Money can’t buy you everything, but it can buy you most things. In the curious case of Hertha Berlin, early doors of the 2020/21 Bundesliga campaign is proving that cold hard cash will not guarantee progression. Described as “low-hanging fruit”, Hertha remains the only European capital club in a major continental league that truly does not compete domestically.
London boasts Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham – clubs which regularly feature in Europe and in the case of the Gunners and their Blue rivals, have considerable domestic success. Madrid has Real and Atlético, with Los Blancos arguably the greatest club in the history of the game. AS Roma and Lazio are residents of the eternal city, PSG dominate French football from the city of lights and Lisbon offers up a Portuguese triumvirate of clubs who paint a mosaic of youth production and memorable moments.
Even smaller European capitals are the home of a domestic giant as well. Amsterdam, Brussels, Moscow, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Kiev, Warsaw, Zagreb, Prague, Athens, Budapest, Belgrade and Bucharest have all tasted huge levels of success in their respective leagues.
Berlin, one of Europe’s third-largest capital city by population and home to a huge potential market of a hopeful successful product, was the perfect target for Lars Windhorst and his investment company Tennor Holding B.V.; a city missing a headline football club worth its global stature.
Hertha is a club desperate to make its mark on the Bundesliga and having not been crowned champions of Germany since 1931, Windhorst’s financial backing turning Die Alte Dame into a heavyweight would be a considerable achievement. But it’s hardly been a story to write home about since his investment back in June of 2019.
Immediately in the aftermath of Windhorst’s windfall, Hertha shelled out a cool €110 million in the summer window. Moves for Lucas Tousart, Krzysztof Piatek, Dodi Lukebakio, Matheus Cunha, Santiago Ascacibar, Eduard Löwen and Daishawn Redan were largely lauded as moves addressing the core of the first team squad. But it would all go wrong from the start.
During the 2019/20 Hinrunde, Hertha would manage just four wins from fourteen outings under new manager Ante Čović after club legend Pál Dárdai stepped down in the summer. Čović would be replaced by Germany icon Jürgen Klinsmann, but the former Bayern Munich and US national team manager would only last ten fixtures across the end of the Hinrunde and the opening exchanges of the Rückrunde.
Interim boss Alexander Nouri would then pass the baton on to the highly experienced and current headmaster Bruno Labbadia. Four coaches before the second season in the post-Windhorst investment world was not the building block that sporting director Michael Preetz would have hoped for. Now in his eighth managerial stint spanning seventeen years, the Darmstadt-native is in the midst of one of the worst spells of his career in terms of winning percentage.
On top of the deals done last summer, Hertha invested in the first team further when they spent additional funds on Jhon Córdoba, Alexander Schwolow, Deyovaisio Zeefuik, a deadline-day deal for Omar Alderete and a loan move for Mattéo Guendouzi. At current, Labbadia is at the helm of a squad with the sixth-highest market value, while also being the fifth-youngest in the Bundesliga.
There is real quality in this team, one that possesses a young core budding with potential to regularly put themselves in the discussion for European places. But unquestionably the fault must lay at the feet of the club’s brass for not enabling that talent by pairing it with a manager that can bring out the best in them.
Neither Čović, nor Klinsmann, brought a fresh approach in-line with the level of players now residing at the Olympiastadion. As for Labbadia, it doesn’t take a deep-dive into his managerial track record to reveal a man who – with a few exceptions – steadied ships but did not pilot them forward to greater success. He was uninspired on the touchline at Hamburg and Wolfsburg. Though he found some decent success at Stuttgart and is fondly remembered at his hometown club, the question of whether or not he was truly going to elevate a Hertha squad that is deserving of someone far more progressive is a simple one to answer.
Eight losses from fourteen matches on the touchline in the German capital and little sign of progression thus far. An embarrassing 5-4 exit in the first round of the DFB-Pokal away at Eintracht Braunschweig was exacerbated by losses in the league to Eintracht Frankfurt, Bayern and a revitalised Stuttgart. Fifteen goals allowed across all matches this term is – in a word – troubling.
With the amount of new faces that have arrived in Charlottenburg, consistency from the manager is required to achieve consistency from his players. Thus far this term, Labbadia has deployed four different set-ups on the tactics board, while rotating multiple players in and out of the XI with little logic behind it. For a side that has no European commitments, the last thing Hertha need is a team sheet that many would struggle to guess on any given match day.
It could also be postulated that the former German international is trying to find square solutions for round holes.
Despite all of Hertha’s spending, they failed to truly address their lack of creativity from midfield. With an engine room that consists of Tousart, Ascacibar, Guendouzi, Löwen, as well as veteran Czech Republic international Vladimir Darida – only the Viktoria Plzen product boasts any consistent measure of creative nuance.
All-told, Hertha’s central options combine for 54 assists across 649 league appearances; or to put it another way, one assist per twelve matches. While strength in the spine – both figuratively and literally – is an important building block when tooling a squad, a team’s ability to impose themselves on a match requires balance at both ends. Hertha lack that balance when in possession.
They have had their chances this season; the 3-goal and multiple 4-goal hauls against Bayern, Braunschweig & Werder Bremen respectively show they can bang them in. But it’s when they do not enjoy attacking freedoms against sides that are perhaps more willing to defend effectively that they struggle.
This is where that extra bit of creative quality providing those few percentage points to up them a level in this area go missing. And Darida can’t do it all.
For those Premier League watchers in the room, a comparison to Arsenal is prudent. The north London club suffer from similar issues. Attacking quality with inconsistent logistical support behind them courtesy of patchy creative numbers emanating from the command and control centre.
At the end of the day, it’s still very much early days in the Hertha BSC project. Ironing out wrinkles in the tapestry certainly does take time, but for Michael Preetz & Co. getting key decisions right on all fronts must be of the utmost importance starting…well…last season.
Already the proud owners of their own managerial merry-go-round over the course of the last 15-months, it may well be that Hertha need to view Bruno Labbadia as the plug needed to get the ship underway again before a better architect can usher in marked improvement. With financial backing secured, plans for a new ground and personal home by 2025, and good pieces in place on the squads registry, the German capital could be just one managerial appointment away from the low-hanging fruit yielding something far more ripe over time.