How best to wake a sleeping giant such as Hertha Berlin?
Is it through smart and significant transfer investment? A change in manager? The last year has seen all of these changes occur, in an attempt to stir this most dormant of clubs.
Yet to assume that Hertha are a force waiting to be woken is somewhat misleading. Since the Bundesliga’s inception, they have registered only eight top four finishes. Four of these fell between 1970 and 1978, and the club have spent eighteen seasons since 1963 in the second tier.
Whether their top-six aspirations are based on an assumed big club status, or just a promising objective, Hertha have shown signs of moving in a positive direction. After years of mediocrity and inconsistency, their new team might just push them forward.
A Berlin Wake Up Call
The 2019/20 season was a marked one for the city of Berlin. It was the first time that both Berlin clubs, Hertha and Union, would be cohabiting in the Bundesliga. Union were the overwhelming favourites to be relegated, yet secured a second consecutive year in the top flight by finishing eleventh on forty one points.
Perceived as the bigger side, willing to push around their smaller rivals, Hertha finshed tenth, only above Union on goal difference. Union’s return of twelve wins also outperformed Hertha, compounding a season of misdirection and confusion.
Former player Ante Čović had been appointed manager at the start of the season, his first senior role in management. He was sacked by December as the club sat above the relegation places only by goal difference. They turned to a more experienced head in Jurgen Klinsmann, an appointment that made clear not only the task required, but also the club’s intentions.
However within eighty days he too had departed. There were claims of not being backed by the board, despite receiving transfer support greater than any side in Europe during January. A mystifying comment by Klinsmann.
BSC’s four all-time highest transfers had been completed between the summer of 2019 and February 2020. This claim by the manager therefore fell on deaf ears. Despite the former Germany captain’s resignation, it was still believed that Hertha were at the foot of an impending bounce off the back of this investment. The worry was that their bounces have occurred all too regularly, and are often coupled with catastrophic falls.
After a mid table finish, and keen to ride forward past Klinsmann’s tenure, Bruno Labbadia was hired as the head coach. Stints at Wolfsburg, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Leverkusen point to a well versed coach. That none of these jobs lasted longer than three years worryingly alludes to that bouncing ball that so often carries Hertha season after season.
2020/21 is now to be the year of Berlin’s arrival as relevant footballing power. Supposedly…
The Arrival of the New Generation
The turnaround in form after the January transfer window was notable. New signings Matheus Cunha and Krzysztof Piątek scored nine league goals between them, and then record signing Dodi Lukebakio finished the year with seven.
Sixteen league goals came from the three new recruits out of a total of forty eight league goals. This was a highly promising return. Piątek’s capture alone was significant, given that the likes of Tottenham and Manchester United had made public their need for strikers. Despite never showing elite ability over his career, Piątek had impressed for both Genoa and Milan.
His arrival along with that of Cunha and Lukebakio (both under twenty-three) looked to rejuvenate an attack that was still being led by the evergreen Vedad Ibišević and Soloman Kalou. Kalou had been frozen out by Klinsmann, whilst Ibišević had come to the end of his contract.
The Bosnian had finished as Hertha’s top scorer in 2019/20. However letting their now thirty six year old captain depart was clearly part of this new ambition harboured within the club.
Lucas Tousart broke the club transfer record too in January, and was loaned back to Lyon for the end of the season. He has now arrived in the capital with purpose. In Tousart, Piątek, Lukebakio and Cunha, Labbadio now has £100 million of young talent at his disposal.
Throw in the loan of Matteo Guendouzi and Hertha possess a side bursting with youthful energy and potential.
This season Labbadia has favoured a 4-3-1-2 over the 4-2-3-1 used for most of last year. This is a highly fluid system with either Lukebakio or Cunha able to play in the front two alongside one of Piątek or Jhon Cordoba.
It sees Cunha float and pick up spaces between the lines whilst Lukebakio drops deep or spins wide. With Piątek more of a central figure, opposition centre backs have the task of either following Cunha or tracking the mobile Lukebakio.
The midfield three behind them is similarly fluid. Tousart starts mostly on the left of the three with Vladimir Darida on the right. He mirrors Lukebakio in pushing wide when the Belgian comes centrally. Likewise Tousart will tuck in when Cunha drifts.
This midfield narrowness also allows the full backs to overlap dangerously. Left back Maximilian Mittelstadt has already completed two assists this season. With over three crosses per ninety minutes and the sixth highest carry distance in the league he is proving himself to be a major weapon for Hertha this term. His 2.33 Shot Creating Actions (SCA) is also second only to Cunha in the squad.
This wide attack is a far cry from last season, in which ‘Die Alte Dame’ ranked thirteenth in the league for crosses. This year they sit third via this metric. A major adjustment in attacking style.
Hertha in this regard are not a team to dictate tempo and hold possession high up the pitch. They currently only average 48% ball possession (albeit an increase on last year), and their four highest passers of the ball by volume are their starting back four. Only four sides have completed more passes in the defensive third this year.
Instead they are able to spring attacks quickly from a defensive position. This is through the width of Mittelstadt and the pace of the forwards. This is where the oppositional stretching is best utilised. Whilst the bigger sides’ clever pressing systems will make it difficult to do this, Hertha appear to have arrived on a useful style to attack from deep.
Addressing the Hertha Defence
Once again looking to the underlying numbers reveals how Hertha best make use of this deep lying formation. Only one side presses less than BSC in the middle and attacking thirds. This is a result of sitting deep and therefore not pressing higher up.
They are middle of the pack for pressures in the defensive third. Again showing that most of the play occurs in this zone. Yet despite engaging more readily in front of their own goal, they are the lowest tackling side in the league. Their twenty-nine interceptions are also league leading, painting the picture of an Atletico Madrid style setup.
Rather than pressing into tackling the opposition, they sit deep and wait for a misplaced pass or poor touch to trigger the transition. The whole unit can stay compact without being drawn out of position to make the tackle.
This is a highly reactive system, and not all have the defensive personnel of an Atletico. This transpires in conceding a high volume of shots. For this reason Hertha have conceded the second most goals in the league. Eight goals conceded in three league games, facing 16.3 shots per game shows that this degree of dormancy in defence is not sustainable.
The introduction of Guendouzi may go some way to addressing this. Whilst not an especially high tackler, his energy and aggressive pressing might give Hertha more bite in these situations. Having a livewire to zip into tackles, even when the side is sitting deep and compact could help decrease the shot volume so far experienced.
A Brilliant Brazilian
If Hertha’s defence is teetering between efficiency and casual irresponsibility, their attack is showing signs of great verve.
As mentioned, Matheus Cunha is the key to their operation. Both as a creative dribbler and goalscorer, the Brazilian is integral to their countering capabilities. He has dribbled past more opponents than any other player in the league (12) and only seven others have carried the ball further.
Cunha thrives when dropping deep to receive the ball. In drawing a marker out of position he will spin them quickly to advance the ball forward, creating a outnumbered attacking scenario. Whilst he is not a prominent passer, his carrying capacity is very threatening.
He also shoots in high volume. Last season he was hitting over four shots per game; Hertha only took 10.56 per game in total. This year his volume has slightly fallen, yet his accuracy is at a looming 60%. Unsustainable hot form? Perhaps. However Cunha is showing himself to be a hugely dangerous attacker both in front of goal and in creating from deep.
The added string to Cunha’s bow is his defensive game. Whilst his role is unencumbered by spatial responsibility, he has made the fourth highest number of interceptions in the whole league.
Again, this shows Hertha’s intended style. With two banks used to defend deep and block shots at goal, Cunha is the most advanced of this unit. His free positioning allow this, but as the side’s main attacking threat it means he is in position to launch attacks from deep. A countering trio of Cunha, Lukebakio and Cordoba is enough to flatten most retreating defences.
A brilliant young attacker who surely will be heading for further honours in the coming years.
A Top 6 Push?
For all the interest in Hertha’s new additions, it seems a year or two early for a realistic European shot. Bundesliga site Bulinews.com described the club as a scaffolding site. “The plastic sheathing being suddenly blown away to reveal the lonesome frames of incomplete progress.”
This was in response to a 5-4 defeat to Braunschweig in the DFB Pokal. This is another symptom of the rollercoaster Hertha ride; promising highs of an opening day 4-1 win in the league over Werder Bremen, following this shock loss.
Regardless of the talented attack and midfield, the risk and reward of defending as they do is prone to conceding chances. High quality chances at that.
Conceding sixteen shots per game, even in a small sample of four games, is a dangerous game. Last season their seventeen errors leading to shots were league leading. They again lead this metric.
This is not a quick fix project however. The profile of the squad is younger after turning over older players from last year. This has shown signs of a long term rebuild. With defensive reinforcement, this team and the style with which they now play can be successful. At the very least, it will make Hertha Berlin an attractive watch.
In football the glass ceiling is stretched by the money and power of those at the top. Therefore to assemble youthful teams to entertain and lend vision to a longer term plan is a suitable stepping stone. Berlin might never be the footballing power it deserves to be. Yet this iteration of its most successful team might at least turn heads in its direction.