Bundesliga MD 20 Preview: Hertha vs. Bayern
Hertha were aiming high in 2019 when then head coach Pál Dárdai was replaced with someone more spectacular, more in line with the investor’s ‘big city club’ aspirations. In his four seasons in charge Dárdai had finished in 6th and 7th place followed by a meager 10th and an 11th place. Berlin wanted to get rid of the “grey mouse” image and finally establish themselves in the upper third of the table with fresh energy.
With investor Windhorst’s millions in the bank and Ante Čović on the bench, they set out for new, more successful shores. But succeed they did not. Despite entering the new season with a broad chest after a promising pre-season preparation, Čović did not turn out to be the kind of coach the bosses had hoped for. Not necessarily because he did not have the quality for the job, but rather because he could not live up to the new lofty demands.
His successors Jürgen Klinsmann, Alexander Nouri, and Bruno Labbadia also failed to bring Hertha anywhere near European competition. Only two years but expenses of well over €100m later, Hertha have landed hard: Instead of aiming for Europe, they are embroiled in a fight against relegation.
Labbadia and Preetz are history, inetrim replacements have been installed: Arne Friedrich will take over for Preetz as sporting director until the end of the season, and Labbadia has been succeeded by Dárdai, who was no longer good enough two years ago.
So a big roll back? The suspicion seems not entirely unfounded, as the situation is more revealing than it might appear at first glance. With Dárdai, Hertha have found a solution that in the current situation seems to make more sense than an external newcomer, for two reasons: Dárdai knows the club and parts of the squad, therefore drastically shortening his bedding-in period – important in a relegation fight -, and he seems to have great psychological skills. During his first tenure, Hertha had a reputation for over-performing, i.e. getting better results than the performances suggested.
Under Dárdai, the Old Lady was mentally very robust and not easily rattled even during barren phases. And that is exactly what Hertha need now. Anyone who expects for Dárdai to make significant, quick improvements with the team will be sorely disappointed. With Dárdai, it will be much more a matter of taking at least two steps back before making the first step forward.
In terms of football this means that Dárdai will begin by restoring the basics in his team’s game: Aggressiveness, toughness, strength in duels, secure passing, and defensive stability. This has always been the bedrock of Dárdai’s game.
If anyone can manage to put the team back on track despite the current situation and without much preparation, it is probably Dárdai. He has the experience, the right approach, and the soft skills to do it.
Once Dárdai has made all necessary steps, backwards as well as forwards, the summer for Hertha will be about reorganising the team and assessing every position – including that of the coach. A more careful and provident squad planning will arguably be the most important matter. All the Windhorst millions are of little use if players are only signed for their name or sudden availability.
The club needs a clear idea, an identity: What do we want to stand for? Which players do we need for that? Where do we find these players? Clubs like SC Freiburg, Eintracht Frankfurt, Borussia Mönchengladbach or the unloved neighbours from Köpenick have been demonstrating at different levels for some time how to answer such questions. Frankfurt in particular is certainly a book out of which Hertha may want to take a leaf.
While this is of course easier said than done, the fact that Hertha have been stuck in no-man’s land in the Bundesliga for years despite their huge potential is not exactly a sign of good quality of their work to date.
Before the restart in the summer, however, it is for now all about staying in the league for Hertha and Dárdai. In their 4-3 defeat in the reverse fixture last fall, Hertha showed that it is not impossible that Dárdai may win his first points against Bayern this Friday.
Bayern have proven vulnerable in defense this season and they are also less efficient in attack than the previous season. Also, Dárdai knows how to annoy Bayern. Although he managed only a single win and three draws in ten encounters, he remained unbeaten four times between 18 February 2017 and 28 September 2018. The game after that in the DFB-Pokal the following February was another 2-2 draw after 90 minutes with Bayern winning in extra time.
Admittedly, from Hertha’s point of view, these are just straws. But straws is all Dárdai has available right now. He has to focus on the few little positive things and use them to rebuild his team, especially psychologically.
On FC Bayern’s part, the defense is currently the biggest source of worries. The players have problems maintaining a close distance to their opponents. Against Hoffenheim, there were several situations in which Bayern had to deal with free crosses or passes from various areas of the pitch.
Paradoxically, however, this defensive vulnerability stands opposite a certain basic stability that Bayern have been able to regain, especially in the center of defense. Since Flick has consistently relied on the Alaba/Boateng pairing again, the number of mistakes at center-back has gone down.
As a pair, they are becoming more stable from game to game, and both are in good physical shape, too. But if there is a hail of crosses arriving in the penalty area throughout the 90 minutes of a game, it is impossible to rule out a central defender being a little inattentive or caught out in an unfortunate position, even if he is in good shape, whether it is Alaba, van Dijk or anyone else. Therefore Bayern have to function even better as a team in order not allow the opponent to embarrass their center-backs through permanent pressure.
Thanks to Bayern consistently having three players stay behind in defense, their defensive has already become more stable and able to provide better protection against counterattacks. The number of cases in which one long ball suffices to undermine the entire defense has diminished.
The next step will be to provide better protection in defensive midfield and the full-back positions. Davies and Pavard lose to many defensive duels at the moment. With Süle and Hernández things have looked better recently. But whether Flick can be persuaded to field four nominal center-backs at once is doubtful, especially because a player like Davies with his offensive runs can be very important for the team’s offense.
For Hertha, however, the primary task will be to force Bayern’s full-backs into one-on-one duels and break inside from the wings or whip in a dangerous cross.
Bayern, on the other hand, will have to concentrate on bringing their own strengths to the pitch. In simple terms this means controlling the space in Hertha’s half and immediately launch into gegenpressing when the ball is lost in order to prevent Hertha from driving long balls forward.
Since Flick has been rotating less in the center of the pitch, performances have seemed to improve in this area. Even in a spine as studded with top class players like Neuer, Alaba, Boateng, Kimmich, Müller and Lewandowski as Bayern’s, one player can and must be singled out: Thomas Müller.
The former German international is more or less Bayern DNA personified and not only responsible for Bayern’s current success with his characteristic meandering, unpredictable runs on and off the ball, but also with his defense splitting passes and his ability to coach and push his teammates. He is the director in Bayern’s attack and a real provider of structure.
Perhaps Müller is currently as complete a footballer as he has ever been in his career. In any case, he is the central element of Bayern’s offensive. Starting with the game in Berlin, it will therefore be interesting to see how Flick will distribute game time among his players over the coming week. Does he trust that a heavily reshuffled team will still be strong enough to contest the semi-finals of the Club World Cup? Or will he go through the week with a fixed set of core players in his starting eleven? Will he perhaps make a surprise rotation against Hertha?
These questions are of crucial importance and possibly present the biggest challenge to the coaching team. Because with every rotation, Bayern seem to become more insecure. And so Flick will have to answer the question in which games the added insecurity of more changes can most likely be absorbed with the least risk.
The match tonight has been brought forward to 8pm European winter time due to Bayern’s trip to Qatar and the associated travel circumstances.