December 17, 2017

What a Top 4 finish Could Mean for Hertha Berlin

It’s been a topsy-turvy period for much of the last decade for Germany’s capital club. The Blue-Whites have seen and done it all in that timeframe, with Europa League football and two relegations being achieved and more than an air of instability about them as they springboarded between the European and relegation spots in the Bundesliga for much of this stretch.

Their league performances since their latest promotion in 2012 seem to be an evident indicator of that. After finishing 11th and 15th in their first two seasons back, Hertha are now contending for Champions League football next season as they currently sit in third place on 39 points with just eleven rounds to go.

The most surprising thing about this all though is that nobody could have foreseen it coming before the start of the season. Most Bundesliga fans expected Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Schalke, and Wolfsburg to compete for the European positions behind Bayern Munich but Dortmund aside, Hertha is unexpectedly leading all of them.

The Bundesliga in recent seasons has thrown up surprise European qualifiers like Mainz and Augsburg as some prime examples, but at least those clubs showed some promise before they managed to achieve what they did in the league in those respective years. Hertha’s success, though, has come almost totally out of the blue.

Led by 39-year old Hungarian Pal Dardai who is enjoying his first year in senior football management, Hertha have the joint second-best defensive record in the league this season alongside Ingolstadt despite the fact that they also simultaneously hold the worst offensive record of all the teams in the current top six as things stand.

Dardai has built a solid, compact defensive foundation since taking over from Jos Luhukay last February and established a core of experienced players as his most valuable assets, namely the likes of Salomon Kalou, Vedad Ibišević, Per Ciljan Skjelbred, and Rune Jarstein among others. His abilities to combine youth and experience have paid its dividends so far this term and Hertha are undoubtedly reaping the rewards from it with strides of improvement on both ends in contrast to last year.

It’s not just his squad building and man management that deserves credit either as Dardai has also displayed himself as a tactically flexible manager who has trained his team well to play in different systems and deal with any situation they come across. Hertha have played several variations with two strikers, three defenders, and with a flat five in midfield and it’s this unpredictability that has surely taken everyone by surprise this year in Germany’s top flight.

Ibišević in top form again
Ibišević in top form again

Dardai has managed to work wonders with certain individual players, too. John Brooks has blossomed into a solid, consistent central defender under his guidance,  Vedad Ibišević has rediscovered his scoring touch after failing to net a single goal last term at Stuttgart, Kalou is having one of his best seasons in years, Jarstein has become a strong presence in goal despite starting the year as a backup to Thomas Kraft, Vladimir Darida has been an inspirational signing after a tough time at Freiburg, and so on. The individual improvements have formed a platform for Hertha to become a stronger, more formidable team and results support all of these claims very well so far this season.

The main objective back in August was to avoid relegation, a goal long since met.  Now Hertha turn their eyes to the possibility of qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since 1999-2000, when they made it to the last 16 of the competition. Making it to Europe’s premier club tournament at the expense of wealthier, more fancied domestic rivals would be a sweet success for the club, but the potential financial rewards stemming from Champions League involvement could allow the Berliners to make the next step on the way to establishing themselves as a consistent force in German football.

This doesn’t necessarily mean or have to mean that they’re the next Bayern or Dortmund, but if this season turns out as well as it’s looking right now, then Hertha’s gains from playing in the Champions League could be pretty handsome from an economical standpoint. It would allow them to finally make some growth now that it looks like they’ve finally found their feet and gained a bit of stability in the last few years.

They also have a chance to win the DFB-Pokal where they are getting ready to host Borussia Dortmund in the semifinals next month which is more proof that their league standing is no fluke and that they might not just be another one season European wonder like Freiburg and Eintracht Frankfurt were.

It’s hard to project for sure, though, just where Hertha’s future may be headed from here if indeed they do manage to stay in the top four come May 14. Whether they’ll be able to build on their successes or tumble from here like others before them remains to be seen, but it’s a certainty that everybody associated with the club in Berlin is happy to witness the Old Lady doing so well again amidst hopes for that success to continue. (Ed. note. Some are less optimistic).

They’ll be hoping their team keeps up their level for the remainder of the campaign so that they could entertain the prospect of bringing Barcelona or Real Madrid to the Olympiastadion in the Champions League and help them move on from the days when that ground was host to 2. Bundesliga games against the likes of Regensburg and Aalen altogether. That was the case not too long ago. What a difference just three years can make.

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Edin Halilovic

Edin is a Bosnian currently residing in the United States whose interest in the Bundesliga and German football in general has been increasing heavily in recent years. Follow him @edinh_96