Can Bernd Hollerbach keep HSV’s clock ticking?

Déjà vu: the feeling that your current situation is one you have already experienced—a feeling that the people of Hamburg are quite familiar with.

It seems like the grand old Hamburger SV find themselves in the same position every year. Since the start of the decade, the club has been faced with relegation each season, before a late and dramatic escape, usually under a different coach than the one who led them towards the drop to begin with.

This managerial revolving door has served as the background to the team’s worst ever period. Having played continuously in the top flight since being founded in 1919, and having been a Bundesliga ever-present since the league was established in 1963, fans are undoubtedly proud of their unrivaled record, which, however, has found itself under threat in recent years.

Once again, HSV finds itself in a similar position, desperately fighting off relegation after having just sacked their manager. Indeed, since firing Armin Veh in March 2011, with HSV in the top half of the Bundesliga, the club has had 8 coaches, yet of these men only Thorsten Fink and Bruno Labbadia took charge during a season where the side was able to avoid relegation comfortably.

This year’s contestant in HSV’s managerial game show is a former left-back with almost 200 appearances in red shorts. Like most before him, he was out of work, and therefore available on the cheap. His first notable coaching role was a brief spell at VfL Lübeck, before becoming assistant to Felix Magath at Wolfsburg and Schalke. It was at his hometown club Würzburger Kickers that he made his name, though, bringing them up from the 4th tier Regionalliga Bayern, all the way to the 2. Bundesliga, where they took the league by surprise with an impressive autumn. They also shocked the league in the second half of the season. Without winning a single game in the Rückrunde, Hollerbach resigned after Würzburg were relegated on the last day.

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Considering the task that he is faced with at the Volksparkstadion, his failure to fend off relegation last year at a different playing level is slightly ominous. Despite this black mark, Hollerbach’s initial successes at Würzburg, coupled with his HSV history, meant that he was a very popular appointment. It also helps that he was renowned for his toughness as a player; nicknamed the “Holleraxe,” so nobody could accuse him of lacking commitment. The 48 year old is HSV through and through, and having learned his trade alongside Felix Magath, he will surely demand complete dedication and perfect discipline from his troops.

Having coached HSV through three Bundesliga fixtures so far, Hollerbach has led the Rothosen to 2 successive 1-1 draws, and a loss to Dortmund—a reasonably positive start, considering the quality of the opposition HSV drew with (Leipzig and Hannover) into account, but at the end of the day, they need wins. A point a game won’t lead you to safety.

The games that Hollerbach has taken charge of show that he still needs to figure out the best way to set up the team. His predecessor, Markus Gisdol, usually lined up with a 4-2-3-1, with Mergim Mavraj and Kyriakos Papadopoulos in the centre, Douglas Santos on the left and Dennis Diekmeier on the right. Hollerbach ditched this system for the Leipzig game, starting with 3 at the back as the young Dutchman Rick van Drongelen partnered with Papadopoulos and Gotoku Sakai in the centre.

He stuck with his back 3 for the Hannover game, but by half time he switched it back to a 4-3-3 with wing back Diekmeier coming off for Tatsuya Ito and Sakai moving to right back. Then he changed once again, moving to a 4-4-2 with Wood and Arp up top, and the goalscorer Filip Kostic moved to the wing. It should be noted that HSV played well, though, and could (and perhaps should) also have won two penalties in the first half.

Lineups are not the only dilemma facing Hollerbach though. In defence, the Albanian Mavraj, one of the first names on the teamsheet under Gisdol, was left out for both Leipzig and Hannover matches. Gotoku Sakai, usually a fullback, was played at centre-back, despite lacking in height. Alongside him was van Drongelen, who had normally sat on the bench under Gisdol. When Hollerbach switched to a back 4, van Drongelen was alongside Papadopoulos, but it wasn’t an assured performance. Ihlas Bebou had a chance that he should have scored, which came about from van Drongelen and Papdopoulos being caught out on the counter.

Papadopolous later got a red card, picking up a second yellow for tripping Niclas Füllkrug, which caused him to miss the Dortmund match. Hollerbach had a number of options. Did Mavraj merit a recall? Or should it be Sakai, in a back 4 with van Drongelen? It could have been all 3. Intriguingly, he did recall Mavraj, but paired him alongside van Drongelen and Gideon Jung, who is like Sakai in that he is not a natural centre-back, although he had played there infrequently under Gisdol. None were particularly impressive. Jung looked uncomfortable, Mavraj was slow, often out of position and was skinned easily by André Schürrle for Dortmund’s 2nd goal, charging around the pitch like a headless chicken. Van Drongelen also had a part to play in that goal, losing the ball high up the pitch. Papadopoulos’s return will make things easier, but it’s still a major concern. One potential solution is Stephan Ambrosius, a promising 19-year-old who made the bench or the first time against Dortmund.

Bernd Hollerbach during his own HSV playing days.

The new coach has made a change between the sticks, too. Christian Mathenia, who started the season as first-choice goalkeeper, was briefly deposed by the new arrival Julian Pollersbeck at the end of Gisdol’s tenure, but returned to the starting lineup to play Leipzig and kept his place for the visit of Hannover. He wasn’t too busy on Sunday, but did make an impressive close-range stop from Felix Klaus and a good 1 on 1 stop from Ihlas Bebou, but only made 1 save as 2 goals went past him at the Signal Iduna Park. Is that enough to see him made permanent number 1? It’s up to Hollerbach, who apparently values Mathenia’s 2 years of Bundesliga experience, even though Mathenia’s hinrunde was by no means impressive. Conventional wisdom suggests that it is the right idea to have, but some fans are not entirely convinced.

Otherwise, Hollerbach seems to be making the right decisions. Having found a formation that seems to have boosted their defensive stability, the side have also improved in other areas. Walace returned to the side, and has played every minute under Hollerbach so far. He looked set to return to Brazil in January, with a move to Atletico Mineiro being negotiated, but instead he was kept on, and has impressed Hollerbach. Meanwhile,  Albin Ekdal came back from injury to replace the injured Gideon Jung for the Hannover match, and played well considering his lack of fitness. If Walace and Ekdal can play well on a consistent basis, Hollerbach will have plenty of options in midfield once Lewis Holtby recovers from the flu and Jung returns to the midield.

As well as the solid midfield, Filip Kostic has been reborn, finding the net against both Leipzig and Hannover, thereby doubling his tally for the season. What makes his form under the new coach more interesting is that he has taken up an unfamiliar role as a forward. The Serb could prove vital, in this capacity, as HSV definitely need more goals, since they are currently the joint lowest scorers in the league with just 17. Kostic is now the top scorer with 4, yet after this tally, the leading scorers are Fiete Arp and Andre Hahn with 2 (!).

How can Hollerbach get them going? Perhaps leaving the woefully out of sorts Bobby Wood out might help, the American having last scored in August. André Hahn, who has also netted just once this season, didn’t even make the squad for the Hannover game, and it is fair to say that neither Wood nor Hahn have played at anything like the level required of them. Then again, backup options Sven Schipplock and Luca Waldschmidt haven’t scored this year either. The wonderkid Fiete Arp seems their best bet, but has failed to make an impact under Hollerbach so far. Fortunately, Nicolai Müller will soon return, after his opening day injury, and that should make a major difference in terms of the Rothosen’s offensive threat.

The fixture list doesn’t really play into Hollerbach’s hands here, because he has no time to sort his squad out. After the Dortmund game last weekend, the next game is at Bayer Leverkusen, a tough game where they would do well to win any points. That is followed by the Nord Derby away at rivals and fellow strugglers Bremen, a must win game regardless of the circumstances that will be amplified with their current positions.

If it seems difficult enough for Hollerbach, he will also have the added distraction of the turmoil behind the scenes, with reports in Germany suggesting a “putsch” attempt took place at board level on the eve of the Hannover game. The instigator of the planned coup, Felix Goedhart, plotted to remove CEO Heribert Bruchhagen and sporting director Jens Todt. Todt is largely unpopular among fans, with the club’s consistent failures of the past few years being the main reason. The lack of signings in January didn’t help his popularity, nor will it help Hollerbach. With the transfer period over, Hollerbach knows who he will have to work with to achieve his aims. Ultimately, whether Hamburger SV can keep their famous clock ticking or whether they will finally drop to the second tier is down to Bernd Hollerbach.

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Louis Ostrowski

Louis is a Londoner, who's been interested in German football ever since visiting Dortmund during the 2006 World Cup. These days, follows the Bundesliga very closely. Aside from football, Louis has a keen interest in motorsport of all kinds. And he still misses Juan Arango.

1 Comment

  1. What happened with HSV? Leipzig have more talent. Hoffenheim even for gosh sakes…how has this occurred? No home grown talent? What about good players from Sweden or Ireland. They had talent come through though…The Korean player Sohn who is at Tottenham was at HSV. But they all leave and don’t all stay at the same time to have success at HSV. What happened?

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