bundesliga

The story of VfB Stuttgart's revival from relegation strugglers to the cusp of the UEFA Champions League

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After a fantastic opening 25 matchdays of the 2023/24 campaign, VfB Stuttgart are closing in on a surprise UEFA Champions League qualification. However, the return of one of Germany's oldest clubs to the Bundesliga elite has been a bumpy one. This is the story of their rise, fall and revival.

Formed in 1893, Stuttgart have long been Baden-Württemberg’s biggest club. They enjoyed plenty of success even before the inaugural Bundesliga campaign in 1963/64 – which they were a part of – winning two German championships and two DFB Cups.

In the 20th century, they missed just two top-flight campaigns, while they clinched their maiden Bundesliga title in 1991/92, propelled to glory by the likes of Fritz Walter (not that one), Matthias Sammer and Guido Buchwald.

Soon after, Die Magische Dreieck (the Magic Triangle) of Giovane Élber, Krassimir Balakov and Fredi Bobic lit up German football, and in 2006/07, another Meisterschale made its way to Swabia, this time thanks to the exploits of coach Armin Veh and star centre-forwards Cacau and Mario Gómez.

That triumph came during a spell of nine consecutive top-half finishes, while they twice reached the Champions League last 16 between 2000 and 2010. Soon, though, competing against Europe’s best would be a distant memory, with 2009/10 the last time Stuttgart played in the continent’s premier club competition.

VfB Stuttgart won their second Bundesliga title in 2006/07. - Pressefoto Rudel/Robin Rudel via www.imago-images.de

Over the next few years, the decline was steady. Even though his successor Markus Babbel secured a top-four finish in 2008/09, Veh’s exit in 2008 was arguably the turning point. Babbel lasted just 18 months in the hot seat before Christian Gross, Bruno Labbadia and Huub Stevens all struggled to compete with Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Wolfsburg and Germany’s other leading outfits during the early 2010s.

Finally, after 12th, 15th and 14th-placed finishes in three consecutive campaigns, what had been on the horizon for a number of terms finally came to be as Stuttgart were relegated to Bundesliga 2 in 2015/16 under the tutelage of Jürgen Kramny. Despite scoring 50 goals, they conceded a huge 75, the joint-third highest Bundesliga total of the 21st century.

Their stint in the second tier didn’t last long, though, as they bounced straight back, finishing top of the league. While they initially looked out of their depth back amongst the elite, Tayfun Korkut’s appointment steered them well clear of safety and into the heady heights of seventh place, with the season ending in a 4-1 victory over champions Bayern at the Allianz Arena.

Nevertheless, that resurgence proved to be a false dawn. They were soon fighting for their Bundesliga lives once again, and were unable to stave off a relegation play-off spot at the end of the 2018/19 season.

Watch: Stuttgart suffered play-off defeat to Union Berlin in 2019

On paper, they should have still had enough to secure their top-flight status – opponents Union Berlin had never previously played in the Bundesliga, while only one of the previous nine Bundesliga 2 representatives had prevailed in the two-legged clash.

Unfortunately for Die Schwaben, however, the reality was quite different. A 2-2 draw at the Mercedes-Benz Arena gave Die Eisernen a slight edge heading back to the capital, and a goalless encounter was enough to see Stuttgart drop down for the second time in four seasons on away goals. Once again, though, only 12 months were spent outside the leading division, albeit only after Pellegrino Matarazzo was appointed as head coach after a disappointing start to the campaign.

Back amongst the crème de la crème of German football in 2020/21, Stuttgart delighted supporters and neutrals with their attacking style of play, with Silas and Sasa Kalajdžić impressing in particular.

In a repeat of their previous return to the Bundesliga, however, the positivity didn’t last. Silas ruptured his cruciate ligament in March 2021 and received a suspension due to irregularities in his personal papers, both of which had long-lasting effects on his form, while only a last-gasp Wataru Endō goal against Cologne on the final day of the 2021/22 campaign saw Stuttgart avoid another relegation play-off.

Watch: Stuttgart score last-gasp winner to beat the drop against Cologne

During the first half of the following term, even finishing as high as 16th looked a stretch with questions raised about the club's direction and transfer policy.

There had been another big change in the upper hierarchy in 2019 when Sven Mislintat was hired as sporting director. He had played a key role in Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund revolution and was the man behind the signings of Robert Lewandowski, Shinji Kagawa, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Ousmane Dembélé and many more.

His record at Stuttgart until his exit three years later was mixed – several of his signings missed the mark. Having said that, when Sebastian Hoeneß was employed as coach in April 2023 with the unenviable task of keeping the team in the Bundesliga as they sat bottom of the table, the ex-Hoffenheim boss relied on several of Mislintat’s recruits to give his team a fighting chance.

Serhou Guirassy immediately flourished under Hoeneß’s tutelage, while young Frenchman Enzo Millot, defender Josha Vagnoman and midfielder Endō all played key roles as Stuttgart picked up 13 points from their last eight matches to secure 16th. On this occasion, they had far too much quality for Bundesliga 2’s third-placed outfit Hamburg, who they defeated 6-1 on aggregate.

Sven Mislintat made some key signings during his time as VfB Stuttgart sporting director. - IMAGO/Hansjürgen Britsch

Regular relegation battles were major causes for concern, but even during Matarazzo’s final 16 months, there had been signs that Stuttgart had the potential to deliver better results. Of the 20 games they lost during that period, only three were by more than two goals, and nine were by a solitary strike.

They were often involved in narrow encounters and were rarely played off the park, yet it was only when Hoeneß arrived that the extra belief and confidence was restored. His arrival provided a huge boost when it was needed most, and given the way his players hauled themselves away from another descent, there was hope that the 2023/24 term would offer something different.

Of course, no-one could have expected Stuttgart to be this convincing though. They kicked off the Bundesliga term with a 5-0 hammering of Bochum and, while a 5-1 loss to RB Leipzig followed immediately after, they were back to winning ways courtesy of another five-goal performance against Freiburg on Matchday 3. By Matchday 9, they had won seven matches, with only an irresistible Bayer Leverkusen stopping them from sitting at the summit.

Die Werkself remain unbeaten in all competitions and are 10 points clear at the top of table as it stands – not even Bayern have been able to match that pace. Stuttgart, though, are enjoying one of the most consistent seasons in their history. They have more points this term than any other campaign after 25 matchdays, while they have only picked up more wins at this point of a season than this term’s 17 on nine occasions.

Watch: Guirassy and Stuttgart on fire!

Not only is a top four spot theirs to lose, they are just four points adrift of Bayern in second. It has truly been a season to remember, even if there are still a few chapters to be written.

Guirassy’s incredible goalscoring form has stolen the headlines, but almost every player in Hoeneß’s squad deserves praise. Goalkeeper Alexander Nübel has finally shown the ability that convinced Bayern to sign him from Schalke in 2020, captain Waldemar Anton has led by example, and Maximilian Mittelstädt has provided solidity at left-back.

Only three Bundesliga players have found the back of the net on more occasions than loanee Deniz Undav (14) – one of which is Guirassy (21) - and Chris Führich has shown so much quality down the left flank that he received a maiden Germany call-up last October. There are plenty of others who deserve mentions, too.

As is often the case at Stuttgart, this season has not been unbridled plain sailing. Florian Müller, Borna Sosa, Konstantinos Mavropanos and Endō all departed in the summer, leaving Hoeneß with numerous holes to fill. Also, the MHPArena is currently in the middle of a partial redevelopment in preparation for the 2024 UEFA European Championships, meaning the team have been unable to welcome a full-capacity crowd to enjoy their resurgence.

Watch: The best of Germany's new Stuttgart contingent

In the past, we may have seen VfB crumble, but not this time. Instead, they have responded to every obstacle with endeavour and energy and are more than deserving of their time in the sun. Finally, it seems Stuttgart have a side befitting their name and heritage, and a fantastic prize for their displays may be just around the corner in the shape of UEFA Champions League football next term.