At the start of the season, things looked promising: coach Markus Babbel had shown a good amount of flexibility in his tactics in the 2010-11 season and managed the first immediate repromotion in club history. A few good signings–notably goalkeeper Thomas Kraft–looked to patch up the weak spots in the team. Forty-two points and a mid-table finish didn’t seem like an impossible dream.
After a disappointing home loss to Nürnberg in the opening match and two away draws, Hertha’s first Bundesliga win in the Olympic Stadium in over two years (August 9, 2009 was the last home victory) came on August 26, 2011 against VfB Stuttgart. Things still looked rosy the following matchday, when the boys from Berlin beat reigning champions BVB Dortmund at the Westfalenstadion. The next home victory had to wait a bit longer, as they turned a 0:1 at the half against Augsburg into a 2:2.
A heartbreaking loss in Bremen was the next shaky step. At halftime, the score was 1:1, but Hertha lost two men (right back Lell and striker Ramos) to red cards. They held off Bremen’s attacks, but Pizarro blasted a strike past Kraft in the last seconds of stoppage time.
“Football is a game of two halves” is a cliche quite applicable to Hertha from this point in the season onward. They scored three goals (at home) against Köln in the first, exciting half, then did nothing much else in the second half. The remaining games were similarly divided between a good (or at least not bad) first half and a mediocre at best second half.
An away loss to Bayern (not unexpected), a scoreless draw at home against Mainz, and a heart-stopping win at Wolfsburg preceded a winless series that lasted until the end of the Hinrunde. Hertha threw away a 0:2 lead over Freiburg (2:2) and a 2:1 lead over Leverkusen (3:3), and they ended the first half of the season with 4 wins, 8 draws, and 5 losses, for 20 points and 11th place. Only four points separate Hertha from the relegation spot (Kaiserslautern, 16th place, 16 points), so the middle of the table isn’t a very comfortable place to be right now.
Hertha overcame the Pokal curse and advanced past the second round. For the first time since 2006/07, they weren’t knocked out by a lower-division team in the second round. Coincidentally, for the first time since 2006/07, Hertha has progressed to the quarterfinals. They beat Kaiserslautern in a match that was much more vigorous and entertaining than the league match weeks earlier. They’ll face Mönchengladbach in the Olympic Stadium in the quarterfinals in February.
It may not be coincidence that the series of dreadful, winless football started at the same time that the drama surrounding Markus Babbel’s contract extension began. At the end of the previous season, he extended his contract for one year, until June 2012. Manager (and former Hertha top goal scorer) Michael Preetz and president Werner Gegenbauer tried to convince him to extend his contract.
Babbel said initially that he would make his decision during the November international break. Then he said he’d wait longer and longer, which only fueled speculation in the media about what the truth was.
It was no secret that Babbel didn’t feel at home in Berlin, or at least didn’t consider it home. He lived in a hotel and flew home to his family in Munich frequently. (He has school-aged children, and I can’t fault him for not wanting to disrupt their lives, or for wanting to see them.) He praised FC Bayern and talked about instilling the “Bayern gene” in the players.
The drama came to a head after the final matchday of the Hinrunde, when Babbel was summarily sacked three days before the Pokal’s third round. Babbel told the media that he’d gone to Preetz back in November and told him his decision, and Preetz told him to keep quiet about it until an unspecified time in the future. Accusations of lying were thrown back and forth, and the result was Babbel’s firing. This article has a (German) timeline of the bitter ending of Micha and Markus’ relationship.
The new coach
Michael Skibbe’s record as coach is rather lackluster. He has a much better record in Turkey than in Germany, but he could still surprise everyone. Shortly after he signed his contract, he quipped to a newspaper that he was looking for an apartment in Berlin, because he’d heard that was a point of contention with his predecessor.
At their winter training camp in Turkey, he’s spent a lot of time working on drills with the ball as well as conditioning exercises, which is one main difference from Babbel’s summer training camp: Babbel focused on cardio and endurance, rather than the ball. Anything that could improve the pass completion ratio and ball retention rate would surely help the team’s chances at keeping out of the relegation fight.
With a new coach, it’s hard to predict what might happen. They won the first two friendlies during the break, but not with any particular flair. The third friendly, against Swiss first division team FC Thun, had a bit more flair, and they won 4:2 (2:2).
Skibbe doesn’t seem to have any favorites or biases as yet, and in the friendlies, he’s given every player a chance to make an impression on him. Fan favorite Fabian Lustenberger may get a fairer shake with Skibbe, as Babbel favored ex-Bayern player Andreas Ottl. The Rückrunde is a blank slate for this team and their new coach. Hopefully Skibbe can start marking three-pointers on it.
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