Hertha BSC recently announced they were parting ways with manager and club legend Pál Dárdai. He took over in 2015, escaping relegation and qualifying for the Europa League in consecutive seasons, but was told shortly after celebrating his four-year anniversary that his time is up.
A divorce is never easy, but this split is about as amicable as it gets with Dárdai earning a well-earned annual holiday before returning to Die Alte Dame as a youth coach. Matthew Marshall argues that this is a win/win situation for all involved as Hertha can chase their European ambitions, but the pressure is now firmly focused on general manager Michael Preetz.
From player to manager
Pál Dárdai moved from Hungarian club Budapesti VSC to Hertha Berlin in January 1997 and never looked back. He helped the club gain promotion to the Bundesliga where the club stayed for 13 years and achieved eight top six finishes.
Hertha reached the 1999/00 UEFA Champions League second group stage after beating Chelsea and AC Milan at home. Regular UEFA Cup campaigns followed before father time and injuries forced a dignified retirement.
Dárdai earned 286 Bundesliga appearances and is the club’s most capped player. During his time in Berlin he made 42 appearances in European competitions and gained 61 caps for Hungary. He stayed with the club in a managerial capacity with various youth teams before taking over Hungary in 2014.
A return to his beloved Berlin was inevitable however which occurred in February 2015. He replaced Jos Luhukay with Hertha struggling in 17th position, guiding the club to safety on goal difference despite losing four of their final five Bundesliga matches. It wasn’t supposed to be a long term arrangement but ultimately lasted over four years.
Matt Hermann, Hertha supporter and Talking Fussball podcast host didn’t see Dárdai lasting that long: “Pal surprised a lot of people, including me, by how he steadied the club when he took over, and by how he kept Hertha playing at a decent level in the years that followed. What did him in were three things: consistent inconsistency, growing expectations and stubborn refusal to stay on message.”
End of season blues
The poor end to the 2014/15 season was going to be a recurring theme in Dárdai’s tenure at the capital club. Hertha finished 7th in 2015/16 despite being third at the winter break, losing five and drawing two of their final seven Bundesliga matches.
The 2016/17 season saw Hertha start strong to sit 3rd at the turn of the year once again. They eventually finished 6th despite losing seven of their last 10 matches, including a 6-2 home defeat against Bayer Leverkusen on the final matchday.
2017/18 saw another late drop off as they finished 10th. The last three games saw Hertha fail to beat Augsburg at home in a 2-2 draw, defeated 3-1 at Hannover before suffering another 6-2 home defeat on the final matchday, this time against RB Leipzig.
This season Hertha got off to another fast start with home wins against Borussia Mönchengladbach and Bayern Munich. A European place appeared a distinct possibility before the inevitable end of season slump saw them rapidly fall out of contention.
The final straw for Dárdai was a five game losing streak that included a 5-0 defeat at Leipzig and a 2-1 home defeat against Fortuna Düsseldorf. That particular loss saw the newly promoted club jump above Hertha in the table which was an unfathomable assumption just a few months earlier.
Losing five consecutive games in March-April surpassed any previous run of defeats in the Bundesliga under Dárdai. Hertha lost three straight in April-May 2015 and March-April 2017, four in April-May 2016. The similarities are striking, with all four losing runs coming in March, April and May when his team traditionally struggle.
A critical part of a head coach’s responsibility is to manage the physical and mental aspects of his team throughout the duration of a long and draining season. There is also a requirement to be tactically savvy enough to avoid becoming predictable. Dárdai was unable to learn from his mistakes with his teams repeatedly falling apart at the business end of the season.
Tactics come up short
Hertha have enjoyed mixed success in the transfer market, but this is arguably Dárdai’s best squad since taking charge. Valentino Lazaro, Davie Selke, Marko Grujic and Javairô Dilrosun have been quality additions alongside the emergence of Niklas Stark, Arne Maier and Ondrej Duda.
Dárdai said himself in December that Liverpool loanee Marko Grujic was the best midfielder he had seen at the club: “I’ve been at Hertha for 22 years, this isn’t meant as an insult to anyone else, but Marko is by far the best midfielder I’ve seen in my time at the club.”
Injuries certainly haven’t helped – particularly in central midfield – but the reality is Dárdai hasn’t done enough tactically to get the best out of his team. He has improved players individually but collectively his teams have been notoriously inconsistent.
Growing expectations meant Dárdai was supposed to have Hertha fighting for the Europa League. In that respect he failed in successive seasons which made his position untenable. Hermann thinks Eintracht Frankfurt’s success may have contributed to Preetz’s decision. “Preetz has decided Dardai is not the guy to help take this group of guys to the next level – the one where they challenge for Europe year on year.
Considering Dardai got them there two years ago, and the current squad is probably better now, it’s not unreasonable to think he should do better. I think the changes Frankfurt have gone through in recent years also show Preetz what’s possible when you strike gold on a few moves and hire a couple of very good coaches.”
Pal Dárdai should be praised for avoiding relegation, stabilising the club, reaching the Europa League twice and improving talented youngsters. His appointment in 2015 was always a marriage of convenience – a fling that turned into something more – but there is no messy divorce to see here.
Dárdai was his usual honest self when discussing the club’s announcement: “I’m not angry or resentful about my departure. I’m still staying here! It’s nice to still have the fans’ affection. We have done some great things together.
“I’ll never say a bad word about Hertha BSC or Michael Preetz. We have always discussed things openly. I have a lot to thank the club for. I’m happy to be here. I’ll take a break next season and then I plan to come back and start a new job here.”
Preetz recently extended Dárdai’s contract to 2020 which means he can spend a year with his loved ones, traveling the world, recharging his batteries and enjoying a stress free life outside football at Hertha’s expense before returning to a well-paid and suitable job as a youth coach.
It’s a job he has proved to be exceptional at and one that will benefit both himself and the club for years to come. This is a win/win situation but Preetz has to appoint a manager that has the tactical knowledge and experience to take the team further.
Hermann says there may have been more than meets the eye with Dárdai and a new manager could provide fresh impetus on and off the pitch. “Dárdai has shown not just indifference but at times outright hostility to the club’s efforts to improve its image/standing with a wider public, nationally and internationally.
He has apparently dismissed various marketing campaigns, more or less sided with the ultras in their bizarre feud with Paul Keuter (Hertha’s digital strategist) and at times made life difficult for club staff through his prickly behaviour toward journalists. All of this can be read as endearing, at least by a certain type of long-time fan who likes an ‘old school football man’ – and all of it could be forgiven if the club were winning things or getting into Europe – but not under present circumstances.”
Preetz under pressure
Michael Preetz spent seven years as a Hertha player alongside Dárdai, making 278 appearances and scoring 108 goals which is a record that still stands. He became an executive assistant in 2003 before being promoted to general manager in 2009.
Hertha had spent 13 consecutive seasons in the Bundesliga and enjoyed numerous campaigns in Europe before his arrival. One of Preetz’s first acts in charge was sacking manager Lucien Favre and appointing Friedhelm Funkel. It didn’t work with the club finishing last and deservedly relegated.
Preetz presided over another Bundesliga relegation in 2011/12 under managers Markus Babbel, Michael Skibbe and Otto Rehhagel. Jos Luhukay took over in July 2012 and got the club promoted before being replaced by Dárdai in 2015.
It’s understandable if Preetz feels he has learned from his mistakes and can guide the club back to where they were when he was banging in the goals. It’s also reasonable if he feels that recent attempts to improve the squad haven’t been reflected on the pitch.
With a new stadium potentially being built, this is a crucial period of transition. Preetz said: “We want somebody that understands the DNA of our club and can understand what we stand for.” Whoever that his, the next managerial appointment will be crucial and potentially career defining for Preetz who sacked Dárdai three months after extending his contract.
Preetz admitted he spoke to the team and told them they are “responsible for our results.” While effectively downplaying Dárdai’s involvement in another late season collapse, those words could come back to haunt him.
If European football continues to elude Hertha Berlin, Michael Preetz will be the one under immense pressure.
By Matthew Marshall.