October 22, 2017

2016-17 Report Cards: Hertha Berlin

Let’s start with some facts:

  • Hertha in 2015/16: 50 points, even goal difference, 7th place, Europa League Qualifiers.
  • Hertha in 2016/17: 49 points, -4 goal difference, 6th place, Europa League Group Stage.

Hertha’s last two seasons are proof that the Bundesliga can be random, erratic and cynical sometimes. On matchday 33 of last season, Hertha lost at home to a red hot Darmstadt side that was fighting relegation, while all the clubs in the hunt for Europe won. A week later, Hertha played well, but failed to beat direct competitor Mainz. That 0:0 meant Mainz and Schalke were headed to the Europa League Group Stage. Hertha, in 7th place, was forced to play Bröndby Copenhagen in the Qualifiers.

Lowlight of the Season

Hertha Berlin, you’ve been publicly trolled.

Well, Hertha basically threw away the 15/16 season within a week by losing 2:3 on aggregate to Bröndby. Combined with the late season collapse, that dropped Hertha from third to seventh in a couple of weeks, the mood was terrible in Berlin before the 16/17 season even really started.

Now fast forward to MD33 in 16/17. Hertha played an already relegated Darmstadt side on the road and earned a workmanlike 2:0 win, while literally all of Hertha’s Euro competitors drew or lost. In the season finale, Hertha turned in their worst performance of the year and got slaughtered 2:6 by Leverkusen. Incredibly, Hertha ended up in 6th place this time around. That 6th place finish later turned into a guaranteed Group Stage ticket, because Dortmund won the Cup. Had Eintracht won the DFB Pokal, Die Adler would have entered the Group Stage draw as a DFB Pokal winner while Hertha would have ended up in the dreaded Qualifiers again.

Highlight of the Season

Thus, Hertha’s goal of the 16/17 season was actually scored by Dortmund’s Pierre Emerick Aubameyang. Marvin Plattenhardt scored some beautiful free kick golazos, but Auba’s penalty was the “money shot” that limited the damage of yet another “Hertha style” late season collapse.

In today’s Bundesliga, roughly two thirds of the teams are good enough to make Europe but also bad enough to get sucked into relegation battles. Unless you are Bayer, every Bundesliga season is one gigantic crap shoot and small details can make the difference between a playing Real Madrid and playing Erzgebirge Aue. Wolfsburg went from hosting Real Madrid in the UCL Quarterfinals to hosting Eintracht Braunschweig in the Relegation Playoffs within 12 month.

In the same timeframe, Hoffenheim went from relegation worries to UCL hopes. Dardai and sporting director Michael Preetz have made smart bets in recent years and were able to establish continuity in an unpredictable Bundesliga ecosystem. That said, in 16/17 Hertha finished only 12 points above the relegation zone, so there is no such thing as a “mid table team” in the Bundesliga anymore. It is a tremendous achievement to retain last season’s spot. Gladbach, Schalke, Leverkusen and Mainz supporters are probably nodding right now.

What makes Dardai’s body of work even more impressive, is the fact that he is outperforming his budget. Hertha’s squad is only 10th on the transfer value table but somehow managed to remain in the Top 7 in back to back years. Schalke (Breel Embolo; 22m€) and Leverkusen (Kevin Volland; 17m€) spent more on a single player than Hertha did in the last two offseasons (15/16: 6.7m€ ; 16/17 7.3m€) for all signings combined. How exactly does the Hungarian coaching wizard work his magic?

Attack

Hertha’s top goal scorer was Vedad Ibsevic in 2016-17.

Well, numbers can’t really explain how Hertha ended up in the Top 6. Hertha had a negative goal differential and managed just 10.2 shots on goal per game. Only Darmstadt (10.0) took slightly less. With 3.7 shots on target per game, Hertha was 13th overall. Were dribblings a weapon? Nah, Hertha had just 7 of them per game, 14th in the league. Overall, whoscored.com ranks Hertha as the 10th best offensive team in the 16/17 Bundesliga season. And if you are looking for Hertha’s best offensive player, you’ll have to scroll all the way down to find Mitchell Weiser (7.08 rating) in 57th place. If you check out the scorer rankings, you’ll find Vedad Ibisevic in 9th place on 12 goals and Salomon Kalou in 27th on 7 goals. Morerover, Hertha scored just 24 times from open play (11th) yet they also got 12 goals (6th) from set pieces.

Hertha’s line up in the 0:2 loss at Schalke.

 

Defense

Sebastian Langkamp and John Anthony Brooks, “The Berlin Wall.”

You probably expect some really impressive defensive stats, right?

Well, Hertha allowed the 8th most shots on goal in 16/17 and conceded the most goals among the Top Six. Sebastian Langkamp, ranked 62nd, was Hertha’s best rated defender. Not to take anything away from Niklas Stark, John Brooks & co. but Hertha wasn’t an elite defensive team, even Schalke (finished 10th) and Frankfurt (11th) conceded less. Moreover, Hertha scored just one lousy counter attack goal all season. So this defensive unit also wasn’t good at distribution and bringing the ball up quickly. The biggest strength of Hertha’s D was defending set pieces, Die Alte Dame conceded only six goals from dead ball situation all year (3rd). John Brooks’ world class aerial abilities helped a great deal and he will be missed next year.

Hertha in its 1:1 home draw against Bayern.

 

Midfield

Midfield engine Vladimir Darida.

Hertha’s strength is tough to quantify by any metrics, because most Hertha wins are manufactured by boring but effective work in midfield. Vladimir Darida, one of the best athletes in the league, makes the whole system work with his insane work rate and smart positioning. The rest of the midfield is often picked by Dardai depending on opponent quality (check out the graphics above). Versatility is the key word here, as Preetz and Dardai have built a squad full of players who can play competently in multiple spots. Niklas Stark and Allan can join Hertha’s “enforcer” Per Skjelbred and fortify the midfield “engine room”, when Hertha is up against strong opponents.

Against lesser clubs, Dardai plays two holding midfielders and sends an extra offensive midfielder in the pitch, to give Hertha the speed, finesse and flair needed to break down a deep sitting opponent. But no matter who they’re playing, the defensive balance is on point. All in all, Hertha conceded just 6 goals from counter attacks (the big home losses vs. Leipzig and Leverkusen greatly inflated that number). Granted, once Hertha falls behind by a goal they are in trouble because creativity isn’t a strong suit of this side. But when Hertha scores first, it’s almost impossible to break through the “Berlin Wall”, as Bayern and Dortmund found out last season during their visits in Berlin.

Improvements needed for 2017-18

The pink jerseys didn’t help Hertha’s away form at all.

Well, if you check out the relatively small budget Hertha is working with, it would be ridiculous to expect them to improve. Hertha managed to finish ahead of Leverkusen (by 12 points), Schalke (6) and Gladbach (4) when all three had an off year. Wolfsburg has barely escaped relegation and just bought Hertha’s bedrock in defense for 17 million.

As outlined above, an upper table finish isn’t all that hard to achieve in the Bundesliga, but it’s almost impossible to do it for years. If Hertha wants to win ca. 50 points again in 2018, the need to play better away from home. Hertha earned 37 points at home compared to 12 on the road. This is quite a dangerous trend, because a dip in form during home games could break Hertha’s neck. After all, Hertha’s three away wins came against Wolfsburg, Darmstadt and Ingolstadt, which isn’t a good sign at all.  Away games are one concern, but the Rückrunde performances also need to improve. For the third year in a row, Hertha faded away down the stretch. In the Hinrunde, Hertha was 5th overall on 30 points with a +6 goal differential. It was a small miracle that Hertha only dropped one spot despite yet another underwhelming Rückrunde (19 points, -10 goals, 13th).

Transfer (P)review

“Königstransfer” Davie Selke, will play the Olympiastadion pretty often from now on.

Hertha fans are relieved that the club is finally run by a competent front office. Preetz and Dardai have been getting Europa League finishes on a mid table budget for two years now and the 17/18 summer window already got off to a great start. John Anthony Brooks only signed a two year extension in January 2016, which meant that a transfer was just a matter of time (and money). Keeping Brooks around for 17/18 would have destroyed his transfer value ahead of the 18/19 offseason, because of the pending free agency.
Since Hertha’s defence did alright during Brooks’ pretty frequent injury absences, accepting the Wolfsburg offer (17 million guaranteed plus 3 million in bonuses) was a no brainer. It was the biggest sale in Hertha history and Brooks became the most expensive US American in world football history. What made the deal even sweeter, Preetz had already lined up a move for RB Leipzig’s backup striker Davie Selke in advance. Selke was one the hottest striker prospect in Europe when he debuted for Werder Bremen and starred in Germany’s U19.

But Selke’s image took a hit, when he chose to join RB Leipzig in 2.Liga instead of playing top flight football in Bremen. This season at RB Leipzig, a team that’s playing with a single striker, Selke failed to beat out Yussuf Poulsen for that one spot, because the Dane played well and RB was winning. A lot of fans and journalists weren’t too happy when Preetz broke Hertha’s transfer record (8.5 million) for a substitute. But those who watched Selke at the Olympics and paid attention to his 16/17 numbers (4 goals in 430 minutes) know that he’s actually brutally undervalued at that price point.

Starlet academy product Torunarigha is Brooks’ replacement.

Brooks can arguably replaced by this year’s breakout star starlet Jordan Torunarigha, by contrast Hertha’s goal getters Kalou & Ibisevic aren’t getting any younger while Julian Schieber and Sami Allagui are on their way out. I guess it was a good call by Preetz and Dardai, who have basically traded two years of Brooks for Selke plus roughly 9 million in cash Next season Hertha will play an extra six games in the UEL Group Stage, so the signing of Ingolstadt’s offensive all-rounder Mathew Leckie for 3 million might come in handy down the stretch.

As a Hertha fan, I really appreciate that the major deals are already done and Hertha’s preseason preparations won’t be disturbed by transfer rumors. Moreover, Dardai gets to work with Selke for the entire off-season. The Hungarian will have plenty of time to work on those two striker lineups (Ibisevic & Selke up front), that Dardai is planning to use 17/18. It’s a risky move to go big with two strikers in a league where everybody plays a single striker (that is often a false nine). But if this Selke and Ibisevic combo works out as intended (think Higuain and Mandzukic at Juventus), the Hungarian wizard really deserves a monument.

Player of the Season

Plattenhardt’s 2:1 freekick goal against Dortmund.

Marvin Plattenhardt. It’s tough to pick just one player. Goalkeeper Rune Jarstein played incredibly well, Ibisevic was the top scorer, while Langkamp & Brooks also deserve a lot of praise. But throughout the whole season, it was Left Back Plattenhardt who impressed me the most.

Yes, he does score beautiful free kicks goals but that’s not really what makes him so valuable. Plattenhardt corner kicks and crosses are crucial for Hertha’s attack and his runs provide width. On top of that “@Platte21” does a great job at the back, despite his offensive work rate. It was long overdue for Jogi Löw to finally call him up. Many Hertha fans feared that Plattenhardt would be the next Marcel Schmelzer, a player whose solid to great performances never impressed Jogi. Even though it’s “just” the Confed Cup reserve team, it’s great to see a Hertha BSC player suit for Germany again, because the club hasn’t had one since Arne Friedrich left.

Grade: A

Away games were a problem and the Rückrunde results weren’t pretty. That being said, Bundesliga clubs can only be judged based on their financial background, so all Hertha fans could have expected was a Top 10 finish. Dardai, Preetz, the men’s squad, the academy and everybody else working for the the club have done an amazing job on all levels.

 

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