Let’s rewind to late September, when Hertha BSC Berlin was in a dire situation. The team fell from third to seventh place within five match days to close out the 2015/16 season. To make matters worse, Hertha lost 1:3 away at Bröndby Copenhagen in the Europa League Playoffs.
This abysmal performance prompted coach Pal Dardai to bench skipper Fabian Lustenberger, whose captain’s armband went to veteran striker Vedad Ibisevic. A pretty risky move, since „Lusti“ had been part of the Hertha family since the Lucien Favre era. By contrast „Vedo“ had joined the team just a year earlier and is still on a one-year deal.
What a Turnaround!
Hertha supporters’ worries grew bigger when Die Alte Dame needed penalties away at third division Jahn Regensburg to advance from the DFB Pokal first round. By the time Hertha took on newly promoted SC Freiburg to kick-off the Bundesliga season, Berlin was already in crisis mode.
And it showed on the pitch.
Berlin took a lead in the second half, but Freiburg had been the better team that day and deservedly scored a last-minute equalizer. Then Julian Schieber, who had been somewhat forgotten by Hertha fans, somehow forced the ball across the line seconds before the final whistle.
Schieber’s goal single-handedly changed the (admittedly early) narrative of the 2017 season. Hertha had dodged a bullet in Regensburg and managed to get a result against Freiburg. The Berlin media was just waiting to make a big deal of the Lustenberger situation and publish their first “Hertha crisis“ stories. Yet, Schieber’s walk-off game-winner bought the team and Dardai precious time.
Instead of answering dumb questions about the Lustenberger situation, Pal Dardai was able to fix stuff. Meanswhile, Hertha officials simply kept their collective mouths shut. And suddenly a team that looked traumatized after the Denmark debacle went on a run.
They won again away at Ingolstadt in week two. On match day three, Hertha beat a troubled Schalke 04 team. During the following Englische Woche, Hertha actually traveled to the Allianz Arena tied on points with the mighty FC Bayern. Unfortunately, Hertha couldn’t give the Bavarian megastars a run for their money and deservedly lost by three goals. In week five, Hertha had to take on a red-hot Eintracht team at the Commerzbank Arena and escaped with a 3:3 draw, despite wearing their hideous Pink Panther jerseys.
Seven days later, Die Alte Dame hosted Hamburg and proved their record wasn’t a fluke. Even though the HSV had a couple of good chances, Hertha took care of business and almost looked like a Spitzenmannschaft (elite team) for stretches.
In Dardai & Preetz we Trust
Every coach is a genius when he’s winning, and every GM is brilliant whenever his transfer targets score., but you never know how good they really are until a crisis hits the club. Michael Preetz and Dardai handled themselves great after the Europa League KO and the weak performances at the season’s start.
Preetz didn’t complain about the failure to make into the EL group stage, and Dardai didn’t comment on the lack of new signings.
Dardai then bet big on Ibisevic and didn’t care about the media fallout. Not many coaches have the intestinal fortitude to do what they believe in, but Dardai didn’t care about the Berlin public and made Ibisevic Hertha’s undisputed leader. The Bosnian striker repaid him big time with five goals which ties him with Robert Lewandowski, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez on the goal-scorer’s list. Former captian Fabian Lustenberger is back in the starting line-up and hasn’t said one bad word about Hertha or Dardai. Not many coaches make a personnel change like that without creating drama in the locker room. Long story short: Dardai is an amazing coach.
The Hungarian might not look like one of those new era “Laptop Trainers,” but Dardai is as good at evolving young players as anyone. Just look at the progress Marvin Plattenhardt, Mitchell Weiser, and Genki Haraguchi have made. It also seems like Dardai has saved Valentin Stocker’s career.
Even though it hurts to admit it, Dardai is outgrowing Hertha and will coach at a bigger and better club sooner than later. Always keep in mind that Dardai was allowed to spend only two million Euros more than Hertha made on outgoing transfers. Yet the unrealistic and entitled Berlin media will never appreciate such a win over Hamburg (minus 30 million Euro transfer balance in 2016).
Outlook & Projection
The good news is that Hertha already managed to get through one crisis and has had to deal with adversity. Not only did Berlin lose franchise player Darida to injury, last season’s top scorer Salomon Kalou also has been unable to contribute. The Ivorian’s father died in Africa, and Kalou was given as much time as he needs by the club to take care of things down there. No one knows when Kalou will be mentally ready to play again. So Hertha has already lost two core pieces and managed to get by.
The rest of the Hinrunde will show how good Hertha really is, as there are still several good teams on the schedule (BVB, Köln, Gladbach, Leverkusen), but at least the away trip to Munich is behind them. We are also not sure how much the wins against Hamburg, Schalke, and Ingolstadt mean, since those teams are in the bottom three as we speak. Nobody should read too much into a six-game sample.
Even so, Hertha has twelve points in the bag after just a handful of games, putting them nearly a third of the way to securing safety in the league. Forget any Hertha fan talking of Europe right now. Staying up is what it’s all about, and at the moment it seems highly unlikely Hertha will be sucked into a relegation battle this year, despite a tendency to struggle late in the year.
For two years in a row, Dardai’s teams have played terribly in the final weeks of the season. In 2014-15, Hertha was one goal away from falling into the relegation playoff, even though they looked saved two month earlier. Last season, Hertha fell from a safe Champions League spot to the Europa League Qualifiers.
It will be Dardai’s biggest challenge to finally end a season on a high note.
Player of the Year (so far): Genki Haraguchi
I guess everybody expected Vedad Ibisevic in this space, but to be honest converting chances is what Vedo was brought in to do. Hertha’s problem last season was getting the ball to Kalou and Ibisevic in the center. Here’s where Haraguchi (or “Gucci“ as Hertha fans call him) comes in.
Last year, the young Japanese winger was a one-trick pony that relied too much on his pace. His touch was pretty poor, as were his decision-making and strength. This off-season, Gucci apparently hit the weight room and worked on his touch and vision, because most of his flaws are gone. Clever passes, a stronger frame, and better technique have made Haraguchi a nightmare for defenders. One day, he might be able to follow in the footsteps of Asian legends like Shinji Kagawa, Park Jin Sung, and Heung Min Son, who were at first seen as gimmicks to sell jerseys in Asia before becoming starters for Champions League-calibre clubs.
Haraguchi’s improvement gave Hertha some much-needed balance. Last year, too many attacks were launched on the right flank via Mitch Weiser and Peter Pekarik, which made Hertha very predictable. This year, Hertha’s left side of the field looks just as strong thanks to Plattenhardt (who was already very good last season) and the improved Haraguchi.
John Brooks Update for US Readers
Jürgen Klinsmann and American soccer fans will be relieved to hear that John Anthony Brooks is the real deal. According to Berliner Zeitung, English club Watford offered Hertha 18 million Euros for his services before deadline day, but Preetz didn’t even consider selling Brooks for that little money. Berlin-native Brooks also didn’t want to trade the Olympiastadion (seats 75.000) for the Vicarage Road (seats 21.000). Since he is only 23-years-old and already one of the best center-backs in the Bundesliga, he will leave his hometown only if a truly big club calls.
Unfortunately, health has always been an issue with Brooks, and this year he has played in only two of Hertha’s Bundesliga matches because of muscular issues.
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