By Raphael Honigstein
October 13, 2010

VfB Stuttgart's early-season woes are nothing new. For the last few years the Swabians have started the season lethargically, only to look like a different, stronger team in the second half of the season.

But sitting 18th and last in the Bundesliga table, with only three points from seven games this season, management was alarmed enough to change coaches yet again.

Christian Gross, nicknamed "Kojak" in the German press, is the latest manager unable to solve the strange seasonal schizophrenia that plagues Stuttgart. On Wednesday, the 56-year-old became the third coach in three years to pay for his side's bafflingly consistent inconsistency. Assistant manager Jens Keller will take over for Saturday's crisis summit with fellow underachiever Schalke 04.

"We are in a state of emergency," VfB Stuttgart president Erwin Staudt said on Wednesday. "This is the most difficult situation in the Bundesliga history of our club."

Sporting director Fredi Bobic explained that Gross had shown "no signs of finding a solution" for the numerous problems that are afflicting the squad, from a lack of concentration at the back to a dearth of good ideas and goals up front. Against Eintracht Frankfurt on Sunday, misfortune played a part, too. Stuttgart rallied from a 2-0 deficit at home by scoring a late equalizer, only to have a referee disallow the strike erroneously.

Bobic did acknowledge that the Gross was still popular with many supporters but stressed that the decision had to be taken now "for the good of the club."

As another coach falls victim to Stuttgart's struggles -- Armin Veh, the championship-winning manager from 2007, had lost the dressing room by the time Markus Babbel took over and led the team into the Champions League in 2008, and Babbel was replaced with Christian Gross after the club flirted with relegation in the first half of last season -- fans are wondering who is truly at fault for their team's predicament.

Even by Stuttgart standards, the start of the campaign has been a disaster. And the buck stops with Gross, naturally. But playing the blame game is more complicated in Germany, where the manager is not the sole decision maker and power is shared by a number of officials.

Former manager Babbel, now in charge at second-division Hertha BSC Berlin, believes Stuttgart's travails can be explained by a lack of professionalism among the players.

"Each and every one of them has to ask himself whether he's giving his all for the team," the 38-year-old Babbel said shortly before Gross' dismissal.

One ex-Stuttgart player, who won the league in 2007 but has since moved on, also criticized the squad's attitude.

"They are a rowdy, undisciplined bunch," he told

Gross, a man of experience and gravitas, coped well with his task in the beginning. Therefore, other factors must have come into play. Stuttgart lost two important players in German international Sami Khedira and veteran mad man Jens Lehmann in goal. Martin Lanig, Roberto Hilbert, Sebastian Rudy, Julian Schieber and Ricardo Osorio also left in the summer. None of them were crucial, but they all added depth and variety to the squad that now seems missing. New recruits Johan Audel and Philipp Degen have hardly played because of injury. Midfielder Christian Gentner, who returned from a stint in Wolfsburg, is struggling to replace Khedira, and Mauro Camoranesi has had little impact apart from getting sent off for a bad foul.

There is a sense as well that Bobic, a rookie in his position, is still finding his feet in the transfer market. Gross was certainly sad to see Bobic's predecessor, Horst Heldt, depart to Schalke 04 in the summer.

"It's not easy when you work with a sporting director who didn't sign you and has his own ideas," the Zurich-born coach told the newspaper Bild at the beginning of the week.

Gross made no secret of his wish to strengthen the team further, but he was frustrated by the board's policy of fiscal prudence. Stuttgart is turning its Mercedes Benz Arena into a "proper" football stadium, and a sizable part of the team's budget has been spent on the renovations rather than new players. In online forums, angry fans went as far as to claim that the club was being "starved to death" economically.

Gross bemoaned that Stuttgart was investing "into bricks, not legs" this year and felt that a $20.9 million cut for the playing staff left the squad short.

"The club's main goal is to finish the stadium," he told reporters. "When are our hands no longer tied [financially]?"

In Stuttgart, a football town high in passion but short on patience, many supporters have started to point the finger at the overly cautious board as the real culprit. Local broadsheet Stuttgarter Zeitung also hinted at rifts in the boardroom. It reported that CFO Ulrich Ruf and president Staudt were willing to spend more money but were allegedly vetoed by Dieter Hundt, the powerful chairman of the supervisory board.

Hundt, always the consummate politician, is having none of it.

"We have a budget that ranks us among the top six in the league," he said. "I don't think it is the supervisory board's responsibility that expensive recruits don't play or play badly. It's also not the supervisory board's responsibility that highly paid players squander great chances recklessly. And the supervisory board is not to blame for the fact that there's no cohesion between the different parts of the team."

The interim appointment of Keller, 39, is a cheap solution, and it also helps the board to hedge its bets. If the former Stuttgart pro, who asked the players to put "heart, mind, effort and passion" into the next games, succeeds, club officials can claim that Gross was the problem all along. If the horror season continues unabated, they can bring in a bigger name like German FA sporting director Matthias Sammer or former coach Christoph Daum, and argue that Keller was not ready yet.

More managerial changes, however, cannot deflect the attention forever. There will surely come a point when the supporters will no longer put up with their club's split personality and demand wholesale changes at the highest level.

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