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Beyond the Dortmund’s and the Bayern Munich’s, the Bundesliga spells tales of other clubs fairing well in the 2015-16 season. One such club that has done well so far is Hertha Berlin. Alex Blinston talks about Pal Dardai and his side and whether they can keep up their good form in the new year.
The Bundesliga is back. Each club has set their new year’s resolutions and fans will, in most cases, start 2016 with renewed optimism. One man not getting carried away, however, is Pal Dardai, a man who could certainly have been excused for feeling rather giddy about the Bundesliga’s return. “We must be realistic and maybe after five games if we’re still in the same position we can sit down and talk.” Dardai is, as Claudio Ranieri has done so often this season, trying to keep his side grounded but the capital club are flying once again.
Prior to his fruitful successes in Monchengladbach, Lucien Favre had taken Hertha on a roller-coaster journey. After a steady start to Favre’s thrill ride in the form of a 10th place finish in 2008, the next season the roller-coaster really got going. BSC were still in the title hunt until the penultimate game of the season and although Favre’s men eventually slipped to 4th, it the Swiss boss transformed Hertha. Yet with every peak comes a trough and in Hertha’s case it came rather rapidly. Four months after guiding his side to new heights, Favre headed for the exit door as Hertha sat rock bottom: they know not to get too excited in the capital.
However, under Pal Dardai, Hertha seem to have found some real stability after ten permanent managers in the last 14 years with BSC yet to lose back-to-back games in the Bundesliga this term. What makes it all the more remarkable is that in February only Borussia Dortmund sat below Hertha and now both, alongside runaway leaders Bayern, occupy places in the top three.
There were question marks when club icon Dardai was appointed as the man to turn Hertha’s fortunes around; there would always be a rapport with those at the Olympiastadion – Dardai manned the blue and white stripes for well over a decade as a player – but did he have the tactical nous? Well, those questions have been well and truly answered this season.
The Hungarian boss has his side playing in a similar way as he did in his time in Berlin: with real grit and determination – only Bayern (9) and Ingolstadt (20) have conceded fewer goals than Hertha (21) this term. In a world where beautiful, aesthetically pleasing football is often at the top of the wish list, Hertha have found success from strong defensive foundations.
Although Hertha were not one of the Bundesliga’s big spenders this past summer, Dardai’s new troops have made a great impact in the capital.
Mitchell Weiser, the youngster who never quite cut the mustard at Bayern has been reborn under Dardai at right-back. While his defensive work has been stellar – Hertha don’t have their defensive record by chance – he gives Hertha a constant attacking outlet – four assists and a winning goal against Ingolstadt are a case in point. Vedad Ibisevic, often lambasted in the latter stages of his Stuttgart career, has proved to be a shrewd addition notching six league goals alongside his four assists.
However, it is arguably Vladimir Darida who has made the greatest impression. After suffering relegation with Freiburg last season, the Czech Republic international is back to where he belongs in the top flight and has often been the difference maker for Dardai’s men, his goal in the 3-3 draw with Werder Bremen this weekend showcased his class. He links the defensive midfield tandem to the attack – no Hertha player has completed more passes than Darida (1111) – and is the sprinkle of quality that BSC had been missing for some time.
While the summer signings have provided a spark, Dardai has elevated the game of players that were embroiled in a relegation battle just last season. Sebastian Langkamp and John Brooks have forged a formidable centre-back partnership of late and while Per Skjelbred and Fabian Lustenberger may not be the most stylish midfield tandem, they provide a solid base for the front men to express themselves leading Hertha in interceptions and tackles respectively. It is, however, the resurgence of Salomon Kalou that has grabbed the headlines. Competing with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Robert Lewandowski for in the goalscoring charts has been an impossible task but the 30-year-old Ivorian has been one of the best of the rest. His ten goals have come at a 29.4% conversion rate and have accounted for 34.5% of Hertha’s Bundesliga goals hitherto.
When a team is overachieving, the question will always be regarding its sustainability. But with the Bundesliga now in its second half Hertha sit firmly in 3rd and although the chasing pack – a large one at that – are breathing down their neck, Dardai’s men are unbeaten in five and have picked up 20 points in their last nine games.
In analyst Michael Caley’s expected goals model are massively overachieving. Their expected goals difference of -5.2 means that Hertha are 13.2 goals above the expected level. Only five teams have taken fewer shots in the danger zone and only six teams have faced a greater number of shots in the same area, so by all accounts, Hertha may fall in to the category of slightly fluky. However, fellow top four contenders Wolfsburg and Borussia Monchengladbach are both performing above their expected goals and in Goalimpact’s expected Bundesliga table, Hertha are projected to finish 5th only narrowly below Dieter Hecking’s Wolves: Champions League qualification is still well within reach.
Just like the city, Pal Dardai’s Hertha are gritty and rugged, yet their first half showings have allowed Berliners to dream big once again. While the Hertha faithful have got used to inconsistency and disappointment, their New Year’s wishes would have been for much of the same from the boys in blue and white.
Written by Alex Blinston