The famous escalators that lead from the dressing rooms to the Olympiastadion pitch are a great idea in principle. You see how it’s meant to work – let the tech take the strain and just get in the zone for the game. So when Hertha’s two most naturally gifted players, Matheus Cunha and Matteo Guendouzi, argued on the escalator out for the second half on Tuesday, it was clear this team had reached some sort of breaking point.
Understandably so. Sebastian Rudy’s deflected shot that opened the scoring for Hoffenheim in the first half was “symbolic of the whole Hinrunde”, coach Bruno Labbadia said, but there were few excuses to be made here. They had their early chance to settle nerves, which Krzysztof Piatek spurned from the penalty spot.
When Andrej Kramaric got a second with just over 20 minutes to go, a visiting team who had looked to be in a post-Christmas freefall and recently even become Schalke’s first victims of the season were on their way to a comfortable win.
A second for Kramaric was academic and after victories for Köln and Arminia Bielefeld on Wednesday – and being anywhere near those two teams should be a cause for concern – Hertha are two points above the relegation play-off spot. The image of the new CEO Carsten Schmidt, appointed in December, on his feet in the main stand with arms tightly folded as the match ebbed away, has not gone unnoticed in Berlin.
This season’s aim of European qualification is pretty much over (while it is very much alive for neighbours Union who, despite being one of two teams to lose to Hertha at the Olympiastadion this season, are 11 points in front of them) and all that really remains is to see if Labbadia can stop the slide and stabilise the team – if he is allowed to. If Schmidt, and major investor Lars Windhorst, disagree, it has been suggested the former manager Pal Dardai might return from leading the under-16s to steady the ship.
Ralf Rangnick has also been linked with the job and here, at least, would be a plan, though the sense is that certain supporter groups would not be happy with someone so closely linked with non-traditional projects like Hoffenheim and Leipzig.
Sacking Labbadia shouldn’t be the move. He’s an experienced, steady hand who had Hertha playing some of the best football in the Bundesliga post-lockdown, before the team bottomed out on the home straight and missed out on Europe. The problem at the moment – or any immediate future incumbent – is that Hertha’s ambition outstrips the squad’s means, even if this set of players could and should be doing better. The squad is talented but unbalanced, much of which falls on the general manager, Michael Preetz, who is attracting even more ire than the coach at present.
The question now is one of nerve. As well as prospective new coaches, big-name players have been put forward as solutions, with Julian Draxler (again) and Atalanta’s Papu Gómez of interest. Neither fix the team’s issues in shielding the defence or the problem that Kicker’s Steffen Rohr referred to as Hertha comprising of “11 individual parts, but not a whole”. Optimism was originally fostered by buying the right players to grow with, not the biggest stars.
“Of course I have the feeling that I can still get through to the team,” Labbadia said bullishly at full-time. For his and, perhaps, for Hertha’s sake, let’s hope so.
• Again, Bayern Munich were far from dazzling, this time at Augsburg, and again they just about got it done, with Robert Lewandowski’s early penalty proving decisive after the home side’s Iago hit a spot-kick against the post in the second half. “If we want to take something positive out of it,” said an unimpressed Hansi Flick, “the team fought hard and kept a clean sheet. But it’s clear we made too many mistakes.”
• Leipzig are the nearest to being in touch, getting past a dogged Union with a single, very nicely crafted goal by substitute Emil Forsberg, which keeps them four points behind the champions and leaders. Julian Nagelsmann praised his side for being mature and this was something we haven’t always seen from them; they had 74% possession but never lost their patience or nerve..
• Leverkusen got themselves out of their recent funk with a win over Borussia Dortmund, which should have been comprehensive on the back of a dominant first-half display but could have been a defeat, with Florian Wirtz’s stylish winner scored against the run of late second-half play as the visitors pushed for a decisive goal of their own – and just after the point when Peter Bosz was thinking of substituting the 17-year-old. “I don’t know how,” said the coach, “but he suddenly breathed new life into his game.”
• Edin Terzic now owns the worst start as a Dortmund coach since Thomas Doll in 2007. Terzic properly chided his team for the first time, calling out their poor body language after conceding the opener to Moussa Diaby, while captain Marco Reus said chasing “the championship had no relevance [in what we were doing] either before or after the game”.
• Next up for BVB is a Friday trip to Mönchengladbach, which now takes on an extra significance with the home side trailing them by a single point after a hard-fought win over Werder Bremen. After Nico Elvedi’s winner, they came perilously close to conceding yet another late equaliser but a bigger concern is perhaps off-pitch, with the controversy surrounding Breel Embolo, who missed the Bremen match after breaking health and safety protocol on a visit to nearby Essen. The Swiss forward denies attending a 23-strong party there investigated by local police, but the constabulary have said they suspect a figure spotted escaping on the roof was Embolo.
• It was a battle of the two teams that have stunk out the Bundesliga in Gelsenkirchen and a second straight home victory for Schalke could have pushed Köln’s Markus Gisdol towards the exit door – but despite Christian Gross’s team dominating the encounter and a fifth goal in three games out of teenage sensation Matthew Hoppe, they fell to a stoppage-time, breakaway winner from Effzeh’s own wunderkind, the 18-year-old Jan Thielmann. Arminia Bielefeld’s surprise 3-0 win over Stuttgart a few hours later, sealed by a solo goal from the excellent Ritsu Doan, made it an even worse evening for Schalke, who are now 10 points from safety.