The advantage of this staggered resumption is the time it allows to become lost in different football. Once the Premier League returns that attention will probably waiver, but for now it’s an opportunity to explore the more dimly lit corridors of the Bundesliga.
Haven’t Hertha Berlin been fun? They were unbeaten through the first three games, scoring nine goals and avoiding defeat in Leipzig, and on Saturday they won again, beating Augsburg 2-0. It was edgy. It was a less accomplished performance, too. But it was good enough and Hertha continue to be one of the main beneficiaries of the game’s hiatus.
They’ve had a tumultuous season. Jurgen Klinsmann had been head coach for just ten weeks when, in February, he announced via Facebook that he would be resigning. It was a move which left more questions than answers and was the culmination of growing tension between him and Michael Preetz, Hertha’s sporting director. In the weeks following, a leaked document supposedly authored by Klinsmann claimed that a ‘culture of lying’ existed at the club, leaving him incapable of performing to his desired level.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Hertha are the Bundesliga’s newly rich and, without a major trophy since 1993, Klinsmann was meant to be the start of their long climb back.
Seven months earlier, in June of 2019, German entrepreneur Lars Windhorst had parted with €125m for a 37.5% stake in the club. In November, he acquired a further 12.4% for another £99m. According to the Financial Times, it was one of the biggest investments in the history of the Bundesliga, equipping Hertha with a financial muscle that they were quick to flex.
Across the previous six windows combined, the club had spent a cumulative £36m on transfers. Since last summer, they’ve now spent £110m. Notable arrivals have included Matheus Cunha from Leipzig, Santiago Ascacibar from relegated Stuttgart, and Dodi Lukebakio, who made a solitary Premier League appearance for Watford.
In January they really raised eyebrows. Hertha acted where Daniel Levy and Tottenham had hesitated, matching AC Milan’s asking price for Kryzsztof Piatek (£24m), and a further £25m was spent on Lyon’s Lucas Tousart, who will join at the end of the current season.
Ambition alone didn’t satisfy Klinsmann, though. Also included in the leaked document was a brutal attack on the club’s internal environment and accusations – seemingly – were aimed at sporting director Preetz.
“The leadership must be sacked immediately. Should this not happen, all the good signings will turn into average players, because there is one basic rule in football: You are only as good as the environment you play in.”
It certainly sounded like something that Klismann might say; his resignation post on Facebook hit on many of the same themes.
“…as head coach I need the trust of all those involved. In the fight against relegation, unity, solidarity and concentration are the key elements. If they are not guaranteed then I cannot deliver on my full potential as a coach and cannot live up to my responsibilities.”
Preetz fired back in public, rejecting the ‘disgusting, outrageous lies’. Windhorst was even more damning.
“You can act like that as a young person but not in business with adults.”
Both seem to have been vindicated in the months since. The plan had originally been for Bruno Labbadia, a Bundesliga veteran, to take over permanently in the summer, but the Covid-19 crisis brought the appointment forward and, instead, he took charge in April.
Labbadia is an interesting character. Invariably described as nomadic, this is his eighth job in management, his career highlights have mainly been acts of survival. Logically, with Hertha just six points from the relegation places at the break, that was presumably the part of his CV that appealed to Preetz and Windhorst.
That instinct is being rewarded. Saturday’s win over Augsburg has left the side closer to the European places than the drop and, from being figures of fun – a nouveau riche club burning in self-inflicted chaos – their future now looks distinctly more healthy.
It’s an interesting story to watch through English eyes. There are certainly plenty of Premier League managers who would fit Labbadia’s description, but his Hertha aren’t playing as might be expected. Recovery Mode usually means simplifying. It’s like pressing F4 on Windows and turning everything monochrome. When firefighting coaches arrive at struggling clubs, they tend to strip the football back to its basic parts, banning expression and replacing it with functionality.
Think of Sam Allardyce. Think of Tony Pulis. Labbadia doesn’t belong in their company, none of the Bundesliga locals who were asked drew that comparison, but the shortcut to stability nearly always involves pragmatism, set-pieces, and a very lean form of the game.
Yet Hertha are excellent to watch. They’re not exhilarating and, no, Labbadia isn’t Rinus Michels come back to life, but they’re well-developed for a side who are now on their fourth manager of the season and whose latest adjustment has had to be performed under challenging conditions.
There has admittedly been a big focus on squad fitness since Labbadia arrived and that’s presumably a valuable currency in this heat. But there’s more to them than that. Their build-up is patient enough, beginning with short passes to the full-backs or into the midfield, and the transitions between defence and attack are well-oiled and slick.
The 35 year-old Vedad Ibisevic leads the forward line in a traditional, pivoting way, but the activity around him isn’t too formulaic. Behind him, Hertha actually play with a great deal of flair. Lukebakio looks like a direct, technical threat – someone who Watford probably shouldn’t have sold – and although he didn’t play against Augsburg, Cunha is also clearly very gifted.
It all fits together better than it should at this stage, or under these circumstances. Where the dynamic is intriguing, though, is over the long-term. Like all clubs, Hertha’s transfer plans over the summer will presumably now be scaled back, but the macro ambitions presumably remain the same. Windhorst invested to be competitive, to win, and to alter Hertha’s place in the German footballing landscape. In fact, in the statement from his company which announced the initial share acquisition almost a year ago, the need for ‘better marketing of the club around the world’ was even mentioned.
That’s the kind of broad aim that every new owner professes to have. In this instance, it seems genuine. They have grand plans and those were presumably behind the appointment of a disruptor like Klinsmann. As they were the decision to pursue Niko Kovac, after his dismissal by Bayern Munich. Before March their instinct seemed to be to chase profile, only now to found what they were looking for in the comforting embrace of a simple rescue act.
Labbadia is a name from the carousel. Someone who seems to appear in different places, do reasonably well, and then move on. For now though, he’s the perfect fit.
According to those who know, few in Germany believe Labbadia to be capable of more than survival missions. Certainly not of achieving the kind of altitude that Hertha Berlin are dreaming of. But that’s what makes this a compelling story. What the club might have wanted is now in conflict with what seems to be working and, as always, that’s the sort of plotline which is worth paying attention to.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.
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