ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae provides a weekly column with an inside view of the German game. This week, Derek has an exclusive one-on-one interview with VfB Stuttgart manager Pellegrino Matarazzo.
As he embarks on his second Bundesliga season as a head coach, Matarazzo is making fans, particularly in his country of birth, the USA, sit up and take notice. The son of Italian immigrants, raised in New Jersey, educated at Columbia University, Matarazzo is now working at the highest level of the game in a country where football truly matters. He wanted to play football in Europe and was prepared to do it the hard way, starting in the German lower divisions at Eintracht Bad Kreuznach. Matarazzo’s rise to prominence is down to his own commitment to hard work and an ability to quickly immerse himself in a new culture.
Timing is of course everything, and Stuttgart find themselves top of the pile after a 5-1 victory over Greuther Furth. I’m commentating on their match for the Bundesliga world feed on Friday when Matarazzo and his team travel to RB Leipzig to face another American coach in Jesse Marsch (2:20 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+, US only). Ahead of that match, here’s my conversation with Matarazzo.
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ESPN: Pellegrino, I was doing an event with Jurgen Klinsmann a few months ago and brought your name up as an American coach in the Bundesliga. He chuckled and said yes, sometimes we forget that Pellegrino is actually American and not German. Do you take that as a compliment?
Matarazzo: I don’t take it as a compliment, or a criticism, I take it as it is. I think the fact that I didn’t play in the professional leagues in the States, that I came over after college to Europe, to play ball. I think people forget I’m American also because I have an Italian first and last name, growing up with an Italian background in the States. I think there are several reasons for it. Like I said, no compliments accepted and no criticism.
ESPN: You come across almost as a citizen of the world, and somebody who’s very focused on the job you’re doing rather than representing one nationality or another.
Matarazzo: Absolutely. When I was in the States, people used to call me “the Italian,” and when I was in Italy, they called me “the American.” Now, I’m “the Italian American.” So I’m pretty much just focused on who I am and what I’m doing at the moment. Of course, I have family back in the States and friends and I follow what’s going on. So there’s still a connection there. But where I belong? That’s a good question.
ESPN: Even though you’ve been in Germany for a long time and have a German family, I know you try to go back to New Jersey once a year. Were you able to do it this year?
Matarazzo: During my playing days — I played nine years — I tried to squeeze out every day possible. If the break was three weeks, I would be there for three weeks minus one day. So I was there as often as I could be. And since meeting my wife and my son was born, it’s been less, but I try to get back at least once a year. But with corona, it has been difficult with the flights being closed up. The last time I saw my family had been, they were over here for a cup game against Leverkusen. That was a year and a half ago. But fortunately, I’ve now had some guests arriving with my dad, my brothers coming in and two of my best friends from the States here for the first Bundesliga match.
ESPN: That’s great. I know that corona has changed so many things. How have things changed for you as an American coaching a Bundesliga team and those games being available in the U.S. on ESPN+? Has it become clear to you that there’s a bigger audience for what you’re doing?
Matarazzo: Well, you know, we’re having this interview. So that’s different. I sense family and friends just congratulating me more often. I sense the interest, but I’m very focused on what I’m doing here. So I don’t often follow the newspapers or the internet. I follow what the U.S. national team is doing. I do sense the interest growing in who I am, but like I said, I just keep my head down. I’m just working through things here.
ESPN: Those of us who work in the Bundesliga are always telling the wider audience about your story. As an American by upbringing, you’ve been a trailblazer. But there’s now another American coach in the Bundesliga, admittedly from a very different path. You did it very much the hard way, some would say. Jesse Marsch has arrived in Leipzig and you’re going to see him on matchday 2. Do you know him? Have you met him? Have you had any conversations with him so far?
Matarazzo: We’ve met when he was assistant at Leipzig. We spoke for several minutes after the game. So we’ve had contact one or two times. And of course, I’m excited to see him again and just congratulate him for what a great job he’s been doing. Certainly the paths are different paths. I don’t know if I would call myself a trailblazer as I’m not the first. Joe Enochs comes to mind who also played in Germany. I think it’s definitely a path someone can take: play overseas, stay for a while, pretty much just work your ass off and sacrifice everything that meant anything to you in the world and get to where you can. I think it’s definitely a possibility. But paths are different and I’m excited to see Jesse at the game.
ESPN: And I’m sure you will have an interesting chat. What’s been interesting to me is that the coverage of Jesse has been quite different. And he has been spoken in the German press as somebody who’s very American in his ways. He’s very open with the players, he doesn’t come from the traditional German school. What’s your way of dealing with your players? Is it more the German way after so many years in this culture?
Matarazzo: I’d like to think I have the best mix of all cultures. There are definitely strengths in the direct German culture that I like a lot and adapt to my style. I also think the optimism and the positive energy, the American culture is also within me. I try to bring that to the team and always search for strengths, see strengths, use strengths, to work together as a unit. Yeah, I think there’s a good mix going on right now, at least that’s the feeling that I have.
ESPN: Jurgen Klopp once said if the setup at a club is all wrong, as a coach, you have no chance. The setup in Stuttgart with CEO Thomas Hitzlsperger and sporting director Sven Mislintat has been widely praised. Do you feel lucky that, having walked through the door there, you’re working in a positive environment as opposed to having to worry about what’s going on behind the scenes as some coaches might?
Matarazzo: I don’t know if I would call it luck or a decision. That was pretty much the first conversation we had. It’s not just [the club] making a decision, it’s me as well. This wasn’t the first option I had to work as a head coach. At the time it was a second-division offer, which I had previously declined.
For me, it’s very important that the group works and that there’s a very good energy, there’s constructive criticism. The level of communication also within the leadership group has to be productive. And that was part of my decision for VfB Stuttgart. Not just the amazing history and culture behind the club, and the fan base that it has, but also the people I’m working with. So that was the first step. I think as much as luck, it was also a decision that was made to be able to work with such great guys like Thomas, Sven and Markus [Rudt].
ESPN: Fans are always interested in how this works, day to day in the Bundesliga. Mislintat is an expert in squad building and that normally is his territory, but as we know, the German language has a great word for striking such a balance: mitspracherecht — the right to have a say, or input. How much input do you have?
Matarazzo: Yeah, it’s definitely a working relationship. I don’t think it makes sense for Sven to transfer or sign any players that I’m not happy with. So I’m always involved in every decision that’s made. I’m aware of the players from the very beginnings of interest. I look at the players and I give my feedback. At the end of the day, it’s his decision to press the green button, whether or not we sign the player or not. But I’m very involved in all the discussions.
ESPN: Mislintat recently told Kicker magazine that, having transferred Nicolas Gonzalez and Gregor Kobel and taken in more than €38 million, Stuttgart now no longer need to move on anyone else in this window. Does that give you a more settled feel about the squad?
Matarazzo: Sure, I think the sooner the roster’s set, the sooner you stabilise. That’s the general feeling. But I’m always focused on the players on the field at that moment. So I work with each player and the squads until the moment where someone leaves or somebody comes in. So I don’t worry too much, I don’t speculate much. So I assume things will not change much ’til the end of the transfer window. But if they do, then they do. And I adjust, we adjust. I don’t unsettle easily, I stay focused. But of course, the sooner the roster is set, the more you can plan.
ESPN: Stuttgart were great to watch last season and are off to a flyer this time around. We’re using a few German words, but I think sometimes they convey the situation better than the words that exist in English. Tell me about the importance of umschaltmomente (transitional moments) — in your way of thinking.
Matarazzo: Of course, it goes without saying that they’re very important. Moments where space opens, where there’s disorder. I think in the first half of last season we scored many goals on transitional moments, pressing high up and scoring quick goals, but towards the end, we had less. It has to do with who you have on the pitch, who’s performing or where are their strengths. So it depends on the players you have and how they work together as a unit.
We’re not just about transitioning, we’re also about creative, constructive buildup using easily flexible structures to create problems for the opponent. And then defending also in different heights. You know, there are games where we press very high and games where we sit very deep and counter. For me, it’s also a lot about being flexible and solution oriented. So what does the opponent do and where are they vulnerable? Then to use these points of vulnerability that coincide with our strengths to hurt them. So that’s my way of thinking, and try to, like I said, create patterns and structures that means we can always pull something out of the box that works on gameday.
ESPN: Sasa Kalajdzic and Borna Sosa received plaudits for scoring and setting up goals last season, but I noticed in the recent cup win, you singled out a less heralded player for praise: Atakan Karazor. A good sign and a positive step that many in the squad are contributing?
Matarazzo: I think the media signals out players that score goals and have assists, but I’ve always seen value in every player that’s on the field and on the roster. To me it’s important to see the the human being, see the individual, see their strengths and foster their strengths and bring them out on the field. So I see Ata doing a great job and just having such a big impact on the game, then I mentioned it, I strengthened him, and then you continue to work forward with him. So I think we always had that. The question is, if that’s the next step, that’s going to be the next step that the media decides to pick up. But I always think it’s important to single out the players that have done a lot of good work behind the scenes.
ESPN: I remember when no one really knew what Kalajdzic’s best position was. Now he’s a fully fledged international striker who scored 16 goals last season. What has been the key to his success?
Matarazzo: Sasa is a very talented individual, who’s not only very dangerous in the box, but knows when and where to make runs. As you know, he has great size and a great, great heading game, but he’s also a creative player, and technical player that can also help buildup and create chances for other players. I think if you see our goal in preseason against Liverpool, it’s a perfect example where he sets up, puts the ball through to Borna Sosa and then gets back in the box and works a give-and-go with Philipp Forster and creates that goal almost single-handedly. So he’s not just about scoring goals. He has learned to use his technique and his eye to help other players shine. He’s a very complete player.
ESPN: As a club you’ve had to work through corona issues in the buildup to the season. How challenging has that been?
Matarazzo: I mean, we’ve gotten used to the process and to the testing, and a lot of the players are also vaccinated now. So it’s less regulations. I think we’re most influenced when players test positive. We’ve had three players recently but there’s of course an effect not just on the three but also on the team and the feeling that you have within the squad. But these things have happened not just to our club but to other clubs, that we’ve learned to deal with. Take it day by day and always adjust to the current situation. And it’s been difficult, but we’re getting through it.
ESPN: As an applied mathematics graduate from an esteemed university, Columbia University in New York, how well does that prepare you for the world of high-level football coaching? What are the areas of convergence?
Matarazzo: My structure of thought and logic is something I’ve taken with me throughout the years. I think when we start talking about data and data models, it’s no problem for me to work with our data scientists on a good level basis. So I think there are definitely points where it’s been an advantage. But I’m not a nerd behind the scenes looking after every game at all the numbers. And it’s kind of funny, I see myself more leaning towards the human being and what he’s feeling. But like I said, based on similar thought structure that I used to have when I was studying at school.
ESPN: Following on from that, I studied German when I was very young, always my favourite subject, and my old German teacher used to tell me that anybody who was exceptional at mathematics had a very good chance with the German language because of the intricacies of the grammar. And you know all about that having gone from not knowing a word of German to speaking it magnificently. Any tie-in there, as far as you’re concerned, between mathematics and German?
Matarazzo: It’s a good question. The language is very intricate, and very, very mechanical. And I think a language where you can really, truly express deep thought, which is fantastic. I’m very, very happy, very grateful that I’ve been able to learn this language. And I did learn it relatively quickly, I think. So maybe there’s a tie there, but I’m not certain.
ESPN: I imagine your wife has helped a bit on that front too?
Matarazzo: Sure. When I met my wife, I had been here for a year and a half and was already speaking German. But then we started, even though she could speak English, we decided to speak German together and then it just kind of exploded in one direction. That was definitely a big help to learn the language when I met my wife.
Matarazzo: That is the case. We lived in Nuremberg for 11 years. My wife and son stayed there another extra two years while I was at Hoffenheim, and then I moved them over to Kraichgau in August of 2019. Because it was time for us to be together again, and then four months later, Stuttgart came along.
So now I have an apartment here in Stuttgart, my wife and my son are still in Kraichgau. It’s only an hour and 15 [minutes] driving distance, so it’s easy to see each other on weekends, and maybe once during the week. I think it’s important not to take my son out of school on a regular basis. So when he moved into high school, we decided that was the time to move from Nuremberg to Kraichgau to let him finish up school there unless something happens internationally, but that’s not my plan. My plan is VfB Stuttgart and this distance is manageable.
ESPN: American fans might wonder, could you see yourself in the USA again one day? Is it something that you ever think about?
Matarazzo: It would definitely be a transition. First and foremost because of soccer language. I think I would need at least a few weeks to readjust. My aunts and uncles complain that when I speak English, I speak with a German accent. I’d have to eliminate my accent to be able to work there again. And with the States, I’m not closing any doors, but if I made the move back then it would definitely have to be close to the family. So, New York area. So we’ll see. I’m very focused on what I’m doing now. And I’m very happy to be here with Stuttgart. Everything else is just kind of not something you can plan.