Markus Babbel – The Man behind the promotion
The last time Markus Babbel participated in the 1. Bundesliga he was in charge of VfB Stuttgart after a short stint there as a player following retirement. In November 2008 he replaced the outgoing Armin Veh. Veh had a poor first half of the season and left his side stranded in 11th place, closer to relegation than the top half they were accustomed to. Babbel came in and guided Stuttgart to a 3rd place finish and qualification for the Champions League after a quite remarkable Hinrunde. In fact, Stuttgart finished that season just 5 points behind champions Wolfsburg. It was a turnaround few expected.
The following season was not as rosy however and Babbel struggled to keep his side competitive across multiple competitions. After 15 matches, Stuttgart were floundering in 16th place and club and coach decided to part ways despite the side finishing second in their Champions League group and qualifying for the knockout stages. In many ways, Babbel fell victim to the pressures and tumultuous circumstances of the results driven football business. Stuttgart were not willing to go through another disappointing season and decided that changing coaches was the best way to move forward. Things had turned so ugly in fact that Babbel had to at one point personally intervene in a quarrel with angry supporters at Stuttgart’s training ground.
Babbel did not let that episode disrupt his managerial ambitions though and he soon acquired his coaching diploma from the renowned Hennes-Weisweiler Academy in April of 2010. A month later Hertha Berlin announced that Babbel would become their new manager, signing a 1-year contract with the possibility of extension provided he returns the Berlin club to the first division the following season. Babbel did not disappoint and a year later Hertha Berlin secured promotion with three matches remaining.
Most people expected Hertha to gain promotion given their resources but perhaps not in the fashion that they did. With the league’s most lethal attack and one of the best defenses Hertha occupied a top three positions for 30 of the 34 weeks during the season. Boasting the 2. Bundesliga’s best away form, Hertha stormed their way to promotion and many supporters are now eager to see what Babbel and company have in store when they return to the big time next season. Let’s take a closer look at Babbel’s Berlin and see just how they got here and what we can expect from the “Old Lady” next term.
Tactical Set Up & Personnel – Flexibility benefits Hertha
Under Babbel, Hertha Berlin have mainly alternated between the widely used 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 reminiscent of Jürgen Klinsmann’s Germany circa 2006, which would more accurately be reflected as a 4-2-2-2 on the field. Earlier in the season he also experimented with a midfield diamond and a variation of a 4-1-4-1 but eventually settled on either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-2-2 simply because those were more effective and suited his players. That tactical evolution and Babbel’s willingness to be flexible was a large part in Hertha’s ability to continue the streak of results that won them promotion. Babbel’s ability to adapt when needed has been key in Hertha’s impressive season and holds the key for any plausible success next season.
Babbel initially started with what on paper most closely resembles a 4-1-4-1 formation. The backline was Hertha’s one consistent element during the season and remained largely unchanged throughout. Lell and Kobiashvili were Hertha’s fullbacks and in the center was arguably the league’s most reliable center back pairing in Hubnik and Mijatovic. The defensive consistency was one of the stabilizing factors in Hertha’s race to promotion. Niemeyer was the midfield destroyer with the attacking duo of Raffael and Domovchiyski in front of him and two wide players supporting the lone forward. It was formation packing a lot of punch and it helped Hertha to a fantastic start to the season, going unbeaten in their first 10 matches. It essentially fielded 5 forwards, which caught most teams off guard and utilized the many strikers Hertha had on their books. That element of surprise however wore out as the season progressed and Babbel’s men started to struggle.
Matchday 11 to 15 was Hertha’s poorest run of the season. In that run, Hertha lost 4 of their 5 matches in the league and were eliminated from the DFB Pokal by 3rd league outfit Koblenz in the second round. It was a stark contrast to their wonderful start. It was also a spell marked by a sense of confusion as Babbel tried to make sense of what was going wrong. He used several different formations in those weeks and none seemed to fit the team or catered to the consistency Hertha were seeking on the pitch as Babbel scrambled to find a solution. The roles were not clearly defined and that was evident in their performances as Hertha fell to their season low 5th position in the standings. Babbel needed to adapt to steady the ship as his side were losing games that otherwise they were expected to win.
Many managers would have rested on their laurels and hoped for a rebound down the line, especially after such a blistering start, but Babbel took a bold step and made some crucial changes. The new midfield diamond that was introduced was a compromise between Hertha’s attacking resources and a more balanced overall game. Babbel introduced 19-year old striker Lasogga into the fold to partner Ramos up front while playing a more narrow midfield and using the Brazilian Ronny and the Ukrainian born Australian Rukavytsya closer to the holding midfielder. Having a target in Lasogga also allowed Ramos to drop off and help in midfield. Hertha’s results improved immediately and they went on to win 5 of their next 6 matches.
The tactical evolution continued and also included the sacrifice of an additional attacking player (Domovchiyski) for a more defensive minded partner for Niemeyer (Lustenberger). Lustenberger’s performances convinced Babbel that the 23-year old Swiss midfielder deserved to start. Eventually the midfield diamond gave way to a “double six” in the center of the pitch in either the 4-2-2-2 or the 4-2-3-1 formations that then remained until the end of the season. In that spell, Hertha managed 8 clean sheets and lost only 3 of the remaining 18 matches.
The 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-2-2 formations optimized Hertha’s output and made the best use of its’ players in just about every position. In the 4-2-3-1 Babbel used two natural strikers on the wing (Ramos and Rukavytsya), which optimized their output. Hertha were also helped by Ebert’s return from injury which injected more direct approach into Hertha’s game and gave Babbel a different option. The changes complimented Raffel’s playmaking tendencies as it took pressure off the Brazilian and gave him plenty of room to create. Between Ramos, Ebert, Rukavytsya, Raffael and Lassoga, Hertha’s attack scored a combined 43 goals and amassed 34 assists.
The difference between the two formations was subtle. The 4-2-2-2 demanded that its’ wide players play closer to the flanks which catered to a more traditional winger like Ebert but in action it was not too different from the 4-2-3-1. Ramos was the forward that dropped off Lasogga and effectively replaced Raffael as the playmaker while Lustenberger and Niemeyer continued their steady grip in midfield. Because Niemeyer was no longer alone he was also able to get more involved in attack in the new formations and subsequently doubled his goals and assists for the season. Both formations also made better use of the fullbacks. Lell and Kobiashvilli, who were previously bogged down in defense, became the primary providers of width. That in turn allowed all other attackers to play closer to the center and add to the already strong Hertha offense. It was a far cry from the chaotic 4-1-4-1 that initially worked well but became unsustainable.
Hertha’s chances next season
Kaiserslautern and Marco Kurz proved this season that a newly promoted side is not beyond finishing in the first half of the table. And although Hertha were odds on favorites to win promotion they did so by merit rather than formality. After a poor spell of form in the Hinrunde, Babbel could have easily stumbled but instead found a more solid footing and became more astute in his approach. Rather than forcing changes he adjusted his system to suit the personnel he had available. In doing so, he went on to win 14 of the next 19 matches and secured first division football for the Hertha faithful.
Based on Hertha’s squad as well as their resources they should be able to compete with the likes of Kaiserslautern, Freiburg, Gladbach and Köln next year but a lot will depend on how the team transitions to the step up in quality of the first division. Hertha have talented and capable attacking players in Ramos, Lasogga, Ebert and Raffael so scoring goals will probably not be their gravest concern. However, sides like St. Pauli and Gladbach struggled this season primarily because they were so porous defensively. Hertha’s backline is not abundant in speed and Kobiashvili and Mijatovic are on the wrong side of 30 while Lell was exploited on numerous occasions when he was still playing for Bayern. How their defense will cope against the plethora of attacking players spread throughout the Bundesliga will largely determine Hertha’s chances next season.
Babbel seems to have found a system that works for him though and that will work in his favor going into next season. All the changes he was afforded in the 2. Bundesliga would not be as forgiving in the top flight so a solid foundation and consistent philosophy can only serve them well. The prognosis of course remains undetermined and any number of scenarios can play out but if their season in the 2. Bundesliga is any indication of how Hertha and Babbel conduct themselves as a serious football club Hertha fans have reason to be optimistic.
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