VfB Stuttgart – RB Leipzig: Understudy Undav Assumes Seniority (5-2)
Four weeks of 2024 have passed, but these two sides have not awoken in the new year. Top four ambitions are on the line, and the outsiders were alive to the immediacy of this risk. Many men excelled, but the star figure was a striker who stepped up and pitched in to play his part in the surprise story of the season in the Bundesliga, taking his tally in the top flight into double digits.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
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Stuttgart started the season like a freight train, dropping points in just one of their first eight fixtures. Dominant displays scalped some of the best in the Bundesliga, but has the bubble burst? Though the strength of the schedule at the end of 2023 is a factor in a streak of just one victory from their last five outings, winter blues have followed them into January. Here was an opportunity to silence the cynics.
Their visitors have also blown hot and cold, picking up 13 points from nine games since the start of November. Distinct challenges have taken the team to task. At their best, RB Leipzig’s latest crop of talents compete with the top tier in the division— having thrashed their opponents 5-1 in the reverse fixture. At their worst, short of constructive ideas, solutions are sparse against stubborn, low blocks.
Marco Rose, leader of Leipzig from the dugout, was without his chief creative force. Xavi Simons was absent with a suspension. In his place, Dani Olmo and Christoph Baumgartner filled the two slots behind the front two of Benjamin Šeško and Loïs Openda. Nicolas Seiwald received more minutes in the pivot with Xaver Schlager. Club captain Willi Orbán is now fit after a knee injury but watched from the bench. Castello Lukeba and Lukas Klostermann remained partners in the center of defense.
Stuttgart manager Sebastian Hoeneß sent out ten of the eleven men who started in a 1-0 loss away at Bochum last week. Hiroki Ito is at the Asian Cup as a part of the Japanese squad, so Josha Vagnoman stayed on the right of the rearguard. Atakan Karazor had earned his fifth yellow card of the campaign and was missing from the midfield. How would Anthony Rouault’s appearance affect their approach? Serhou Guirassy is also away with Guinea at AFCON, handing his spot as the striker to Deniz Undav.
Leipzig lose the battle for the center
Stuttgart set up in a 4-2-3-1 system typically. However, Hoeneß had other ideas for this fixture. His men defended with a back five, where Rouault was on the right of the central defensive unit. Chris Führich consolidated the center. He has often been a left winger or a wing-back in a situational back five but sat inside with Enzo Millot and Stiller— not a row forward with Undav and Jamie Leweling.
The guests were faithful to their standard 4-2-2-2 structure. Schlager and Seiwald could alternate tipping out of the pivot in the buildup as the fullbacks advanced up the flanks. With Openda and Šeško able to threaten on the last line and the fleet footed actions of Olmo in the pockets, weapons were on the field, but seldom did the use of ball possession test the resolve of the opponents’ defense.
Most of the ball circulation ran through defenders. Seldom did Stiller have to worry about attackers probing the halfspaces or the defenders losing running duels. Stuttgart stopped sloppy construction from creating any chances in the first half hour of the contest. At the other end of the pitch, one such sequence earned a corner in the 22nd minute. Simakan handled the ball in a challenge to clear Stiller’s cross, giving away a penalty. Millot converted an effort from twelve yards to put the hosts in the lead.
11th minute: pressing sequence from Stuttgart. Vagnoman follows the advanced Raum on the wing, so Millot pushes out very far laterally to Schlager to put pressure on the ball. Rouault marks Olmo on his inside, Stiller is ready to push forward from the base of midfield to converge upon Seiwald with Leweling. Eventually, it is a loose pass from Seiwald that compels Lukeba to smash the ball clear.
Another transition doubled the advantage at the half hour mark. Simakan shanked a pass inside to Olmo, and Rouault barged him off the ball. Führich flew off the flank, feeding a pass to Undav. The central forward could not connect with Leweling on his right, but he was ready to strike at a second opportunity. He placed a shot into the back of the net beyond Janis Blaswich from the edge of the box. An indictment on Leipzig’s sluggish start, that goal was illustrative of the offensive craft of the hosts.
Swabians show their strength
Stuttgart’s stylish work with the ball would not impose itself at will. Where their opponents convince the most is in their pressing. The 4-2-2-2 formation packed the center and sought to cut off halfspace access. The hosts were intent on playing from the back and have tended to look for long balls from Alexander Nübel into the path of a target man to exploit room behind opposition midfields. That route was not viable in this meeting with the inferior physical prowess of Undav in comparison to Guirassy.
39th minute: offensive sequence from Stuttgart. This sequence was one of several occasions where Leipzig’s midfielders advanced to control Stuttgart’s own pivot. Undav had drifted deeper away from the central defenders, whom Leweling occupied, and the ball rotates to Führich. Mittelstädt supports.
But by the time they scored, there had been several scenes that depicted how Stuttgart would use the ball. The three central defenders were the base at the back. Maximilian Mittelstädt started deeper than Vagnoman, who would shift towards the last line and mainly worked with Führich to deliver dynamic situations for his carries. Leweling occupied the center; Undav had more inclination to offer in gaps for the ball, and much of the play flowed through the left edge ahead of their primary anchor: Stiller.
Stiller set the structure in an impressive display.
Rose’s men would halve the deficit almost as soon as Undav had hit the back of the net. Lukeba strode forward to burst beyond both Undav and Rouault, putting Dan-Axel Zagadou on the back foot. Šeško slipped a through ball to Olmo on the outside, and the defender dealt with his delivery, giving away a corner. David Raum curled a cross into the six yard box, where Šeško knocked a header past Nübel.
That response did not rattle Hoeneß’s outfit. They continued to create, were the more inventive team, and came closest to scoring before the break. Klostermann miscued a clearance, and Leweling skewed a strike off target. Minutes following the restart, he claimed his first goal for the club. Führich eluded Simakan on the outside, Vagnoman was free at the far post, and Leweling hooked the ball into the net.
Stuttgart sovereign at the final reckoning
Leipzig landed another blow in the 55th minute to hold onto a stake in the match. Leweling and Führich tried to combine on the left, losing possession to Simakan. Schlager then shielded the ball on the flank, pushing it to Baumgartner. Seiwald ran ahead of the play and released Openda into space. A whipped effort from the edge of the penalty area notched the visitors’ second strike on the afternoon.
Moments would pass before the angst eased in the stadium. Stiller chipped the ball to Mittelstädt, whose cross forced Klostermann to defend. Stiller and Führich passed between themselves to move around the pieces before the wide midfielder whipped the ball into the box. Blaswich was off his line, unable to intervene, and Undav planted a headed effort into the net. He restored two goal advantage.
Rose rotated. Kevin Kampl came on for Seiwald, and Benjamin Henrichs replaced Baumgartner as Leipzig switched to a back five. These substitutions were futile if they were an attempt to rupture the rhythm. A quick free kick picked out Undav, and he slotted a shot past Blaswich to wrap up his hat trick. Leipzig had run out of shots, and their hosts were in charge of proceedings till the final whistle.
Stuttgart did not expect simple success in this clash. To thrash Leipzig in this manner is the perfect way to reinvigorate their campaign. The top two are a sizeable distance away, so a four point gap above their guests at the end of the action aids any aspirations for a spot in the Champions League. The players continue to play with courage and composure, and Hoeneß has shown an ability to adapt to absences and new problems. He will hope that this victory begins another aggressive points haul.
Leipzig are looking at a crisis of sorts. They have still picked up no points in 2024 and have fallen out of the top four after Borussia Dortmund’s third triumph on the trot. But it will not just be the battle with his old employers that will disturb Rose. His men could not even muster the stability from their first half performance against Leverkusen last week, and without Simons, the offense again looked lackluster. It is imperative that the manager discovers a solution to pull the squad out of this rut.
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