A combination of Christian Tiffert’s passing range and vision, fantastically bold tactics from Marco Kurz, and tired, uninterested and invention-free play from Stuttgart allowed Kaiserslautern to haul themselves nearer to mid-table safety at the expense of their hosts.
This clash pitted 15th against 14th; two sides just one point and two points above the relegation zone respectively. Whereas the hosts seemed to have recovered from a poor start to the season under new boss Bruno Labbadia, Kaiserslautern had had more off-days than on ones, and seemed more at ease playing against the big teams at their Fritz-Walter-Stadion ground than facing lesser teams on the road. But there were no major personnel paucity worries to deal with in preparation for this game, save for the absence of defender Jan Šimůnek and Srđan Lakić’s form in front of goal. The hosts, on the other hand, had to make do without Philipp Degen, Ciprian Marica and Johan Audel for this Saturday teatime clash. Pre-match, there had also been fitness doubts over playmaker Tamás Hajnal, and it turned out these weren’t mind games from the Stuttgart camp – the Hungarian wasn’t passed fit to play against his former side, who hadn’t won at the Mercedes-Benz Arena since 1999.
It was the away side who made most of the early running, with Stuttgart holding a decent shape collectively but letting too many passes go beyond and across them through lack of application and concentration. After a series of poor and wasted crosses, Stuttgart finally got on the ball, and looked to establish some sort of rhythm. Staying as compact as they possibly could, the visitors pressed well in the first two-thirds of the pitch, hurrying their hosts and keeping them away from the final third. Kurz had his side sat in a 4-3-2-1, with a particularly narrow defence, and the wide midfielders in the ‘3’ occasionally pushing out to keep an eye out for the overlap. Despite this defensive rigidity, Lautern countered at pace, and their full-backs didn’t waste a second in coming upfield. Yet as we approached the tenth minute, neither side had shown any magic in terms of testing the ‘keeper, or making a pass which released a player to test them. The home side looked lost without Hajnal, and their play was stodgy and basic. Lautern, meanwhile, did the right thing by looking to put balls in the box for Lakić, but the accuracy they played these crosses with was getting worse by the minute.
Nevertheless, they persisted with their relatively direct tactics, and as the quarter-hour mark came and went, Lautern had become especially fond of using Kevin Trapp’s roll-outs for the centre-backs to hoof as long-diagonals – keeping the home side’s full-backs back in a flat, deep four-man defence (unable to push up quickly enough), and therefore creating a gap between the now parted banks for the likes of Lakić to mop up the generally cleared ball. The pressure on the Stuttgart backline became too much in the 17th minute, allowing Lakić to score for the first time since securing his transfer to Wolfsburg (for 2011/12) in January. Little communication between Shunji Okazaki and Cristian Molinaro allowed a diagonally jogging, chalk-bound Oliver Kirch to collect a pass from the unpressurised Florian Dick. Under no pressure (like his colleague), Kirch placed a perfect cross on Lakić’s head, the centre-backs caught in two minds thanks to the gap teared in their tight fabric by Molinaro’s doziness. Fair play to the still uncapped Croatian though – the header was placed with terrific power and accuracy.
Stuttgart rallied slightly after going behind, but there was still no real cohesion between front and back, and no punch in and around Trapp’s box. When a corner was easily headed away, the pace of Adam Hloušek nearly caught the home side out (they escaped, just, via a shove and a referee who believed the Czech winger had been tugging his tracker). But Stuttgart got their golden chance in the 24th minute with the award of a very soft spot kick. In fairness, it came after their best move of the match – the two defensive-midfielders bobbed back to collect the ball (the away side’s outfield players all happy to stand in their banks in their own half), the two wingers made infield then back-out-to-the-chalk darts in and from the shadow of the box’s edge, pulling the Kaiserslautern full-backs out of their side’s system, thereby engineering room for the red and white-shirted full-backs to ghost into dangerous space – namely, Molinaro. He looked to have snuck through inside the box, but Kirch cleared – yet with a high boot, said the ref! Trapp got a rib to Zdravko Kuzmanović’s right-footed penalty kick, but it was hit with enough power to make the scores level again.
Post-goal, the home side were buoyant, urgent, and particularly mobile – Lautern were now chasing shadows (despite not five minutes earlier sitting comfortably in their banks, forming a wall against a glass hammer). Labbadia’s side bombarded the left flank – aided by having Gentner in the hole, the former Wolfsburg man nominally a left-sided midfielder, and therefore gravitating in that direction for build-up play. He, in turn, was forced to go out in that direction as Kirch, nominally a centre-midfielder, was gravitating infield – with Dick having to give the away side width on the flanks at times, this gave even more space for Stuttgart to use the ball on the left. This left-sided assault paid dividends in the 38th minute, with Kuzmanović and Molinaro again at the heart of things. The former dummy-span one way, then the other, half-shadowed by Kirch, who could do nothing to stop the eventual real spin and halt the ghost infield by Molinaro – Dick totally unaware/unwilling to track him. The Italian had the simplest of squares to play across the box, and Russian international Pavel Pogrebnyak had an even simpler tap-in. Seven minutes of precious little followed – the away side more concerned with keeping the score down and stifling the home side’s momentum (who didn’t push too hard, perhaps wary of the pace of Lautern’s left winger, and not wanting to wear themselves out in the late afternoon Stuttgart sun).
After being forced to replace Mathias Abel with Martin Amedick just before the break, Kurz opted to replace Kirch with Stiven Rivić for the second half. The half started somewhat timidly, neither side exerting much energy early on. But then, when Kaiserslautern managed to win a throw near the halfway line, a triangle attempt between Leon Jessen, Athanasios Petsos and Tiffert was pressed heavily and thus easily curtailed. Nevertheless, it kick-started a decent period of expansive passing football from the away side, who sought to get Jessen into the game in an attacking sense. Stuttgart had resorted to the slow, sloppy and disinterested manner in which they’d started the first half, and this meant they couldn’t get a foot in the *new* 45-minute game. They had a lead, at least, so some aimless passing at the back kept the Lautern attacks burning down their energy tanks – especially key when Kurz only had one change left to make. The away side really should have equalized in the 55th minute, after capitalising on some woefully casual play from Serdar Tasci. Lakić, the ball-winner, dithered, before finally deciding on laying the ball to Rivić, only for his fellow Croat to waste the chance. Chances from open play had been few and far between throughout the match for the visitors, but they still had the brilliant set-piece delivery of Tiffert. The midfielder – who at this point in the game topped the assistant charts with Franck Ribéry and Mario Götze (10 each) – sent in a free-kick in the 58th minute which caused panic, before Sven Ulreich eventually bulldozed his way into controlling the situation.
After occasionally falling back into one in the first half, Labbadia’s side were now permanently set out in a Christmas tree formation – Christian Träsch in front of the centre-backs, Gentner to his right, and Kuzmanović to his left. But there was still a real lethargy to the team’s play, and Lakić and Rivić again nearly combined to punish the hosts in the 63rd minute – the latter’s cross from near the byline volleyed wide by the sharp-moving striker. Kurz had used his final change a minute earlier, going for broke by bringing on a striker, (Erwin Hoffer) for the young, Leverkusen-owned defensive midfielder, Petsos. In the 66th minute, Labbadia turned to his bench for the first time – bringing on Artur Boka for Molinaro. This was an interesting change, as immediately after Kaiserslautern had scored, Labbadia had ordered Boka to warm up. Such a tactic obviously had the desired effect, as the Italian went on to have a hand in both his side’s subsequent goals.
Yet the change did nothing to stop Kaiserslautern from equalizing just two minutes later. Awaiting the long diagonal as Tiffert dithered deep with the ball, Stuttgart used the 2-1 to press the ball high, whilst keeping the banks of ‘4’ and ‘3’ straight and stretched – thus blocking the overlap runs. However, this allowed Erwin Hoffer to time a run through the centre-back space, and an inch-perfect route one pass from Tiffert located him. The Austrian’s slide lunge made a connection with the ball, steering it past Ulreich, who’d walked into No Man’s Land. In the 72nd minute, Labbadia copied Kurz by bringing on a second striker – Cacau replacing Gentner (a midfielder). But rather than playing a flat forward line, Labbadia instructed the German international to lurk in the space left between the away side’s attack and defence – often enormous thanks to Tiffert’s desire to join the attackers in driving and passing the ball forward. As we entered the final 15 minutes, it was fascinating to see Kurz’s side go all out for the win – the centre-backs were near the halfway line, playing as auxiliary defensive midfielders, and the full-backs constantly showing on the overlap! And, incredibly, it paid off in the 78th minute – an untracked Lakić powering home an unstoppable header from Tiffert’s left-sided, right-footed corner. The midfielder was now out in front in the Bundesliga’s assists chart with 12, but more importantly, his two quickfire assists looked to have saved his side’s Bundesliga status. And in the 86th minute, Tiffert got his 13th assist of the season by capitalising on yet more casual, dithering play at the back by Stuttgart (Träsch the guilty party this time). He laid on Rivić, who danced with fantastic technique and agility through the home side’s defence, before slamming the ball home with real purpose. Game, set and safety?