Connect in the back of the net

To show what he was going to do against Schalke’s defence back in March, Hertha Berlin striker Salomon Kalou decided to use the Berlin Wall, taking a hammer and chisel to one of Europe’s most iconic landmarks. Those actions saw him reportedly face a €10,000 fine, which Kalou denied, and it backfired on the Ivorian as Hertha and Schalke played out a 2-2 draw in which he failed to score.

Failing to score was a familiar theme for Kalou over the course of last season, finding the net just six times in 27 Bundesliga games as Hertha avoided the relegation play-off over Hamburg by virtue of goal difference.

Had they gone down it would have been the Alte Dame’s (Germany’s version of the Old Lady) third relegation in five seasons and with TV money in Germany distributed across five-years, this period of decline since Hertha’s last top-half finish, their fourth place of 2009, has seen them lose footing, particularly financially, on mid-table rivals like Mainz and Hoffenheim.

It has meant that Hertha and coach Pal Dardai, the Hungarian who took over from Jos Luhukay in February to become their ninth coach since Lucien Favre delivered that fourth-place finish 6 years ago, have had to operate on a shoe-string budget.

The £10.15 million they spent in the summer of 2014, funded by the sales of Adrian Ramos to Borussia Dortmund and Pierre-Michel Lasogga to Schalke, was the first time they had forked out over £5 million in a single summer since a £12 million spree in 2007.

 

Bargain-basement signing

Kalou himself was a bargain-basement £1.26 million signing from Lille in 2014 and after a disappointing first year in the German capital, the Ivorian has hit the ground running this term, scoring 10 goals in 13 appearances in all competitions.

Hertha dropped four points to Hannover last season but on Friday they left the Niedersachsenstadion with a 1-3 victory, Kalou’s hat-trick moving up to fourth on 20 points.

Kalou, who grew familiar to playing a support role to Didier Drogba’s and Chelsea’s glut of attacking stars during his time at Stamford Bridge, is the main man at the Olympiastadion but Vedad Ibisevic, the Bosnian currently on loan from Stuttgart, has proved an able deputy with four goals from his five appearances.

In Dardai’s preferred system of a sole forward leading the line, he has partnered Kalou and Ibisevic only three times in these opening 12 games, Genki Haraguichi, Vladimir Darida and Valentin Stocker have formed a formidable attacking trio in behind.

21 year old Mitchell Weiser, a graduate from Cologne’s youth academy who joined on a free transfer from Bayern Munich in the summer after finding first-team opportunities scarce at the Allianz Arena, has also played his part, scoring the winner against Ingolstadt and chipping in with three assists.

 

Promising youth

Weiser is just one instance of how Hertha well are nurturing young players, with Tolga Cigerci, Niklas Stark and Marvin Plattenhardt, as well as Lasogga who was taken from Bayer Leverkusen’s under-19s for free and sold for just under £6 million, establishing themselves in Berlin after failing to breakthrough at other clubs.

The likes of Per Ciljan Skjelbred, Alexander Baumjohann, Fabian Lustenberger and the goalkeeper Rune Jarstein meanwhile have all been signed for either bargain fees or on free deals.

The 19 year old Yanni Regasel impressed in his first start at right-back in the win at Hannover and together with John Brooks, a full international for the USA having racked up 75 appearances for Hertha over three years, they are two current first-team representatives of Hertha’s strong academy system which made 6 of Germany’s 2014 World Cup winning team.

It was Hertha’s youth team that were crowned champions of the 2015 Nike Academy Cup, overcoming Nike’s academy team, Monaco and Manchester United at England’s St George’s Park and that faith in youth is helping to bridge the gap that has opened up between them and the likes of FC Augsburg who have benefitted from a recent promotion and the stability that comes with staying in the Bundesliga.

“How can you compete when Augsburg sell a single player for 30 million euros?” asks Uwe Bremer of the Berliner Morgenpost.

 

Rivalry with FC Union

That is the question it seems strange Hertha are the ones being tasked with finding an answer to it. Based in the thriving city of Berlin, they have failed to grow with it since the fall of the wall back in 1989.

By dividing the city into east and west the wall played an unwitting role in splitting the fan-bases between the cities’ two clubs, FC Union and Hertha, which is still apparent 26 years after the wall was torn down.

Second division Union still demand a large cult following from the east of the city and with Hertha out of the Bundesliga between 1983 and 1997, the appeal to switch allegiance, despite the 15,000 fans that flocked from the east side 2 days after the wall fell, simply hasn’t been present.

Union, a people’s club in their newly redeveloped Alte Forsterei home, have a deeply-rooted loyalty borne out of a special bond to the city’s unfashionable club and average over 19,000 fans despite their second division status.

Hertha meanwhile dwarf that figure with a 50,000 average which, in the 74,000-seated Olympiastadion that also has to contend with the running track, although a hugely respectable figure (they were the seventh highest in the Bundesliga last term), sees the atmosphere reduced to the extent that Hertha fans believe it costs them three to four points a season.

 

Continuous progression

There will be a growing hope that Dardai, who has cultivated a well-drilled counter-attacking style, can continue to build on the foundations left behind by Luhukay who guided Hertha to the 2012-13 second division title before keeping them in the Bundesliga in their first season back. It hasn’t been smooth since then but now they are fourth and looking up.

Hertha have not competed in the Champions League since reaching the second group stage round in 2000 and for a club situated in of Europe’s biggest capital cities, that is an abnormal statistic. With Kalou chiselling down defensive walls on the pitch, that period of absence could soon be about to end.

 

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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