Bundesliga MD 03 Preview: Bayern vs. Hertha BSC
If as a Hertha fan you make the trip to Munich expecting to gain points against the record champions, it is usually not worth your while. The last away victory of the “old lady” was so long ago (1977) that Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Uli Hoeneß were still on the field for FC Bayern.
In order to have any kind of hope that this horrific series could finally come to an end, the men of Bruno Labbadia will have to show a completely different face than in their home game against Eintracht Frankfurt, and they would be well advised to take an example from TSG Hoffenheim, too.
It was soon over with the ironic “number one, number one” shouts in the first half against Eintracht Frankfurt. It did not take more than 36 minutes for Hertha to fall two goals behind. Overall, it was a weak performance by a very young team, who fought their way back in the second half, but still lost the game 1-3 in the end. It was the seasoned performers most of all who had an off day: Vladimir Darida (the most consistent player of the last season at Hertha) and Peter Pekarik (still the hero of the Bremen game) were both replaced at half time following a disappointing performance in the first half. Also new captain Dedryck Boyata, usually a very reliable hand at center-back, caused the penalty for the 0-1 and did not radiate his usual composure.
In this season’s three competitive games so far, Hertha fans experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. First there was the astonishing debacle in the DFB-Pokal against Eintracht Braunschweig, where they went out 4-5 in normal time, then there was the impressive victory against Bremen (4-1), only then for the team to be brutally pulled back down to earth by a painful defeat in the home game against Frankfurt. This start of the season thus has probably provided a very accurate summation of what the season of Hertha is probably going to look like. After all, Bruno Labbadia’s “young Hertha” is still a long way from being at a level that would justify a realistic expectation of qualifying for the Europa League. From chaos club to Europa League candidate in one fell swoop? Doubts are in order. Something like this usually does not happen miraculously within six months, even on the back of dozens of new Windhorst millions.
And so Hertha began to clean out their squad in summer and said goodbye to several experienced players, most of whom had been with the club for a long time: Vedad Ibisevic (36), Salomon Kalou (35), Per Skjelbred (33), Thomas Kraft (31) and Alexander Esswein (30) left the club. These departures were intentionally not compensated with experienced newcomers, “so that we do not only think in short term cycles, but also build something up in the medium term. That is our goal and that’s why we decided against signing new experienced players,” as Labbadia explained. Hertha’s squad is the fifth youngest in the Bundesliga with an average age of 25. That is actually a good thing, but it means that fluctuations in performance will be inevitable during the season.
Sunday will be no different: Hertha are not nearly as disciplined and well-organized as Hoffenheim. The young guns in Hertha’s offensive still lack the automatisms and the consistency to reliably perform at a high level over 90 minutes. Another major problem is the lack of leaders on and off the field. A pecking order within the team and real “leaders” still have to emerge. In addition, Hertha are still too prone to trip themselves up with individual mistakes.
Lastly, Bruno Labbadia is still looking for the right players to fill the remaining vacancies in vital positions in his team. Especially in central midfield, the club is still looking for a creative player, and the same applies to the wide positions. Probably the club will announce the signing of one or two more players before the transfer window closes on Monday, but they will probably not arrive in time for the game on Sunday. Nevertheless, how Hertha’s head coach will put his team together for the match on Sunday is an exciting question due to the many options he has available.
TSG Hoffenheim have shown how to defeat an admittedly tired FC Bayern by using a specific tactic. No doubt Labbadia and his coaching staff will take inspiration from their approach. But whether this inspiration will go so far as to make Labbadia use a very uncustomary back three for his team remains to be seen. The players for this would be available, but it is the central defense, of all things, where the instability and susceptibility to individual mistakes is the most pronounced. Labbadia is usually hesitant to rely on Karim Rekik in defense because has proven to be a frequent source of mistakes, and he prefers to use German international Niklas Stark in defensive midfield ahead of the back line to avoid the risk of penalty-worthy fouls inside the area, which Stark is prone to.
There are further personnel questions: Does the coach prefer to trust the experienced Peter Pekarik at right-back, or does he prefer to rely on the fast Deyovaisio Zeefuik to counter Alphonso Davies’ pace? Should Hertha play with three center-backs, the Dutchman would indeed be a good choice. His pace could make him particularly valuable both defensively and offensively on forward runs. However, he is also very young, has not yet started a competitive match for Hertha BSC and still has to improve in several areas.
Will Jhon Córdoba possibly get a chance to start after his strike partner Krzysztof Piatek did not play a convincing game against Frankfurt? The 27-year-old newcomer from Cologne has had several cameo appearances from the bench so far, but made a strong impression against Werder Bremen, and his speed and physique might make him a better choice than the Pole.
Bruno Labbadia wants to build a team that is tactically versatile, and this is particularly evident in attack. This is where Hertha probably have their deadliest weapons. Dodi Lukébakio will most certainly be in the starting eleven, and in Labbadia’s flexible system he will be found everywhere in the final third throughout the game – sometimes more on the wings, sometimes leading the line. The Brazilian Matheus Cunha, who cannot be tied down in one position, is likely to act the same.
The situation in central midfield is more complicated. There Vladimir Darida and newcomer Lucas Tousart seem to be the first choice candidates. But beyond that, Labbadia lacks the options: Arne Maier sustained an injury against Eintracht Frankfurt shortly after coming on, Santiago Ascacibar was injured for a long time and is still far from 100 percent. The holding midfield position has thus far been taken over by the left-back by trade Maximilian Mittelstädt (replaced by Marvin Plattenhardt at left-back) or center-back Niklas Stark. Stark, however, would have to return to central defense if Hertha were to play with a back three.
So there are many open questions that will probably not be answered until Sunday. At least on the goalkeeper position there is clarity now: Newcomer Alexander Schwolow will be Hertha’s first choice goalkeeper and he will certainly have a lot to do on Sunday.
FC Bayern will probably have an enormous amount of ball possession again, as they usually do, but that might play right into the hands of Hertha: The side from Berlin have shown difficulties building up the game, especially when they had to make the game. Against opponents as strong as FC Bayern, however, Hertha’s fast attackers are particularly dangerous on the break. If they manage to transition quickly when the opponent loses the ball, Lukébakio or even Córdoba can be released on a full sprint in behind, which might cause problems even to a defense as apt as Bayern’s.
Especially important for this transition game will be Hertha’s standout flair player, the already mentioned Matheus Cunha. Since his arrival in Berlin, the new number ten has been creating more and more of a “Marcelinho” vibe and is involved in almost all of Hertha’s offensive actions. His technique and unpredictability as well as his drive towards the goal often provide for special moments.
In addition, his motivation on Sunday should be particularly high: The 21-year-old was nominated for the Brazilian Seleção during the week and what that means for Brazilian soccer professionals cannot be overestimated. In any case, Cunha is the one player Bayern need to get under control right from the beginning. Eintracht Frankfurt showed how to do this very well on the last matchday, managing to almost completely take him out of the game.
This is another reason why Hertha will have to share the responsibility among several players. Lucas Tousart, who is strong and a tireless worker in midfield, will not shy away from a physical contest and will probably bring the odd Bayern player to the ground with a meaty tackle. Even more important than speed, technique or assertive challenges, however, will be the discipline, the work ethic and the positional play of Hertha on Sunday, so as not to let Bayern reach the dangerous areas and force them to take risky passes. Whether Hertha’s young team will be able to do so in this early phase of the season remains uncertain.
This makes it all the more important that players like Vladimir Darida show up in good form. The 30-year-old extended his contract in Berlin this week and could once again break running distance records. Others will have to copy him and show a strong running performance, too. Hertha will want to avoid a clobbering by Bayern under any circumstances, but the game against Eintracht Braunschweig and the last game against Eintracht Frankfurt have shown that achieving this is by no means guaranteed. The “young Hertha” as the clear underdogs will have to give everything they have to repeat their feat to leave Munich with at least one point, as they managed to do last season.
The team of the “old lady” is still a work in progress. However, they are not completely without a chance in Munich this Sunday. At the moment, too much still depends on the form of individual players and their sudden flashes of inspiration. If Hertha have an exceptional day in this roller coaster of a season, it is quite possible that they will be able to emulate what TSG Hoffenheim pioneered.
However, betting on a victory for Hertha would be just as risky as betting on another team than FC Bayern to win the Bundesliga this season. It will still be a good fight and the match will surely not end goalless: As is well known, Dodi Lukébakio particularly enjoys scoring in Munich.