My Team: Anderlecht 2014-15 season

“Then there is the flying Acheampong.  He is probably the fastest player and best dribbler in the team and could be a terrific player.  However, wingers are expected to be good at crossing and provide the occasional goal.”

Since moving to Belgium in 2011, I have supported RSC Anderlecht. They were, after all, my local team.  In the first year, they were managed by Ariel Jacobs and the team was exciting.  We had attacking talent like Jovanovic, Mbokani and Matias Suarez (when he was fit).  Biglia, recovering from a bad injury, marshalled the midfield and the team looked established and everybody knew what they were doing.  They, deservedly, ended up champions.

Champions
Champions

The following year, Van den Brom came in and we looked laboured but made a great start in the league before stumbling over the finish line.  The team declined until the playoffs last year until the board said enough was enough and Van den Brom was out and his no. 2, Besnik Hasi, promoted to manager.  He got the team fit, motivated and hungry again.  The Anderlecht of the playoffs last year were impressive.  4-4-2, high pressing, Kouyaté and Tielemans forming an unlikely but effective midfield partnership, Cyriac supporting Mitrovic and Vanden Borre and Najar combining excellently on the right, and Bruno making excellent contributions.

In 2014/15 however, things haven’t gone quite right.  3rd in the league, defeat in the cup final offset by a decent Champions League performance in a tough group that they were unlucky not to advance from.  The most disappointing aspects for me were:

  • the concession of so many late goals; Arsenal and Galatasaray in the CL, Brugge in the cup final and numerous times in the league.
  • the predictability of the build-up play
  • the lack of a killer touch from the supporting midfielders and over reliance on Mitrovic.

I will analyse the performances of the players individually and collectively and outline the lessons we can learn from 2014/15.

Goalkeeper

I have been a big fan of Silvio Proto in goals.  He is passionate and has performed to an excellent standard over the years.  However, this year, he has been culpable on a number of occasions.  He has suffered too many personal calamities as well as organising and co-ordinating a defence that has leaked goals at set-pieces.  With the possible return of Kaminski from loan and the emergence of Davy Roef, Proto is no longer guaranteed to be the RSCA number one.  I feel his Anderlecht future is in doubt, especially after his recent public (deserved) criticism of his teammates.

Davy Roef has been outstanding when called upon in big games and may well be the new number one.  On verra.  Kaminski will not stay unless he is told he will be the number one, whereas Roef might be content to play backup for one more year.  Mile Svilar, in the U-17s, is already being courted by a number of big clubs so he seems a propect for a few years time.

Proto
Proto
Roef
Roef

Defence

Right Back: Anthony Vanden Borre had a storming end to last season but he has never looked properly fit this year and has been defensively negligent in some big games.  That said he is a wild card option and could, and perhaps should, play in midfield.  Maxime Colin has been consistent and unlucky to cede his place to Vanden Borre.  He is less of a maverick and perhaps more the player Anderlecht need in defence.

Vanden Borre - vous avez bien choisi
Vanden Borre – vous avez bien choisi
Maxime Colin
Maxime Colin

Left Back: Well, Oli Deschacht has been outstanding all season.  He played the first few games at left back.  Yes, he isn’t that quick but he is an excellent defender who adds a bit of height and his forays forward are usually quite effective.  However, he has perhaps been best in central defence so I’ll mention him more there.  Fabrice N’Sakala is, for me, the type of player that many a British coach would love.  Fast, reasonable tackler, bags of stamina.  He is, however, positionally negligent all to often.  He does do a lot of good things but he makes too many mistakes as well.  And then, the player who could well emerge as next year’s left back, Frank Acheampong. Very much a winger in his skill set but, with coaching, he could be a fantastically quick left back where his inability to finish or produce assists is less important.

NnnSakala
NnnSakala
#flyingacheampong
#flyingacheampong
Oli Deschacht - Club Legend
Oli Deschacht – Club Legend

Centre Back: This position has been frequently disrupted all season, especially with Nuytinck’s injury and Mbemba going to the AFCON and getting injured.  Chancel Mbemba has continued to perform fantastically.  I would have him in my team for next season but he’ll go to a bigger team or a bigger league.  He is ready.  His absences have harmed Anderlecht.  Oli Deschacht started the season as a left back but played most of it in the centre and he has, deservedly, been nominated as Anderlecht’s player of the year.  He has been collossal in so many ways and is a leader in a team that lacks big individiuals. It’ll be interesting to see if he plays centre back next season or not. His call-up for Belgium, despite being well into his thirties, is entirely deserved.

Then there’s the others.  Bram Nuytinck definitely has a top class defender waiting to burst out of him but his positioning and commitment have come under question.  He has recently, however, signed a new long term contract – and I’m sure he is being well paid – suggesting that Hasi and Van Holsbeek see him as part of the future of the club.  I see ability but wait to be convinced.  Michael Heylen is still young and needs more time to develop.  Maybe next season will be his time?  Unconvinced at the moment though.  Rolando was never going to stay.  He has looked composed and is a top class player but I’m not sure his heart was in it.

Bram 'the bam' Nuytinck
Bram ‘the bam’ Nuytinck
Take a Chancel on Mbemba
Take a Chancel on Mbemba
Michael Heylen
Michael Heylen

Midfield

Central Midfielders: I wasn’t sure about the signing of Steven Defour but he is a beast and the kind of player every team needs.  However, there are massive question marks over his fitness.  He has missed a significant part of the season and is frequently subbed at half-time or early in the second half to keep him for the next game.  That said, he is a leader, he has drive, he does the dirty work and he gets forward and chips in with goals.  I see him as the type of player who would bring a lot to an Arsenal, Manchester United or Liverpool. They all need a winner like him.  However, since coming to Anderlecht, he has won nothing.  Yes, he is temperamental and volatile (in French, de four would mean ‘of the oven’ and quite a few have had their fingers burned) but he was exactly the right kind of signing for Anderlecht.  In order to succeed next year, they need him firing on all cylinders.

Youri Tielemans has had a difficult season but he has all the makings of a top class player.  While I see Marc Wilmots’ logic in bringing him into the Belgium set up, he is not quite ready yet and is still nowhere near Defour’s level.  I do think, however, next season will be his year, having left school and signed a secure contract.  In a year’s time, big clubs will come crawling but he needs another season at Anderlecht and the club need him to play his natural game.  He has been guilty of trying too hard and has lost his place as a result of that this season.  Leander Dendoncker should be very pleased with his season, where he went from a developing fringe player to a full first team player.  He has been effective although I’m not sure if his limited ambition on the pitch is due to his skill set, fear or tactics.  I don’t think he is ready for Belgium either and, while I think he has done well, I don’t think he is in the class of Tielemans.

Dennis Praet was the 2014 Golden Boot winner.  He was voted as the best player in Belgium.  He had a good play-offs last year, stuck out on the left, but he worked hard and was effective.  He then had an outstanding period around October and November, playing as the number 10 in a 4-2-3-1, when he started converting nice flicks and clever passes into goals and assists.  Whether he deserved the Golden Boot or not, I’m undecided.  However, injury and inability to recover this form have stunted his progression and, most likely, prevented him from getting his big move.  He probably wants to go and feels he is good enough but he has been poor since his return. Praet is a bit of a conundrum for Anderlecht.  He is a skilled player who doesn’t score enough, isn’t that quick, is quite lightweight, often chooses the wrong option and wins little in the air.  Yet, he is clearly a gifted footballer who, with the right coaching, could be a real top player.  The problem is where to play him.  He disappears too often in an advanced position and is anonymous for large parts of the game.  He does work hard and the wide positions may well be his place to grow.

Low fat Praet
Low fat Praet
Psycho Defour
Psycho Defour
Leander Dendoncker
Leander Dendoncker
Youri Tielemans
Youri Tielemans

Wide positions: For me, this has been the area that has disappointed most.  Andy Najar has had a mixed season.  He was excellent at the end of last season and started the champions league well this year. However, and I’m not sure if this is tiredness from the World Cup, he sometimes looks disinterested.  He is the one wide player we have though who can produce an end product.  Ibrahima Conté is the one that really gets me.  Hasi seems to like him but I have yet to see him do anything that impresses me.  The occasional nice touch but never in a dangerous area.  Wingers like him should be able to beat a man and cross well: that is their raison d’etre.  When he refused to score an open goal at Zulte, I lost faith in him and I feel completely justified.  Then there is the flying Acheampong.  He is probably the fastest player and best dribbler in the team and could be a terrific player.  However, wingers are expected to be good at crossing and provide the occasional goal.  His return is feeble given how many games he has played this year.  He used to excite me when he got on the ball but I’m used to no end product now.  That’s why I’d play him at left back.  He’s like a cage fighter who has 120kg of pure muscle and osteoporosis. Marko Marin arrived unfit and it looks like he’ll leave unfit.  It was a bold move by the Anderlecht board and I completely understand the logic but he doesn’t look like the answer and looks like a flop at the moment.  Maybe he just needs a good pre-season and a run of games but he disappointed if truth be told.  Kabasele played a few games earlier in the season but seems to have fallen out of favour.  He always seemed tenacious enough but hasn’t, as yet, shown the magic.  Andy Kawaya may establish himself next season.  He has generally been an 80th minute substitute and it has been difficult to appraise him properly.

Conte by name, Cunte by nature
Conte by name, Cunte by nature
Kawaya
Kawaya
Nathan 'the bull' Kabasele
Nathan ‘the bull’ Kabasele
Andy Najar
Andy Najar

Attack

I could just write Mitrovic and we’d be done.  Honestly.  Since the early part of the season, Hasi has gone with one up front and has made it clear that Mitrovic is his first choice.  To be fair to Mitrovic, he has improved a lot this year.  He has worked much harder for the team and his finishing has been clinical.  He gives defenders a really rough time and is constantly fouled.  That said, he is no stranger to a yellow card himself and needs to keep his discipline better.   The biggest problem for Mitrovic has been lack of support.  Whenever he gets a good cross, you’d back him to score.  He is going to be a divisive character wherever he goes but he has proven himself this year, ending up top scorer in Belgium by some distance.  In previous seasons, Anderlecht had a number of scorers getting 7-10 goals per season but this year it really has just been Mitrovic.  Praet and Defour scored 6 each.  And that says it all about the other forwards.

Cyriac, who started the year up front with Mitrovic, is a willing worker but he came out and publicly criticised Mitrovic.  Hasi burned him after this and he has fallen behind Leya Iseka, an emerging player who is not quite ready but may have potential, in the pecking order.  Idrissa Sylla was signed injured in January. Personally, I thought that was crazy.  Why sign an injured player and pay his wages when he is unavailable?  He therefore cannot be judged yet.

Then there is Mati Suarez.  Undoubtedly talented, yet the saga leaves you wondering what is going on there.  There must be more to it.  I remember two seasons back when CSKA Moscow offered 15 million euros for him and he looked like leaving.  Good player but a lot of money.  Then came his first bad injury.  He recovered and then Suarez pulled out of the deal.  A big offer came in from the Middle East but the club refused it.  I’d bet they wished they hadn’t.  His recovery from the second injury has been incredibly prolonged, including his two-week fine for having an extended break, and I wonder if his heart is in it or if he has given up in Europe and wants to go back to Argentina.  ‘El Artista’ would have undoubtedly made a difference this year if fit.    The question is, will he ever be fit and will his face fit?

Aleksandr "I eat babies" Mitrovic
Aleksandr “I eat babies” Mitrovic
Sylla, never seen in RSCA colours
Sylla, never seen in RSCA colours
MISSING: Last seen in Buenos Aires, El Artista, Mati Suarez
MISSING: Last seen in Buenos Aires, El Artista, Mati Suarez
Cyriac
Cyriac

The Coach

Hasi was the reason Anderlecht won the title last year.  Him, and a choking Standard Liege.  He probably exceeded expectations in the Champions League and deserves credit for that.  However, the number of lapses, especially from set pieces, is a criticism he must accept partial responsibility for.  He tried playing 4 central defenders against Standard recently and the team were lame. However, he accepts responsibility.  He changes systems and players when he sees something isn’t working.  He doesn’t have blind loyalty to certain players.  And, perhaps most of all, the players are clearly still playing for him and he is, without doubt, the boss.   He encourages his players constantly, is always giving instructions and wears his heart on his sleeve.  He deserves to be given more time.

Hardman Hasi
Hardman Hasi

Who Will Leave and What do we Need?

Definitely leaving:  Mbemba – either EPL or La Liga.  FC Porto also heavily linked.  Cyriac – end of contract and he wants to play. Rolando, Marin (technically still at Chelsea) and Gillet will also be looking for new clubs.  A goalkeeper will also leave; probably Kaminski but possibly Proto.

Probably Leaving: Mitrovic – A Premier League club will buy him.  Anderlecht may wish to keep him another year but, if a bid of over 12 million Euros came in from Swansea or Newcastle, he’d be off.

I think Praet and Tielemans will go at the end of next season. Nobody is likely to bid for Defour as his fitness is questionable, as good as he is.  Andy Najar probably hasn’t done enough to earn a big move.

We desperately need more of a killer touch up front.  If Hasi wants to play the 4-2-3-1, then Mitrovic, or his replacement will need supply and support.  A player like Massimo Bruno who chipped in with plenty of goals from out wide.  That type of player is needed again.  I can see Nuytinck and Deschacht as the central defence next year, with Heylen and one other from the youth setup providing cover.  If Mitrovic leaves, I’d like to see him replaced with a goalscorer.  I haven’t seen enough of Sylla to have confidence and we cannot rely on Suarez.

Otherwise, the philosophy of promotion from the academy at Neerpede has to be the way forward.  Expect to see more of Kawaya and Leya Iseka next season, although I’m not sure to what extent.

Finally, in a year without champions league football, a good European run playing pressing and intense attacking football would keep the fans hungry and excited.  A club like Anderlecht should be able to make an impact in the Europa League.

So, let’s get back to the aggressive pressing attacking that was our signature at the end of last year and abandon the deliberate build-up with flooded flanks and overlaps with only Mitrovic to aim at.  Let’s build on the excellent foundations we have.  Teams need to be afraid when they come to our place again – afraid of the intensity, atmosphere and passion.  We can bring this back.  We are able to rediscover this hunger.  We have the appetite. We are Anderlecht!

 

European Football Myths

So, of those 16 finalists, only 3 did poorer on the year of their extensive run

I remember hearing all through the 2013-14 season how Liverpool had ‘benefitted’ domestically from NOT participating in European competitions.  The logic was that the lack of midweek games resulted in fresher players for the domestic fixtures.  A similar idea was being bandied about at the start of this season regarding Manchester United.  However, upon analysis, does European success harm domestic progress?  Another idea worthy of analysis is the idea that there are three big European leagues .  Statistical analysis could prove this idea to be similarly inaccurate and another European Football myth.

In order to investigate this, I decided to analyse the past four years Champions League and Europa League Quarter-Finalists.  To determine whether or not success in Europe inhibits domestic progress, I decided to take the finalists from each competition and look at their league position the year before the European run, the year of the run and the year after.

The Champions League (2010-11 until 2013-2014)

Quarter Finalists:

Country Number of Quarter Finalists
England 6
Spain 13
Germany 7
Italy 4
France 5
Ukraine 1
Portugal 2
Turkey 1
Cyprus 1

Table 1

This table shows that Spain has been, far and away, the most successful country in producing teams that succeed in Europe’s premier club competition.  As much as the next best countries – Germany and England – combined.

I frequently hear and read how the French and Italian leagues are massively inferior to the English Premier League and yet England, for all its riches, is only one ahead of France and two (one if you count Juventus this year) ahead of Italy.

The Europa League (2010-11 to 2013-14)

Country Number of Quarter Finalists
Portugal 7
Spain 8
Netherlands 4
Russia 3
Ukraine 4
Switzerland 2
Germany 3
Italy 4
England 3
Belgium 1
France 1

Table 2

The Europa League is often unfairly stigmatised and UEFA did the right thing in offering this year’s winner automatic entry to the Champions League.  There is a greater variety of leagues contributing teams to the latter stages of this competition, although Spain continues to reign.  This year’s final will include Sevilla, further underlining the superiority of Spanish clubs beyond Real Madrid and Barcelona.

A combined analysis of success in both competitions leaves us in no doubt that the English Premier League is no match for La Liga in terms of success and quality despite its affluence.

Total Teams in latter Stages in Europe
Country No of QF teams – Both Competitions
Spain 21
Germany 10
Portugal 9
England 9
Italy 8
France 6
Ukraine 5
Netherlands 4
Russia 3
Switzerland 2
Turkey 1
Cyprus 1
Belgium 1

Table 3

So, if it were ever in doubt, Spanish clubs are by far and away Europe’s most successful giving evidence to the claim that La Liga is its best quality league.

European Success and Domestic Progress

I really don’t understand the attitude and approach of some clubs and managers towards European competition – especially the Europa League – and I believe it is based on myth.  This year Hull City, who qualified for Europe for the first time ever, rested most of their first-choice players for the Premier League match at the weekend.  They treated the Europa League as some kind of burden, completely short-changing the fans.  They were eliminated by Lokeren, a mid-table Belgian team, before the league games.  If I were a Hull fan, I’d have been gutted.  Not by the elimination per se but by the club’s attitude.  Why toil all year to qualify for Europe and then, when you do, treat it like a millstone that might be the difference between 12th and 13th in the Premier League?

So, of the 16 finalists in both tournaments over the past four years, how many of the teams suffered in terms of league position because of their extensive European participation?

Each club is presented with three numbers – the first is the league position the season before they were finalists; the second is the position the club finished the year of the extensive run and the third is the league position the year after.  I have underlined anomalous numbers.

Barcelona: 1, 1, 2                              Man U: 2,1,2

Chelsea:      2,6,3                                Bayern:3,2,1

Bayern:        2,1,1                                Dortmund:1,2,2

Real:              2,3, prob2                     Atletico:3,1,2

Porto:           3,1,1                                 Braga:2,4,3

Atletico:      7,5,3                                 Bilbao:6,10,12

Chelsea:      6,3,3                                 Benfica:2,2,1

Sevilla:         9,5                                      Benfica:2,1

So, of those 16 finalists (yes, I know some appear more than once) only 3 did poorer on the year of their extensive run.  In the case of Bilbao, they deteriorated further the following year so perhaps it wasn’t anomalous.  With Braga, the difference is could also be described as statistically negligible.  This leaves Chelsea.  They won the Champions League in 2012 and only finished 6th.  However, this was the year when they hired and fired Villas-Boas and brought in Di Matteo.  Anyone who remembers that successful run could testify to their moments of luck and backs to the wall brilliant last-gasp defending.  They were also so far behind by the time Villas-Boas was sacked that the league was beyond them.

The other 13/16 (81%) of teams suffered no obvious detrimental change in form as a result of European Success.  Reinforcing the idea that success is habitual and that a good European run brings confidence to domestic league performances.

Conclusions

So what does this all mean?  Well, it means that this year’s ‘Hull City’ can have a go at European success knowing that they are not playing in Europe’s best league and that their league form is not inversely proportional to their European performances.  Perhaps then, the commercial windfalls and increased exposure could raise the club’s profile abroad, attracting more fans and better players.  However, while the mainstream media’s myopic view of the Europa League as a millstone continues to prevail, managers and clubs of Premier League clubs can continue to play second fiddle to the Spanish clubs who, on the back of their redistributive TV deal, will only grow stronger.

 

VfB Stuttgart

VfB Stuttgart v Mainz

9th May 2015

The train to Koln was an ICE train and I certainly needed to cool down.  Ten minutes later a bedraggled Superman came out of the train toilet as a rejuvenated Clark Kent, ready to report.

For VfB Stuttgart, this was a match that they absolutely had to win. Bottom of the league by 4 points with only 3 games remaining, a defeat today would have sent VfB Stuttgart into unfamiliar territory: Bundesliga 2.  That the match would be so significant for the club was not entirely apparent to me when their ‘new media’ director kindly invited me along and provided me with the ticket. The club’s show of faith in this blog is very much appreciated.

Planning and Preparation 

As the club had replied to me directly via email and posted the ticket to my house, that was one expense and logistical step I didn’t need to consider.  However, tickets can be bought at http://tickets.vfb.de/default.php.  Stuttgart is 550km from my house so travel was an important consideration.  Rail turned out to be the most reasonable option on the face of it.  I booked my tickets via https://www.b-europe.com/Travel.  Prices vary considerably depending on what time you travel so getting up early is the way forward.  The Classic Central Hotel (a complete misnomer) was booked through booking.com and mostly met my basic needs.

Getting There and Stuttgart City Centre

we own this town
we own this town

I had unwittingly made this trip far more complicated than it ought to have been.  The German Train Drivers’ Strike also added some unpredictability to the day.   My train left Brussels at 0625 and the first tram from where I live was at 0702.  Doh!  As my wife needed the car that morning, I decided the best option was to cycle to the tram terminus in Brussels (6km away) and take the tram and metro combination that would get me to the station at 0618.  Risky, I know, but the only other option was cycling the 15km to the station which, after not much sleep and a busy day ahead, seemed crazy.  However, sometimes the crazy option is the right one.  I got to Louise tram stop, pacing about like the tortured Stromae, deciding whether to run for the station or take the metro the three stops.  With calves on fire and the bright lights of the metro enticing me like an insect to the purple light, metro it was.

It had to happen.  I had become too trustworthy and complacent regarding the punctuality of the normally excellent Brussels Public Transport.  The metro came tardily limping along – I could see its glow in the distance – five minutes after it was meant to.  I didn’t have much margin for error.  I hate being late at the best of times but it really mattered today.  The train, thankfully, arrived at Gare du Midi at 0623.  I propelled myself from the train as quickly as I could, sprinting past inebriated students and dossers, running up the wrong flight of stairs, bounding across a road, into the main station, past 12 platforms, up the steep escalator and saw the train was still there.  I heard a whistle blow.  I ran to the train door and ascended the four steps in a oner.  Woohoo!!  The rotund guards looked at me like I was some kind of fugitive.  Then I caught my reflection in a glass door.  I was scarlet (face) and fluorescent green (my hi-vis vest still on from my cycle) and a sweaty well of lactic acid.  But I made it.  What a stress!

The train to Koln was an ICE train and I certainly needed to cool down.  Ten minutes later a bedraggled Superman came out of the train toilet as a rejuvenated Clark Kent, ready to report.   A cup of coffee from the cafe carriage and I was sorted.  The train itself was brilliant – smooth, quick, comfortable, quiet and everything worked.  As it pulled into Koln, I was ready for some breakfast, especially with a 30 minute wait for my connection and bought this calorific ‘thing’ from Kamps in the station.

From here, I was to take the train to Mannheim.  It turned out that this was the Swiss train to Zurich.  I didn’t like how busy the platform was looking.  When the train pulled up, it certainly wasn’t an ICE train.  It was also absolutely packed.  It was then that I heard the word ‘Streik’ in the announcements and I subsequently worked out the rest.  From Koln to just before Bonn, I stood up in this narrow corridor just outside what I thought was First-Class dining.  I could see the clientele peering over their newspapers at me in the way that shop-assistants in high-end shops stare at guys in a tracksuit.  Then I thought ‘sack it, I’ll go in and get a seat’ and sat next to some old dude who looked like he’d just read that his shares had lost 7% of their value.  The menu was, however, a pleb’s menu.  Coffees and beers and ‘Fruhstuck.’  I ordered a pint of Weissbier and watched the train meander around the unexpected beauty of the MittelRhein region. I looked around and saw that most of the carriage were on beer or wine at 10 am which somehow assuaged my British guilt for drinking before ‘the pubs open’.  However, that sorted my seat all the way to Mannheim.  A couple from a country whose language I don’t recognise also sat across from, speaking at me in Magyar or something, looking for affirmation when they spoke.  At first, I nodded politely but they could’ve been asking if I wanted to taste their paté made from toddler liver.

I had to wait an hour at Mannheim for the connection as the train arrived late and their were lots of cancellations.  I stood all the way, in the train aisle, to Stuttgart listening to an Australian tourist’s life story which kept anaesthetised my irritation and impatience.  When I arrived at Stuttgart, I came across a city which, at first, appeared very ‘un-German’ compared to the industrial bases of the north-west.

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This is Mercedes-Benz town, and you discover this as soon as you walk out of the station by simply looking around.  I decided I’d walk to my hotel via the Schlossplatz, which is a lovely area to have right in a city centre.  The town had an animated film festival on which made for a bustling yet relaxed feel.  My hotel, the Central Classic, was not really that central at all and I arrived there completely knackered and inappropriately dressed for the fabulously sunny weather.  The room itself was basic but had a bed and an en-suite so a quick freshen-up and a phone charge and I was back on my way to the stadium.

The Underground transport system in Stuttgart is pretty good although to by a ticket, you need to look up the code of your destination station and type it in – surely this could be simplified?  It was 10 minutes to Mercedes Strasse, where I changed and took the U11 to NeckerPark.  Incidentally, there were loads of people on the train in modified modernised liederhosen-esque summery outfits going to some kind of massively overcrowded funfair near the stadium.  It made me smile.

Mercedes-Benz Arena

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The stadium itself is a belter.  No question about it.  It is set in amongst the trees giving the whole area a nice general ambience.  The trees conceal the size of the stadium though – it is deceptively large.  I took a few pictures (it was difficult to get good shots with the trees hindering) and got a beer and a Bratwurst outside the stadium.  The cups are great and, had I brought my rucksack, I would have taken one home.  The beer, however, had that ‘rabbit-hutch’ taste that I picked up on once my initial thirst was quenched and was subsequently ditched.  It’s a 2€ deposit for the cup but I’d say the cup is well worth 2 euros.

up for the cup
up for the cup

I was quite nervous about going in with my press ticket as I didn’t have a clue what I was doing or where to go or how it worked.  I went through the turnstiles and showed my ticket to a volunteer steward, who showed me where to go.  I took the lift up to level 4 and walked into this nice little room with Sky TV , hot and cold drinks and pretzels.  I thought I should go straight to my seat and not abuse my host’s hospitality (although quite a few others were piling in).  I got to my seat and this was my view.  I spent the whole expecting to be moved and felt completely fraudulent.  I had a chair on wheels, a little desk and felt like ‘the man.’

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The Stadium has a capacity of 60,449 of which 11,225 are standing places.  It was renovated in 2011, removing the running track and increasing the capacity.  The Mainz fans were all in and singing away in the corner, despite the fact that their team had little to play for, as they were in that Stoke position of being short of European places but well clear of relegation.

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Filling up
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4 Points behind
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Line-ups
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Picture of a Picture.  No idea who the dude is.
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Pundits
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Mmm, free pretzels.  Wish I liked them.
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Mainz’s very injured Soto.  Get Well Soon.

The Cannstatter Kurve, behind the goals, seemed to take a while to fill.  At Monchengladbach, Schalke and Dortmund, the fans had piled in very early to the standing areas.  There was a more relaxed feeling about this.  That said, when they did arrive, the fans made a great noise.  I spent the first few minutes there taking photos and making notes and watching the Sky operation taking place.  I found it fascinating.  A big roar went up just outside the stadium when the news came through that Werder Bremen had just equalised against Stuttgart’s relegation rivals Hannover.

The usual pre-match routine with the animal mascot clowning around and goalies warming up took place.  Then a band cranked up and started playing – they could be stars or a pub band, I wouldn’t have known.  I was handed the official teamsheet, with an up to date league table included, 45 minutes before kick-off.  It was only about 10 minutes until kick-off when stadium started to fill up.  The official attendance was 54300, with most of the empty seats in a patch near the away fans.

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VfB Huddle
VfB Huddle
Mainz Huddle
Mainz Huddle

The Match

Firstly, I will say this: there is a reason Stuttgart are bottom of the league.  A clinical team would have scored about 8 goals today with the amount of chances Stuttgart had.  The fans were now in full swing at the kick-off.  The atmosphere was great but the sense of tension and frustration was apparent.  Mainz never really looked like having a go until they were losing and a point would have made them mathematically safe.

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The opening exchanges were fairly indicative of the rest of the match.  Stuttgart making all the play but lacking the killer touch. There were a few loose passes early on, and a couple of shockers from Rudiger who reminded me of Bert Konterman in the early part of the game.  Didavi, perhaps Stuttgart’s best player on the day, missed from about 3 metres in the first few minutes.  I felt though that they would have benefited from a more defined shape – they were too amorphous at various points of the game.  This level of fluidity  didn’t seem to suit the team.  Mainz sat deep and looked fairly comfortable.  Dié was committing too many fouls and the crosses to the Stuttgart centre-forward, Ginczek, were from too deep and he didn’t have the support for all of the hold-up play he was doing.

Big Bad Ginczek
Big Bad Ginczek

The frustration continued to grow.  Didavi rattled the post with a great long-range strike and then Schwaab missed when it looked easier to score from a cross.  A guy, in Mainz colours, a few places along from me, was thumping the desks like a spoiled brat – he didn’t reappear for the second half.  So, 0-0 at half time, the highlights were shown on the fabulous big screens.  The PA system was fabulous too and belted out some tunes.  It’s a long way from the garbled Tannoy message from the police asking the owner of a Ford Cortina to go and park somewhere else.

During the second half, Stuttgart continued to press but started going a bit long ball to Ginczek but he didn’t have the support to make much of it.  He is a big unit but is too slow and bulky to do it on his own.  He got kicked in the stomach during the game and the Mainz player seemed to hurt his foot more.  The game became more and more tense.  I thought Stuttgart needed something different in attack.  Then, unexpectedly, came the breakthrough in the 66th minute.  Didavi hit a hopeful shot from long range which the keeper managed to spill calamitously into his own net.  1-0 Stuttgart.

Finally!
Finally!

The game then came to life Mainz started to have a go, most of their play going through Malli.  They lacked any real quality on the day though and, to be honest, are the worst team I have seen in the Bundesliga.  Stuttgart were now creating good chances and when Harnik’s cut-back was half-cleared in the 78th minute, Kostic buried the rebound.  2-0 Stuttgart.

Good balance required
Good balance required

More chances came but the lack of confidence was apparent as players kept passing when the shot was clearly the best option.  When the final whistle came, Stuttgart ran out deserved winners.  Two games to go now, including a final match at home to HSV, who are also in trouble, which could prove decisive.

After the Match

Taking the underground back to the city centre took ten minutes and was straightforward.  It was now 9pm and the city was bouncing with young people out eating and drinking.  The city had, to paraphrase Paul McStay, a real ‘buzz’ about it and on a different night I may well have partaken in festivities.  However, I was done in.  A quick currywurst mit pommes, Kolsch, and bed was what I needed.  I’d been up since 4am.

The next morning, I left the hotel just after 7am and strolled down to Stuttgart Haubtbahnhof.  The (N)ICE train to Koln was on time and hassle-free and I was back in Brussels just after 1pm.

Stuttgart is actually worth a visit regardless of the football.  It has a friendly but lively, more southern, feel.  I hope they are able to stay in the Bundesliga as they feel like a top league club and the stadium definitely belongs in the big time.

Video Clips

media seats

Cannstatter Kurve early doors

Stuttgart Bouncy

Raise your hands

Wave your Scarf

Mainz fans having fun

Overall Ratings: (out of 5)

  • Quality of match:  ***
  • Stadium character: *****
  • Stadium atmosphere:  *****
  • Hospitality: *****
  • Ease of access: *****
  • Things to do around the stadium: *****
  • Overall: ****1/2