I love the twice-yearly transfer windows. The wild rumours, the record fees and bargain buys, watching Sky Sports News reporters on deadline day trying to turn the fact that Player x is not moving clubs into an exclusive. It makes no logical sense, but for some reason even those non-stories bring a buzz. But I’d never witnessed a level of excited anticipation such as could be felt in Hamburg this late August. Another year of disappointment for HSV fans last season, at times verging on shame, had ultimately been tempered by the preservation of Bundesliga status for the 49th time.
However, the listless performance in the team’s opening-day home defeat to Nürnberg had swiftly cured the inexplicable cautious optimism that inevitably infects football fans worldwide in the run-up to a new season. And yet, in the days following that 0-1 loss, a new strain of the optimism virus had cropped up and was spreading like, well, a virus: there were increasingly persistent rumours in normally reliable publications that the impossible might yet become real – the return of Rafael van der Vaart. The deal had been effectively written off by the German club as financially impossible, but suddenly the word on the street was that billionaire businessman and HSV fan Klaus-Michael Kühne was willing to finance the vast majority of the €13 million deal, as he had several others in the past, and the club (though wary of such investments) had agreed to his terms. I heard the news from a HSV-mad colleague on the bus to work. He was sweating as he sat down, and addressed me with an unorthodox greeting of “I feel sick”. A genuine case of football fever – his dream seemed so close to coming true, but the fear that things could still go wrong was too strong to shake off. He needn’t have worried – the air of celebration when we arrived at the office made it clear that it was really happening.
Not wishing to spoil the mood, I kept my concerns to myself. But concerned I was. Van der Vaart was without doubt a top-quality player, but there were several gaps to fill in the squad and now there was no more cash to do it. The assumption seemed to be that he could single-handedly drag the team out of the mire – but when was the last time he even played a full 90 minutes for Tottenham? He would do nothing to shore up a leaky defence, and what was the use in perfectly weighted through balls if there was only Marcus Berg to try to put them in the net? The messiah had returned; it was the second coming. But the most famous examples from history didn’t set a great precedent: Christians are still waiting on Jesus, and the less said about the Stone Roses in 1994 the better.
However, perhaps against the odds, for the most part the switch has worked out. Van der Vaart has shown his class on several occasions already, but the turnaround in the team as a whole has been more striking than his individual performances. So before we come to the Dutchman, let’s look at some of those around him. Sporting Director Frank Arnesen has come in for heavy criticism after a number of transfer flops since his arrival from Chelsea, but this summer he seems to have got it right. René Adler has been the best goalkeeper in the Bundesliga so far this season and, given that he arrived on a free transfer, if he stays fit and maintains similar form he might yet prove to be the signing of the season.
In midfield, the addition of Petr Jiráček from Wolfsburg and especially Milan Badelj from Dinamo Zagreb has also made a big difference, adding drive and invention respectively to central midfield, an area that last season was notable for its severe lack of dynamism and creativity. And with these improvements in front of and behind them, the defence is also looking stronger. Heiko Westermann, no great passer of the ball, looked extremely uncomfortable when forced to operate as a defensive midfielder last season, but now he is back where he belongs in central defence and is showing his undoubted ability as a quick and powerful commander, earning an international call-up in the process. Alongside him, Michael Mancienne looks a different player to the nervous waif of the previous campaign. And further forward, Heung-Min Son is finally starting to convert his potential into an end product, with four goals scored already – a feat that took him until April last time around and has reportedly attracted the attention of Liverpool.
And what of van der Vaart’s individual role in this improvement, which saw HSV climb into the top half of the table for the first time under Thorsten Fink’s leadership before this weekend’s disappointing defeat? Well things didn’t start off perfectly: on his debut against Eintracht Frankfurt, HSV were already two goals down before he could make his mark, and despite something of a fightback lost 3-2. However, going close with a free kick was already a sign of what he could bring to a side that was often painfully inept at set pieces at both ends last season. A shock victory at home to champions Dortmund signalled the beginning of a turnaround for HSV, and whilst René Adler was the real hero of the day, van der Vaart got his first assist since his return just two minutes in and added another later. That was followed by a midweek match in Mönchengladbach, where VdV scored a stunning volley that brought back memories of his first spell by the Elbe, but then missed a penalty as his team went home disappointed with just a point after conceding a late equaliser. Against Hannover, van der Vaart did all that was expected of him on arrival, acting as the real creative fulcrum in midfield – simply everything went through him. Having set up Artjoms Rudņevs to give his team the lead, he could do nothing about the visitors’ second-half pressure, but this time the defence held firm for the three points.
However, that van der Vaart would put in some great performances and score some stunning goals this season was never really in doubt. In the long run, more significant than the messianic spectacles of wonder will be what happens when the Dutchman is not on top form – and the club’s last two league fixtures provide interesting case studies. Before the international break, HSV pulled off a tight 1-0 victory away against newly promoted Greuther Fürth. On that occasion, van der Vaart found himself crowded out of his preferred number 10 position as Fürth packed the midfield area, and at several points in the first half dropped back as far as his own penalty box to pick up possession alongside the centre backs. Even with time and space to operate in this incredibly deep-lying playmaker role, he didn’t demonstrate his usual precise passing – it just wasn’t his day. In the end though, it didn’t matter. Son broke the deadlock 17 minutes in after a forceful run from midfield and the combination of the composed Badelj and frantic-but-effective Tolgay Arslan (in theory out of position but looking more comfortable than he did further forward last season) were enough to tip the midfield battle in the away team’s favour. Add to that a mostly solid back line and a goalkeeper well equipped to deal with whatever the opposition had to offer when they did break through, and the result was a team display of gritty determination that deservedly brought three points – everything you wouldn’t expect from a team that many assumed would be “rescued” by Rafa van der Vaart.
Another 1-0 result followed this weekend, but this time it was a starkly contrasting home defeat against VfB Stuttgart. Again van der Vaart failed to make a real mark on the game, this time tightly marshalled by the impressive William Kvist. On this occasion, however, Badelj was also not a prominent figure, and as the game went on the team more and more often attempted to bypass midfield entirely. When Peruvian forward Paolo Guerrero left the club in the summer, I discussed here how it often seemed he was required to take more touches with his chest than his feet, so frequent were raking balls forward from the defence. Whilst the current side are by no means the Bundesliga Barcelona, before Sunday the style of play seemed to have altered with the personnel. The cause-and-effect question is difficult to make a judgement on, but if that effect is ultimately positive, it’s of little consequence whether the signings made have necessitated the change in style or those particular players were brought in to suit the new approach.
Generally speaking, credit must go to Thorsten Fink, the first HSV manager to stay a full year in the job since Huub Stevens left in 2008, for trying to get the side’s more talented players on the ball and (before this weekend) putting together a four-match unbeaten run that had some of the ever-optimistic Rothosen fans talking about Europe again. Against Fürth, HSV showed that even if they only deliver a performance equal to the sum of their parts, the top half of the table is within reach. There can be no doubt that Rafael van der Vaart will play a vital role this season however far HSV go, and the signs are encouraging. But most encouraging of all that day was the suggestion that he won’t have to do it all himself. Old weaknesses were clear again against Stuttgart however, and the fear remains that the team won’t show the required consistency to achieve par overall. Whether the end result will be another relegation battle, a push for Europa League qualification or mid-table obscurity promises to be one of the season’s more intriguing sideshows.
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