A diminutive Dutch tactician, a new culture of hard work and realistic expectations have given Hertha an excellent chance to stay up - or even more. It's a model that other big clubs in hard times should emulate.
Hamburg’s Imtech Arena was a study in contrasts late Saturday afternoon. While the home fans were filing out of the stadium early, some to wait in the parking lot and throw beer cups at players and management, Hertha Berlin supporters celebrated a 3-0 win by singing “division two, you get to be part of it.”
It wasn’t long ago that the club from the capital was part of division two. The former Champions League participants went down twice in three seasons, victims of bad transfers, worse finances and even worse delusions of grandeur – a scenario that will be painfully familiar in Hamburg this season.
This edition of Hertha is harder working, more realistic and surprisingly successful. The newly promoted Old Lady has 31 points after twenty rounds and can already start planning for first-division football next season.
All the more impressively, Hertha have worked their way up to seventh in the table despite having to overcome more than their fair share of injuries. Designated playmaker Alexander Baumjohann has been out since early fall with a torn ACL, and Hertha's easy win in Hamburg came without their captain and talisman, central defender Fabian Lustenberger, who pulled a muscle in practice
The starting 11 Hertha coach Jos Luhukay fielded on Saturday included 36-year-old left back Levan Kobiashvili in central defense and another left back, Johannes van den Bergh, on the wing. This is nothing new. The diminutive Dutchman has made a number of bold personnel decisions this season and, almost without exception, they’ve paid off.
Changing a winning formula
Hertha won the second division last season with a record 76 points, but they haven’t rested on those laurels. Last season’s top scorer in division two, iron-footed midfielder Ronny, has been largely reduced to a substitute’s role, while veterans Peer Kluge and Maik Franz have been demoted to Hertha’s developmental squad.
Instead Luhukay has put his faith little-known, hard-working new acquisitions like van den Bergh, central defender Sebastian Langkamp and midfielders Per Skjelbred and Tolga Cigerci – the latter two last minute loanees brought in to compensate for the loss of Baumjohann.
They have made Hertha a team that’s very difficult to beat. They press relentlessly and outrun almost all opponents. They also counterattack quickly and directly, as Hamburg found out on all the goals they conceded Saturday. Pep Guardiola said that Hertha are the best Bundesliga side mighty Bayern have faced all season – no small compliment.
A place in the Europa League is a realistic possibility, but neither Hertha’s coach nor their management is talking international football just yet, wisely. Fans in Berlin remember all too well getting relegated in 2010 after contending for the title the year before. And although most things are going well for Hertha at the moment in their quest to reestablish themselves in German football, the future is certain to bring further changes.
Ramos ready to go?
One major reason for Hertha’s form has been the ascendency of Adrian Ramos, who tops the Bundesliga with 14 goals scored this season. The somewhat ungainly looking but fleet-footed 28-year-old Colombian striker is in the penultimate year of his contract and is rumored to have already agreed terms with Dortmund, who need to replace Robert Lewandowski in the summer.
If Dortmund are interested, Hertha will be forced to sell – most probably for around 10 million euros ($13.6 million). Hertha do have the option of welcoming back Pierre-Michel Lasogga, who’s out on loan this season to Hamburg, but he and Luhukay reportedly don’t see eye-to-eye. So question marks loom up front.
Dortmund can offer Ramos Champions League football as well as a salary Hertha would be unable to match. Berlin’s financial situation may have greatly improved two weeks ago, when the club announced that the KKP private equity company had pumped in 60 million euros and cleared 37 million euros of debt off Hertha’s books in one fell swoop. But that money comes in return for a 10 percent stake in the club and any profits, so it’s hard to see the Old Lady ripping open her purse for transfers or salaries.
And it’s difficult to predict how the relationship between the venerable but traditionally underachieving capital club and profit-motivated investors from the US will pan out. Will the low-key Luhukay get the chance to continue the team’s revival step-by-step? Or will an attempt be made to heave Hertha onto the short-term European stage to the detriment of the club’s long-term health?
No one knows. For the moment though, football fans in Berlin can breathe easier knowing that this time around the relegation battle is taking place without them.