Stuttgart’s sporting director Fredi Bobic was fuming as he left the Coface Arena on Sunday evening. He’d just seen his former employee, Shinji Okazaki, score and lead his new side, Mainz, to victory over his old one, Stuttgart. Before agreeing to sell Okazaki to Mainz, Bobic had tossed and turned over inserting a clause to prevent him playing against his former employers, but decided against it.
From Swabia to the Rhineland
For many at Stuttgart, the goal came as a shock. At the Mercedes-Benz Arena the 27-year-old Japanese had been the model pro (according to Bobic “a tireless runner”), but lacked a certain level of on-field effectiveness last season.
Prior seasons had seen great goals, such as a goal of the month winner vs Hannover 96 in February 2012, but not a great number of goals. Last campaign his solitary strike required 25 shots, and a record of ten goals in 63 games meant that when Mainz’s offer came in VfB Stuttgart were happy to part ways.
A sign of things to come?
Okazaki's finish against his former club showed the quality which has brought him 35 goals in 66 Japan appearances. Taking the ball down just inside the box, he waited a split-second for the defender to commit himself to a block before rifling a shot into the bottom left-hand corner of Sven Ulreich's goal.
Tuchel pointed out after the match that Okazaki’s goal highlighted his abilities, “you saw there just how lithe and technically gifted Shinji is”, while Bobic remarked begrudgingly that Okazaki has the potential to become an "asset who could really help Mainz".
From Bundesliga 2 to international call-up
Okazaki's performance and cool finish were certainly impressive, but Stuttgart's real nemesis was two-goal hero Nicolai Müller. Müller was picked up by Mainz from Greuther Fürth, and after a goal on his reserve-team debut, Thomas Tuchel promoted him immediately to the first-team.
Müller hasn’t looked back since and this rise has recently been rewarded with two Germany caps, his debut coming against Ecuador in Florida this summer. Tuchel believes that this is only the start of the ascent, and that the Germany caps will prove the catalyst for the 25-year-old to score more goals.
Made for each other
Okazaki's new start at Mainz seems to have found the perfect partner in Nicolai Müller. Müller described Sunday's atmosphere as "pretty impressive" and Sporting Director Christian Heidl indicated that Okazaki's goal left people "buzzing". Mainz's new signing has already made Stuttgart regret their contractual indecision, and more goals from the duo will leave Bundesliga backlines feeling just as frustrated.