After their Europa League run last year, the hype surrounding Hannover 96 has done nothing but grow. Mirko Slomka has (finally) signed a new deal and the club are looking like another positive advert for the Bundesliga and its style of play. So far, this campaign has proved slightly more taxing but the Reds still look capable of fulfilling the task ahead of them, providing they bear a few things in mind.
Not only did Hannover start the season before most teams, they did so in fantastic fashion too. Their matches averaged approximately five goals a game at the start of the season! Their road to Europa League qualification, although never really in doubt, was a goal-ridden, confident one. They started their Bundesliga campaign with equal panache, pushing defending champions Borussia Dortmund to a 1-1 draw at home in one of the most entertaining games of the season. Last season’s foundations looked like they had left a solid base and the opportunity to push the top six once more appeared to have opened. Then, as the Europa League kicked in, the Reds found themselves fighting on three fronts. As much as they experienced the same last season, it doesn’t necessarily mean the side have quite got used to it yet. Consistent years of battling the much discussed ‘three-fronts’ aid the ability to cope with it but don’t always provide the answer. Arsenal are still struggling with it and, as it dawned on them, Hannover are starting to realise that as much as experience helps them, it is a better-than-average squad depth that makes the difference.
Looking at the squad in individual sections there are clear observations. In defence, the exciting prospect of Konstantin Rausch is developing but apart from that, they look a fairly ordinary side. Karim Haggui is good enough, and will no doubt improve but Mario Eggimann remains a question mark, which can’t be good halfway through the season. Felipe has been more injured than not so passing judgement on him is hardly fair. Nevertheless, what I have seen is far from encouraging. He may have aerial presence but his positional play is often quite simply unacceptably poor. Steven Cherundolo, aka Mr. Hannover 96, has proved himself more than capable but he needs more time to recover in between games now and Hiroki Sakai hasn’t quite proved himself a capable deputy yet.
Ron-Robert Zieler is an international goalkeeper but even he has let his form drop recently and that comes from the epidemic lack of confidence in that defensive area. Far too often this season, Mirko Slomka’s men have conceded late goals. No better an example than away against Helsingborgs IF in the Europa League, where an even later Didier Ya Konan goal spared Hannover’s blushes. In the same competition, they threw away an excellent first-half performance to concede in the dying moments against Levante and draw 2-2. This is a combination of tiredness as well as a lack of both concentration and quality.
The loss of the in form Leon Andreasen at the start of the season has been difficult and Slomka hasn’t really been able to fill the void. Unfortunately, despite doing well last year, Manuel Schmiedebach has been far from good enough. In fact, he looks both out of position and out of shape, most notably against Bayern Munich. Jan Schlaudraff has the occasional moment of brilliance – see his superb ball to Mame Diouf in the impressive 3-2 win over Bayer 04 Leverkusen. He remains an important figure for the team but is certainly not the answer. The loss of Lars Stindl to injury is a big blow. Stindl has been the most consistent performer in the midfielder and can offer a variety of options. His central partner, da Silva Pinto occasionally shows moments of brilliant vision but can often lack the calm that Stindl possess.
Szabolcs Huszti had an absolutely inspired start to the season but has calmed since, understandably so. He provides that magical flare in midfield which, along with Stindl (and Diouf), make Hannover a top 6 side in my opinion. Adrian Nikci is a squad player and has yet to really come to the fray and despite not being new, it seems the same could be said for Christian Pander and Sofian Chahed. Christian Schulz has been committed in both midfield and attack but he too is not that one step better than he might be. Ya Konan as a wide player, where he is often played, is like having another striker on the field. That helps when Diouf is isolated and so tactically, it depends on the opponent. The Ivorian remains an important member of the team though and although not prolific, he has improved on his control and confidence – the elegant lob against Levante in Spain springs to mind.
In attack they have five options to choose from (including Ya Konan) but there can be no doubt that Mame Diouf is the stand out. His movement, strength and great finishing – see his goal in their 2-1 defeat to Düsseldorf – make him an absolutely pivotal cog in the Hannover machine. It is almost hard to believe that this same man used to look mediocre for Blackburn and non-existent for Manchester United, such is the extent of his improvement. Artur Sobiech looked like he might be the other half of that forward mechanism but he too hasn’t quite acclimatised to the Bundesliga yet. ‘Moa’ Abdellaoue certainly knows his way around this league but like Schlaudraff, he runs both hot and cold. More starts might help him find that form of previous seasons but whether Slomka will give them to him remains debatable.
Despite these cracks of mediocrity and poor form, Hannover find themselves with the same points as this time last year (23). However, the Bundesliga – once again proving itself to be as unpredictable as the press suggests it to be – sees them sit outside the top ten (11th), whereas last year they were inside it, comfortably (7th). Without the sloppy end to the season, the club may well have found themselves inside that top ten. Interestingly enough, they have scored far more this year (32 to last year’s 20) but have also conceded more too (31 to last year’s 24).
Winning games by scoring more is certainly one philosophy but as it has proved for them too often this season, it can be a costly one. The defeat to Düsseldorf was an example of a lack of concentration and ultimately, completely unnecessary. Slomka’s men need to try and play more than one half of good football, which is where the tiredness comes in. They must be fitter and if they cannot be, then you address the third issue: the squad depth. 53 games in the calendar year of 2012 is no mean feat but the club need to react or at least be able to react to it if they are to continue their positive trend. Their defeat to Borussia Dortmund in the cup (5-1) was a combination of all three issues. The squad were tiring with an eye on the winter break and came up against a better side in really confident mood.
There is talk of new signings in January and given the issues outlined, they might be a good idea. However, they must be careful not to overspend, as is often the case in the window and to make sure they are buying what they actually need rather than act simply out of desperation. Central midfield cover is a must, as is a new central defender. There is talk of 25-year-old Gojko Kacar arriving from Hamburg. The slightly injury prone defensive midfielder could prove a good solution, so long as he stays fit of course.
An increase in confidence does wonders for most sides and Hannover are no different. When they looked in good form earlier in the season, every player had raised their performance. They need to rediscover that if they are to make another run in the Europa League. Their draw against Anzhi is a difficult one but by no means an impossible task. If they don’t make it through then Slomka will be keen to push his side nearer to the top six to make sure of qualification for another year’s European football. Financially there is always an incentive but for the club to consistently be on the European stage would be a fantastic achievement for both the club and the manager.
Diagnosis: Hannover must avoid getting tired too early in games and if so, make the correct changes to the team, which may mean January signings. Diouf needs a partner and as a collective they must remain as clinical (mostly) as they have been. If they do that, a top six finish and a Europa League run are well within their grasp.
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