Season Preview – Hertha BSC – Aiming for promotion again

Starting with the Babbel-Preetz drama just before the winter break, continuing through the disastrous tenure of Michael Skibbe and the only marginally better tenure of Otto Rehhagel, and culminating in the courtroom after a pitch invasion during the relegation playoffs, Hertha’s 2011-12 season was rather memorable, even if fans would rather forget.

At the beginning of the Rückrunde, things didn’t look so bad for the Berliners, but between the team’s demoralization and some questionable decisions from sporting director Preetz, the goal of remaining in the 1. BL was beyond their reach.

Transfers

Departures
Maikel Aerts (GK, unknown)
Patrick Ebert (M, Real Valladolid)
Abu Bakarr Kargbo (F, unknown)
Jerome Kiesewetter (F, VfB Stuttgart)
Christian Lell (D, unknown)
Andre Mijatovic (D, FC Ingolstadt 04)
Andreas Ottl (M, FC Augsburg)
Raffael (M, Dynamo Kiev)
Tunay Torun (F, VfB Stuttgart)

Arrivals
Jos Luhukay (coach, FC Augsburg)
Sami Allagui (F, FSV Mainz 05)
Daniel Beichler (M, returned from loan to SV Ried, Austria)
Elias Kachunga (F, on loan from Borussia M’gladbach)
Peer Kluge (M, Schalke)
Marvin Knoll (M, returned from loan to Dynamo Dresden)
Marcel Ndjeng (M, FC Augsburg)
Shervin Radjabali-Fardi (D, returned from loan to Alemannia Aachen; injured)
Ben Sahar (F, Espanyol Barcelona)
Philip Sprint (GK, Hertha youth)
Sandro Wagner (F, Werder Bremen)

The team

Two players have multi-match bans at the start of the season, as a result of the fiasco during the second leg of the relegation playoff. Goalkeeper Thomas Kraft will have to sit out the first four matches. The big question is whether Sascha Burchert or Philip Sprint will be filling in for him in those first four matches. Luhukay has given both men opportunities to play in the pre-season friendlies, and both have shown that they need some improvement.

Left back Levan Kobiashvili has a six-month ban, reduced from a year, for hitting the referee in Düsseldorf. Roman Hubnik and Felix Bastians return from last year, as well as Alfredo Morales and John Anthony Brooks. Maik Franz is back in training after his ACL tear. Radjabali-Fardi also plays in the defensive line, but he’s out with an injury until mid-October. Christoph Janker is out temporarily with a groin injury. Sebastian Neumann is back in the U23s.

The midfield is a relatively unknown quantity this season, save returning defensive cornerstone and captain Peter Niemeyer and offensive all-rounder Änis Ben-Hatira. DM Fabian Lustenberger’s 2011-12 season was plagued with injury, but he’s been starting in the pre-season friendlies. Hertha youth players Fabian Holland and Nico Schulz are young and gaining experience. Peer Kluge comes with lots of experience from his 11-year Bundesliga career. Patrick Ebert’s departure left the right wing open, and Marcel Ndjeng followed Luhukay from Augsburg to fill that position. Fanol Perdedaj is going back to the U23 team, presumably to get more experience.

In the 2010-11 season, Ronny was a key player, along with his brother Raffael, in the midfield, but in the 2011-12 season, he didn’t play much because of fitness issues. Hopefully those are resolved.

Two strikers are staying with Hertha: Nikita Rukavytsya and the injured Pierre-Michel Lasogga, who will probably make his return after winter break. Elias Kachunga, Sami Allagui, and Daniel Beichler are the new arrivals. Adrian Ramos hasn’t found a club to depart for, but he’s looking. Marco Djuricin has been sent back to the U23 team.

The new coach and his system

Against all expectations, Jos Luhukay kept FC Augsburg in the top flight last season after their promotion alongside Hertha in 2010/11. During the pre-season friendlies, he has mainly employed an old-fashioned 4-4-2, rather than the currently fashionable 4-2-3-1. In an interview on the Hertha website, he said that quick combinations will lead to many goals. He wants to play a strong pressing game and not see a passive team on the pitch. He knows it won’t be easy, but he seems to be prepared. Luhukay has a clear coaching philosophy, which is something Hertha hasn’t seen much of in recent years.

In the pre-season friendlies, Hertha came out fairly well. They beat the Berliner SC 3:0, Viktoria 89 2:0, then lost to FC Teplice 0:1. Against Hannover 96, they won 4:0 (a brace from Beichler, an own goal, and a penalty by Ronny), and newcomer Elias Kachunga scored a hat trick against Norwich City (3:2).

The big friendly this year was to mark the Old Lady’s 120th birthday, and Hertha played against the Old Lady from Italy, Juventus Turin. Hertha played a good game with a strong offensive orientation, but Juventus scored twice, once on Burchert and once on Sprint. For the second goal, Milos Krasic found a sleeping central defense and nailed it past Sprint.

Strengths and deficits

Right now, Hertha’s main strength is their depth in each area. Luhukay is spoiled for choice in the midfield and offense, and he isn’t afraid to give new players chances.

The main weaknesses, as seen in the Juventus friendly, are the defense and the offense. For Hertha fans, having a porous defense isn’t news, but at the moment, it’s a personnel problem. Christoph Janker has had groin strain troubles and hasn’t been able to train much. Kobi’s banned until spring. Maik Franz has only recently been able to complete a full training session. Hubnik has only been back with the team for a couple weeks after the EURO, and the rest have barely had any experience. Luhukay experimented with the back four, putting midfielders like Niemeyer, Lustenberger, and Holland in central and left defense in several friendlies, with variable success.

The offense seems to be allergic to the goal. Adrian Ramos is still in a goal drought. In the Juventus match, they couldn’t convert their chances–which is also not really news to Hertha fans. The offense looked more organized in the thirty minutes I was able to watch than they did in the previous season, which is heartening, but their drives forward were too easily stopped, their crosses intercepted, their shots wide or into the woodwork. As Niemeyer said after the game, “That’s where you see the small but subtle difference between a top European club and us: they made a goal from half a chance, and we made none out of many.”

What’s in store

The Berliners have improved greatly since May, and coach Jos Luhukay may be able to take them back into the top flight. If he doesn’t manage it this year, it won’t be for lack of hard work on his part. His goal is to rebuild the team and start winning some games. After last season, that’s something for beleaguered Hertha fans to look forward to.

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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).

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