August 23, 2017

2017-18 Season Preview: Hertha Berlin — Keep Calm and Trust Preetz and Dardai

Basics

  • Full name: Hertha Berliner Sport Club von 1892 e.V.
  • Nickname: Die Alte Dame (the old Lady; just like Juventus).
  • Founded: 1892.
  • Stadium: Olympiastadion Berlin (75.000) built for Olympia 1936.

Stadium

  • 2016/17 average Attendance: ~50.000
  • Colors: Blue, White, Dark Blue

Achievements

  • German Champion (1930, 1931).
  • 3x Winner of 2.Bundesliga (2013, 2011, 1990).
  • 2x DFB Ligapokal Champion (2002, 2003).
  • 5x UEFA Intertoto Cup (1971, 1973, 1976, 1978, 2006).
  • Champions League Round of 16 (2000).
  • UEFA Cup Semifinalist (1979).
The players of Berlin celebrate with their supporters after the Bundesliga match between Hertha BSC and Bayer 04 Leverkusen at Olympiastadion on May 20, 2017 (Photo by Matthias Kern/Bongarts/Getty Images)

If you want to dig deeper, here is a long piece on Hertha that pretty much covers all the history and lore behind Die Alte Dame.

Rivalries and Friendships

Banner translation: A bond for eternity.

Hertha BSC fans have an amazingly deep bond with Karlsruher SC supporters since 1977. Naturally, “Herthaner” aren’t fond of cross town rival Union Berlin. However, the two clubs don’t share a lot of history, because Union played in the East German league system until 1991.

Ever since, Hertha has been the unanimous #1 club in Berlin, it was never even close. Only four official “Berlin Derbies” went down in total, all of them in 2.Bundesliga. This rivalry could get more heated some day, because Union is improving and is a promotion candidate out of the 2.Bundesliga this season.

Club Reputation & Philosophy

Hertha’s leadership, league status and financial situation changed frequently since WWII. Unlike other German clubs (think Schalke and it’s coal mining heritage), Hertha never developed a distinct “personality.” For most Germans, Hertha BSC is simply “that club from the capitol, that caused some headlines, but was never able to break into the elite.”

Berlin’s football fandom mapped out.

Even within Berlin, the “Berliner Sportclub” does not represent a certain part of town. While Union is clearly “East Berlin’s team,” Hertha supporters are scattered all over town.

This season’s new slogan is: Die Zukunft gehört Berlin (“the future belongs to Berlin”) and the future does indeed look brighter than usual for Die Alte Dame.

Sporting Director Michael Preetz and Coach Pal Dardai

The 2017-18 campaign will be Hertha’s fifth top tier season in a row and the second consecutive year of Europa League football. Not too long ago — in spring of 2015 to be precise — Hertha was in a sorry state as the club was en route to the 2.Bundesliga for the third time in five years.

Preetz’s job was in great danger when he let Jos Luhukay go and put his trust in Pal Dardai. This coaching switch was a bold move, because the Hungarian club legend happened to be a “rookie” at Bundesliga coaching. But thankfully, it worked out by the smallest of possible margins. Hertha finished a goal ahead of Hamburg in 16th place and never looked back. It’s brutal how the careers of coaches and managers can be decided by one lousy goal more or less over 34 matches.

Well, Dardai and Preetz won the crapshoot and have put in excellent work ever since. Dardai has turned Hertha into one of the tightest and most disciplined teams in the league, while Preetz keeps stockpiling young assets.

Reviewing Hertha’s 2016/17 Season

  • Bundesliga: 6th place
  • DFB Cup: Round of 16 loss at Dortmund on penalties
  • Top Scorer: Vedad Ibisevic (12)

An in-depth season review can be found here.

Top Three Players

(Based on kicker.de grade point avg.):

  • Rune Jarstein 2.8
  • Sebastian Langkamp 3.2
  • John Anthony Brook 3.31

Bundesliga 2017-18 Outlook

Hertha’s building blocks: U21 Euro Champs Niklas Stark, Davie Selke and Mitchell Weiser.

In the Bundesliga, season-from-season performances can change dramatically (for example, see 2015-16 vs. 16/17 Leverkusen or Hoffenheim). Two back-to-back Top Seven finishes are a tremendous achievement, if you keep in mind that Hertha only has the 9th most expensive squad in the league (according to transfermarkt).

This year, we’ll find out if Hertha can do it with the added Europa League workload. The last time Hertha had to deal with short weeks and tired legs was in 2011-12 and that campaign ended with a loss to Düsseldorf in the Relegation Playoffs.

To be fair, that 2011-12 Hertha squad had lost all of it’s key players during the offseason.  Hertha’s 2017-18 squad has more quality, but the margin for error is much smaller than that 6th place finish suggests. The Old Lady was actually closer to the drop zone (12 points ahead of 16th place) than the Champions League (13 points behind 4th place) last season.

Therefore, the dreaded “European hangover”, like the one Mainz 05 suffered from last year could get Hertha in trouble. Away games have been a problem last season and need to improve, as all of Hertha’s lousy three road wins came against bottom three sides. Rückrunde performances have been subpar in all of Dardai’s seasons on the bench, let’s hope he finally fixed it.

Overall, the league will be more competitive this upcoming season, so the race for Europe will be extra tough. Four quality clubs with deep pockets are out of Europe entirely in 2017-18 (i.e. Schalke, Leverkusen, Gladbach and Wolfsburg) and get to focus on reclaiming their spots. Looking at the big picture, Hertha fans should manage their expectations 2017-18.

A lot will depend on Hertha’s three U21 European champs and Confed Cup winner, Marvin Plattenhardt. If they all take the “next step” in 2017-18 it might offset the extra EL games and the higher level of competition.

The good news: Hertha was able to hold on to all but one key player.

Niklas Stark and Mitchell Weiser weren’t snatched up, even though they dominated at the U21 Euros this summer. Midfield engine Vladimir Darida and his enforcer Per Skjelbred are also still around, so is the (criminally underrated) goalie Rune Jarstein and veteran strikers Salomon Kalou and Vedad Ibisevic. In defense, the Wolfsburg bound John Brooks will be replaced by academy product Jordan Torunarigha. The 19 year old did well last season and has the potential to be a superstar some day, because he has good feet, speed and size.

All in all, not a lot has changed in Berlin’s locker room, which is good news.

One tactical tweak will happen though, as Dardai plans to start the newly signed Davie Selke next to Vedad Ibisevic. That’s very bold strategy, because it has been awhile since a Bundesliga side started two tall strikers. The iconic “Number 9 poacher” has become obsolete in modern football.

But Dardai might be onto something, since Juventus Turin just reached the UCL final with Mario Mandzukic and Gonzalo Higuain in the starting eleven. The benefits of Juve’s lineup were visible all year. Whenever one of Juve’s midfielders made a run on the right flank, Mandzukic moved wide left. If a cross to the far post came in, Mandzukic was matched up against an undersized right fullback instead of a tall center back. To be fair, Selke and Ibisevic aren’t as good as Juve’s striker duo, but it seems that Dardai plans to force similar aerial mismatches next year. I guess it’s worth a shot and if it doesn’t work out, Hertha will finally be less dependent on captain “Vedo” with Selke around.

Transfer Activities

For a team like Hertha, that thrives on defensive stability, John Brooks’ world class aerial abilities will be missed. Hertha received a club record 17 million Euro transfer fee from Wolfsburg, but the designated replacement for Brooks was already on the roster (Torunarigha). So the bulk of the “Brooks money” was spent on Davie Selke, who came in from Leipzig for (yet another) club record 8 million Euro fee.

Valentino Lazaro signs his Hertha loan deal.

As of today (August 2nd), Hertha will sign Valentino Lazaro from RB Salzburg on loan and has secured a buy option. Judging from this YouTube video:

The young Austrian is a quick offensive all-rounder with excellent technique and crossing abilities. You see, Berlin’s 2016-17 selection of offensive midfielders/wingers was too one dimensional. Genki Haraguchi and Alex Esswein are lightning fast, but sloppy with their touches, by contrast Salmon Kalou and Valentin Stocker are technically brilliant but have lost a step. If Lazaro’s complete skill set translates well to the German league, it would provide a big boost for Hertha. Last year’s signing, Ondrej Duda, “feels” like a 2017-18 signee, because the Slovakian winger didn’t play much last year due to injury.

Karim Rekik in action for his old club, Marseilles.

To shore up defense, Karim Rekik was brought in from Marseilles for 2.5 million and will provide a valid option at center back. The Dutch defender was under contract at Manchester City from 2011 to 2015 but only managed one Premier League appearance in all those years. Rekik spent most of his City career on loan until he left for France, where he averaged 15 appearances per season for Marseille. If Torunarigha doesn’t work out, the experienced Rekik will be ready.

Another “squad filler” signing was Matthew Leckie, who joined for 3 million from Ingolstadt. The Australian managed only 3 goals and 3 assists in 71 Bundesliga matches but his versatility (can play all offensive positions) could make him quite useful once injuries start to pile up. The transfer window will stay open for another month, and there are still deals in the works, so it would pointless to ultimately judge Hertha’s offseason business at this point.

Biggest Season Storyline: New Arena Decision

Mostly likely the best new stadium plan for Hertha Berlin.

It is well known that Hertha has a terrible stadium situation by Bundesliga standards, at least. Although the “Oly” (Berlin’s Olympiastadion) is one of the most iconic arenas on the globe, it’s outdated and simply too big for a club like Hertha.

Even though Hertha drew a respectable 50.000 fans per game last year, this average still meant that a third of all available seats were empty. Hertha ultras are doing a great job, but the atmosphere is lacking because the blue athletic track separates the Ostkurve supporters from the pitch. And let’s not even talk about parking, bathrooms, and food options at that grey concrete bowl.

Bye, bye grey concrete bowl at the Olympiastadion!

A smaller (55.000 seats), state of the art arena where fans get to sit on top of the action has been a dream for Hertha supporters since, well, forever. But the club never had the money or the political leverage to get one built.

How times have changed! An investor stepped in, the team is playing well and the domestic TV income will rise for the foreseeable future. Hertha wants to play in the new ground by 2025 and it looks like this might really happen (this time). Three options are being discussed for the new ground and in 2018 a decision will be made one way or another. It’ll be one of the biggest calls in club history.

Most fans and officials would prefer option #1: A new arena right next to the “Oly” (see picture above). Hertha’s academy wouldn’t have to move and fans would get to uphold their gameday traditions. Moreover, Hertha could still use to the bigger “Oly” whenever BVB and Bayern are in town.

But it all sounds a little too good to be true, and I doubt it’ll happen. Berlin City Hall owns the land and hates the idea of a second stadium, because the “Oly” was renovated for the World Cup 2006 with public funds. The City of Berlin would further have to eat the annual cost of a 75.000 seater, because Hertha is by far the most important tenant.

The “out of town” stadium plan for Hertha Berlin in Ludwigsfelde.

The new arena could also be built in Brandenburg, in a town called Ludwigsfelde located 22 minutes (by train from central station) south of Berlin. The State of Brandenburg would love to accommodate Hertha (plus the matchday business) and the Mayor of Ludwigsfelde would roll out the red carpet for the club. In Brandenburg, Hertha would get the best deal (cheap land, tax breaks etc.) possible. Bayern and Schalke have shown that “out of town” arenas can succeed, so why shouldn’t it work in Berlin? The Brandenburg stadium would further be 100% privately funded and the City of Berlin wouldn’t be able to veto the move.

A third option would be turning the Olympiastadion into a dedicated football arena. Bremen and Stuttgart successfully removed the race track and lowered the stands in their grounds. The problem is that the “Oly” isn’t just any stadium. It was built for the 1936 Olympics and became a symbol of the Third Reich. Whether Hertha fans like it or not, the stadium is part of world history and must be preserved for future generations. The mockups might look cool, but WWII history is bigger than football (and I’m saying that as a die hard Hertha fan).

A version of the remodeling the Olympiastadion plan.

Even if the remodeling plan gets a green light (a really big if), Hertha would be forced to play on a construction site for a season or two. The soul and history an iconic WWII monument would be wiped out yet Hertha would still be stuck with an oversized arena. Out of the three options, the Brandenburg one seems like the best deal.

All we know is that a decision will be made in 2018 and it will have a bigger impact than anything Hertha does on the pitch this season.

Predicted Finish: 10th

Hertha’s squad pretty much stayed intact and Berlin’s U21 youngsters are a year older now. The 17/18 performances should be in line with Hertha’s last two campaigns. But the extra Europa League workload and the hole Brooks left behind will probably cost Hertha a win or two. Getting to 40 points as quickly as possible is more crucial than ever, because  relegation issues could interfere with Hertha’s stadium plans. The Europa League must not become a distraction. If Hertha goes 0 and 6 in the EL group stage, so be it. All that matters is “40 points” and getting the new stadium deal signed.

In the Bundesliga, there isn’t a lot of room for improvement. Bayern, Dortmund and Leipzig are out of Hertha’s league, while teams that normally finish above Hertha (Leverkusen, Schalke, Gladbach and Wolfsburg) are dying to redeem themselves. Big market clubs Stuttgart and Hannover are back from the 2.Bundesliga and you always need to account for that one surprise team nobody is thinking of in August. If you combine all the internal and external factors, Hertha is more likely drop a few spots in 17/18 than win some.

But the motto should be “Keep calm and trust Preetz & Dardai”, because pundits predicted Hertha to fall off last offseason and were proven wrong.

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1 Comment

  1. Good preview, but in the “Outlook” section you mixed up the 2011-12 and 2009-10 seasons. It was 2009-10 that Hertha played EL group phase last and got relegated – not in the playoffs against Düsseldorf but as dead last in the table.

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