Hertha Berlin’s Hinrunde Reviewed: Belief Restored

Ab Oktober sind wir unschlagbar

When Hertha Berlin started the season with a draw against Paderborn at home followed by a 3:1 away loss to FSV Frankfurt, which dropped them to 16th place in the table, along with a 2:1 loss to Wormatia Worms in the Pokal, new coach Jos Luhukay’s statement that “we’ll be undefeatable after October” seemed overly optimistic.

The team looked to be in disarray on the pitch–strange passes and clear miscommunications gave the general impression of a team that hadn’t gelled yet. Considering the major personnel turnover between seasons and injuries, as well as the abbreviated summer training season due to a delayed start following prolonged legal wrangling and the 2. Liga’s two-week head start on the 1. Liga’s, perhaps confusion was to be expected.

Thankfully, the next three matches were wins (2:1 over Jahn Regensburg, 1:2 over FC Union, and 2:0 over VfR Aalen), and Luhukay’s prediction seemed pessimistic: three wins in a row, and it was only September! Hertha’s recent ups and downs haven’t disposed the fans to optimism, so it wasn’t until matchday 9–October 5– when Hertha stood in second place, undefeated for six matches, that fans started believing again.

Before the winter break, Hertha remained at second place with 42 points (12-6-1), two points away from top-ranked Eintracht Braunschweig and with ten points’ clearance over third-place 1. FC Kaiserslautern, and on a 16-match undefeated streak–a club record. Luhukay seems like a prophet.

The right coach at the right time

Luhukay took FC Augsburg up from the 2. Bundesliga in 2010, the same year Hertha was promoted. He kept them up in the 2010/11 season, but he left partway through the Rückrunde. Augsburg hasn’t recovered and is languishing in the relegation zone, though their outlook may be promising.

Luhukay has been a much tougher coach than Babbel ever was. BZ reported on outbursts of anger. Whatever he said seems to have motivated the players. They’re more cohesive on the pitch, if still plagued by occasional communication errors, mainly up front.

Versatility and a cult hero

Thanks to a spate of defensive injuries in an already-too-small line-up (Christoph Janker (RB), Maik Franz (CB)), Hertha signed Peter Pekarik (RB) at the end of the transfer window. In a Pyrrhic victory against St Pauli in November, Pekarik, too, was injured.

Luhukay looked at his options and put Fabian Lustenberger–a usual number six–in the right-back position against Union Berlin, where he performed adequately. After Franz injured his shoulder, Luhukay moved Lustenberger to centerback, rather than call the badly out-of-form Roman Hubnik up. (In one memorable match last season, he had to play goalkeeper after Marco Sejna was shown the red card.)

Lustenberger, known to fans as Lusti, came to Hertha in 2007, making him, at 24, the longest-serving player in the team. His flexibility on the pitch, leadership qualities, and strong performance led the fans to vote him player of the Hinrunde–even over top scorer and surprise of the season Ronny.

Ronny’s performance in this season has been stunning. In the 2010/11 2. BL season, he was a decent player, but he had a problem with maintaining adequate fitness. The 2011/12 season, he was overweight on his return from break, and he wasn’t fit enough to start in games.

After the relegation, Ronny’s brother Raffael left for Kiev (and is back in the Bundesliga with Schalke). There was a bit of concern among fans that Ronny would react badly to his brother’s absence. On the contrary, Ronny has blossomed out of his brother’s shadow. The left-footed offensive midfielder has scored 9 of Hertha’s 36 goals and is tied for third in the top-scorer table. His winner in the derby, a free kick scored three minutes after his substitution, earned him cult hero status.

When kicker published its player rankings for the winter, Hertha players topped the list in four of six categories (goalkeeper Thomas Kraft, defensive winger Peter Pekarik, defensive midfielder Peer Kluge, and offensive midfielder Ronny), and Lustenberger was a close second to Braunschweig’s Deniz Dogan.

Rückrunde preview

The men on the injured list–striker Pierre-Michel Lasogga, Maik Franz, and Peter Pekarik–are all back. Pekarik is expected to be able to play again by the February 11 derby, and Lasogga is expected to be on the squad for the first match February 3. Left-back Levan Kobiashvili is returning from his six-month suspension.

The friendlies over the break were a mixed bag: a 2:1 win over the Wolfsburg amateurs followed by a 1:5 loss to Wolfsburg’s A-squad, who had already completed their training camp and were ready to start the Rückrunde of the Bundesliga a few days later, while Hertha hadn’t even gone to training camp. They then lost 1:2 to Hamburg.

The next friendly was a 2:2 against the Bayern amateurs, with both goals conceded in the second half, after a near-complete change of line-up. The last two, at the end of training camp in Belek, Turkey, were wins: 2:0 over FC Lugano and 3:2 over Sturm Graz.

Hertha’s weak point remains the defensive line. The regular line-up works well and has improved their communication over the season, but there is little depth. When one or two players are injured, Luhukay has to scramble and improvise with right-wingers and defensive midfielders.

The offense’s chance conversion ratio also needs to increase. There are too many shots and too few goals. Lasogga is eager for his return to the starting line-up and his first goal outside a friendly. There is a lot of competition for the single starting striker position–Lasogga, Ramos, Allagui, Sahar, and Wagner–so he may not get his wish as soon as he would like.

Unless things go entirely wrong, Hertha will be playing in the Bundesliga again next year. Then the mission will be to stay there this time.

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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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