Former Hannover coach Mirko Slomka may regret his decision to head seventeenth placed Hamburg. The would-be Bundesliga giant has cut more than one head coach down to size.
Last September, when Hamburg hired Bert van Marwijk, it looked like a perfect fit. The former Dortmund and Dutch national coach seemed like just the man to shape up the northern Germans' lax defense and keep them in the middle of the table while the club tried to reform its structures.
143 days later it was clear that van Marwijk was not a good fit at all. The question now: is Mirko Slomka, or indeed any coach, a good fit for a club as dysfunctional as Hamburg?
The Dutchman didn't solve the northern Germans' defensive problems. Indeed they got worse, and while kilometers logged isn't all there is to football, the fact that Hamburg got outrun by almost every opponent they faced doesn't exactly suggest that the coach was getting everything he could out of his side.
But in his defense, van Marwijk took over a squad that was neither of his making nor put together with the aim of fighting relegation. And in the winter transfer window the only reinforcements he got were two untried youngsters taken out on loan.
Marwijk may have been an abject failure at Hamburg, but he's by no means a bad coach. After all, he took the Netherlands to within one errant Arjen Robben shot of a World Cup title in 2010. By removing him from his post, Hamburg's bosses are treating the symptom, not the disease.
Here's a statistic that should give Mirko Slomka pause for thought: ten coaches have come and gone in the past seven years at the Hamburger Sportverein, big ones, small ones, young ones, old ones, German ones and foreign ones. That's no accident.
Hamburg is a club that has developed a knack for getting the least out its employees.
A Catastrophe at the Back
One of the few consistent performers for Hamburg this season had been Rene Adler, but his display against Eintracht Braunschweig, the match that ultimately cost van Marwijk his job, was straight out of Halloween Part 21. The German national team's nominal number two goalkeeper fluffed first a corner and then a free kick, effectively handing Braunschweig their margin of victory.
Why did a goalkeeper of Adler's caliber suddenly look as though he were manning the posts for the first time in his life? The answer is probability. If you subject any keeper, even Manuel Neuer, to the sort of pressure Adler has faced this season, he'll crack at some point.
With Hamburg dead last in the league in terms of goals conceded, Adler's place in Germany's squad for this summer's World Cup is in jeopardy, which is only going to increase the pressure on the soft-spoken, relatively introverted keeper and his shaky defense.
Hamburg have never settled on a starting back four. Veteran Heiko Westermann, who had been moved into midfield, is back in central defense where he no longer looks up to the demands of first-division football. He, Lasse Sobiech, Jonathan Tah and Johann Djourou are among the lowest-ranked players in the Bundesliga according the grades handed out by kicker magazine.
Adler's flailing on Saturday had all the hallmarks of a keeper trying to do too much because he has no faith in the defenders in front of him. And he shouldn't. Hamburg's patchwork defense is unlikely to get much better in the course of this season.
That's one problem Slomka must deal with. Another: Hamburg lack an on-the-pitch leader.
You can't go home again
None of Hamburg's players, including captain Rafael van der Vaart, confronted the press or their own fans after the debacle in Braunschweig. And if any one individual symbolizes Hamburg's current malaise, it's the Dutch playmaker.
Van der Vaart returned to Hamburg at the start of last season after lukewarm engagements at Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur. The club borrowed money from a local businessman to be able to afford his 13-million euro fee – the most expensive transfer in Hamburg history.
But van der Vaart's game is finesse, not fighting. The Dutchman scored six goals in the first ten matches, but he's only found his range once since then. He's also an outsider in the squad: a celebrity also known for his tabloid marriage and divorce to a Dutch model, and he sticks out amidst a collection of relatively anonymous athletes.
One of Slomka's first decisions will have to be whether to allow van der Vaart to retain the captain's armband. He may not have a realistic option. Neither Adler nor Westermann, Hamburg's other two veterans, are exactly brimming with self-confidence.
Much of Hamburg's drive to remain the only club to be part of the Bundesliga every season since its inception will depend on whether Slomka can stop the rot immediately. It won't be easy. Hamburg next face Dortmund, then local rivals Werder Bremen and fellow relegation strugglers Eintracht Frankfurt.
Whatever happens, being a coach in Hamburg is never easy. Slomka should make sure to pack some aspirin in his travelling bag. As van Marwijk can tell him, the headaches are pre-ordained.