Hertha BSC 2015-16 Season Review

Let’s rewind to the final Matchday of the 2014/15 season first:
Hertha was down 1:2 in the 80th minute at Hoffenheim. For ten minutes and extra time Hertha had a guillotine above her head. Another goal would have sent the Old Lady into the Relegation Playoffs. Hertha BSC Berlin didn’t concede and stayed up. Puh. Whew!
With 35 points, Berlin was dead even with Hamburg in points, but a single goal ahead of the HSV in the goal differential column. That’s where this current Hertha was coming from.

Mitchell Weiser got his groove going at Hertha.
Mitchell Weiser got his groove going at Hertha.

For the 2015/16 season, survival in the Bundesliga was the only realistic goal.

Hertha’s biggest signing was Mitchell Weiser, a talented youngster at 21, who didn’t make it at Bayern. Bayern academy players are hard to predict, they can turn into Mats Hummels and Emre Can, but they can also turn into busts like Antonio Di Salvo and Berkant Göktan.

Niklas Stark and Vladimir Darida joined from second division teams Nürnberg and Freiburg.

Vedad Ibisevic was so unwanted in Stuttgart, that Hertha actually got paid to take him.

None of these signees looked like huge upgrades to an underwhelming roster, there was no hype whatsoever.

Not even the biggest Hertha fanboy thought that this would become the smartest transfer summer in Hertha history. Ibisevic finally added power and size to Hertha’s attack, Weiser was fantastic on both right flank positions and Darida, who will play for a bigger team sooner or later, is a true two-way midfield engine that makes everything work.

Niklas Stark was useful as a versatile sub in midfield and defense whenever a starter got hurt or banned.

Preetz spent only 7.3 million Euros for four players and made five million in sales of non-essential players. U21 international Niko Schulz went to Gladbach for four million Euros, his internal replacement Marvin Plattenhardt made sure Schulz was forgotten quickly.
Hertha also sent Peter Niemeyer and Sandro Wagner to Darmstadt, since they weren’t contributors in 2014/15 and had slim chances to get on the field for Berlin in 2015/16.

Only in Wagner’s case, that might have been a false assessment.

Not only did Hertha go 4 for 4 with incoming transfers, players who were on the roster a year ago also improved by a mile.

Salomon Kalou was one of Bundesliga’s best strikers after a disappointing debut season. Backup goalie Rune Jarstein won the starting spot from Thomas Kraft, played excellent and also felt like a new summer signing. Jarstein’s save percentage was at 77% until the Gladbach game. Only a certain guy called “Manuel Neuer” was better during that stretch.

The “Great” Part of the Season

Salmon Kalou taking on Jonathan Tah in a match where Hertha beat Bayer Leverkusen 2:1
Salmon Kalou taking on Jonathan Tah in a match where Hertha beat Bayer Leverkusen 2:1

Hertha won 32 points in the Hinrunde, just three points fewer than they had the year before after a full season. The 2015 part of the season was a great run.

Everybody was healthy, Coach Dárdai found a perfect line up and Hertha got lucky in tough spots. When that ideal line up was available, Hertha was almost impossible to score on and didn’t waste chances up front, despite taking the fewest shots in the Bundesliga.

Langkamp, Stark, Brooks and Lustenberger gave Hertha the best centre back rotation since the days of Arne Friedrich and Josip Simunic.

On the flanks Plattenhardt and Weiser took out opponent wings while still contributing on offense. In the “engine room” or central midfield Darida drifted between the #6, #8 and #10 role seamlessly while “Schelle” Skjelbred took care of the dirty work.

On offense, a three-headed monster made of size (Ibisevic), speed (Haraguchi) and skill (Kalou) was able to produce a goal when it was needed. On the break or from a set piece, these three were always dangerous and efficient.

This version of Hertha took care of business against lesser and equal teams and even beat two better teams (Leverkusen and Schalke).

Hertha vs BVB

Veteran Hertha fans like me got suspicious:

No scandals? Smart transfers by Preetz? Sensible spending? No infighting?

Third place and a cup semi final? Something felt wrong.

We knew the Fluch (curse) would strike Hertha again.

Hertha’s “UEFA Cup Fluch”

Falko Götz and Niko Kovac can’t believe itBERLIN - MAY 21: Berlin's coach Falko Goetz and Niko Kovac of Berlin show emotion after the Bundesliga match between Hertha BSC Berlin and Hanover 96 at the Olympia Stadium Berlin on May 21, 2005 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Falko Goetz,;iko Kovac
Falko Götz and Niko Kovac can’t believe it at the Olympia Stadium Berlin on May 21, 2005 (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Berlin, May 21st 2005: Hertha vs Hannover. Hertha simply needed three points to make the Champions League, no outside help necessary. Visitors Hannover had nothing to play for, but the game ended 0:0.  

Werder Bremen said “Thanks!” and jumped past Hertha.

Karlsruhe May 23rd 2009: Karlsruher SC vs Hertha BSC (Final matchday)

Hertha again needed a win to make the Champions League, while Karlsruhe was already relegated and had nothing to play for. Hertha got thrashed 0:4, Stuttgart said “Thanks!” and held on to the last Champions League spot. What makes this one still hurt so bad, is that Stuttgart lost at Bayern, so Hertha got all the help it needed, but couldn’t deliver. Again.

In 2015/16, Champions League football was on a silver platter all year.

At least die Alte Dame didn’t wait until the final matchday to crush our (unrealistic) expectations. Hertha missed out on UCL football because in the Rückrunde, the Old Lady picked up only 6 of 24 possible points against the bottom eight teams in the league!!!

Hertha was up 3:1 in Bremen and held a one goal lead against Hannover, Hoffenheim and Darmstadt. Collapses in these matches alone cost Hertha ten points, and by the end of the season, fourth place Gladbach just was five points ahead of Hertha….

No matter how lucky Hertha was to even be up there, it hurts that Berlin went from third to seventh place in a matter of weeks. What makes it even worse, is the fact that it won’t be as “easy” to get to fourth place again anytime soon. Gladbach had a five-game losing streak before Schubert came in, Schalke and Wolfsburg were in turmoil all year and Leverkusen (recall the Schmidt-Zwayer fiasco?) was shaky in spring before turning it on late.

“It was all a dream”

Hertha Store in the Mall of Berlin has never been busier.
Hertha Store in the Mall of Berlin has never been busier.

Berlin is a special place, people are so spoiled with great entertainment options that Europa League games don’t matter, unlike in Augsburg, or Mainz for example.

Only 13,684 (!!!) people came to see Hertha play Benfica in 2010, even though Angel Di Maria, David Luiz and Ramires were on the field and the first leg (0:1) meant Hertha was still in good shape to go through.

For less attractive visiting teams, Hertha actually moves to the small capacity Jahnsportpark, because the huge Olympiastadion looks like a ghost town if less than 30,000 are in the stands. But Europa League is such a non factor in Berlin, that even the Jahnsportpark didn’t sell out against Danish team Bröndby, one of the more attractive opponents.

Oh and there was the 2016 DFB Pokal semifinal matchup with Dortmund, that made Hertha a trending topic in Berlin again for the first time in years. There were long lines at the ticket sales offices and the club even released a special jersey for the occasion. See for yourself how great the crowd was that night. The are few stadiums worldwide that can deliver a magical night like that:

Yet Hertha couldn’t use this match as a showcase. Berlin got lucky in every draw and didn’t have to eliminate a single first division club before the semifinal.

Pál Dárdai was forced to pick a “Park the Bus” tactic for the BVB game, since he knew that Hertha had no chance otherwise. It almost worked, since Dortmund dominated but was wasteful in front of goal.
Kalou almost scored a late equalizer out of nowhere. But Kalou missed, Dortmund won 3:0 in the end and showed Hertha how far away Berlin is from being a serious contender.

Dárdai’s negative tactics didn’t impress or entertain the casual folks (a.k.a Hertha’s target audience), they saw this loss as a failure and a big letdown.

The inflated hype surrounding this young, overachieving team turned back into “LOL stupid old Hertha” quickly. The terrible run in the league following the Dortmund game killed the Hertha buzz for good.

“Berliner Schnauze” hurt Hertha again

Mock ups of a new stadium plan for Hertha.
Mock ups of a new stadium plan for Hertha.

Berliners aren’t easy to impress, but when they are invested they’re sometimes too loud, arrogant and unrealistic. Non Berliners call that mentality “Berliner Schnauze” which means Berlin-style loudmouth. Perhaps this is similar to many people’s perception of New Yorkers.

A needless controversy was initiated by GM Michael Preetz, when he openly talked about a new arena project, even though Hertha’s lease for the Olympiastadion has to be renewed this offseason. The city of Berlin wasn’t too happy about those plans, since they gave Hertha a great deal back when Hertha was struggling at 4 million per season. By contrast, Frankfurt and Cologne pay close to 10 million a year in rent for using public arenas.

I don’t really blame Hertha for thinking ahead and a new arena would be awesome in a vacuum, but it wasn’t intelligent to talk about new arena plans in public, before a new Olympiastadion rental deal was done. The club certainly didn’t make any new friends in the city that way.

Non-“Herthaner” have a tough time understanding why the current arena isn’t good enough for Hertha, as the 2006 World Cup the “Oly” got rebuilt by taxpayer Euros and ten years later Hertha is talking about a new arena? Not a good look.
Hertha and the Olympiastadion GmbH finally agreed on an eight year deal at around 8 million, Hertha has the option to extend the lease by another five years in 2025.

It’s an OK deal, but the needless “new arena talk” probably cost Hertha a few millions.

Wagner heckling Hertha fans.
Wagner heckling Hertha fans.

The biggest kick in the nuts was the final home game versus Darmstadt though.

Hertha could have kept her Champions League dreams alive with a win given that Hertha spanked Darmstadt 4:0 in the first meeting, so three points seemed realistic.

Darmstadt striker Sandro Wagner, who had been released by Hertha in the offseason, was heckled by Hertha fans all game. Hertha was up 1:0 early and the mood was (a little too) good in the Ostkurve. Songs about how Wagner will play in second division next year, while they get to visit Madrid and London probably pushed him to 110%.
Sandro Wagner scored a late winner for Darmstadt, ran over to the Hertha fans and trolled them back. A player who was called “trash” by Berlin fans and media got his revenge and officially cancelled Hertha’s trip to the Bernabeu or Camp Nou.

Even though Hertha has done a great job with transfers, Wagner’s 14 goal season in Darmstadt made GM Preetz look like an idiot again

Mitchell Weiser after Hertha lost third place to Leverkusen.
Mitchell Weiser after Hertha lost third place to Leverkusen.

It doesn’t get more frustrating than this for a Hertha fan. Darmstadt got to celebrate staying up in Hertha’s stadium, while Hertha fans had to live with the fact that instead of Arsenal, Barca and Juventus, they’ll get to visit West Ham, Villarreal and Napoli (if we are lucky and get out of the qualifiers).

2016/2017 Outlook

If you only look at Rückrunde results, Hertha would be in 15th place.
Nobody has a clue what version of Hertha will show up next season. The 2015/16 Hertha team is a great example why goal differential tells you the real story, while point totals often give you a false impression. Gladbach beat Hertha twice by a 9:1 goal difference combined in head to  head matchups and were clearly a better team in every metric besides points.

Die Fohlen scored +17 goals, while Hertha’s goal differential (42:42) was just even.
The only reason Hertha was able to hang with Bayer 04 (+16) and Gladbach for this long, was plain luck (even though I hate to admit it).

Half of Hertha’s wins were decided by one score after all, that’s not a sustainable level of efficiency. When luck ran out during the Rückrunde, it instantly cost Hertha a ton of points.

Salmon Kalou's performance in matches 1-17 for Hertha this season.
Salmon Kalou’s performance in matches 1-17 for Hertha this season.

The regression of Kalou’s shot conversion rate explains a lot. During the Hinrunde the Ivorian converted 40% of his shots (a good forward usually gets around 15%), but over the last 16 games he became “human” again.

Kalou matches 18-34

Gladbach and Leverkusen on the other hand outscored their opponents by such a big margin, that top four finishes were a logical consequence of their play.

All in all Hertha won 50 points, 15 more than in 2015, without adding any big name players.

Dárdai and Preetz have done a great job and can do it again next year, if the talent level doesn’t get worse and depth is added. That’ll be hard though.

A transfer chain reaction Hummels-Toprak-??? will probably make Brooks leave
A transfer chain reaction of Hummels–Toprak–??? Brooks might be leaving Hertha.

Hertha is near the bottom of the Bundesliga “transfer food chain”, so instead of hoping for new signings like Bayern fans, Hertha fans have to pray that nobody goes hard after our most valuable assets Darida, Brooks and Weiser. Europa League basically means there is no big TV income hike and Hertha is less attractive for potential summer signings.

Darida gets to play in the Euros for the Czech Republic and Brooks will play in the Copa America for the USMNT, let’s hope they don’t impress too much.

The good news is that Hertha’s finances look pretty solid. This year Hertha will have a 100 million Euro budget for the first time in club history. At least we don’t have to sell anybody to pay back debt, or anything.

The last time Hertha narrowly missed the “big show” and had to settle for Europa League football was in 2009. Because of bad finances, literally all Hertha stars Simunic, Pantelic and Voronin had to be sold. After a terrible start to the 2010 season coach Lucien Favre got fired and Hertha was relegated at the end of the year.

An underwhelming start in 2016/17 and failure to qualify for the EL group stage could also cost Dárdai the job and derail everything. This club can turn on “self destruction mode” at any time, never forget that!

And to be honest, if they can just stay up next year I’d be extremely happy. Staying in the top-tier for ten years straight is the milestone Hertha has to reach first before “Champions League” should even be a topic. But our crazy Berlin media environment doesn’t think so and will proclaim top four as a realistic goal, only to call for Preetz and Dárdai’s heads as soon as the first few losses pile up. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Ultimately, Hertha is definitely worse than how they played in the Hinrunde, yet I also believe they are better than what they showed during the disappointing Rückrunde. If had to place a bet right now, 37-43 points and a finish between 10th and 14th place would be my call.

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