With season on the brink, Stuttgart gambles by hiring Labbadia
In football, like investing, the phrase "This time it's different" can be very dangerous, especially when it comes to managers. Bayern Munich, for example, convinced itself that Jürgen Klinsmann, the former German boss, would no longer need a highly capable No. 2 to run the show for him in 2008. His 10-month reign was a disaster.
Whoever had the idea of installing Bruno Labbadia as the new coach of VfB Stuttgart on Sunday seems to have subscribed to the "This time it's different" philosophy, too. Many saw the 44-year-old as a spent force, having failed quite dramatically in his previous two high-profile jobs, at Bayer Leverkusen (2008-09) and Hamburg (2009-10). In both instances, he failed in almost identical fashion: Very good starts to the season were followed by terrible results after the winter break and a fallout with most of the squad. Twice Labbadia was sacked before the campaigns finished.
The former Bayern striker certainly didn't lack drive or ambition. His know-how and understanding of the game have never been in question, either. At Hamburg, the players praised his tactical expertise and compared him very favorably to his predecessor, Martin Jol.
"We know what to do now," midfielder Piotr Trochowski said.
But Labbadia had one big problem: His player management was awful. Instead of mastering the art of give and take, he would always ask for more from his players and point out their deficiencies.
"I wanted too much, too quickly," he admitted this week.
The 2008-09 winter break is very illustrative in this respect. Bayer was second in the table. Labbadia, however, didn't commend his players for their brilliant performances. He showed them video clips of their mistakes instead, in an effort to get them to play even better in the new year.
Labbadia simply went too far with his perfectionism. He had his team working incredibly hard in the January training camp. When captain Simon Rolfes kindly asked whether the squad could play a game of football rather than go on an endurance run on the last day of the camp, Labbadia said no.
"Five minutes later, the three players from the team council came to plead with him," one witness recalled. "Still, Labbadia said no. When the whole team came to his table and asked him to change his mind, Labbadia told them to have their running shoes ready. At this stage, some of the lads thought he was playing a practical joke on them. But when the next day came, the players were running."
Labbadia felt that "the bond of trust between the team and the manager broke at that moment," the source said. Leverkusen duly lost its way and finished a disappointing ninth. It was a very similar story in Hamburg.
Can a leopard truly change his spots? At his low-key unveiling, Labbadia told reporters that he knew he had made mistakes.
"You can't get everything right after seven years in the job," he said. "I've taken a lot of advice [from people] and carefully looked at the things that were right and at those that weren't."
Said VfB president Erwin Staudt: "We have talked at length about the reasons [for his previous problems]. He explained everything to us. It's to his credit that he spoke about his mistakes unprompted and told us about situations he learned from."
It'll be interesting to see how Labbadia fares in Swabia. The Mercedes-Benz-Arena is a volatile place of work at the best of times. Stuttgart, in 17th place, is already on its third coach this season, and Labbadia is the 10th VfB manager since the turn of the century. Behind the scenes, supervisory board chairman Dieter Hundt is the curmudgeon who's really pulling the strings. And the supporters are notoriously difficult to please.
For all their impulsiveness, however, Stuttgart was also the club that enabled Felix Magath and Armin Veh, two managers considered well past their prime, to thrive. Both adapted to their new surroundings and showed that they could emancipate themselves from their past. In Veh's case, the 2007 championship was probably an accident -- the players made it work, not the coach -- but that's not really the point. Hiring a last-chance-saloon manager who desperately needs to prove himself can sometimes be beneficial.
Cynics might suggest that Stuttgart perhaps doesn't really care if Labbadia is a reformed character or not. In fact, it could well be secretly banking on the fact that he hasn't changed at all.
The Swabians, it's worth remembering, are desperate. Getting relegated is a real fear. The possibility that the inauguration of their newly rebuilt stadium could take place in the second division next season constitutes a nightmare scenario. Leading players would have to be sold because of budgetary cutbacks, and the club might take years to recover. Thus, they need Labbadia to have his usual strong impact, even it turns out to be unsustainable over the long run. Avoiding the drop is, after all, the top priority.
Sporting director Fredi Bobic, the leading figure behind Labbadia's appointment, has obviously taken a risk in hiring a man who is decidedly not the flavor of the month. But there's huge upside.
"If everything goes according to plan, Stuttgart might be able to combine two contrary strategies in one person: They might have found a first-aid helper [called Labbadia] who could be substituted for a conceptual, forward-looking manager [called Labbadia] next year," wrote
Two home games against defending champion Bayern (Sunday in the league, Wednesday in the Cup) are probably not an ideal pre-Christmas lineup. But then again, Stuttgart has little to lose in current form. One thing that should not happen, though, is an uncharacteristically slow start from the new coach next year. In other words: It really can't be different this time.