Stuttgart comfortably defeated near-ish neighbours Freiburg in the Bundesliga’s Baden-Württemberg derby by four goals to one, with Martin Harnik bagging his tenth and 11th goals of the season. Although question marks over the Swabian outfit’s ability to defend set-pieces remain, with Stuttgart having conceded a needless goal from a corner in the first half, thereby allowing Freiburg to temporarily enjoy a spell on top, Bruno Labbadia’s side simply had far too much attacking quality for the visiting defence here, whose inexperience was plain for all to see. Added to that, Christian Streich’s side showed at the Mercedes-Benz Arena this afternoon that they are severely lacking in quality and invention in the final-third, although the coach may point to last weekend’s 0-0 draw against Bayern Munich, which might conceivably have taken a lot out of his young side both mentally and physically.
Stuttgart still have some way to go if they are to claim a place in next season’s Europa League (because, if Werder Bremen defeat Nuremberg this evening, the 2007 Bundesliga champions will remain ten points adrift of the north German side with 11 games of the 2011/12 Bundesliga season left to play), but this derby win was a real test of character for Bruno Labbadia’s out-of-form squad, and one which they passed with flying colours, a single corner-kick aside. Freiburg, on the other hand, remain bottom of the league, and with Augsburg beating Hertha Berlin 3-0 today, are now three points from safety (four if you count their extremely poor goal difference).
Stuttgart (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Sven Ulreich; Khalid Boulahrouz, Serdar Tasci, Georg Niedermeier, Gotoku Sakai; William Kvist, Zdravko Kuzmanović; Harnik, Tamás Hajnal, Shinji Okazaki; Vedad Ibišević
Freiburg (4-4-2 from right to left): Oliver Baumann; Oliver Sorg, Fallou Diagné, Immanuel Höhn, Jonathan Schmid; Jan Rosenthal, Johannes Flum, Cédric Makiadi, Daniel Caligiuri; Ivan Santini, Erik Jendrišek
The game started somewhat cautiously, with neither side using the ball or pressing it particularly hurriedly. With a big man-little man forward combo, Freiburg went long for the vast majority of the opening five minutes, although Santini was pretty comfortably marshalled by the hosts’ centre-backs. Their attacking colleagues made more aesthetically pleasing attempts to splice the Freiburg defence in the early stages – a Harnik through-ball between the high defensive line for Okazaki to reach on a diagonal run from right to left being one example (only the linesman’s flag prevented the Japanese international running the ball any further towards Baumann’s goal). Save for a single corner from the left (which Hajnal swung into Baumann’s arms), that was basically as good as it got attack-wise for Stuttgart in the opening ten minutes, however, with Freiburg keeping their three banks extremely compact, giving the likes of Kvist, Hajnal and Kuzmanović a paucity of breathing room.
Freiburg’s front two didn’t tend to bother pressing the side-to-side passing centre-backs early on, with both they and the high-standing midfield hounding the man on the ball only if he held possession in the visitors’ half. However, when one of the two centre-midfielders dropped into their own half to pick up possession, both strikers did press over the halfway line, ensuring that Labbadia’s intended tactics of getting his side’s attacks to start from the feet of the central-midfielders was failing. With Streich’s side doing rather well at keeping the home team quiet, it was no surprise to see Stuttgart resort to something different in the 13th minute. Sakai, with the ball at his feet on the halfway line, sent a long-diagonal over to Ibišević, who was hovering just in front of Schmid, who has mainly played as a midfielder. The Bosnian’s touch was heavy, and went back towards the left-hand side of the pitch; but coming behind him, Harnik took control of the loose ball. Having already picked up pace, the 24-year-old easily evaded the static centre-backs who tried to halt his progress, and curved his run into the box. Baumann did his utmost to narrow the angle, but the Austrian’s finish squeezed underneath the goalkeeper, and trickled into the back of the to give the home side a 1-0 lead! The strike may have been the result of direct methodology, and looked superficially fortuitous, but Harnik’s clever movement and the inexperienced centre-backs’ inability to response it was a crucial factor in Stuttgart getting their goal.
Suddenly, gaps started appearing everywhere in the visitors’ two deepest banks, and four minutes after the goal, Harnik was able to reach the byline and pull the ball back for the ghosting Hajnal. The Hungarian was far too casual with the finish, however, lazily slicing his shot wide. But, it was another embarrassing defensive error in the 22nd minute that allowed Labbadia’s side to double their lead. Ulreich sent a free-kick towards the right strip of chalk in the final-third, where Harnik stood waiting, right hip facing the nearest corner flag. For some reason, Schmid zoomed out towards the Stuttgart attacker, looking to head the ball away from him. However, the leap was half-hearted, the ball missed, and the hole the left-back had left behind himself gaping. Chesting the ball towards the box, Harnik dribbled it towards goal, before squaring towards the back-post. The centre-backs stood off, daring not to touch the ball in case they put it past Baumann, and hoping that anyone running in behind them would be ruled offside. However, Okazaki had started his run from deep, had the beating of Sorg pace-wise, and slid the perfectly weighted pass into the back of the net for 2-0! Schmid might have excelled as a right winger in recent weeks, but his mistake had nothing to do with being forced to play as a makeshift left-back in the absence of Michael Lumb.
Although Freiburg showed great desire and determination to rise to the challenge that faced them, Stuttgart kept their limited hosts at bay relatively easily. In the 27th minute, though, Niedermeier conceded a right-sided corner, which Jendrišek swung high towards the back-post with his left foot. Because of their repeated problems in defending corners this season (even changing from a man-marking to a zonal system hasn’t helped in the slightest), Labbadia stated after last week’s 4-2 loss to Hannover that his side would be practising defending corners all week. However, practise seemingly doesn’t make perfect, as neither Kvist or Ibišević took charge as the ball dropped into their zone, allowing Diagné to head the ball beneath Ulreich’s legs, before it bounced into the roof of the net for 2-1! It seems that defending set-pieces is not going to stop costing Stuttgart under Labbadia, and it really is hampering their progress – this concession, for instance, was Freiburg’s real effort on goal.
Several minutes later, Kuzmanović came very close to restoring the hosts’ two-goal cushion, curling a right-footed centrally-placed free-kick around the wall, but inches wide of the post. But, all because of the home side’s inability to defend a corner, the balance of power had changed in the game, with Freiburg now very much on top; bossing possession with a newly discovered swagger, and dictating the tempo. Stuttgart were now resigned to playing on the break, and although Harnik, for one, played a number of through-balls between the – still – high-standing visiting defence, Baumann was effectively playing as a sweeper, and was always quick enough to charge onto the ball and give it a no-nonsense hoof to safety.
Yet, for all the time they spent in the final-third of the pitch, Freiburg’s lack of invention, technical ability and canny movement in and around the hosts’ defence meant that Ulreich had as little to do after Diagné’s goal as he had done before it. Makiadi very nearly changed all that in the 40th minute; dropping a shoulder to go left, then right, leaving two white-shirted players on the ground in the process, before seeing an oh-so-obvious shot from the penalty spot blocked. The better option would have been to lay on Rosenthal, who was creeping into the box through the right-hand side and screaming for the ball.
Stuttgart’s superiority in the talent stakes was epitomised in first half stoppage time, as Hajnal, Okazaki and Ibišević interchanged to great effect in a sweeping, triangle-heavy move. From the left strip of chalk, the latter eventually slipped in the box-heading Okazaki, and he squared for Hajnal to finish. However, for the second time in the opening 45 minutes, the former Borussia Dortmund midfielder sliced and wasted the finish. And, from this chance, the away side had the chance to break. Caligiuri, whose energy is a real asset to Streich’s strugglers (but wasn’t utilised often enough in the first half), was fed to burst down the right. But, unlike their Freiburg counterparts, the hosts’ defence seemed better equipped to put the cork in the counter-attack – showing far greater power, intelligence and calmness to kill the move down by the corner flag.
Second half starting formations
Stuttgart (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Ulreich; Boulahrouz, Tasci, Niedermeier, Sakai; Kvist, Kuzmanović; Harnik, Hajnal, Okazaki; Ibišević
Freiburg (4-4-2, from right to left): Baumann; Sorg, Diagné, Höhn, Schmid; Rosenthal, Flum, Makiadi, Caligiuri; Santini, Jendrišek
Neither coach had made any substitutions or altered their formations for the second period, and ultimately, with Streich not having a top-class creative midfielder on the bench, and Labbadia unable to bring on an entirely different team with the ability to defend set-pieces, this came as no surprise. In the 48th minute, the visitors created their first open play chance of note, and boy, was it a good one. Makiadi, who started the second half with the attitude of ‘I’m taking this game by the scruff of the neck’, hurdled his way down the right, bypassing a number of supposed white-shirted obstacles. He pulled the ball back across the box to Rosenthal, who was there ahead of Sakai, and had the chance to slot the ball into an empty net for 2-2. However, perhaps the Congo international’s square was just a little too heavy, as like his namesake Ronny (of Israel and Liverpool fame), former Hannover man Jan missed the open goal by inexplicably shooting the ball at the woodwork.
Things were far more even now, though, compared to the closing stages of the first half. Ibišević and Hajnal both went close at the other end, with the two sides taking it in turns to get the game’s crucial fourth goal. It was obvious that Streich and his coaching staff had instructed the ten outfield players in red and black stripes to attack their hosts down the wings – the hope being that Freiburg would force Stuttgart into conceding more corner kicks. And, when the safety-first duo of Boulahrouz and Okazaki gave away corners in the 54th and 56th minutes, the sense of nervousness which descended upon the generally loud Swabians at the Mercedes-Benz Arena was palpable even to me, sat thousands of miles away in a house next to Carrow Road, Norwich. Although Diagné – who, like former Freiburg hero Papiss Demba Cissé, is Senegalese and arrived in Baden from Metz – gave away a foul on the first set-piece, which was again sent in as an inswinger towards the back-post, the second was cleared by Stuttgart, which seemed to give the home team a lift.
And, in the 61st minute, Labbadia’s side seemingly put the game to bed by scoring from… a corner! The set-piece, given away on Stuttgart’s left by Baumann, was swung in at head height towards the near post by the right-footed Hajnal. Ibišević attacked the ball with a diagonal dart, and headed it towards goal. Standing just in front of the line in a bid to unsettle Baumann was Boulahrouz, and seemingly intentionally, the former Chelsea full-back headed the Bosnian’s effort away from the ‘keeper and into the net for 3-1!
Although Rosenthal’s aforementioned miss was the sort German football fans will still be discussing long after this weekend’s round of fixtures is finished, incredibly, Ibišević ensured one minute after his side’s third goal that Rosenthal’s wouldn’t actually be recalled as the worst miss of this match. A chance was presented to the former Hoffenheim striker on a plate by Sakai, whose determined and powerful run allowed him to scoop a ball over to the back-post for his colleague. The flight and height of the cross was perfect, and Ibišević was two yards out with no opposition player in sight. Nevertheless, the 27-year-old still conspired to head the chance wide (although anyone who has followed Hoffenheim since about 2009 probably wouldn’t have been too surprised). Before the resultant goal-kick was taken, both coaches made substitutions. For Stuttgart, Francisco ‘Maza’ Rodríguez took the place of Niedermeier, while for Freiburg, Garra Dembélé and Stefan Reisinger came on for Santini and Rosenthal. Still not satisfied, two minutes later, Streich made his final change from the bench, replacing Jendrišek with Sebastian Freis.
After the substitutions, Freiburg were definitely more fluid formationally. In the closing stages, Freis and Reisinger regularly switched between the right-sided midfield and centre-forward positions, while Dembélé and Caligiuri did the same between the left-sided midfield and central-attacking midfield roles. However, it was the talismanic Caligiuri who very nearly made the final few minutes nervy for Freiburg, when he tore down the right flank, beat Maza for strength, and squared a ball across the shadow of the goal-line. Somehow, Tasci remained calm and decisive enough to punt the ball to safety, with two red and black-shirted players zooming in behind him.
The ten-minute spell between the 75th and 85th minute was end to end, with Harnik going close from a toe-poke in the 82nd minute for Stuttgart, before Reisinger slipped while trying to convert a glorious chance in the 83rd minute – created thanks to a good one-two down the left between Caligiuri and Schmid, freeing the latter to pull the back on the overlap, with Reisinger in space to attack it after stepping away cleverly from Maza. But, two minutes later, Stuttgart finally guaranteed that all three points would be theirs. A ball was scooped over from the hosts’ own half, and, kung-fu style, Ibišević leapt towards to ingeniously flick a through-ball between the static, high, narrow and flat Freiburg back-four. Both Hajnal and Harnik were on the same wavelength as Ibišević, with the former getting onto the ball and carrying it through the right-hand side of the box. Poor old Baumann was isolated and exposed, and had to do something. So, he ran towards the Hungarian, who did the only thing he could do – squaring to Harnik in the centre of the box, who stroked the ball home for 4-1!
With the win wrapped up, Labbadia seized on the chance to give two of his players a break; replacing Kuzmanović and Hajnal with Cacau and Christian Gentner (the former Hamburg coach retained his 4-2-3-1, however – a system Streich initially opted for after making his substitutions, with Dembélé in the hole, before going back to a 4-4-2 after the fourth goal). The former very nearly made an instant impact – getting the ball down the left, cutting in with a good turn of pace and forcing Baumann into a low and decent save at his near-post after a daisy-cutting right-footed strike from outside the box. That was the last chance of the match, with the referee electing to play no injury time. Stuttgart travel to Hamburg next weekend in the epitome of a mid-table clash. Freiburg, meanwhile, host title-chasing Schalke.
Formations that finished the match
Stuttgart (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Ulreich; Boulahrouz, Tasci, Maza, Sakai; Kvist, Gentner; Harnik, Cacau, Okazaki; Ibišević
Freiburg (4-4-2 from right to left): Baumann; Sorg, Diagné, Höhn, Schmid; Freis, Flum, Makiadi, Caligiuri; Dembélé, Reisinger