The Fight for a mid-table finish: Hertha’s Hinrunde Reviewed

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.

The league

Pierre-Michel Lasogga under pressure in Hertha's first win of the season against Stuttgart.

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.

The Pokal

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.

The drama

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.

Preetz and Babbel in happier times

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.

The Rückrunde

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.

The following two tabs change content below.
Conni is a writer, football fan, and beer nerd. Her latest short story "Something There Is" is available in the anthology Substitution Cipher. You can follow her on twitter at @strafraum (football) or @exaggerated (writing and general life).

Latest posts by Conni Covington (see all)

7 Comments

  1. Thanks, Simon!

    Yeah, there’s pretty much no way the team’s morale wasn’t affected by the shenanigans. And I still don’t know who I think was telling the truth there, and I’m not sure it matters. The past is past.

    I’m hoping Skibbe can give us something to cheer about by chalking up some wins. The next four matches are against fellow mid-table teams. Hopefully we can do better than the Hinrunde here. HA HO HE!

  2. Hallo Peter! Es freut mich, dass meinen Beitrag Dir gefallen hat 🙂 Ich denke, dass mehrere amerikanische Fußballfans den europäischen Fußball lieber als den amerikanischen haben. MLS hat nur wenige Teams, und die sind nicht so gut wie europäischen Teams.
    Daumen gedrückt und ein lautes HA HO HE!

  3. Thanks!
    The official line was that of course teams know that contracts run out, so of course it isn’t affecting them, but given the temporal relationship as well as the markedly different quality in the Pokal match against ‘Lautern, I’m skeptical there isn’t a connection.

    I’m also hoping to see Lasogga grow into a top striker! He’s just 20 now, and this is his first Bundesliga season. Kid’s passionate about the game and utterly focused. Hoping his hard work pays off!

  4. A good read Conni and thank you for putting pen to paper / fingers to keyboard for us all.

    I agree that the Babbel controversy must have affected the squad. These kind of “backroom shenanigans” always do – all too often with worse results than the Old Lady experienced before the break.

    Let’s hope Skibbe can get the guys pulling together in the Rückrunde, starting this week. Ha Ho He !

  5. Hallo Conni, danke für Deinen Beitrag hier. Schön zu wissen das sich auch in den USA Menschen für den deutschen Fußball und hier insbesondere unsere Bundesliga interessieren. Drücken wir unserer “Alten Dame” für den Samstag mal beide Daumen und hoffen auf einen Sieg gegen den 1.FC Nürnberg.

    Liebe Grüsse Peter 🙂

  6. Fine article, Conni, thank you. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Hertha perform under Skibbe. No doubt that the Babbel controversy affected the squad, and it will be interesting to see how well Hertha Berlin can do without that distraction. Looking for the continued growth of Lasogga as a top Bundesliga striker.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.