Pál Dárdai was being very careful with his words and rightly so, given his team travel to unbeaten Werder Bremen on Tuesday before hosting the frankly terrifying Bayern Munich. That is an Englische Woche and a half by anyone’s standards. “I know you’re trying to provoke,” the Hertha coach said with a wry smile to journalists prompting him to show some enthusiasm, “but the Hertha fans know me. We’ve had three years of stability – and now, we’ve a team you can really enjoy. Just stay realistic.”
Even if it’s a coach’s job to be balanced, those supporters who know Dárdai so well – he was a player at Olympiastadion for 14 years before taking his current post three-and-a-half years back – could be forgiven for ignoring him on this occasion. Saturday’s thrilling 4-2 win over Borussia Mönchengladbach is exactly the sort of moment you should get carried away with. It even took Die Alte Dame to the top of the table for a few short hours, before Bayern strolled past Schalke. Finishing the weekend in second, with only Bayern having scored more goals so far this season, will do nicely for Hertha.
It felt epochal. Hertha hadn’t scored four in a game since thrashing Darmstadt at Böllenfalltor in December 2015, almost three years ago. It was the first time in 18 months they’d managed to win two in a row at home. In a cavernous stadium that needs to be lifted, Dárdai’s team had done exactly that, providing what the coach told Sky was “a great day, with lots of goals and a great atmosphere, which is what we set out to do”.
It has been a while coming, but this has always been the plan. Dárdai has often been stereotyped as a defensive coach – his team have scored 42, 43 and 43 in each of his three full seasons at the helm – but the Hungarian and general manager Michael Preetz have been plotting to create an attacking team for a while. They have, until now, only lacked the requisite ingredients.
“To understand what’s happening Hertha in 2019, you have to go back a bit,” wrote Uwe Bremer in Berliner Morgenpost. “Hertha’s executive board has also charged the coach with taking more advice from external influencers, getting in younger players and – in view of the decline in the number of spectators last season – to play more attractive football, especially at home.”
Since coming back up to the top flight in 2013, it’s not exactly been thrill-a-minute. Last season did mark a first participation in the Europa League group stage in eight years, even if Hertha won just once and finished bottom of the pool, and if the current improvement turns out to be lasting, it might be looked back upon as an important step towards an exciting future.
Understanding Hertha’s development as gradual is important. Since promotion – which was their second in three years – the aim has been to build strong foundations. US investor KKR’s €61m purchase of a 9.7% stake in 2014 was never going to catapult the club into the next level of the transfer market. Instead, they paid off debts and bought back revenue streams like stadium catering that had been sold off to service shortfalls. There were no big sums invested in players this summer, with a net profit made on transfers and 20-year-old Javairô Dilrosun, the Dutch midfielder developed at Manchester City, perhaps the most eye-catching arrival.
Dilrosun represents exactly what Hertha are aiming at, a young side flecked with experience. The 22-year-old Austrian Valentino Lazaro, who arrived as an attacking midfielder, has flourished as an attacking right-back-cum-wing-back, from where he netted the second against previously unbeaten Gladbach, laid on by Dilrosun. Dilrosun also set up Ondrej Duda, the midfielder revelling in his No 10 role in the opening weeks after enduring a miserable, injury-hit time in Berlin, for the clincher.
Hertha’s midfield really has legs, with teenage academy product Arne Maier paired with Liverpool loanee Marko Grujic. “Marko is an exceptional player in midfield,” said Dárdai. “I’ve never said that about anyone since I was coach here. It’s not normal for us to be able to get him.” Unfortunately for Hertha, Grujic will miss several weeks with ankle ligament damage following a dreadful challenge by Patrick Herrmann, which elicited only a yellow card, though the winger was suitably apologetic afterwards.
Youngsters have reinvigorated the team’s elders too, with Vedad Ibiševic (34) scoring twice against Gladbach and ably aided and abetted by Salomon Kalou (33), who also put in a lively display. “The mix is right,” Preetz said. “We’re managing to offer more offensively, without losing our defensive stability. This start has given us a lot of confidence, so let’s make the most of the momentum.”
You could say, then, that the Ostkurve have almost had blessing from the top to carry on singing “Deutscher Meister, nur der BSC“ and “100 Punkte, wir bleiben ungeschlagen bis zum Schluss” (100 points, we’ll stay unbeaten to the end), as they were on Saturday. Hope is perhaps football fandom’s most important commodity, and Hertha’s faithful deserve to make the most of theirs.
• Hope, too, is what Schalke are clinging to and it is likely to be easier to do so having got the game with Bayern out of the way. The 2-0 home reverse to the champions, a fourth defeat out of four, was inevitable and could have been far worse, though Domenico Tedesco will have a few words to say before they go looking for a first point of the season in the Black Forest on Tuesday, against a Freiburg side who powered to a surprise win against Wolfsburg. Letting James Rodríguez steal in to score a near-post header from a corner for the opener wasn’t clever, and Franco Di Santo’s touchline argument with Tedesco (for which he later apologised on social media) was a bad look. Rodríguez was generally excellent against a side which looked too pooped from their midweek Champions League exertions to press as they normally do.
• Two other Champions Leaguers, Hoffenheim and Dortmund, drew in a match with plenty of spice, if not as much sparkle. Julian Nagelsmann’s side should have closed it out after taking the lead through the excellent Joelinton, with Ermin Bicakcic having a strike controversially ruled out before Christian Pulisic equalised and Ishak Belfodil incredibly blazing over an open net. Meanwhile the DfB has opened an investigation into unsavoury banners in the away section which targeted Hoffenheim owner Dietmar Hopp.
• Leverkusen edged a first win of the campaign against Mainz thanks to teenager Kai Havertz’s goal. Augbsurg goalkeeper Fabian Giefer again had a day to forget, gifting Davy Klassen a winner for Werder but Ron-Robert Zieler was Stuttgart’s saviour as they scraped a second point, making a string of saves to earn them a point against Fortuna Düsseldorf.