Last roll of the dice – Can Bruno Labbadia save HSV from relegation?

Once again, it’s been a tumultuous season for HSV – from start to finish. During the summer, the club had seemingly found its confidence again. The introduction of the “HSV Plus” concept was meant to change the club from being a sleeping giant with structural issues to becoming once again a team that could finish higher up the table. Additionally, Dietmar Beiersdorfer, the sporting director who presided over the most successful period in the club’s most recent past, was brought back to the club to sort out the team and the structural issues which had been looming under the surface for far too long.

However, the sunshine over the Imtech Arena soon descended into clouds when the club once again showed that its internal struggles were far from over.

First sporting director Oliver Kreuzer was let go, and coach Mirko Slomka was fired after only three match days. The drama of old hadn’t vanished, and the first critics of “HSV Plus” pointed out that the promise of a long term strategy and stability seemingly weren’t going to be fulfilled by the new leadership.

Descending into the abyss

The next 24 matches which followed under Joe Zinnbauer saw the team improving its defending from time to time, but even the signing of the old fan favourite Ivica Olic couldn’t help the team create more goals upfront.

Periodically, the new coach showed how unexperienced he was at this level by getting his tactics completely wrong. While the coaching change from Slomka to Zinnbauer might have resulted in a slight bump and uprise in form at the start of the season, during the later stages of the Rückrunde the team and its coach seemed to be out of ideas and completely incapable of winning matches.

After 23 matches in charge – and with an average of only 1 point per match – Zinnbauer was sacked and replaced by another inexperienced man, Peter Knäbel, who had limited coaching experience from his youth work at Nürnberg and a stint in Switzerland. However, two matches and two catastrophic defeats made Knäbel the first HSV coach to lose both his first matches since Kuno Klötzer in 1973. After this disastrous start, Knäbel was sacked.

The current situation leaves tempers frail at the club. Johan Djourou and Valon Behrami reportedly had an altercation in the dressing room during the half time break when HSV took on Wolfsburg last weekend. Two of HSV’s most important players falling out is probably the last thing anybody needs, especially given the lack of good performances from supposedly leading players like Raffael van der Vaart, Heiko Westermann and Pierre Michel Lasogga.

Amazingly, HSV are currently outspending 12 of their competitors in the league in terms of player wages; nonetheless, the team is caught up in a relegation battle once again.

The Tuchel gamble

Due to ever changing leadership at the top and on the coaching bench, it might come as a surprise that the players who have been brought in over the last few years don’t make up an cohesive team. How could they?

Anyhow, the fans who go to the Imtech Arena each home matchday were probably not expecting their team to fight for a finish in the top six; however, they had the reasonable expectation that things were getting sorted out.

At this point, It’s reasonable to assume that a sporting director needs two, or maybe even three or four, transfer windows to rebuild a side like HSV. The first steps appeared to have been taken last summer, but despite signing many good players, the team hasn’t been clicking at all season. Players like Lewis Holtby, Julian Green and Nicolai Müller had all shown their qualities elsewhere before signing, but all three are currently in the midst of playing truly dreadful seasons. Green and the officials at the club have even fallen out, leaving the talented US international sidelined.

Moreover, it might have been a mistake to let an experienced coach like Mirko Slomka go after only three match days. The fact that his inexperienced successor didn’t manage to take charge and change such a complex situation into something better was certainly one of the risks HSV were facing when they decided to take a massive gamble on Joe Zinnbauer.

When the officials at the club finally had enough, they seemingly agreed upon one thing: the club needs a big name to get them out of this mess for the coming years.

Thomas Tuchel was courted, seemingly being the best option “big name” option. However, the fact that the former Mainz coach wouldn’t be able to take over straight away meant that the club needed another stop gap solution, hence the Knäbal appointment. However, as it turned out, taking a gamble on an even more unexperienced coach than Zinnbauer has seen the club drop to rock bottom in the table in recent weeks.

If Zinnbauer was unequipped to handle the team, Knäbel was seemingly like a two legged horse competing in the Kentucky derby. It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback, but Beiersdorfer and the officials at the club must answer for why they were willing to take on such a massive risk in order to sign Tuchel. How much worse would the team have done if Zinnbauer had stayed on for these last two matches?

Furthermore, if one is firing the coach due to being entangled in the relegation battle, shouldn’t one find a pragmatic solution rather than starting to compete for a coach who can pick and choose from a list of clubs when deciding where he should work next season?

Labbadia – The saviour?

On Monday, Dietmar Beiersdorfer told the media that no further coaching changes were going to be made this season. However, two days later HSV presented Bruno Labbadia as their new man in charge, seeing Peter Knäbel returning to his former position as sporting director. CEO Beiersdorfer told the press that Labbadia embodied what the club needed most of all in the current situation: Passion!

Bruno Labbadia has already been in charge of the club once. Back in the 2008/09 season, the former German international managed to take the team to the semi-final of the UEFA Cup and the club finished in a respectable 7th position by the season’s end. Back then, this finish wasn’t good enough for the officials at the club and Labbadia was let go three matches before the season’s end.

Currently, a dark cloud sit over those who returned to the club. Both Rafael van der Vaart and Ivica Olic have seen their form decline after re-joining the club, and former sporting director Dietmar Beiersdorfer is currently in the process of diminishing the legacy which he built during his first stint at the club.

However, Labbadia is optimistic that the club’s fortunes can be turned around at this stage of the season. The new coach’s first order of business was to send the players on a two day training camp, allowing the players and he to focus on their work on the pitch. During the next couple of days, Labbadia wants to explore the psyches of his players, locating mental blocks prevents from fulfilling their potential on the pitch.

The first task at hand for the coach is the Nordderby, however, which sees HSV travelling to their better-positioned arch rivals, Werder Bremen. If this baptism of fire goes well for the team and their new coach, the club might not be forced to take down the clock showing how long the team has competed in Germany’s top flight.

There are only six matches left to save HSV’s skins and revered status as the Bundesliga’s only not-ever-relegated club.

What do you think? Are HSV going down? Leave a comment below!

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.


  1. peter knable is the director of professional football….not an outside coach,,,,this information must be clear,,,,,any way labaddia is an experienced coach with an attacking orientation which should help the team score goals,,,,also the main problem is mental and he is trying to release the players from the mental blockade in his short training camp,,,,,if hsv manages to defeat bremen the relegation fight will get extremely interesting ,,,,,Nur Der HSV

  2. For all his failings, he’s at least a proper coach, which is more than can be said about his two predecessors. The decision to keep Zinnbauer for so long and then replace him with Knäbel were utterly baffling decisions. Such recklessness really should be explained in the off-season. A good result at Bremen and I reckon they’ll be good to stay up, but it doesn’t look too good to be honest. Hoping for the best, expecting the worst.

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