Fourteen games without a win and your team bottom of the table. And then the sack. Hardly the sort of line most football coaches want on their CV, but it did not stop Peter Stöger getting the Borussia Dortmund job.
It was the Austrian’s work over four years in Cologne before the cataclysmic start to this season — taking the Billy Goats from Bundesliga 2 and into European competition for the first time in a quarter-of-a-century — that was foremost in Dortmund’s mind when they appointed him. And something else.
Watch: Talking tactics, Dortmund-style
"Stöger has proven himself as someone capable of patching up any splits within the team," explained BVB’s sporting director Michael Zorc. "His teams have shown impressive stability." It might not be sexy, but that is just what Dortmund needed when Stöger took charge in December, ending the rollercoaster reign of Peter Bosz.
The Dutchman — only appointed last summer — had made a record-breaking start, becoming the only Bundesliga coach ever to win his first five matches in charge, and all without conceding a single goal. Dortmund set the early season pace at the top of the table — their breathtaking start surely one of the reasons Bayern Munich felt a coaching change was needed — but come December, they had run out of steam. Badly.
"I have been saying for weeks that we mustn’t just talk but also follow through with actions," a furious Marcel Schmelzer ranted after the Matchday 15 defeat at home to Werder Bremen. "And then we go out there like that. Crazy, an absolute disgrace."
That defeat cost Bosz his job, and gave Stöger his with a clear brief: shore things up.
If the season had started on Matchday 6, Dortmund would have been third-from-bottom of the table when Bosz left, having conceded an improbable 23 goals in ten matches. Since Stöger arrived, they have let in 10 in a 12-game unbeaten run that has pushed them back into contention for a top-two finish.
He has not tightened things up with muscle. Stöger’s Dortmund average 12 fouls a game, just like Bosz’s, but they have surrendered possession — 54% per game compared to 62% under the Dutchman — and become harder to break down. Stöger’s team have scored 19 goals in his 12 league matches in charge, Bosz’s scored 35 in 15. Stöger though averages 2.2 points per 90 minutes, his predecessor tallied just 1.5. Less cavalier, more conservative, and — crucially — far more successful.
"He has clearly told us when we press and when we should sit back," explained Julian Weigl, whose switch from a more advanced role into his trademark holding position in front of the back four has been added stability to the 4-2-3-1 formation Stöger has adapted from his predecessor’s gung-ho 4-1-2-3. "The backline aren’t under pressure to always push forward. That gives them security, they feel good with that."
Good judgement and that all-important X-factor, luck, have played a part, too.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s January departure for Arsenal could have been the death knell for Dortmund’s Champions League ambitions for next season. Instead, the loan signing of Michy Batshuayi from Chelsea has proven inspired with the Belgium international contributing eight goals in 11 league matches, an impressive return augmented by the timely return to fitness and form of Marco Reus.
With Andre Schürrle, Mario Götze, Shinji Kagawa and Christian Pulisic also performing, Stöger’s Dortmund have lost little of the cutting edge that sliced so effectively through teams under Bosz, but they have added steel further down the pitch. It is a recipe that has kept Dortmund on the boil, and one that could see Stöger given the opportunity to serve up more of the same beyond the expiry of his current contract in June.
"He still hasn’t lost a Bundesliga game. If we don’t lose any more after this, we would be really stupid if we didn’t continue," said Watzke, the man who will have the final 'Ja' or 'Nein' on Stöger’s future. "We’re happy, because he’s an exceptionally good coach."