For the club to fire their manager after three league games reflects badly on all concerned – but it had been coming
"This is a stupid, disrespectful question," sneered Fredi Bobic, Stuttgart's sporting director, after the final whistle at Augsburg's SGLArena on Sunday night, when a reporter asked him about the future of his manager, Bruno Labbadia. Bobic's anger might have been genuine in that moment but it was also a classic case of "the sporting director doth protest too much". At 9 o'clock next morning Labbadia's reign was over. "VfB have parted company with head coach Bruno Labbadia with immediate effect," the club revealed via Twitter.
Stuttgarter Zeitung made the point that no president in the history of the Bundesliga had pulled the trigger more quickly than Stuttgart's new man, Bernd Wahler, who is not even supposed be in charge officially until 1 September — "but that doesn't change the fact the dismissal of Bruno Labbadia was acutely necessary," the paper pointed out.
The results have certainly not been good. The 2-1 defeat against Augsburg on Sunday made it three defeats in three league games, plus another in the Europa League play-off first leg against HNK Rijeka. Failure in the home game on Thursday would be as unthinkable as it would be financially painful, thus the board felt they had to act. Still getting rid of a manager in August never reflects well on anyone.
This is not about a simple lack of patience or knee-jerkism, however. Labbadia's end had been coming for a while. Last season alone he was a (well-coiffed) hair's breadth away from getting the sack a couple of times but his inconsistent, maddeningly unbalanced team scraped together just enough wins to stave off the axe. The relationship with Bobic slowly deteriorated after the winter break, when Labbadia embarrassed the club by stating he was in no hurry to extend his contract ("I wouldn't mind if we did it in May") before eventually putting pen to paper until 2015.
Local reporters were aware just how precarious Labbadia's position was before the current season kicked-off. "I thought about firing the manager but decided that we needed the money for his compensation to buy new players instead," Bobic, a former VfB striker, revealed in an off-the-record briefing. Now the club have to shell out anyway and the contract extension from January looks more unnecessary than ever. Bobic and the board had hoped that the stability of a new deal would lift the club but Labbadia could never get the best from the squad. Budgets have been cut and top players have been sold since the 2007 championship but there is still enough quality in the side to push for a European place.
Labbadia, it should be remembered, was not a total failure at the Mercedes-Benz-Arena. He took over in December 2010 and saved a club that was staring relegation in the face after the twin horrors of Christian Gross's and Jens Keller's reigns. Stuttgart finished 12th that season, then qualified twice for the Europa League. This season, however, began with a series of puzzling tactical changes and line-up tinkering that smacked of desperation. And Sunday's capitulation did not suggest that this slide into confusion would be over anytime soon.
His biggest problem, though, was a lack of compatibility with the club's aspirational ethos, as expressed by the relentlessly up-beat Bobic. "This is the end of story about an unlikely couple," wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung. "On the one hand Bobic, the visionary, a positive guy who loves talking about grand plans. On the other Labbadia, the guy who hits the brake, a bone-dry realist who loves dismissing grand plans." A sarcastic quip about what he felt were over-ambitious expectations of a top-five finish ("It's not as if we have bought Messi and Neymar") cost him a lot of support.
What is more, Labbadia's cautious, glass-half-full rhetoric was beginning to influence the team's performances. "Like a married couple or dog and owner, team and manager are becoming more similar," noted Stuttgarter Zeitung after the 1-0 home defeat by Leverkusen. "They worked hard and played with discipline … but there was no enthusiasm, no creativity, no joy. They only react to the opposition". Stuttgart supporters, never the most forgiving constituency at the best of the times, found the timidity impossible to stomach.
The Under-17 coach, Thomas Schneider, 40, was introduced as the new man in charge on Monday afternoon. "We want the team to have some fun again," said Bobic, who stressed that Schneider was "not an interim solution". That's not 100% true, though. The club will monitor his progress in the two games before the international break closely before they will fully commit to him for the rest of the season. Stuttgart hope that the former centre-back is a coach in the Thomas Tuchel mould and will galvanise both team and club.
To win the sack race despite tough competition from Thorsten Fink (HSV) and Keller (Schalke) was no mean feat for Labbadia. He will be lucky to find another job of similar stature in the league, even if his 988 days in charge amounted to an eternity, by Stuttgart standards. Only Christoph Daum, Armin Veh and Felix Magath lasted longer than him since the founding of the Bundesliga.
Those stats speak of a club that has been yearning in vain for long-lasting success, a potential superpower that has often been its own worst enemy by way of boardroom decisions and a climate of constant tension. In that they are not alone in this league. But Labbadia should have known that the minimum requirement for a manager in Swabia is at least to flirt with greatness occasionally, instead of rejecting those dreams as baseless pretensions.
• There are only so many times you can answer the same question, especially if you are the wrong addressee in the first place: Stefan Kiessling has had enough. "I've said before that this discussion is over," the Bayer Leverkusen striker told Bild after the 4-2 win over Gladbach, "but I'll declare it once more: there won't be any more international games for me under Löw!" Last year's leading league goalscorer (25 goals) said he was tired of fielding questions about his omission from the Germany squad. "There has been no contact, no talk about the reasons why I'm not good enough for the national team," he wrote on his Facebook page. "I want to finish this topic once and for all."
Kiessling running out of patience with Löw was not a surprise – "I don't give a wet cheese about the World Cup," the 29-year-old had said only a few days ago — but the timing was a little strange. Löw seemed to have opened the door ever so slightly for his return and had come close on Saturday to announcing his call-up for the next round of World Cup qualifiers. "Some of those who were on the pitch today will be in the squad," Löw said after witnessing Kiessling's strong performance (one goal, two assists) in the BayArena. "Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez are first choice if they're fit but [Max] Kruse and Kiessling are good alternatives." Was Löw suggesting that he had changed his mind about Kiessling's fundamental suitability for the national team — he is too much of a counter-attack specialist, the Germany manager explained in the past — in the face of relative paucity up front or simply stringing Kiessling along a bit more? The player must have suspected the latter but maybe he should have given Löw one last chance.
• There were a record eight red cards in nine matches, verging from the slightly harsh (a high boot from Hannover's Szabolcs Huszti in the face of Schalke's Tim Hoogland) to the faintly ridiculous (Francis Coquelin of Freiburg winning the ball cleanly before being dismissed for a second bookable offence) to the downright puzzling (Ibrahim Traoré of Stuttgart hardly touched Augsburg's Ronny Philp. "It was a never a red, a yellow at most," said Philp. SC Freiburg's coach, Christian Streich, was also sent packing for protesting the Coquelin decision.
• Hertha BSC's preparation for the pretty dire 1-0 win over slightly improved but essentially still awful Hamburg were rocked by the so-called "Lolita" affair: Berliner Zeitung had detailed allegedly close relations between a 16-year-old girl and a number of players, complete with a risqué photo-shoot of the teenager. Hertha's coach, Jos Luhukay, bemoaned "a lack of values and norms in society".
• The media were to blame for Schalke's troubles, too, thought Jermaine Jones. "There's so much criticism from all corners, constant uproar," said the midfielder after yet another poor showing in the 2-1 defeat at Hannover, "they don't give you time to grow as a club and as a team." Lack of time is less of a problem than a raft of injuries and a manager, Jens Keller, who has never fully allayed fears that he is out of his depth. Failure to qualify against Saloniki in the Champions League on Tuesday will make another restart at the Veltins-Arena unavoidable. Bruno Labbadia might be available.
Results Augsburg 2-1 Stuttgart, Dortmund 1-0 Werder, Bayern Munich 2-0 Nürnberg, Bayer Leverkusen 4-2 Mönchengladbach, Hoffenheim 3-3 SC Freiburg, Braunschweig 0-2 Eintracht, Hannover 96 2-1 Schalke 04, Mainz 05 2-0 Wolfsburg, Hertha BSC 1-0 Hamburger SV Latest Bundesliga table