It's the final edition of "Tactics Talk!"
And so it ended. Another great season of Bundesliga football concluded yesterday, replete with some gripping action that left the race for the European places and the quest to avoid the drop uncertain right up until the final whistle.
We've full coverage below in the concluding post below. This marks two full seasons of our weekly recap column here on Bulinews! Through 68 straight installments of this feature, the columnist stands grateful for the privilege of covering the greatest football beat in the world.
Our last column takes on the Lewandowski topic first before moving through all nine fixtures. Teams getting draw ups this week include Hertha, Dortmund, Leipzig, and Hoffenheim.
Stuttgart's emotionally-charged great relegation escape gets the final focus section. What a match that was at the Mercedes Benz Arena!
Come along for one last ride!
Bundesliga Tactical Banter: Round 34
The "Lewin-Goal-Ski" Bombshell
Well. There were many high notes to end on this year. This happens not to be one of them. No one likes to talk about Robert Lewandowski's impending departure. It's horrible news for German football. Last year we led our final column with a tribute to the greatest striker in the world. Now, his Ballon d'or not secured, we must prepare for the loss of the Bundesliga's biggest star. One could probably feel the eyes rolling through the text as this story reached the "point of no return" earlier in the week. It can only go in one direction now.
The simple fact is that Bayern can't withstand a whole summer of this theater. To take on all of this negative attention through September 2nd cannot be sustainable. The transfer request had been lodged. Perhaps tactlessly, it has also been made public. At this stage in his career, Lewy wants that coveted French trophy more than he wants to hang around in an environment that doesn't challenge him long enough to break Gerd Müller's all-time scoring record.
German football lovers aren't best pleased with France Football's snub over the last two cycles. Alas, nothing can be done about it now. If potent personalities such as Uli Hoeneß and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge still functioned as the FCB mouthpieces, the topic could be defused. Hasan Salihamidzic, Oliver Kahn, and Herbert Hainer don't carry that sort of collective clout. They're already contradicting each other. It shall all fall apart this offseason.
The best they can do involves cutting off the distraction proactively, giving themselves enough time to find the two, or potentially three attackers, needed to replace him. A story of this magnitude--particularly in light of Bayern's recent decade of dominance--will not refresh along with the news cycle. Bayern doesn't get off the front pages, not in the Bundesrepublik anyway. Every German football fan has already forgotten the score of the game this weekend.
Indeed, pretty much all of us have forgotten who the record champions even played. Who was it? Wolfsburg. Right. Nothing much to say about that match, except for wishing Florian Kohfeldt all the best in his future career endeavors, of course. Virtually everyone with a set of eyes saw that one coming. Not a huge loss for German football there.
Running down the no-consequences
Counting the Bayern-Wolfsburg match (observed above) and Gladbach-Hoffenheim (covered below) we had four fixtures of no real meaning whatsoever to conclude the Bundesliga season this year. Another "golden pineapple" game for Oliver Glasner and Eintracht Frankfurt over at Mainz. Augsburg and Fürth also convened at the WWK Arena in the final top-tier matchup between the Frankish Bavarians and Bavarian Swabians for quite some time to come. Mainz and Frankfurt drew 2-2. Augsburg finally won a match at home after two losses with a 2-1 victory over the Kleeblätter.
SGE trainer Oliver Glasner didn't play an absurd C-squad hand this time. This final league match would serve as a dress rehearsal for the coming Europa League Final. All of the first team regulars were back in the XI, save the injured Jesper Lindstrøm and Martin Hinteregger. Jens Petter Hauge deputized for his wounded Scandinavian comrade up top while Tuta slid into the central back-three pivot position again alongside Evan N'dicka and Almamy Touré. Glasner found himself visibly pissed with the first stringers.
The back-line began the game in an almost comatose fashion, allowing Mainz to take the lead early in the 10th. The Rheinhessen were absolutely crushing their guests in terms of chance creation, possession, duel rates all the way up until when Tuta leveled matters in the 25th. The equalizer came totally against the run of play off a set-piece. Rafael Santos Borré put Eintracht ahead before the break, but that too didn't reflect the real tenor of the match.
The SGE defense botched it again defensively just after the restart and Daniel Brosinski restored parity with a 49th minute tally in his farewell game. After that, there were disallowed goals on both sides during an entertaining stretch run. Bo Svensson's Pfälzer still deserved the win more. Aaron Martin struck the post. Jonathan Burkardt had a goal controversially disallowed. Kevin Stöger (also leaving) narrowly missed the winner in extra time. At least we got some highlights here.
The same can't exactly be said for Augsburg's win over at the WWK. The first 20 minutes or had some spirit. Heavy leans into the midfield duels from both sides. The courted Jessic Ngankam snatched a 23rd minute equalizer off a Niklas Dorsch error to cancel out a earlier Augsburg penalty. After the 1-1, things slowed up considerably. Augsburg--admittedly a little shaken after Dorsch was carted off injured--then took their foot off the pedal entirely, strolling even more flagrantly than last week. Michael Gregoritsch scored the winner on the lone pretty play in the 84th.
Nothing more to say about that.
Apart from wishing Markus Weinzierl well in future endeavors, of course.
The "Spiegel Specials": Round 34
Dortmund-Hertha (2:3, 2:1)
Does anyone really remember that Hertha won the reverse fixture at this point? Yes, that actually happened. So did this year's "February Promise" and endless assurances that, thanks to a favorable schedule, Germany's "alte Dame" would take their destiny in their hands and be just fine. That went all the way up through the start of this weekend. Damn. We "capital city soothers" are in hot water again. Shades of the end of the 2011/12 campaign haunt us.
Time to dust off the old "Hertha Apologists" handbook and see what we can do to explain this away. For starters, a good bit of this weekend's prognostication held up throughout this one. Everything was unfolding as we expected it to. A well-selected (and very well defensively drilled) XI from BSC interim trainer Felix Magath absolutely kept Dortmund at bay in the first half. Marco Rose's men couldn't begin to get into gear against this:
Lineup—Hertha BSC—Match 34 (4-5-1)
Smart and compact. Perfectly tuned to take advantage of Dortmund's error-prone passing game out of the back. It proved splendid to watch this collapse in whenever the BVB crossed the halfway line with the ball. Santiago Ascacibar and Lucas Tousart (two players once considered worth a lot) looked like nicely polished gems attacking the ball.
A constellation such as this also offers ample opportunities for quick counter breaks. It was one one such play that Ishak Belfodil was sent through in the 16th on the play that would result in Hertha taking the lead via a penalty. The Westphalian hosts went almost the entire first half without generating a scoring opportunity.
It looked to be a typical Dortmund "infamy game". Rose's 3-2-4-1 proved totally putrid. Emré Can may have had one of the worst halves of his entire professional career. The German national team midfielder, operating out of the right side of the back-three, lost the ball or sent cases stray on all of his carries.
Rose responded by pulling Can at the half.
Lineup—Borussia Dortmund—46th minute (4-2-3-1)
English phenom Jamie Bynoe Gittens took over on the left wing. Julian Brandt--who hasn't had a bad season at all incidentally--went out wide right. Marco Reus settled in at ten whilst wingbacks Raphaël Guerreiro and Marius Wolf moved back to fullback roles. Intelligent and sensible. It still didn't produce better results.
Die Schwarzgelben remained faulty in possession. Bynoe Gittens' insertion created a little danger early on, but the Charlottenburgers still had the game well at hand. A rather harsh handball penalty enabled the hosts to grab a thoroughly undeserved equalizer in the 68th. Spot kick taker Haaland was even a bit lucky to see Marcel Lotka bungle a less-than-stellar take over the line himself.
Not much the Hertha defensive ranks could do about Jude Bellingham's sumptuous through ball for German phenom Youssoufa Moukoko on the 84th minute go-ahead-goal. If there is criticism for Magath to be had, it didn't look as if the BSC trainer had a later match tactical re-format in mind. As opposed to in some better-planned weeks past, there was no discernible change to the shape.
Betting that the opening constellation would hold still made sense.
Prognosis: No more promises
We deliberately held off the publication of this column until it could be confirmed who Hertha's playoff opponent would be. No sense in writing a prognostication section without knowing the adversary. Now that we know it's the HSV...oh boy. Sorry, Hertha enthusiasts. Sadly, we can't make any more promises. Darmstadt or maybe even Bremen might have been a different story.
Die Rothosen roll into this one on a four-match winning streak. Tim Walter's men have won five straight in the 2. Bundesliga, scoring at least two goals in each of their wins. With all due respect, Hertha don't even have a reliable goal-scorer. The oft-injured Stevan Jovetic leads the team with six tallies. He won't be back up to full form in time. With no respect due, Davie Selke and Ishak Belfodil are not real strikers; at least not currently.
Felix Magath implemented a workable team system, then seemed to forget that he did so. The last three lineups seem to indicate that he lost his ideas like some of us misplace our keys. What happened to the old man? How did he let planning, drilling, and an in-place team talisman slip through his fingers? This is all so whack.
Sigh. Must we really list all of the strikers or those with center-forward experience Bobic shipped out this year? One supposes we must. Jhon Cordoba, Krzysztof Piatek, Dodi Lukebakio, Daishawn Redan, Jessic Ngankam and Matheus Cunha. Why? This team's sporting CEO built a second-tier side on a budget in spite of the fact that he was playing in the first tier and had no real budgeting constraints.
That prepares to change.
Bielefeld-Leipzig (2:0, 1:1)
Leading off the next section with a carbon copy memory probe from the previous one, how about Bielefeld besting Leipzig in the final round of the "Hin-Runde"? Anyone recall that? The German Red Bulls finished off the first half of the season in 10th place on 22 points after the loss. They picked up 36 of a possible 51 points in the "Rück-runde" to finish fourth in the final Champions' League spot.
A draw for Leipzig on this particular day would have most likely been good enough. Domenico Tedesco's men more or less played accordingly in a low-tempo match against lowly, essentially already relegated Bielefeld. Very few risks from the Saxons in their trip to the Alm. Christopher Nkuknu managed to punch through a couple times in the opening 45.
One could cite the fatigue factor, but Tedesco's men didn't seem to wish to do more than necessary in a 3-4-3 significantly tighter than last week. Perhaps they wished to save their more creative play for next weekend's DFB Pokal Final. Only after Janni Serra chested in the 1-0 in the 70th and Masaya Okugawa narrowly missed the 2-0 seconds later did RB wake up.
Nkunku, André Silva, and the subbed on Dani Olmo all got off great chances during a flurry between the 80th and 85th. Those of us who love keeping the overhead cams on during the final matchday of the season got to take our coveted trip to "crazy town" when Tedesco thew everyone forward at the last minute.
Lineup—RB Leipzig—88th minute (3-2-5)
Aaach! So close. Unlike last season, we didn't get quite what we wanted on the final matchday. No "re-inverting the pyramid" for us this year. Bit of a letdown, actually. No other match featured the good-old 2-3-5 that we football history buffs so love to see. Close, but no English gentlemen scotch and cigars this time.
Let it be noted that these tactics didn't produce to the draw. Willi Orban equalized off a Dominik Szoboszlai free kick at 90+3. Doubtless fans of this club were sweating a bit after Freiburg equalized against Leverkusen in the most important concurrent kickoff. The players probably didn't know too much about it, however, as they remained in the game.
Prognosis: 2018/29 Redux
Bayern. Dortmund. Leverkusen. Leipzig. Ring a bell? That's the top four from the end of the 2018/19 campaign. We'll get the exact same Bundesliga field for the coming Champions' League as we did three years ago. Eintracht Frankfurt still have the chance to be the historic fifth Bundesliga UCL side should they win the Europa League, of course.
Otherwise, it's merely "ho" and "hum" in that precise order. Leipzig's stunning turnaround in the second half of the season interested few in German footballing circles. It didn't even constitute much of a surprise really. Everyone expected them to make up ground in the "Rück-Runde". The first match back after the abridged winter break basically confirmed the path we were on.
We gave it our fair shake of coverage here at Bulinews. Tedesco's RB got the focus section in four columns and draw-ups in several more. They're a stacked team that, irrespective of what happens transfer-wise over the summer, will have the scouting network to re-stock before next season starts. That's precisely the problem.
Leverkusen-Freiburg (1:2, 2:1)
Yeouch. This one hurts. One expected a great deal more from the Breisgauer in their season finale. There even was some brief hope, after Janik Haberer equalized in the 89th and before Willi Orban tied it up for Leipzig in Bielefeld at 90+3, that Freiburg could get another goal and snatch the final Champions' League spot after all. Such fantasies didn't last long.
Leverkusen--having sewn up Champions' League qualification last week--had less to play for. Gerardo Seoane sat down Robert Andrich, Sardar Azmoun, Piero Hincapie, Charles Aranguiz, and keeper/captain Lukas Hradecky. The B04 trainer even selected keepers Lennart Grill and Niklas Lomb for his bench squad. With Andrey Lunev starting in goal, die Werkself fielded a squad featuring four keepers for the first time in Bundesliga history.
The problem, of course, is that a 4-4-2 featuring Patrik Schick and Lucas Alario together up top, buttressed directly by Moussa Diaby and Paulinho behind, can still be a pretty damn devastating instrument. Julian Baumgartlinger and Exequiel Palacios also did a bang up job eating up SCF traffic in defensive midfield as well.
Christian Streich's Schwarzwaldverein did the best they could in the first half, out-shooting their hosts by a 2:1 ratio. One still wouldn't say that the Black Forest guests were distinctly better in terms of quality. Schick's opening goal in the 54th minute totally deflated them. It wasn't until 15 minutes from time that they were able to regain their nerve. Philipp Lienhart and Ermedin Demirovic demonstrated poor quality on attempted finishes late.
No late-match tactical push from Streich. Haberer's drop-kick finish in his club finale in the 88th was more of a bolt-out-of-the-blue. Palacios' winner at 90+7 did come courtesy of the fact that keeper Mark Flekken was forward as an outfielder. It seemed fitting that the game would end on an empty net finish, as Freiburg supplied little other than random desperation at the end.
Prognosis: Not a Champions' League side
Much as we all may be dissatisfied that Christian-Streich-centric press conferences won't be broadcast to the world as part of the 2022/23 Champions' League tourney, such a lofty step up could have saddled this club with irrevocable damage. No long-term good would have come to the SCF by getting swept in the UCL group stages whilst the extra workload endangered their early-campaign prospects.
This team's early overachieving kept them in the hunt amidst multiple stumbles after the season's 10th round. Freiburg picked up only 33 points after their undefeated start through ten rounds. Seven points over the next seven rounds wasn't nearly good enough. A 26-point-haul in the Rückrunde made evident how inconsistent they were.
We discuss a team that dropped points to Bielefeld, Greuther Fürth, Mainz, Köln, Hofffenheim, and Gladbach. Seven winless runs of two matches or more over the course of the year. The season ended with a two-fixture losing streak. Based on the shaky defending and low-quality work on the ball Freiburg are turning in at the moment, one has to consider Leipzig the favorites in next Saturday's DFB Pokal Final.
In many respects, the Europa League brings with it more stressors on a club than the UCL. Longer trips on a tighter turnaround. The UEL could also torpedo the club's table position next year. Streich's men nevertheless stand precisely where they need to be. A lower-grade group of opponents and splendid traveling opportunities for their loyal fan base. The placement counts as more than good enough for the southern Badeners.
The Burning Questions: Round 34
What garbage did Hoeneß supply this time?
Mensch, uns Kind. This truly must be the end for the TSG trainer. A three-match losing streak and nine-game winless run to finish off the season. The Hoeneß nephew has screwed this talented team up something fierce. Two consecutive campaigns outside the European qualifying places with one of the most expensive rosters in the league. We tipped a sacking last week. Definitely a surprise not to see it confirmed after the match.
Aprops last week, Hoeneß tried to use his loosely logical "Danish axis" in the 1-5 loss at Gladbach. This time Robert Skov and Jacob Bruun Larsen moved all the way up to the striker positions. Andrej Kramaric operated as a false-nine. The team contained latent problems. Even after the top three combined on an early goal and played a strong opening quarter-of-an-hour, one could see how this diamond would soon get pulled apart.
Lineup—TSG Hoffenheim—Match 34 (4-3-3)
Too many mistakes in the build-up play from Hoeneß' ad-hoc back-four. The foals capitalized on sloppy passing out of the back to equalize against the run-of-play in the 26th. Kevin Vogt and Stefan Posch were visibly rattled. The former ended up committing the error in the box that allowed Gladbach to go ahead via a penalty shortly before the close of the half. Neuhaus picked up a loose ball and set-up Jonas Hofmann for the 3-1 at 45+1.
The constellation drawn up above effectively quit after the change of ends. The hosting foals could have ran up the score even worse as the Kraichgauer didn't even make a modest attempt to keep the shape. Lucky for Hoeneß, the season is over. Were there more matches to play, the TSG gaffer would one seriously devastatingly problem to deal with. Namely, he's lost this team. No one wants to play for him anymore.
Hoeneß might survive the summer by virtue of the fact that a suitable replacement can't be courted over the next few months. This too seems unlikely. A head-coaching gig in sleepy little Sinsheim constitutes a nice and cushy little appointment in which any potential trainer can cozily do his thing out of the limelight and away from the pressure. That served as a big selling point for the likes of Ralf Rangnick and Julian Nagelsmann.
As Sam Cooke would put it, "change gonna come."
What carried the day for Union?
Plenty to love about the latest twist in the Union Berlin tale. One can recite the overused talking points again and again without them ever getting tired. The small little "East German club that could". How beautiful. It remains a "magical Märchen". The Köpenickers live the dream. For the second time in the history of professional athletics in the German capital, the tight-budget Eastern club outlives the ultra-rich Western one. It's the Berlin Eisbären versus the Berlin Capitals (a story from the German Ice Hockey League) all over again.
Not to place a damper on this in any way, but the FCU's second consecutive monumentally important victory to close out the season also came with more than its fair share of monumentally important luck. Urs Fischer's 3-5-2 "double stack" did not adjust well to the early injury that forced off Sheraldo Becker. Sven Michel's transition into the constellation proved a bumpy ride as the support attackers struggled to sort their positioning out. Die Eisernen only went into the cabin with a 2-0 lead after Marco Fritz awarded them another questionable handball penalty.
Bochum cracked the code and hit the comeback trail in the second 45. The FCU 3-5-2 again buckled after Fischer pulled Michel in favor of Andreas Voglsammer, presumably because the former got booked. The visiting Westpahlians scored two unanswered to restore parity. The entire offensive engine of the hosts ground to a sputtering stop. Taiwo Awoniyi's late winner was pretty flukish. A ball fell to him randomly. Credit to the Nigerian for the pounce and the finish. The tally still had nothing to do with tactics.
Naturally, no one shall remember under which circumstances Union took their final two matches. One can make the case that some of the late visits from Lady Luck shouldn't be recalled at all. We've much more pleasant images to place in the limited storage facility that is our memory banks. How about Grischa Prömel scoring for the club he dearly loves (yet ultimately left for more money) scoring in his farewell game? Or Taiwo Awoniyi (also likely to depart) bagging a brace? The fact that Union are a "springboard club" doesn't make them any less lovable.
Spring forth, players. It's fine.
We'll look forward to meeting the next batch of hopefuls.
Weekly Tactical Focus: Samurai White and Red
What. A. Finish. Un-effing-believable. Who could of possibly asked for more on the Bundesliga's final matchday. The grand Stuttgart relegation escape that we all sincerely doubted, yet secretly yearned for, came to pass. The scenes on Saturday afternoon at the Mercedes Benz Arena remain the real story. Impossible to even sit down and compose this introductory section without getting into spoilers. Stuttgart-Köln delivered in full; almost a perfect advertisement for why the Bundesliga is the greatest football league in the world.
Summarizing the scenes comes first.
VfB sporting director Sven Mislintat pumping up the bench as news of favorable outcomes in the other fixtures came through on his phone. Omar Marmoush energizing the Cannstatter Kurve after he got an effort on target late in the match. Pellegrino Matarazzo joining the late goal celebrations again and getting knocked over by club Alligator mascot "Fritzle" in the process. Wataru Endo atoning for multiple misses with the winner, then taking off his captain's armband and showing it to the Kurve.
Everything that happened after the full-time whistle blew. Another distinctly German "pitch invasion" as the rabid supporters couldn't contain their excitement. We label it a German field rush in that the spectators wanted nothing more than to give their players a tap on the shoulder. One report of an injury. Probably not intentional. All smiles from the players as they accepted hugs, scarfs, and (in the case of Tiago Tomas) a nice new pair of sunglasses. Ecstasy for everyone on a sun-drenched day in the BaWü capital.
Wow. Those of us forced to watch every Stuttgart match this season had long given up hope. We simply had enough of this young and unpolished side. Matarazzo's constant tactical foul-ups. All of the horribly imprecise finishing. No longer experiencing the joy of "Wataru Endo" watching thanks to the skipper's precipitous form dip. Nothing spoke for this team entering the final matchday. That's of little consequence now. They stood up and spoke for themselves when it truly counted.
Lineup—VfB Stuttgart—Match 34 (4-4-2)
The Württemberg Swabians actually went with a 1992 throwback kit for this one, hoping both to capture the spirit of their second-to-last Bundesliga Championship and copy Köln's use of the black coal tricots commemorating their 1977/78 glory days. Quite a bit of nostalgia on parade in Saturday's fixture. Matarazzo turned back the clock too.
The firm return of the "split stagger"
This counted as about as obvious a restoration of the VfB trainer's lucky charm as it gets. The formation specifically built to accommodate Borna Sosa and "Silas" reappeared in this final crucial game. Orel Mangala replaced Marmoush in the starting XI precisely so that Chris Führich could do the Silas/Tanguy Coulibaly mimicry here.
The choice to chain Endo axially to Mangala--at least of the ball--also made it clear that Führich would have some track-back responsibilities. Matarazzo expected both actors in his stagger to aim for "slingshot movements" whenever possibly. One must say that both Führich and Sosa handled their duties on both sides of the ball very well.
This was infinitely more ambitious than what we witnessed last week.
Baumgart goes all-in on Uth
With Thielmann stricken and Ljubicic missing out on some training sessions, the Geißböcke trainer needed a rover; preferably a strong service striker working a loose slant behind Anthony Modeste. Two changes to the XI saw Thielmann take Ljubicic replace Thielmann and Kingsley Ehizibue get just his sixth start of the season ahead of Benno Schmitz.
Lineup—FC Köln—Match 34 (4-4-2)
Baumgart's split-stagger from the previous round went away. Luca Kilian and Timo Hübers flipped slants. Most importantly, Uth moved up to serve as the vitally influential cog in the whole apparatus. The home-town hero answered this call remarkably well. Uth was all over the place trying to make things happen going forward.
Unfortunately, Baumgart's selected talisman turned in a woeful day on set-pieces. Tons of poor deliveries from Uth in this week's analysis. A different result could have been attained had he, Kainz, and later Schmitz done better from dead balls. There's that to cover, along with all manner of exciting stuff in one of the best matches of the whole season.
Match Flow: 1st to 12th minute
The ball already found its way into the respective penalty areas of both sides before the opening two minutes were out. Sosa got the ball forward in the 1st. A very high Stuttgart press forced Hübers and Kilian into a shaky stumble. Somehow, the Köln center-halves managed to recover and get the ball back to keeper Schwäbe. At the other end, an Ehizibue diagonal rolled through the box harmlessly. Uth punched through for the first time in the 3rd. Waldemar Anton took advantage of a heavy Uth touch to stop the former Schalke man.
Hector executed a quick throw from the left in the same minute. Anton and Tomas closed ranks impressively to get the ball away. Ehizibue gained some traction down the right in the 4th, ultimately forcing a foul out of Tomas. The ensuing free-kick was delayed after match official Robert Schröder deemed it necessary to let some of the pre-game pyro-smoke clear. Uth got through again in the 5th once it was taken. Uth then located Ljubicic on a peel-away on the left. The Austrian couldn't quite reach Modeste.
The Effzeh did get the ball within the vicinity after another quick throw moments later. Mangala made it over to strip the Frenchman in the nick of time. On the next Kölner charge in the 6th, Hübers played a vertical past everyone. The Swabian hosts looked to be in a good position to counter after a gorgeous full switch from Atakan Karazor to Sosa, but the leftward cycle failed by being two slow and sloppy. Stuttgart tried again on the left in the 7th. This time Hector had to run across to tackle away from Sosa.
A corner was the result. Hüber headed a Führich service only as far as Sosa. The Croat's effort, always rising, sailed over the bar. Endo stepped up in the 8th to make a top class interception, yet ended up stepping on Kainz in his effort to control the ball. Stuttgart were much more successful one minute later. After some nice hold-up work from Führich and Sasa Kalajdzic, Endo, Mangala, and Sosa strung together some neat passes outside the area. Endo saw his final header blocked. Tomas picked up the rebound and fired a low missile toward Schwäbe.
The Effzeh keeper made the first of one of his many fine saves in the 9th. Köln responded to the early warning shot with a nice cycle up their left in the 10th. Kainz made some good moves before locating Hector on the overlap. VfB keeper Florian Müller got into the game with a brave collect of the Köln skipper's cross. The Swabian net-minder then got a quick counter rolling. The ball ended up with Tomas in the right-hand side of the box. Kilian employed a reckless high boot in his effort to mark the Portuguese attacker.
Without hesitation, referee Schröder pointed to the spot in the 11th. There could be no complaints from Kilian. It was a clear penalty. Kalajdzic strode forward to take. The two-meter-tall Austrian giant unleashed a powerful effort that Schwäbe saved spectacularly with his outstretched left-leg. Penalty saves actually don't get much better than that. Kalajdzic's shot deserved a goal. Schwäbe's brilliant notwithstanding, Stuttgart would get a goal off the sequence anyway.
Kalajdzic rose high to meet a Führich on the ensuing corner.
Emphatic finish. 1-0 to the hosts.
Match Flow: 12th to 38th minute
The next stretch of the game belonged almost exclusively to the home team. An insane amount of near misses from the Swabians; all the better for the fixture's final narrative, though surely frustrating for Matarazzo's men. It genuinely constituted a small wonder that they didn't give up. With all the celebrations, play didn't resume until the 14th. Two treatment breaks (first Hübers, then Uth) threatened to suppress the tempo. We nevertheless were back up and running by the 15th.
Baumgart's charges did well to keep their next build patient and calm. Hector and Ehizibue cycled through a full bow-arc. Mavropanos eventually cleared a penetrative ball from Özcan in the 16th. Özcan ended up getting the ball back almost immediately, but was dispossessed by Kalajdzic. The towering center-forward put on a little dribbling skill-show before shuffling off to Mangala on the left. Schwäbe had to make a full-stretch save on Mangala's very worthy effort.
Mavropanos' first effort off the subsequent 17th minute corner wasn't good enough. Endo still kept the sequence going with some nifty twisting and turning on the left side of the 18. Stuttgart's Japanese skipper then worked in another cross in Mavropanos' direction. The VfB's newly purchased Greek central defender wasn't far off with a quality second header. Mangala and Führich put in some nice work on the right in the 18th, regrettably stopped by another offensive foul.
Köln tried to reach Modeste directly on the ensuing free-kick in the 19th. Hiroki Ito won the footrace with the French striker. Following several possession changes in the 19th, Sosa set up Endo with a quick throw at the end of the minute. Stuttgart's captain executed a delicate chip into the box that proved just a bit too far for Mangala. Ehizibue's vertical in the 20th was then too far for everyone. Schwäbe didn't have to wait too long for the ball to get back to him after a 21st minute goal-kick.
Tomas demonstrated some tremendous fight on the VfB right. Kilian could only tackle away for a throw in. Kalajdzic quickly took down the throw and forced Schwäbe to leave his feet again with a cheeky finish across the face of goal. Schwäbe somehow got fingertips to the spectacular shot. Kalajdzic was once again active with a great midfield interception in the 22nd. Ljubicic still quickly won the ball back and played a sharp one-two with Ehizibue. Ito tracked Ljubicic all the way and interrupted the return ball.
It was Ito and and Anton clearing once again in the 23rd after Özcan sent Hector out wide and the former German national team fullback sent a snap cross in. Kainz's first service was cleared out for another corner. The second take had to be delayed while Schröder attended to a jostling scuffle between Modeste and Anton, Ito cleared the second 24th minute service away deftly, then got the ball away again when Köln tried to work it back in for Modeste.
The Westphalian guests maintained possession throughout most of the 25th, but had really problems advancing through the manically high Stuttgart press. Führich eventually wrested the ball away from Hector in the 26th. Although there were no VfB takers in the box for his chip cross from the right, Köln looked hopelessly lost trying to play their way out of the Stuttgart press pinned back on their right. Ellyes Skhiri finally tried to carry out at the end of the minute, drawing a foul from Kalajdzic.
A slightly frightening Hector played the 27th minute dead ball straight back. Again, the Effzeh found themselves mercilessly harangued by that unforgiving Stuttgart high press. Baumgart's Domstädter couldn't get out of their own third for a prolonged period between the 27th and 29th. Baumgart got so carried away that he left his technical area in order to shout at the team to move forward. Schröder noticed the infraction and booked the Köln head-coach in the 28th.
One of the highest presses one is every likely to see at this level finally got Köln to turn the ball over in the 30th. Stuttgart were awarded a free-kick after Ljubicic fouled Karazor. Ito managed to get the ball out wide to Führich off the set piece. There were again no takers for a nice cross chip into the box. Hector was immediately met on a Köln run up the left in the 31st. Ehizibue too was stymied, but still won a corner.
Karazaor headed Uth's 31st minute service away. Führich then turned the ball over and Uth got another chance. Skhiri headed wide at the start of the 32nd. Müller got the VfB rolling on a quick counter. Sosa and Tomas put some excellent work up the VfB left. Sosa's sublime cross just missed the head of Kalajdzic. It still landed perfectly landed for the right trailing Endo, who blasted a perfect opportunity over the bar and into the stands.
Endo received some extra time to reflect on his miss when Sosa needed treatment through the end of the 33rd. Play resumed in the 34th, with Ehizibue once more proving no match for the high VfB press. Mavropanos stepped forward to claim the ball again in the 34th. After a cheeky interplay with Kalajdzic, the Greek defender popped of a 35th minute diagonal stinger that Schwäbe could only parry.
Endo had the 2-0 on the tip of his boot for the second time in three minutes. Trailing in on the left this time, Endo furnished a better effort. It was low. Not quite low enough. The ball slammed off the crossbar. One really felt for the Stuttgart captain. Two sure-fire goals missed in a flash of time. Still hungry, the hosts unleashed another counter after a poor free-kick service from Kainz in the 36th.
Führich ran the counter. The former Paderborn set up Tomas perfectly. Stuttgart's Portuguese loanee made poor use of time and space and his effort was ultimately blocked. Köln attempted to punch back the other way quickly. Özcan drew a foul from Endo after a blocked Hector cross fell to him in the 37th. Kainz supplied another boot service. Mangala cleared away with ease.
Match Flow: 38th minute to half-time
The red-hot phase of the Swabians began to show signs of cooling off in the final first-half minutes. When Mavropanos tried to break again in the 38th, Uth rushed over to shut him down. Uth carried the ball out, ultimately earning a corner in the same minute. Sosa had no trouble clearing Uth's service. Köln got the ball back in and Hector hit an acrobatic finish into the side netting in the 39th.
Stuttgart still couldn't get the ball out, however. Before the 39th was out, Özcan was charging back into the box from the left. Mavropanos met him with an awkward tackle. The Greek defender required treatment after twisting his leg. Open play resumed in the 41st. Ehizibue--in one of his typically bad finishes during an especially lousy season--sent a distance effort nowhere near the target.
After some fouls/stoppages, Mavropanos got us going again with a deep free-kick service in the 42nd. Ljubicic, Uth, and Hector tried an unconventional cycle up the right. It failed. Stuttgart got a beautiful breakaway opportunity. The 3 vs. 2 regrettably got squandered. Tomas, Kalajdzic, and Führich moved to slowly on the VfB right. Kalajdzic afforded Köln a chance to fully catch up with a heavy touch in in the 43rd.
Kilian still had to clear away for a corner. Skhiri (in defiance of the laws of physics) won the aerial duel against Kalajdzic off Sosa's service. Hector and Ehizibue could do nothing apart from bow-arc it on an aborted counter in the 44th. Modeste did test Müller with a speculative effort in the 45th. Nothing came of the ensuing corner following another poor Uth service.
Mostly midfield possession changes through 45+1. Mavropanos did well to stop a Hector charge left at 45+2. The VfB counter proved too disorganized. Only an almost mirror-like play one minute later, another Mavropanos stop did generate a solid counter. Kilian turned the Mavropanos launch over under pressure. Tomas had only the keeper to beat 45+3. Schwäbe produced another magnificent save.
Köln nearly got a good chance of their own on the counter as the clock ticked past 45+4. Ito stood tall against Hector. We would head into the cabins with Stuttgart clinging to a slender 1-0 lead. The xG, of course, told a very different story. Prepare to have your mind blown.
xG Stuttgasrt--2.72, xG Köln--0.1
Doing everything right....and still it goes wrong.
Match Flow: 49th to 59th minute
One enforced change from Steffen Baumgart. Hector had to remain in the dressing room injured. Jannes Horn thus got a farewell run-out at left-back. Mistakes from both teams as we began the second 45. A Führich turnover cancelled out a VfB charge in the 46th. Uth was whistled down for offside in the 47th. Kalajdzic eternally emerged victorious from a load of possession changes in the 48th. The Austrian found himself out of options on the rush. All of his teammates were in offside positions.
Köln's attempted break in the 48th ran into a halt when Uth couldn't maneuver himself into space for a cross on the right. The Kölner native ended up getting the ball back, but could produce nothing other than a desperate finish well off target. More turnovers from both teams in the 49th. After being stonewalled twice on the right in 50th, the Geißböcke tried the left via a Kainz vertical. That at least had the consequence of the guests earning a corner.
Uth supplied what felt like his 3,456th poor corner service of the afternoon. To add insult to injury, Uth's follow up cross proved terrible as well. Endo attempted to run a counter. Özcan remained on point to stop. Köln tried out the slow approach again in the 51st. The Stuttgart high press ate them alive. A through ball on the right was easily gobbled up by Ito.
The guests did keep trying. Ljubicic sent Ehizibue wide in the 52nd. The right-back's cross sailed well over Uth. A visibly exhausted Uth couldn't get ball off his line in the 53rd. Führich and Mangala then steered the ball to Kalajdzic. Stuttgart's lead striker perplexingly didn't seem aware of how much time and space he had. A golden chance went begging with a poor wide finish.
Horn would earn a corner in the 54th. Kainz flopped on the 55th minute delivery this time, Endo cleared the initial danger. Kainz couldn't reach Modeste with the follow-up cross. Following a foul from Kainz on Endo in the 56th, the hosts were back on the march again. Sosa sent in an inviting cross. Özcan remained close to Mavropanos to negate the danger.
A Stuttgart free-kick in the 57th was scuttled away by Modeste for a 58th minute corner. Neither dead ball produced much of anything. Mavropanos heard well wide own the latter. Matarazzo pulled the trigger on a double change in the 59th. Omar Marmoush and Erik Thommy for Führich and Tomas appeared nothing more than two like-for-likes.
Before anything could settle, however, Köln equalized.
Match Flow: 59th to 70th minute
Florian Müller demonstrated that he was nowhere near in the same league as Marvin Schwäbe with a basic error in the 59th. Müller failed to get a handle on a cross from Kainz. A lurking Modeste ruthlessly pounced. Köln's French sensation said "thank you very much" and headed the ball in as soon as it touched off Müller's fingers. Smiling straight into the broadcast cameras, Modeste used both hands to signal out "20", his goal total for the season.
A good bit of the 61st went to a treatment break needed by Skhiri after a clash of heads with Kalajdzic. News that Bochum had pulled a goal back in Köpenick meant that the visiting Domstädter got two pieces of great news within two minutes. The Köln coaching staff circulated the news amongst the players before play got back underway in the 62nd. Modeste looked invigorated with a pair of nice holdups and shields in midfield.
The Effzeh passing was nevertheless not clean enough to fashion a chance out of it. Ehizibue received the ball out wide in the 63rd following a weak Endo clearance, but Sosa had his man marked all the way. Özcan attempted to run straight into the teeth of the VfB press in the 64th. Unsurprisingly, the future Turkish international was rebuffed.
Buamgart opted to freshen up the right first with a a pair of like-for-likes in the 64th. Benno Schmitz and Kingsley Schindler entered for Ehizibue and Kainz. Ljubicic moved over to take over for Kainz on the left. No real flow in the 65th. Just head tennis and an innocuous Modeste handball. Thommy got forward in the 66th and attempted to slip in for Kalajdzic. A corner resulted.
Played smart and short, the Swabians got the ball in for Marmoush. Schmitz rather inadvertently blocked. Müller had further difficulty adjusting his nightlines after Ljubicic cut right and linked up with Uth on a 67th minute rush. The sides then completely neutralized one another during frantic midfield possession changes for the rest of the minute.
Ito did decently defensively in the 68th, yet still couldn't get the ball clear. Mangala ended up shoving Schmitz and the cathedral city Jungs were awarded a free kick. Uth's delivery managed to be not half bad this time. Müller bravely and impressively shook off his dip to win an aerial battle with Modeste strongly in the 69th.
Thommy then sent Marmoush off and away on a quick-fire counter. Horn recovered in time to muscle out. Modeste needed some attention behind the play. It was at this point that a very animated VfB sporting director Sven Mislintat jumped up from his seat an informed the entire Stuttgart bench that Dortmund had drawn level with Hertha.
Er...has anyone else noticed that, amid the stress associated with this season, Mislintat appears to have put on about forty pounds? The former Dortmund and Arsenal sporting exec. begins to look as if he's pregnant. Time for a few runs around the track, Sven! And lay off the Marzipan while you're at it!
Match Flow: 70th to 79th minute
Hübers did well to clear away a Sosa diagonal in the 71st. Mavropanos employed the long throw in the 72nd. The Kölner defense took care of the danger as a unit this time. Endo marched his team up the pitch in the 73rd. A shuffle off to Marmoush proved promising. Schröder let advantage play when the Wolfsburg loanee hit the turf. Kalajdzic unfortunately couldn't make much out of it.
Marmoush found himself all-too-easily disposed after Mavropanos attempted to unlock him on another rush in the same minute. The ball eventually rolled out for a goal-kick. Karazor and Kalajdzic closed down the subsequent Kölner rush to get the ball back quickly. A pair of nice aerial wins from Endo in the 74th minute as well. Endo tried his luck from distance off a Schindler turnover in the 75th.
Schwäbe, as he had so often on this day, stood tall. Uth gave Schindler a shot at immediate redemption with a service out wide right in the 76th. Müller stepped up with confidence to punch clear the Uth corner that resulted from the play. Skhiri and Schindler simply couldn't make it happen on the right one minute later. Thommy was then free on a 77th minute counter. The veteran messed it up with an errant pass for Endo.
A Uth forward for Modeste in the 78th gave Baumgart a chance to execute his next double change. Kilian and and Uth would make way for Tim Lemperle and Ondrej Duda in the 79th. Here we would definitely have a tactical change. Baumgart and staff rushed over to the players ready to check in order to let them know that Bochum had equalized with Union in Köpenick before they headed onto the pitch.
One goal would be good enough for the Europa League.
Match Flow: 79th to 88th minute
Only a few seconds for the new constellation to get set. The German footballing nerd contingent kept an eye on Özcan first and foremost. Sure enough, the former German youth international slid back into central defense. Duda went straight to striker spot he occupied so many times last season. A very tight attacking quartet coalesced behind the two strikers.
Lineup—FC Köln—80th minute (4-4-2)
Here we go. Baumgart had his "season-finale-spurt" formation in place. We anxiously awaited how Matarazzo's would end up looking like. First we got a scuffle sure to add plenty of added time to the match. Marmoush went down in the 79th. Horn and Hübers didn't care for the theatrics and berated the player whilst he lay on the deck.
Özcan took it one step further, rushing over to pick the young Egyptian up. Schröder had a lot to sort out. After investing quite a bit of time in defusing the tensions, the ref doled out only one booking to Özcan. Loads of mistakes from both teams as the adrenaline was fully pumping now over the next two minutes. Football eventually returned with a easy save from Schwäbe on a Marmoush header.
Schwäbe's next save wouldn't be easy at all. An 83rd minute counter sent Marmoush through free on goal in the 83rd. Schwäbe made a superhuman stop. Marmoush didn't seem to mind that his effort didn't find the back of the net. The departing loanee raised his arms to the nearby Cannstatter Kurve, instructing them that they needed to give everything for these final few minutes.
The subsequent corner nevertheless only produced a tame header from Mavropanos that Schwäbe had no problems with. Schmitz initially got his team rolling back the other way in the 85th. Anton cleared the defender's service into the box. Lemperle then couldn't reach the rising Modeste on the follow up. Endo went down too easy on Stuttgart's attempted counter.
The fourth official flashed confirmation that Tanguy Coulibaly was cleared to check into the match for the Swabians. The French winger would be tasked with replacing sweeper Atakan Karazor. This obviously heralded a tactical change. Coulibaly strode onto the pitch just prior to an 86th minute Köln corner. Lemperle cleared the service.
Precisely as the 87th minute struck, news that Dortmund had taken the lead over Hertha went out over the Mercedes Benz P.A. The venue announcer couldn't risk keeping that vital fact from any of the players on the pitch or any supporters in the stands. Just one goal would ensure automatic safety for Stuttgart now.
Rattled, a crazy KOE leftward cycle in the 87th broke down.
Match Flow: 88th minute to 90+2
Köln still retained the ball and tried wide right. Anton and Mangala managed to handle the final Schmitz cross in. Coulibaly stood as the target on the counter, but it failed as the intended constellation wasn't quite set yet. Here's--at least in the writer's estimation--what Matarazzo was aiming for:
Lineup—VfB Stuttgart—86th minute (3-4-3)
It wasn't getting there yet. The guests, who had found out that Union were ahead again at the Stadion An der Alten Försterei, played harder and better despite the fact they had less to play for. A desperate, yet vital, block stopped the Geißböcke rush in the 88th. Anton had to be on hand to block another effort on the ensuing 89th minute corner. Time was running out.
Sosa unleashed Kalajdzic on a quick counter back the other way, but the Austrian striker's cutback for Thommy was horrible. Özcan mopped up and quickly drew a foul from the frazzled VfB ranks. In the 90th minute, the free-kick belonged to Köln. This really wasn't looking good. Müller tried to long launch it back at 90+1. Sosa was blocked. Mangala couldn't find Coulibaly with a follow-up pass.
The fired-up Marmoush still managed to get a toe around the ball. Horn dispossessed out into touch. Corner time once gain in front of the Cannstatter Kurve. The perfect moment all set up. The perfect moment delivered. Hiroki Ito flicked the service onto his countryman and squad captain Wataru Endo. The finish was marvelous. The celebrations of the fan block unfurled.
Match Flow: 90+2 to full-time
The columnist doesn't really wish to discuss what happened as the match ran up to 90+8. Insofar as this analysis is concerned, the affair ended when skipper Endo took off his armband and presented to the ultras behind the goal. One could not have written a better finish to the season. Stuttgart employed some deliberate time-wasting in the six minutes that followed.
In the end, no one should judge them for running down a match they won with an xG ratio greater than 3:1. The Swabians fully deserved this victory. Endo, having missed those crucial chances early on, deserved vindication. The fact that his countryman Hiroki Ito--who has come under such criticism this season--supplied the assist counts as pure poetry.
Much respect the the "Samurai Red and White". One hopes both Endo and Ito can make it to the World Cup group stage in time to face the German national team. Bring them on. They deserve it. We deserve it. So long as we're on the topic of who deserves what, we might as well give up for Pellegrino Matarazzo and Sven Mislintat after the frequent beatings they've received in both of our main Bulinews columns this season.
They're gambit paid off after all. They rode out the many injuries that threatened to derail this team's season. They took the risk and survived. That's all that matters. Next year is an entirely different ball game, provided that they can keep Sasa Kalajdzic and "Silas" makes a return to form.
Even if they lose Kalajdzic, there's enough young talent coming up through in the form like Enzo Millot, Mohamed Sankoh, Nicolas Nartey, Alexis Tibidi, and Wahid Faghir to at least make the next campaign interesting and partially successful. Some will flop. Others will surely rise.
Above all, good on captain Endo. Those of us who really liked former captain Gonzalo Castro considered it a cynical move to cut him loose and give Endo the armband. One doesn't have to travel too far back in these pages to find criticism of Matarazzo's choice of skipper.
Fortunately, when it comes to something potentially blowing up in one's face, no one remembers the near misses. We've chronicled it here. It's available for posterity. That doesn't mean we'll recall it in a few years' time, or even when it comes time to handicap the VfB's prospects for next season.
Thanks so much for reading!
You can occasionally catch Peter on twitter, @ViceytheSS.
Twitter DMs are open for football conversations, corrections, and (if you truly insist) general abuse.
All columns debut on Bulinews before appearing on Peter's website later in the week.