Hamburg's win over RB Leipzig caught many off-guard this weekend. The team have finally found a backbone and it's embodied by their battle-hardened Greek defender and a strong-minded boss, writes DW's Ross Dunbar.
Hamburg coach Markus Gisdol must have enjoyed the last eight days. It's been easily the best period since he accepted German football's poisoned chalice in September. Following a win over Bayer Leverkusen last Friday, the northern Germans secured a spot in the quarterfinals of the German Cup in midweek. But it was on Saturday that all of Gisdol's work really came to fruition, as Hamburg's commanding performance against RB Leipzig was rewarded with a 3-0 away win.
When Gisdol turned down Werder Bremen for their rivals, the 47-year-old seemed to have been presented with a thankless task. Not only did he need to keep Hamburg in the division amid the most intensive relegation battle for many years, he had to deal with internal politics aplenty, with no sporting director, a change of chairman and the influence of billionaire investor Klaus-Michael Kühne.
But behind his affable man-management style and eye for details, the former Hoffenheim coach has a steely resolve that doesn't always come across.
The mental weakness under pressure that Hamburg had shown until recently is nothing new; it has permeated the club for years. The pressure of protecting the record of being the only Bundesliga club never to go down has been all-consuming. Aiming simply to be not the worst team in the league is inherently negative and that attitude has come to define them.
In two of the last three seasons, Hamburg have contested the relegation playoff. Surviving on both occasions by the narrowest of margins, the short-term work of Mirko Slomka and Bruno Labbadia respectively has decided Hamburg's fate.
With two goals in five games, one of Gisdol's main targets was to replicate the attacking style of those two men and get his charges scoring again - after all, goals are the most valuable commodity in the sport. Yet, after a few heavy bumps in the road, he switched his focus to tuning the defensive side and changing the mood around the club. And it's that which has paid the biggest dividends. Changing the captain was a clear example that Gisdol wanted to shake up the dynamics of the dressing room. Even though Gotoku Sakai wasn't keen on the responsibility, he was the right choice.
The integration of Mergim Mavraj and Kyriakos Papadopoulos (pictured, top) has also been central to the recent results. Papadopoulos is precisely the fearless character that Hamburg need in a relegation battle. "Papadopoulos was not only our decisive scorer, he also had the heart and the mentality to bring the others with him," said Gisdol to reporters after the win over Leverkusen, when the Greek defender scored in the 76th minute. The way in which he channels his aggression and positive energy is clearly rubbing off on his under-performing teammates.
For as long as one can remember, there's been a brittleness about Hamburg. The club's haphazard recruitment policy following the arrival of sporting director Frank Arnesen in 2011 contributed to the recent decline. In place of experienced campaigners like Joris Mathijsen and Frank Rost, for example, a clutch of Chelsea teenagers were signed. The Volksparkstadion can be a demanding environment at the best of times, and Hamburg have learned the hard way that experience is invaluable.
Clean sheets are often the first step towards success, building on the foundations at the back often the best way to climb out of trouble. With three wins in a row, Hamburg have moved out of the relegation zone for the first time since the second week of the season. And with someone like Papadopoulos barking from the back, Gisdol's men won't slip back into trouble without a genuine fight.
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