Germany’s capital has rarely been covered in glory when it comes to football. Traditionally, it’s the western stronghold in the Ruhr or the southern reaches of Bavaria serving as home to decorated clubs with trophy-laden cabinets. Hence, for Berlin’s residents, and especially followers of Hertha Berlin, simply having a representative in the Bundesliga is a big deal.
This season, however, Hertha are in clear danger of claiming an unwanted third relegation in six years. That’s as yo-yo as they come.
On first glance, last season saw a respectable 11th place finish, but considering they were flying as high as sixth before the winter break, the campaign finish was a disappointment.
So, too, the 2014-15 assault thus far.
Just eight wins and 31 points from 34 matches in calendar year 2014 made manager Jos Luhukay’s position almost untenable. Yet, club general manager Michael Preetz, incidentally Hertha’s record goal scorer, stayed the execution, allowing Luhukay the winter break to turn things around.
A return to action brought consecutive losses to Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen, and Luhukay was given the flick, with academy coach Pal Dardai taking the reigns.
The Hungarian-born but self-proclaimed Berliner and Herthaner – a claim not many fans would dispute – reminded everyone of his club roots, announcing at first press conference that he had “blue and white blood.” Having played a club record 286 matches for Hertha between 1997 and 2011, Dardai’s ascension was a move by Preetz to bring some local pride back into Die Alte Dame.
But has the move come too late to save Hertha’s season?
Going off Dardai’s first two weeks in charge, there has been evident to argue both for and against.
Indicating that he wanted Hertha to gain more control of matches, dominate possession, and create more chances, Dardai made a fantastic start with a debut 2-0 victory over Mainz. Ambitions to emulate fellow former youth coach Viktor Skripnik, who has elevated Werder Bremen up the table, were on course.
But the positive vibes quickly evaporated with a morale-sapping loss to fellow cellar-dwellers Freiburg last weekend. Dardai was so incensed with the performance that he forbade his players to approach the fans in the stands to apologise, sending them straight to the sheds.
The new manager has been quick to sub-consciously criticise Luhukay’s tenure, lamenting the poor physical conditions of his players and putting them through tough training sessions in response. The downside is that the players looked jaded against Freiburg. Perhaps he’s running them into the ground.
Fitness should have been a focus during pre-season and then again during the winter break. Whipping the team into shape with two-thirds of the season gone is madness. Of course, this is an inherited dilemma for Dardai, the fault lying clearly at the feet of Preetz and Luhukay.
Preetz, especially, has a lot for which to answer. The club’s recent yo-yo status has directly coincided with the 47-year-old’s term as general manager, which begun in June 2009. Before his arrival, Hertha had spent 13 consecutive seasons in the Bundesliga, littered with forays into Europe.
In six years, Preetz has overseen the hiring and firing of no fewer thanfive managers, six if you include Lucien Favre, who was head coach when Preetz arrived.
Favre was sacked just months into the 2009-10 season after steering the club into Europe the previous campaign, having suffered six losses in the first seven games. Friedhelm Funkel, Markus Babbel, Michael Skibbe, and Otto Rehhagel all have come and gone, each ditched after a run of poor results.
The regular turnover is what made Preetz’s extended reluctance to shift Luhukay so surprising. It’s possible he felt Luhukay could turn things around, but provided no backing in the winter transfer market through new acquisitions and then caved just two games after the Bundesliga resumed.
Farce is a soft word.
Now Preetz has turned to an old friend and teammate to work a miracle.
The Hungarian national coach has made small but significant changes at the club, again presenting a damning indictment on Luhukay’s reign. Music and phones have been reintroduced in the dressing room, certain food bans have been lifted, and most bizarrely, Dardai has told media he doesn’t care if his players smoke. As long as they train hard and perform on match day, Dardai will let such things slide.
It’s an interesting approach to take and not very conventional in modern-day management, but Dardai is clearly trying to return some fun to the dressing room. To his credit, however, he’s also attempting to enforce some discipline at the same time.
Dardai has reintroduced a Mannschaftsrat, or leadership group, and also brought back a penalty log to hand out fines for breaches of club protocol. Both were surprisingly missing under Luhukay, along with the lack of team fitness.
It appears Dardai’s aim is to lighten the mood in the dressing sheds, but also give them a swift kick up the backside.
Off-pitch items addres only half the problem though. Hertha’s performances on match days remain the major concern. The defence has been prone to mistakes for too long, while the attack has been toothless since the departure of star man Adrian Ramos and the loss of form of Ronny.
With no new faces arriving in the transfer window, Dardai will have to make do with a side that has looked devoid of ideas all season.
Against Freiburg, he showed that he still has much to learn at the top level. He chose to play the creative Ronny as a number six, hardly the best place for a player not known for his physical attributes, and also thrust Salomon Kalou straight into the line-up, despite the forward returning home late from winning the African Cup of Nations.
The form of Ronny is particularly concerning. The Brazilian was booed after an uninspiring performance against Freiburg. He’s turned from fan favourite into club scapegoat. During the week, Ronny was involved in a training ground spat with keeper Thomas Kraft, not a great advertisement for squad unity.
However, there is talent, and the return from suspension of captain Fabian Lustenberger will be a welcome boost for the team in Sunday’s match at red-hot VfL Wolfsburg. With fellow centre back Sebastian Langkamp also on his way back after long-term injury, Dardai would do well to partner the two in defence in an effort to enforce some stability.
Youngsters Marvin Plattenhardt and John Anthony-Brooks have, at times, struggled with responsibility in defence and are in need of the sort of guidance Lustenberger and Langkamp can provide in droves.
Dardai also needs to find a way to get the best out of Valentin Stocker, the attacking midfielder who was expected to provide the link between midfield and attack. He’s failed to impress since his summer arrival from Basel, though two assists against Mainz showed a glimpse of his potential.
Similarly, Kalou could be set for a more prominent role after being used as a substitute as often as he was a starter under Luhukay. The Ivorian has five goals to his name, and Kalou striking up a partnership with Julian Schieber (six goals) could save Hertha.
Wolfsburg possess the strongest attack in the league, so first in Dardai’s mind will be defensive steel, but he will still want his team to be more proactive, meaning finding a way to get the best out of creative talents such as Stocker, Ronny, and Kalou.
After Wolfsburg, comes a tricky tie against Augsburg, but it’s March and April that will prove clutch for Dardai and Hertha. Matches against VfB Stuttgart, Schalke, Hamburg, Paderborn, Hannover, and Köln, before a trip to Bayern, present a run of winnable games which could lift them to mid-table.
Hertha may be in the relegation zone now, but they also enter the weekend just four points from tenth. Preetz is counting on old blood and club pride to get Hertha through the current turmoil, and although he should have acted sooner, Dardai does have enough time to get this right.
The last six season placements for Hertha read: 18th, 1st, 16th, 1st and 11th. Hertha fans will be hoping that number is above 16th come the end of May. Otherwise, Germany will once again be a rare example of a top league missing the presence of a capital club.
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