Berlin Blues: Hertha’s Battle for Bundesliga Survival
When German businessman Lars Windhorst purchased a stake in Hertha Berlin three years ago, he had one goal in mind – to make Die Alte Dame a ‘big city club’. Yet Hertha have regressed massively in the ensuing years, with a revolving door of managers and an influx of mega-money signings descending on the Olympiastadion.
The Bundesliga remains the only league in Europe’s ‘top five’ to not have produced a title-winning side from its capital city this century, and that does not appear to be set to change for the foreseeable future. Die Alte Dame now face the prospect of being relegated to the 2. Bundesliga for the first time in nine years, having sat in the bottom two for the majority of the campaign.
Well-known investment guru Windhorst became a minority owner of Hertha in June 2019, purchasing a 49.9% stake of the club for an eye-watering €224million – the biggest deal in Bundesliga history. The German spoke of his ambition to restore the former glory of Die Alte Dame, a founding member of the Bundesliga whose last top-flight title came in the 1930s. Windhorst hired Jurgen Klinsmann as his football advisor, a mouthpiece of sorts, who soon became manager in November 2019. In addition to Klinsmann, a host of high-profile signings were sold on the project at the Olympiastadion. Krzysztof Piatek, Lucas Tousart, Dodi Lukebakio and Matheus Cunha all made the switch to the German capital in Windhorst’s first year at the helm.
Although, Klinsmann’s love affair with Die Alte Dame quickly fell flat on its face. The manager resigned via Facebook in February 2020, ending a tumultuous 10-week spell in which Hertha climbed just one spot in the table from 15th to 14th. A few weeks after Klinsmann’s departure, German publication ‘Sport Bild’ published a 22-page dossier of notes that the former United States manager had made during his time in charge at the Olympiastadion. In the report, Klinsmann criticised the hierarchy and the aspirations of Hertha – leaving Windhorst with egg on his face.
After a 10th place finish in a campaign disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, Windhorst vowed to challenge for the European places in his second year at the club – investing a further €150million. Bruno Labbadia, the Bundesliga’s very own relegation fire-fighter, was the man tasked with guiding Hertha to their lofty ambitions following a successful nine-game spell at the end of the previous season. Yet after a dreadful start to the campaign, with Hertha winning just four of their opening 18 league games, Labbadia was sacked.
Former manager Pal Dardai – who was relieved of his duties in the same summer as Windhorst’s arrival – was brought back to the club to maintain their top-flight status. In an extraordinary run, they lost just one of their last nine games – avoiding the relegation play-off by two points.
The sense of optimism that Windhorst had brought to the Olympiastadion had dispersed and a much-needed re-shuffle amongst the club’s hierarchy took place last summer. General manager Michael Preetz was the first to be shown the door. Hertha’s record goalscorer had sacked 11 managers and broke the record for the most expensive January transfer window in Bundesliga history during his reign. Forward-thinking sporting director Fredi Bobic was prized from Eintracht Frankfurt as Preetz’s replacement and trusted with the rebuild of Die Alte Dame.
Bobic has already produced commendable efforts within Hertha’s transfer department, making a profit on some of the previous regime’s acquisitions and signing players with high upturn value like midfielder Suat Serdar. The Sporting Director has also changed the entire dynamic of the hierarchy – hiring several scouts and a new academy director as he seeks to bring an era of success to the German capital.
Yet the German was not afforded the opportunity to put his stamp on the process for a new manager. After Dardai’s remarkable run at the back end of the 2020-21 campaign, the Hungarian’s position was deemed practically tenable. However, Dardai was relieved of his duties just 13 games into the current season with the white-blues sat just one point above the drop zone. In turn, Bobic appointed Tayfun Korkut, a manager who had not lasted more than 10 months in a job since 2015. But after a disastrous spell in the dugout, which saw Hertha win just two in 13, Korkut was also handed his marching orders.
Veteran manager Felix Magath is now the third manager to be tasked with keeping Die Alte Dame in the top-flight this season, but the former Fulham manager has his work cut out.
Hertha have acted as cannon-fodder for some of the Bundesliga’s top clubs this term, shipping three or more goals in nine of their 28 league games. It is no surprise that Die Alte Dame have conceded the second-most goals (62) of any side in the division this season, with only rock-bottom Greuther Fürth conceding more (70). RB Leipzig have twice put six past Hertha in the league this year, while Bayern Munich have routed Die Alte Dame 5-0 and 4-1 in their two league meetings. Die Alte Dame have only once had a worse defensive record after 28 matchdays: in 1990-91, they had conceded 65 goals at this stage of the season – a campaign which saw them relegated into the 2. Bundesliga.
The blue-whites have kept just four clean sheets across the entirety of the season, while only Stuttgart have kept less (3). Yet it is Hertha’s inability to beat the teams around them that will most worry Magath. They have dropped points against Bochum, Greuther Fürth and Borussia Monchengladbach in the last eight weeks – sides that are all within 10 points of them in the table.
Hertha’s Achilles heel has come in the shape of defending set pieces and headers. Die Alte Dame have conceded 20 goals from set pieces, with only Greuther Fürth shipping more (25). It is only the Cloverleaves who have conceded more headed goals (16) than Hertha’s 13 this season. And there has been nothing unlucky about Magath’s side’s defending this season.
Most recently, both goals that they conceded against Bayer Leverkusen came via crosses from the right-hand side. On each occasion, a Leverkusen attacker was able to get to the ball first before firing a shot at goal. The blue-whites have conceded 282 shots from inside box this season, the third-most of any German top-flight side behind the aforementioned Greuther Fürth (300) and Arminia Bielefeld (312).
The high press is seemingly non-existent for Hertha this season, allowing teams to advance at will upfield. They have made just 149 high turnovers this term, the lowest of any side in the division, while they also have the fewest pressed sequences in the league (315). In addition to this, Hertha start their possessions the nearest to their own goal of any team in the Bundesliga, averaging at just 39 metres.
This style may ultimately come down to the fact that Stevan Jovetic and Ishak Belfodil, both in their 30s, have led the line for Hertha this season. Magath’s counter to that in his first two games has been to flood the midfield. Against Leverkusen, Die Alte Dame started with four central midfielders in their side to prevent Leverkusen from playing between the lines. They lost 2-1 to the third-placed Bundesliga side, but the performance had some more encouraging signs.
Magath was dramatically forced to miss his first game in charge last month due to a positive Covid-19 test. But under the guidance of assistant coach Mark Fotheringham, a Scotsman who played for Magath at Fulham, Hertha picked up their first win of 2022 with a 3-0 scalp over top four challengers Hoffenheim.
However, Hertha’s destiny remains in their own hands. Magath’s side must play three of the sides in the bottom five in their next four games. Last season, they were also able to beat the drop when they had collected only 26 points from 28 games, while only five points currently separate Die Alte Dame and 13th placed Wolfsburg in the table.
According to our AI-powered season projections, Hertha BSC have a 31.9% chance of finishing in the automatic relegation spots – the third-highest chance behind near-relegation certainties SpVgg Greuther Fürth (99.9%) and VfB Stuttgart (36.3%).
Their chance of completely avoiding relegation and the dreaded relegation playoff stands at 39.2% before this derby against Union Berlin – a win in this fixture should increase this a fair bit and could even take them out of the bottom three.
Their next game is against bitter city rivals Union Berlin. For decades, Hertha had dwarfed Union, but the white-blues’ recent demise has aligned with the fairy-tale rise of their noisy neighbours. In Union’s first season back in the top-flight, the two sides finished level on points with 41. Yet the Iron Ones finished an enormous 15 points ahead in 2020-21 and are already 15 in-front this term.
The remaining eight games are invaluable. Windhorst has reportedly declined to put any more money into the club, with it almost certain that a side boasting one of the biggest wage bills in the Bundesliga would be dismantled should they suffer relegation. However, if Magath and his Scottish sidekick Fotheringham can maintain Hertha’s top-flight status, the groundwork of Bobic has already hinted that Windhorst’s foolhardy promise could soon bore fruit and make Hertha Berlin a ‘big city club’.
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