VfB Stuttgart Season Preview: Can Swabians return from their 2.Bundesliga sabbatical with a bang?

On August 13, VfB Stuttgart get the 2017/18 season underway with an away trip to Energie Cottbus in the DFB Pokal, before their first game back in the Bundesliga away at Hertha Berlin six days later.

Following a season away from the bright lights of the German top-flight, the Swabians return hoping they can put their past few seasons as relegation strugglers behind them and turn over a new leaf under young manager Hannes Wolf.

So could we see a story similar to RB Leipzig's rise to the top last season, or will the Swabians be bracing themselves for a season in the lower reaches of the Bundesliga?

Stuttgart lived up to their name as title favourites in the 2.Bundesliga

Following their relegation from the Bundesliga for the first time in the club's history, Stuttgart hired former Hertha Berlin boss Jos Luhukay as their new manager ahead of the 2016/17 2.Bundesliga season.

The Swabians lost several first-team players as fans would expect following relegation with Timo Werner, Antonio Rüdiger, Filip Kostic and Lukas Rupp the most notable departures.

Despite their losses the club went in to the 2016/17 season as title favourites as they managed to hold on to several players of top-flight quality such as Christian Gentner, Alexandru Maxim and Emiliano Insua.

Bringing players in is crucial to any team's success after dropping down a division and Stuttgart were no different, signing a number of players including LOSC Lille centre-back Benjamin Pavard and experienced 2.Bundesliga striker Simon Terrode from rivals VfL Bochum.

After winning two and losing two of their opening four matches, Luhukay left the club citing issues with the club's sporting director Jan Schindelmeiser following the latter's decision to sign several players against the manager's wishes.

He was replaced by Borussia Dortmund U19 coach Wolf, a manager who at just 35 years of age was barely older than some of the more senior players in Stuttgart's squad.

The club's form improved as they lost just one of the following 11 league games, a 5-0 humbling at the hands of Dynamo Dresden.

Following the Christmas period, Stuttgart lost just two of their remaining 17 league games as they secured the 2.Bundesliga title by two points and returned to the top-flight at the first-time of asking.

Summer signing Terodde was key to their efforts with the 29-year-old scoring an impressive 25 league goals in 32 appearances, while holding on to captain Gentner also proved crucial as the midfielder played all 34 games, scoring six goals in the process.

Wolf adds to his squad while holding on to key players

It is no secret that staying in the Bundesliga is the aim of the game for Wolf's side this season, and to do that they need to hold on to their most influential players from last season while adding a bit of top-flight quality and experience to their ranks.

The club have opted for a mixture of enthusiasm and experience in the summer transfer window, signing players from various corners of Europe that have either Bundesliga experience or youth on their side.

In terms of top-flight experience the Swabians are rather bare in central defence, with youngster Timo Baumgartl the only player to have tasted Bundesliga football, and he would be the first to admit many of those weren't the most pleasant during Stuttgart's relegation season.

Former Bayern Munich man Holger Badstuber is a man who certainly knows the ins and outs of the top-flight, and is a signing who will improve the Swabians defence exponentially should he put his injury woes behind him, with those setbacks the only thing stopping him from becoming a regular with the current Bundesliga champions in past seasons.

Also joining to bolster Stuttgart's backline ahead of the new season is former Leicester City and Hannover 96 goalkeeper Ron-Robert Zieler, who returns to Germany having been kept out of the 2015/16 Premier League winners' squad by Kasper Schmeichel for much of last season.

Mitch Langerak is certainly not a bad goalkeeper, but without stiff competition for the number one shirt the Australian could perhaps rest on his laurels which is something Wolf's men simply cannot afford if they hope to stay in the Bundesliga.

Former Schalke 04 left-back Dennis Aogo also arrived on a free transfer, adding experience to Wolf's backline as he looks to avoid a repeat of the defensive horror show that was the 2015/16 season.

Teenagers Orel Mangala and Dzenis Burnich have joined to add enthusiasm and drive to the Swabians midfield, with the former joining on a permanent deal from Belgian side RSC Anderlecht while the latter joins on loan from fellow Borussia Dortmund.

Right-midfielder Chadrac Akolo is the club's most expensive purchase of the summer at just under £6million, while fellow youngsters Anastasios Donis and Ailton add depth in attack and defence respectively from Serie A champions Juventus and Portuguese side Estoril.

In terms of departures the club have let go attacking midfielder Maxim, who called time on a four-year stay at Stuttgart to join FSV Mainz 05 for a fee of £2.7m.

Central defender Toni Šunjić has also left the club permanently after spending the second half of last season on loan at Serie A side Palermo, now joining Russian outfit Dynamo Moscow while full-back Florian Klein has departed after the club chose not to renew his contract.

Pre-season a mixed bag for the Swabians

Like most top-flight clubs across Europe Stuttgart opted to fly their squad out to a training camp abroad, with Austria their destination.

Pre-season fixtures were scheduled against a mixed bag of opponents both nation wise and quality wise, with games against top-flight opposition in Real Betis and Huddersfield Town scheduled alongside lower league opposition in the form of Regionalliga Südwest neighbours Stuttgarter Kickers.

A 1-1 draw against Stuttgarter Kickers in their opening pre-season fixture was not what Wolf wanted, with the fourth division outfit taking the lead before Donis levelled after 25 minutes.

Stuttgart put out a relatively strong team for the game, making the result all the more disappointing even if it was just a pre-season fixture.

Two defeats in a row followed against 2.Bundesliga opposition in the form of Dynamo Dresden and Heidenheim, with the latter defeating Stuttgart by a 2-1 scoreline as they did last season while Dresden also won by the same scoreline, which was not quite as commanding as their 5-0 victory over Wolf's men last season.

Fans finally saw a pre-season victory in the following match against Turkish Süper Lig side Kasımpaşa S.K. in dominating fashion, Stuttgart running out comfortable winners with 5-0 the final score as left-back Insua grabbed a brace while Daniel Ginczek, Josip Brekalo and Donis also netted.

A 2-0 win over Greek outfit Asteras Tripolis followed as last season's top scorer Terodde grabbed his first of pre-season while Berkay Özcan rounded off the scoring in the second-half.

The two main tests of pre-season however came in Stuttgart's final two games, as La Liga side Real Betis and newly promoted Premier League side Huddersfield proved to be stern opposition at the beginning of August.

David Wagner's men offered up an exciting match in which Stuttgart twice held a two-goal lead, going 2-0 and then 3-1 ahead either side of the half-time break before conceding two goals inside three minutes with 10 minutes to go.

Fans will have been happy to see Terodde net in the 3-3 draw, but ultimately will have been less impressed with their late collapse against a side who are widely tipped to head straight back to the Championship in their inaugural Premier League season.

Stuttgart took the lead once again in their final pre-season fixture against Real Betis through striker Ginczek, but yet again failed to hold on to their lead and conceded twice either side of half-time to end their pre-season campaign with a 2-1 defeat against the Spaniards.

The defensive frailties of Stuttgart's most recent top-flight season must be rectified

There is no doubting that star striker Terodde's 25 goals last season were the key to Stuttgart's promotion and title win, with Gentner's seven goals making him the second top scorer at the club after their talisman.

The 29-year-old is a proven goalscorer in the 2.Bundesliga but has made just five appearances in the German top-flight during his career, and all five of those clocked in at under ten minutes each in the 2010/11 while Terodde plied his trade at 1. FC Köln.

Now a much more mature and experienced striker, playing in a side that are confident in his ability to find the back of the net, Terodde finally has his chance to crack the top-flight with Stuttgart and could prove key to their chances of survival just as he did to their promotion bid last season.

Wolf knows that in order to survive he must make his side defensively sound and difficult to beat, something the Swabians definitely were not in the 2015/16 season when they conceded a whopping 75 goals, the highest in the division by 13 after rock bottom Hannover 96.

New signings Badstuber and Zieler have arrived with a view to ensuring that doesn't happen again, although the latter was indeed part of that season's Hannover side and will want to prove that the 62 goals shipped were down to a poor backline and not his subpar goalkeeping.

Provided Badstuber stays fit and healthy, something he hasn't managed to do for some time, the former Bayern man will add experience and steel to an inexperienced Stuttgart defence which will prove invaluable to their survival chances.

How Stuttgart may line up

Stuttgart fans saw Wolf favour a lone striker formation more often than not last season, with Terodde spearheading the attack while fellow frontman Ginczek is also suited to a target man role up top.

The ever-popular 4-2-3-1 formation was the most used tactic for Wolf last season, with the two central midfielders offering protection for the defence while the wide men can either search for space on the wing when out of possession or track back and double up on opposition wide men depending on the strength of the opposition.

The battle for the gloves is set to be an interesting one as Zieler is an experienced Bundesliga goalkeeper with 185 appearances to his name for Hannover, while last season's number one Langerak enjoyed a relatively successful season last time around as he got his first real taste of regular football after sitting on the sidelines for much of his Borussia Dortmund career.

Insua, Aogo and Ailton are all set to fight for the left-back spot, although the Argentinian looks to be the favourite to start the season first in the pecking order.

Badstuber will almost certainly be a starter in the centre of defence if he is match fit come matchday one, while Pavard, Baumgartl and French youngster Jérôme Onguéné will be in and around the starting 11 come the start of the season.

Captain Gentner will be a key figure as ever in the centre of the park, while energertic defensive midfielder Ebenezer Ofori could partner him after impressing since signing from Allsvenskan side AIK at the end of January last season.

New signing Akolo could be set to start on the right-hand side of the three after scoring netting twice in pre-season while Özcan, Brekalo and Carlos Mané all offer competition for places in attacking midfield although the latter remains injured until January 2018.

A two-striker formation could potentially be used at points across the season should Wolf look to partner Terodde with someone of a different playstyle such as Takumas Asano rather than leave the German on his own in home matches, but fans shouldn't expect to see that happen too often if at all this season.

Tough run-in awaits the 2.Bundesliga champions

Stuttgart get their Bundesliga season underway on August 19 with an away trip to one of last season's many surprise packages in the form of Hertha Berlin, who secured Europa League football with a sixth placed finish last time around.

The visit of Mainz 05 to the Mercedes-Benz Arena is the only break from a tough start for Stuttgart who face Schalke, Wolfsburg and Borussia Monchengladbach in the following three fixtures, with all three looking to return to form after an underwhelming 2016/17 season.

The Süd-Derby returns this season and could prove crucial to the Swabians' relegation battle with an away trip to Bayern's Allianz Arena coming on the final day of the season, with the home fixture set to take place just before the winter break.

Bayern lost just two league games last season with Dortmund and Hoffenheim discovering the secret to beating Carlo Ancelotti's dominant Bavarians, and Wolf may just have to watch those games back and take a few notes down if he is to replicate that kind of result, although doing so at the Allianz is a step into the almost impossible.

Home form will be vital to Stuttgart's survival bid as is the case for promoted teams everywhere in the world of football, and their run-in could rely on it with Hannover 96, Werder Bremen and Hoffenheim all visiting the Mercedes-Benz Arena in the final six games of the season.

Trips to Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and title favourites Bayern was certainly not the run-in Wolf was hoping for, so points will need to be picked up well before the final few games of the season because Stuttgart would need something akin to a miracle if they went into those games needing all three points.

Stuttgart's home form saw them lose just two league games at the Mercedes-Benz Arena last season, while their away form was the best in the division as they amassed 28 points, losing just five of their 17 games.

Survival is unequivocally the aim for Stuttgart

There is no doubting that staying in the Bundesliga is the top priority for Stuttgart this season, as a swift return to the 2.Bundesliga would be a huge disappoinment for a club as important to German football as the three-time Bundesliga champions.

2015/16 saw the club relegated to the 2.Bundesliga for the first time in their history, just nine seasons after winning the Bundesliga title and it is not hard to see that top-flight football is the least Stuttgart fans deserve.

The club have recruited well in terms of their defence ahead of the new season with the decision to add Bundesliga experience to an inexperienced backline a good decision from the club's top brass, while up top last season's star man Terodde will need to replicate his goalscoring form if they are to stay clear of danger.

A story similar to RB Leipzig's unprecedented title challenge in their first season in the top-flight is highly unlikely, but as long as Stuttgart avoid the drop and consolidate themselves as a respected Bundesliga side once again then fans will be satisfied.