Stuttgart, Germany. By the time Nicolai Müller nodded home Eintracht’s Frankfurt’s third, the ultras in the Canstatter Kurve, the home of VfB Stuttgart’s hardcore support, had long since turned their backs on their team.
But when the Stuttgart players approached them at full-time after a fourth straight defeat which left them rock bottom of the Bundesliga, they turned to greet them with a cacophony of deafening whistles.
New head coach Markus Weinzierl had already disappeared down the tunnel, yet to see his new players even score a goal in his first three games in charge. The players could do nothing but stand there for a minute which must have felt like an age.
The Eintracht Engine
Earlier that evening, two hours before kick-off, the ultras had marched down Mercedes-Strasse to the Mercedes-Benz-Arena in silence.
The automobile giant has an unmistakeable presence in this part of southern Germany and parent group Daimler even owns 11.75% of VfB Stuttgart – but the only Bundesliga team showing the characteristics of a Mercedes engine on Friday night were the visitors: Eintracht Frankfurt and their irrepressible front three.
Between them, Sebastian Haller, Luka Jovic and Ante Rebic had already scored 16 goals going into Friday’s game. “On the hunt!” headlined Kicker magazine on Thursday, saying “the Eagles possess their best attack in decades.”
It only took four minutes for one of those three talons to strike on Friday, although Rebic’s clever turn and shot was rightly ruled out by the video assistant for an offside in the build-up.
“Abolish VAR!” read the banners unfurled in the Stuttgart end, despite the decision benefitting their team, who offered considerably less resistance on the pitch as the first half progressed.
Seven minutes later, Frankfurt did take the lead, Haller tapping home after Ron-Robert Zieler had parried Jovic’s shot. VAR couldn’t save Stuttgart this time. The Eagles had cornered their prey, pressing Stuttgart at every opportunity and giving the panicked Swabians no time to breath. The hunt was well and truly on.
“This is a team with a different mentality,” wrote the Frankfurter Rundschau earlier this season. “A team which bites, which never gives up and throws everything at it until the very end.”
It’s hard to believe now, but the opening weeks of the season painted a very different picture in Frankfurt. After their historic triumph over Bayern Munich in last season’s German Cup final, Eintracht lost the commanding spine of a team which was built on backbone.
Goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky joined Bayer Leverkusen, the vocal Kevin-Prince Boateng left for Italy while Omar Mascarell and Marius Wolf headed to the blue and yellow sides of the Ruhr divide respectively.
But most damaging of all, the Bundesliga’s most international squad lost the glue that held it together: Berlin-born Croatian Niko Kovac, who returned to the Waldstadion with his new Bayern Munich side to dish out a 5-0 thrashing to Frankfurt in the Super Cup.
And when the cup holders were dumped out of this season’s competition in round one by fourth-tier SSV Ulm before losing three of their opening five league games, some were even tipping Eintracht for a Cologne-style implosion.
New coach Adi Hütter
Step forward: Adi Hütter. The 48-year-old took over from Kovac having led BSC Young Boys to their first Swiss title in 32 years and arrived in Frankfurt with a quiet confidence, pointedly referring to the “German Bundesliga” as the opposed to the “Bundesliga” he knows from his native Austria.
A proponent of attractive, aggressive, attacking football, Hütter has a clear idea of how he wants his team to play. But was that really an ideal fit for a defensive team which had performed so pragmatically under Kovac?
Fortunately, the new man is also a pragmatist. “Hütter has had to bow to reality, and that is to his credit,” wrote Frankfurter Rundschau. “He recognised that this team had to graft first and think defensively before starting to go forward – even if that was at odds with his own beliefs.”
That pragmatic patience has paid off. Having stemmed the early tide, Hütter switched to a 3-5-2 at the end of September and, suddenly, Frankfurt were not only putting four goals past Hannover and seven past Düsseldorf, but beating Marseille away and scoring four against Lazio in the Europa League.
They top Group H with a 100% record but, unlike several Bundesliga teams before them, haven’t appeared to pay the price for their European exertions in the league.
“When I see what the team achieved in the cup last season and the way in which the fans and the whole club has responded to the Europa League, we have a duty to perform,” Hütter told The Sportsman. “These are games in which we can have fun and develop further.”
Haller, Jovic, Rebic: Frankfurt’s fantastic three
The next stage of that development could be seen in Stuttgart on Friday when, due to an injury to Mijat Gacinovic, Hütter opted to start all three of his strikers together for the first time, and Haller, Rebic and Jovic took full advantage.
With just over half-an-hour played, Frankfurt countered. Filip Kostic crossed from the left but Haller’s header was well saved. Typically, however, Jovic was first to the loose ball, keeping the attack alive and crossing back in for Rebic to head home unmarked.
“You almost have to bow down before this Eintracht Frankfurt system,” raved former Germany international and Borussia Dortmund legend Matthias Sammer in his role as pundit for broadcaster Eurosport. “In terms of quality, power and athleticism, I’ve never seen depth like it here,” added Eintracht veteran Marco Russ of Frankfurt’s fantastic three.
After Müller wrapped up the points late on, the Frankfurt players danced in front of their jubilant 4,000 travelling supporters, who sang about their cup triumph and the Europa League.
At the other end, the Stuttgart ultras left the Canstatter Kurve and headed back down Mercedes-Strasse in silence, their team marred in a relegation battle.