Hanover 96 are currently enjoying barely conceivable success in the Bundesliga - riding high in fourth place and on a run of three straight victories. And no one really knows why.
Slomka thinks Hanover should work on their self-esteem
"How did this happen?" That's the question currently echoing around the streets of Hanover. After an emphatic 3-0 win over Freiburg on Saturday, the Bundesliga side is flying so high - an unnatural fourth place - it's a wonder the players don't complain of nosebleeds and dizziness.
Last season, their best league position at any point was eighth. And that was after match day three. Now the season is nearly at the half-way mark, and they've just won three on the spin and confidence is soaring after victory in a 3-2 thriller against northern German rivals Hamburg 10 days ago. In fact, if you're the sort of football fan - and most are - who sees any remotely regional proximity as bitter derby rivalry, then Hanover are the champions of the north. Hamburg, St. Pauli, Bremen and Wolfsburg are all languishing beneath them in the table - an unprecedented state of affairs.
The victory over northern rivals Hamburg was particularly satisfying
It's a huge contrast to this time last year, when the club was in trauma following the suicide of their national goalkeeper, Robert Enke. The team, deeply affected by the tragedy, subsequently stepped close to the abyss of relegation, leaving it to the last game of the season to save their place in the league.
So it's probably only natural that those in charge at Hanover are more relieved at the 14-point cushion between themselves and the relegation zone than energized at the one-point margin that separates them from a Champions League qualification place.
Certainly, the club does not appear to be planning an assault on Leverkusen in that third place. Club president Martin Kind is just grateful that he can have a peaceful holiday: "After our strenuous season a year ago, I think we've earned a quiet Christmas," he said after Saturday's match. "Forty points is our target," he added, as if to underline his modesty. With 25 points in the bank and the winter break still three matches away, that is a pretty cautious aim.
Perhaps coach Mirko Slomka had Kind's words in mind when he told news weekly Die Zeit, "We have to work on our self-esteem. Together with the director and the president, I'm working on developing a self-image that we're a really good Bundesliga club."
Therapy has been an important tool in Slomka's kit-bag. Arriving three months after Enke's death, he worked long and hard to dig his players out of a psychological black-hole last season. "I didn't think it would be so hard to stay up," he told Die Zeit, recalling the despairing six-match losing streak that followed his arrival.
Before this season began, his job was widely regarded as the most precarious, following an early cup exit to fourth division Elversberg. But since then, it's all been going right, and media reports say Slomka is about to sign a new contract.
Jan Schlaudraff is in form and friends again with Slomka
Begging the question...
So what have Hanover been doing right? Slomka's answer is a little unsatisfactory: "This team has strength of character, is motivated, self-confident, and has tactical discipline," he said at the post-match press conference on Saturday, reading from the football coach's handbook of How To Fob Off The Press.
But the press, for their part, seem equally at a loss. "I can't explain it myself," Uwe von Holt, sports editor at Hanover's Neue Presse newspaper, told Deutsche Welle. "It's partly just that they've functioned as a team at times when they've played against teams who haven't, for example, Schalke at the start of the season."
So it's just luck? "Not just luck," said von Holt. "If you look at them, the team really isn't that bad, when they're not injured. Going forward we've been outstanding, especially through Didier Ya Konan."
Return of the old guard
The Ivorian has certainly been Hanover's most eye-catching striker this season, with six Bundesliga goals. But he was at the club last season as well. In fact, the most notable aspect of the Hanover's recent success is that it is not the new signings that are shining, but the re-emergence of old talents - particularly Mike Hanke and Jan Schlaudraff, two unsettled strikers who have been angling for a transfer. Both scored in recent matches. (Hanke still wants out, unhappy that he's only ever used as a late substitute. Schlaudraff, meanwhile, seems to have repaired his fractured relationship with Slomka.)
The death of Robert Enke affected the club on the pitch as well as off
But the key thing, said von Holt, is that this season's new signings are all actually playing. "All the players who have been promoted from the reserves or from the second Bundesliga are finding a place in the team," he said.
The economy of these new transfers is also notable. Of the 11 new arrivals, only one cost any money: Mohammed Abdellaoue, who came from Norwegian club Valerenga for the princely sum of one million euros ($1.3 million). He has already scored four goals in 10 appearances. He is currently taking a break, having played a full Norwegian season and is expected back in the new year. "He'll play a big part in the second half of the season," says von Holt.
Norbert Fettback of the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung (HAZ) thinks the new signings have had a bigger effect than a first glance might reveal. He said Austrian defender Emanuel Pogatetz, who arrived on a free transfer from English team Middlesbrough, has provided the team with much-needed leadership at the back. "I have to say the sporting director Joerg Schmadtke has shown a really good nose for signings," said Fettback. "In the past we've spent a lot of money on players and haven't got anything out of them."
But Fettback refused to get carried away. "There's a danger that the fans are getting a bit over-excited," said Fettback. "But I've been reporting on Hanover 96 for the past 25 years, and I've learned to be cautious."
Simple but effective
Von Holt also noted that a lot of Hanover's success came down to a pragmatic approach to tactics. "They've decided that ball possession is not so important," he said. "They keep their shape and then go on the counter-attack. That obviously doesn't work against every team, but it's been going well so far."
But there's a reason why von Holt and his colleagues were being so cautious. "A lot of teams do the same thing, and obviously there's a problem when two teams meet with this idea," he noted. "Hanover have problems when the other team is also trying not to dictate play. About 80 percent of the Bundesliga does it."
For all Slomka's optimism and positive energy, maybe pessimism is just in the Hanoverian DNA. "The mood is really good for now, but everyone knows it won't be enough to get any further," said von Holt. "No one is expecting that either."
Asked to make a prediction for the rest of the season, both von Holt and his colleague Fettback at the HAZ said eighth would be a good finish. "A Hanoveran is not someone who has a carnival every day," said von Holt. "Like other northern Germans, we're not exactly the euphoric type."
Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Nancy Isenson