November 18, 2017

What To Expect Next Season? Hertha Berlin – A Tactical Examination and Season Review

Markus Babbel – The Man behind the promotion

 

The last time Markus Babbel participated in the 1. Bundesliga he was in charge of VfB Stuttgart after a short stint there as a player following retirement.  In November 2008 he replaced the outgoing Armin Veh.  Veh had a poor first half of the season and left his side stranded in 11th place, closer to relegation than the top half they were accustomed to.  Babbel came in and guided Stuttgart to a 3rd place finish and qualification for the Champions League after a quite remarkable Hinrunde.  In fact, Stuttgart finished that season just 5 points behind champions Wolfsburg.  It was a turnaround few expected.

The following season was not as rosy however and Babbel struggled to keep his side competitive across multiple competitions.  After 15 matches, Stuttgart were floundering in 16th place and club and coach decided to part ways despite the side finishing second in their Champions League group and qualifying for the knockout stages.  In many ways, Babbel fell victim to the pressures and tumultuous circumstances of the results driven football business.  Stuttgart were not willing to go through another disappointing season and decided that changing coaches was the best way to move forward.  Things had turned so ugly in fact that Babbel had to at one point personally intervene in a quarrel with angry supporters at Stuttgart’s training ground.

Babbel did not let that episode disrupt his managerial ambitions though and he soon acquired his coaching diploma from the renowned Hennes-Weisweiler Academy in April of 2010.  A month later Hertha Berlin announced that Babbel would become their new manager, signing a 1-year contract with the possibility of extension provided he returns the Berlin club to the first division the following season.  Babbel did not disappoint and a year later Hertha Berlin secured promotion with three matches remaining.

Most people expected Hertha to gain promotion given their resources but perhaps not in the fashion that they did.  With the league’s most lethal attack and one of the best defenses Hertha occupied a top three positions for 30 of the 34 weeks during the season.  Boasting the 2. Bundesliga’s best away form, Hertha stormed their way to promotion and many supporters are now eager to see what Babbel and company have in store when they return to the big time next season.  Let’s take a closer look at Babbel’s Berlin and see just how they got here and what we can expect from the “Old Lady” next term.

Tactical Set Up & Personnel – Flexibility benefits Hertha

Under Babbel, Hertha Berlin have mainly alternated between the widely used 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 reminiscent of Jürgen Klinsmann’s Germany circa 2006, which would more accurately be reflected as a 4-2-2-2 on the field.   Earlier in the season he also experimented with a midfield diamond and a variation of a 4-1-4-1 but eventually settled on either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-2-2 simply because those were more effective and suited his players.  That tactical evolution and Babbel’s willingness to be flexible was a large part in Hertha’s ability to continue the streak of results that won them promotion.  Babbel’s ability to adapt when needed has been key in Hertha’s impressive season and holds the key for any plausible success next season.

The 4-1-4-1 formation that Babbel started the season with.

Babbel initially started with what on paper most closely resembles a 4-1-4-1 formation.  The backline was Hertha’s one consistent element during the season and remained largely unchanged throughout.  Lell and Kobiashvili were Hertha’s fullbacks and in the center was arguably the league’s most reliable center back pairing in Hubnik and Mijatovic.  The defensive consistency was one of the stabilizing factors in Hertha’s race to promotion.  Niemeyer was the midfield destroyer with the attacking duo of Raffael and Domovchiyski in front of him and two wide players supporting the lone forward.  It was formation packing a lot of punch and it helped Hertha to a fantastic start to the season, going unbeaten in their first 10 matches.  It essentially fielded 5 forwards, which caught most teams off guard and utilized the many strikers Hertha had on their books.  That element of surprise however wore out as the season progressed and Babbel’s men started to struggle.

Matchday 11 to 15 was Hertha’s poorest run of the season. In that run, Hertha lost 4 of their 5 matches in the league and were eliminated from the DFB Pokal by 3rd league outfit Koblenz in the second round.  It was a stark contrast to their wonderful start.  It was also a spell marked by a sense of confusion as Babbel tried to make sense of what was going wrong.  He used several different formations in those weeks and none seemed to fit the team or catered to the consistency Hertha were seeking on the pitch as Babbel scrambled to find a solution.  The roles were not clearly defined and that was evident in their performances as Hertha fell to their season low 5th position in the standings.  Babbel needed to adapt to steady the ship as his side were losing games that otherwise they were expected to win.

Many managers would have rested on their laurels and hoped for a rebound down the line, especially after such a blistering start, but Babbel took a bold step and made some crucial changes.  The new midfield diamond that was introduced was a compromise between Hertha’s attacking resources and a more balanced overall game.  Babbel introduced 19-year old striker Lasogga into the fold to partner Ramos up front while playing a more narrow midfield and using the Brazilian Ronny and the Ukrainian born Australian Rukavytsya closer to the holding midfielder.  Having a target in Lasogga also allowed Ramos to drop off and help in midfield.  Hertha’s results improved immediately and they went on to win 5 of their next 6 matches.

Babbel's midfield diamond, the first step in getting Hertha back on track.

The tactical evolution continued and also included the sacrifice of an additional attacking player (Domovchiyski) for a more defensive minded partner for Niemeyer (Lustenberger).  Lustenberger’s performances convinced Babbel that the 23-year old Swiss midfielder deserved to start.  Eventually the midfield diamond gave way to a “double six” in the center of the pitch in either the 4-2-2-2 or the 4-2-3-1 formations that then remained until the end of the season.  In that spell, Hertha managed 8 clean sheets and lost only 3 of the remaining 18 matches.

The 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-2-2 formations optimized Hertha’s output and made the best use of its’ players in just about every position.  In the 4-2-3-1 Babbel used two natural strikers on the wing (Ramos and Rukavytsya), which optimized their output.  Hertha were also helped by Ebert’s return from injury which injected more direct approach into Hertha’s game and gave Babbel a different option.  The changes complimented Raffel’s playmaking tendencies as it took pressure off the Brazilian and gave him plenty of room to create.  Between Ramos, Ebert, Rukavytsya, Raffael and Lassoga, Hertha’s attack scored a combined 43 goals and amassed 34 assists.

The final step in Babbel's tactical process, the more balanced and potent 4-2-3-1.
The 4-2-2-2 used in conjunction with the 4-2-3-1.

 

The difference between the two formations was subtle.  The 4-2-2-2 demanded that its’ wide players play closer to the flanks which catered to a more traditional winger like Ebert but in action it was not too different from the 4-2-3-1.  Ramos was the forward that dropped off Lasogga and effectively replaced Raffael as the playmaker while Lustenberger and Niemeyer continued their steady grip in midfield.  Because Niemeyer was no longer alone he was also able to get more involved in attack in the new formations and subsequently doubled his goals and assists for the season.  Both formations also made better use of the fullbacks.  Lell and Kobiashvilli, who were previously bogged down in defense, became the primary providers of width.  That in turn allowed all other attackers to play closer to the center and add to the already strong Hertha offense.  It was a far cry from the chaotic 4-1-4-1 that initially worked well but became unsustainable.

Hertha’s chances next season

Kaiserslautern and Marco Kurz proved this season that a newly promoted side is not beyond finishing in the first half of the table.  And although Hertha were odds on favorites to win promotion they did so by merit rather than formality. After a poor spell of form in the Hinrunde, Babbel could have easily stumbled but instead found a more solid footing and became more astute in his approach.  Rather than forcing changes he adjusted his system to suit the personnel he had available.  In doing so, he went on to win 14 of the next 19 matches and secured first division football for the Hertha faithful.

Based on Hertha’s squad as well as their resources they should be able to compete with the likes of Kaiserslautern, Freiburg, Gladbach and Köln next year but a lot will depend on how the team transitions to the step up in quality of the first division.  Hertha have talented and capable attacking players in Ramos, Lasogga, Ebert and Raffael so scoring goals will probably not be their gravest concern.  However, sides like St. Pauli and Gladbach struggled this season primarily because they were so porous defensively.  Hertha’s backline is not abundant in speed and Kobiashvili and Mijatovic are on the wrong side of 30 while Lell was exploited on numerous occasions when he was still playing for Bayern.  How their defense will cope against the plethora of attacking players spread throughout the Bundesliga will largely determine Hertha’s chances next season.

Babbel seems to have found a system that works for him though and that will work in his favor going into next season.  All the changes he was afforded in the 2. Bundesliga would not be as forgiving in the top flight so a solid foundation and consistent philosophy can only serve them well.  The prognosis of course remains undetermined and any number of scenarios can play out but if their season in the 2. Bundesliga is any indication of how Hertha and Babbel conduct themselves as a serious football club Hertha fans have reason to be optimistic.

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

15 Comments

  1. The Lasogga to Milito comparison is actually a very good one. I thought the exact same thing after watching him a couple of times.

    About Niemeyer, they built a buy option into his contract when they sorted out the loan initially, which would go into effect immediately if Hertha secured promotion. So from a contractual/legal perspective, the fee was already in place ahead of the contract running out.

  2. @Conni…

    I don’t think Burchert will ever be ready. He just doesn’t have the ability or potential IMHO. I think Strebinger in our Hertha U19 team has come potential and he might be already better than Burchert. I wouldn’t mind seeing Aerts being our backup for a year or two while Strebinger gets some experience in our II team or on loan.

    Lasogga probably won’t play like Klose, I think he’ll play a little bit more like Diego Milito actually, with his strength and just overall game. Obviously, it will take awhile for him to get there (if he ever gets there), but he at least has the potential, and that alone is a good sign. He just has to keep working hard and not get the hype into his head.

    Also another player who should get more plaudits has been Peter Niemeyer, who was much maligned at Werder I think (not sure about this; lets just say he wasn’t great, which is why he got loaned out anyways). I’m actually wondering if anyone can shed light on this, his contract was up this year, no? Then why did Hertha stills stump the 700,000 euro transfer fee for him? Or was my Football Manager wrong? 😛

  3. Technique can be learned through practice, at least. He did well in his first U-21 match (scored a goal, even), and he worked well with Holtby (setting one up for Lewis). I think with time and experience, he could become great.

    Let’s see what his second BuLi season brings 🙂

  4. By the way, very excited about Lasogga as well. Germany’s youth teams can use a striker like him in their ranks. Doesn’t play with the technique of some of his peers but he has a good striker’s instinct.

  5. I’m looking forward to seeing how Hertha’s attack can evolve, they’ve got a pretty complete and versatile group of attacking players and that should bode well for them in the first division. They don’t seem too reliant on just one player and the goal scoring is distributed fairly evenly amongst the team.

    I have to also agree with Wayne that Kraft’s form will be crucial. I think Hertha’s defense will be tested big time and a sold keeper can be the difference in the long run.

  6. I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees a young Klose in Lasogga. Here’s hoping he lives up to his potential! Miro has big boots to fill.

    I highly doubt we’ll see Aerts in goal next season, at least as number one. He’s far too inconsistent. Burchert is still so young. The couple games he played this year were ok, but he isn’t ready for the first league by any means.

  7. Like someone said below, Mijatovic is only 32, which isn’t awful (Arne Friedrich is of an age with him), but he doesn’t have first league experience. That may end up being more important than age.

    Thankfully, we have Brooks and Neumann, though they’re both very young and inexperienced.

    I hope Babbel sticks to form and picks the strongest player regardless. Kraft could be number one, but Aerts still has a chance. A very slim one, of course.

  8. I’m rather new to the site, but I’ve enjoyed it immensely. This article and the subsequent commentary is a good example of why I come here daily.

    Congrats to die alte Dame and all of her fans – it’s great to have you back in the 1. Bundesliga!

  9. Mijatovic isn’t so old. He’s going to be 32 next year, which for a defender is not so bad. The problem with him is he’s never actually been in the 1. Bundesliga IIRC, I think he’s only ever played in the 2. Bundesliga and the 1. HNL Croatian League. That could be the big problem, he’s probably never faced the likes of Abdellaoue and Cacau, nevermind Gomez and Barrios…

    I’m really excited about the youth products. Lasogga has been a monster this season and I can see him really playing well in the 1. Bundesliga. He’s not afraid, he runs with pace and power and (most importantly) with purpose. He’s got a good aerial game as well and he will just get better with games. Already, I can see the potential in him to be a successor to Klose, but of course, its too early to say, but the signs are very promising. I also really like how Ramos, Raffael and Rukavystya interact with the striker, I hope they don’t change it too much. (I’d rather start Nikita over Patrick at this stage because I think having a left footed player along with 3 other right footers has more balance to it).

    The most important player though coming into next season, unfortunately IMHO, will be Thomas Kraft. He will have to be on top form next year or Hertha may suffer the drop. I think the team already has more quality than some of the teams above them, but if he turns out to be a chump that a fairly vocal minority seem to think he will turn out to be, then it could be a very long season. If I see Aerts or Burchert in goal next year I will be very afraid.

  10. Spot on about Mijatovic, he has been a rock back there. Shame he is so old, Hertha are going to have a hard time replacing him.

    Bringing in Kraft and Ottl are great moves. Aerts is obviously not a long term option and he has been shaky compared to most other keepers in the league while Ottl will give you guys versatility, experience and add extra competition to the squad.

  11. Depending on the base size of the roster, losing eighteen players (minus four loan returns) could be less than half.

    The youth program has definitely been a major help this season: Burchert, Neumann, Ebert, Schulz, Perdedaj, and Djuricin all came from the youth sides. In contrast to the Hoeness-era (1997-2009) method of financing expensive star-transfers with the sale of promising youth (both Boatengs, for example), Preetz and Babbel seem inclined to mine the youth sides for themselves. (Even if they sell them/let them go later at a higher fee than they could get for a promising 20-year-old. Not everyone’s going to be Pal Dardai.)

    For CBs, we have Mija and Hubnik (26), and Neumann (19) who’s rarely started except when Mija was out. The transfer from BSC II, Brooks, is a CB. So we’ve got four right now, and Babbel’s never shown reluctance to leave out players who don’t perform as desired. After the training camp, it could become a Neumann-Hubnik back pair (though Neumann’s young and makes mistakes). Mija’s the captain, and unless that changes, I don’t see him not getting a starting position.

    Is it August yet?

  12. Hertha got relegated with a team that was far too good for the second Bundesliga(Gladbach are still in danger of doing the same this season). Keeping most of their players, and adding a lot of young talent to the side has given them a direct promotion on their first try.

    I agree, they should be able to get a mid-table finish next season. Kraft is a solid, and much needed transfer. I hope that “The old lady” considers buying another CB for the next season. The central defense isn’t the quickest, and some speed back there would do the team a world of good imho. I could see Hertha finishing around 9th next season.

  13. It’s going to be exciting to have Hertha back in the top-flight. Conni, thanks for adding such quality information to a great article !!!

  14. Another factor in the 5-game wobble was Mijatovic’s injury. He was out those five games, and he was pretty much the cornerstone of defensive stability (since Aerts is the opposite of stable, especially after his brief injury period around that same time).

    I really like the team Babbel fielded in the Rückrunde. Ebert, for all his unfortunate hairstyle and frat-boy looks, is a damn good player, and Lusti has a remarkable game sense. He set up a goal in one match from a loose midfield ball. I hope to see him become wonderful.

    For next season, we’ve got some interesting signings, like Kraft and (probably) Ottl, and Tunay Torun (an offensive winger, according to Dan_bu). Preetz said he was looking for four new signings for next season, mostly in defense and midfield, so we’ve got one more, it seems. They’ve just given a U-19/U-23 defensive player, John Brooks, a pro contract, so he’s a potential CB on the right side of 30.

    One of the discussions in the media has been about the “Bayern gene,” or having a champion’s mentality, which Babbel wanted to insert in the team. The Bayern of the 2. Liga was the early nickname (for multiple reasons, including the budget being Bayern-sized in comparison to the rest of Liga 2).

    Babbel’s done an excellent job this season, even bouncing back after the wobble. He directed the first immediate re-promotion in club history! Even if he was worried about losing at the time, he always projected an air of confidence that they’d be promoted. He’s proven flexible (which you’ve done a remarkable job detailing here), and I hope his confidence, flexibility, and Bayern gene get us at least a respectable mid-table finish next season. (The official club goals are 42 points and 2 DFB-Pokal rounds; exceeding expectations is desirable. One of my twitter-friends was at the members’ meeting yesterday and live-tweeted.)

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