Confidence returns to Stuttgart ahead of Hamburg test

BY Ross Dunbar • January 29, 2016

If there was little surprise in Stuttgart going behind at Cologne, the response was certainly out of the ordinary for the Swabians. 

Jurgen Kramny's men showed grit and character to equalize before the break and proceed to take three points from their trip to Cologne. Such resoluteness has not exactly been a component of Stuttgart's DNA in the last few seasons during which they have spent most of their time struggling at the bottom of the league. They hope to change their fortunes when they rival Hamburg on Saturday (live, FOX, FOX Sports Go, 12:30 p.m. ET).  

German champions in 2007, Stuttgart's decline has been one of the league's top narratives. Perhaps expectations have been extreme, but the succession of coaches, the lack of strategic planning from above and a propensity for mental collapse late in games have all contributed to the club's downfall. Strangely, even as the club fought in a relegation battle, the squad boasted some excellent attacking players.

Under Alexander Zorniger, Stuttgart were one of European football's great conundrums to the statisticians. Despite losing the majority of their matches, the team were generating the third-highest number of shots on goal in the Bundesliga -- behind Bayern and Dortmund. However, this was part of the problem that would consign Zorniger to the dustbin, ending the 10th different managerial era at the club in the past six years. 

Stuttgart's high-pressing strategy, in the early days, was threatening, proactive and generally impressive. But those demands require confidence among the players and, crucially, belief in the coach and the system. Narrow defeats in the Bundesliga soon became an unshakeable habit -- the Reds won just two of their first 10 matches.

Former U-23 coach Kramny was nudged into the Stuttgart hot-seat in November by sporting director Robin Dutt. Shaking off a 4-1 loss at Borussia Dortmund, Stuttgart battled to victory over Eintracht Braunschweig in the German Cup, a match which seems to have marked the end of the mental blockage in this team, which for so long seemed to capitulate in the last five minutes of games.

Kramny has tweaked one of two aspects to Stuttgart's game, aided by the five-week winter training camp which followed a superb 3-1 win over Wolfsburg. The Stuttgart coach, contracted until 2017, has a relaxed personality that gives the impression of being in control. Previous coach Zorniger regularly snapped in press conferences and claimed in an interview with one German newspaper that "football is a game of mistakes."

Stuttgart are playing deeper than before, refusing to expose themselves to the same counter-attacks which brought an end to Zorniger's reign. Defensively, Kramny's side have looked stronger and more confident in their decision-making, with a more stable shape compared to performances before the change in coach.

With attacking personnel like Filip Kostic, Daniel Didavi and Timo Werner, the Swabians have weaponry to test even the strongest defenses in the division. Didavi, out of contract in the summer, is the club's top scorer with eight goals. Midfielder Lukas Rupp, signed from relegated Paderborn in the summer, has been an unheralded acquisition, while Kevin Grosskreutz's return to German football brings experience to the team.

As Stuttgart prepare to face Hamburg in front of 55,000 fans on Saturday, there is a new-found momentum around the place thanks to a four-match unbeaten run which has left the club sitting above the drop-zone and much closer to the pack of sides above them. "We have to be careful," Kramny warned. "But we want to bring fire to the pitch. If we play with the same power, then I'm confident we will win."

Kramny's circumspection is understandable. Hamburg, a team that have survived in the relegation play-off in both of the last two seasons and coached by a former Stuttgart man in Bruno Labbadia, have turned around their fortunes with a similar philosophy. "Kramny has done a very good job," Labbadia said. "I have known him since my time at Stuttgart when he was U23 coach. He was a good choice of those responsible."

Last week's 2-1 defeat by Bayern Munich carried a sense of disappointment given the nature of the goals conceded against the German champions. Hamburg sit in 11th place in the table, five points off European qualification as Labbadia's impressive work keeps the north German team comfortably above the relegation trap-door. When Stuttgart met Hamburg last season, it was the second last weekend of the campaign and it was clear then that one of these sides would be fighting in the playoff against Karlsruhe.

Keeping a poor HSV team in the Bundesliga was a superb achievement for Labbadia last season, but instilling confidence in good, but underperforming players, is noteworthy. Lewis Holtby, the former Tottenham and Schalke player, has been outstanding in midfield, while former Arsenal defender Johan Djourou has been a fine captain for the club. "We know that we're good defensively, so we are confident for the trip to Stuttgart," Labbadia added.

The two teams will inevitably bounce around in the middle of the Bundesliga this season, somewhere between relegation and Europe. But given the rank incompetence around both clubs in recent years and the abysmal performances on the field, Stuttgart and Hamburg will just be glad not to be calling this one a relegation six-pointer.