six matches this term.
Führich, now 25, was a teammate of Guirassy's at Cologne where he too was unimpressive, and he had two seasons in Borussia Dortmund's reserves before an impressive Bundesliga 2 campaign with Paderborn in 2020/21 earned him the move to Stuttgart. The names that follow Führich's in the current Bundesliga assists chart are Harry Kane, Julian Brandt, Xavi Simons and Joshua Kimmich.
"Chris Führich is in a really good spell right now, he's an excellent one-on-one player and has set up a lot of goals for Stuttgart, who have had an exceptional start to the season," said newly installed Germany coach Julian Nagelsmann, who has included the Stuttgart man in the squad to face the USA in Saturday's friendly after seeing Führich record more assists this season than he had in his previous 60 Bundesliga matches.
"With the national team, momentum is a very very important point. The phonecall was very refreshing, because of course he was incredibly happy."
Führich and Stuttgart certainly have momentum, and Hoeness suggested the international break would not slow it, but rather give his squad a chance to "enjoy it, because we don't have a game coming up."
But it is not only going forward that they have been strong.
"We began the second half really well and won the ball back high up the pitch a few times," said Hoeness after the win over Wolfsburg. "Alex made a couple of good saves and after we equalised our belief grew that we could turn the game around."
'Alex' is Nübel, on loan from Bayern, and the goalkeeper tipped to be 'the next Manuel Neuer' is showing just why he has that billing. After two solid years at Monaco, the 27-year-old is putting up impressive numbers, stopping 26 shots in his first seven appearances, the sixth-highest tally among top-flight 'keepers.
That the former Schalke man is getting work is perhaps not surprising given his team's attacking bent, but Stuttgart have already kept three clean sheets at home this term - more than they did in the whole of last season - and have conceded only eight goals, five of which came in the Matchday 2 collapse at Leipzig.
Much of the credit for that solidity has to go to Hoeneß, who stepped in to replace Bruno Labbadia with Stuttgart rock bottom of the table last season and with just eight games to go. The run of one defeat and 13 points from those matches kept the five-time Bundesliga champions afloat, they reached the DFB Cup semi-finals, and gave Hoeneß and his bosses the post-season opportunity to - as the new coach put it when he was appointed - "carry out a clear analysis together with the sporting leadership in order to take the necessary steps for a successful future for VfB Stuttgart."
They clearly analysed well. Despite losing captain Wataru Endo as well as the influential Borna Sosa and Konstantinos Mavropanos, the arrivals of Guirassy, Nübel and the excellent but underrated Angelo Stiller - known to Hoeness from his time with the Bayern reserves and at Hoffenheim - have helped the shoots of recovery shown last season flourish spectacularly.
Since he took over on Matchday 27, Hoeneß has collected 31 points in 15 Bundesliga games, winning nine and losing just twice. Only three teams - Dortmund, Leipzig (both 35) and Bayern (33) - have picked up more points in that timeframe.
"I'm so happy for him," said Uncle Uli of Sebastian, who played for Stuttgart's youth teams. "Through his work and commitment, he ensured Stuttgart didn't get relegated, that they played quite well in the Cup and through that got financial means to prepare for the new season. Then he lost his three best players. But he didn't complain and made the best of things."
Cynics would also point to Stuttgart's 'friendly' opening fixtures having faced - and lost to - only Leipzig among those expected to be challenging for the Champions League places come the business end of the season.
A more challenging run of games after the international break beckons, while the back-to-back encounters with Leverkusen and Bayern on Matchdays 14 and 15 will give a clear indication of whether Stuttgart are at the top end of the table to stay.
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