Hertha BSC: the Bundesliga’s surprise team of the season– how a team with relegation level talent is competing for the Champions League just months after surviving the drop
Exactly one year ago in March of 2015, Hertha Berlin were sitting on just 25 points after 24 games in the 14th position of the Bundesliga. Pál Dárdai, the then 38 year-old former club legend had just taken over in February for Jos Luhukay in a desperate attempt to escape the relegation zone that the team was just three points away from. The Hungarian’s spark was enough to pull off a couple of narrow wins early on, but just two points from the last six matches had the team on 35 points, the same as 16th place HSV who were forced to play a relegation. The statistics, most notably 42.8% possession and 8.8 shots per game, both dead last in the Bundesliga were proof for many that Hertha pulled off a Houdini escape job in staying up.
Supporters of Dárdai claimed that he needed some time for his system to work, and to raise the players’ fitness levels. General Manager Michael Preetz, himself a standout Bundesliga player with over 500 appearances and 177 goals, would do his best to improve the squad over the summer, after having added the likes of Salomon Kalou, Per Skjelbred, Genki Haraguchi, and Marvin Plattenhardt for a combined 4 million in the summer of 2014. Never a big spender due to a tiny budget, BSC offloaded gigantic forward Sandro Wagner to Darmstadt, but unlike the season before, where they made a combined 20 million for selling their two best strikers in Adrian Ramos (to Dortmund) and Pierre-Michel Lasogga (to HSV), the former Bayern player’s free transfer to the newly promoted SV 98 caused relief, not uproar. The biggest summer signings were the relegated Freiburg’s hard-running midfielder, Vladimir Darida, Nürnberg youngster Niklas Stark for a combined 7 million. Mitchell Weiser left Bayern on a free transfer in search of playing time, while Vedad Ibisevic had worn out his welcome at VfB and came on a loan. Several youth players were also added, but Hertha’s failure to “break the bank” during the transfer window mean that even optimistic previews were hoping for a 12th place finish.
To everyone’s surprise, the 2015/16 season has been a roaring success, as Hertha had already exceeded last season’s win total of nine games by the winter break. Four draws and a loss was a rocky start to the Rückrunde and the questions about the sustainability of Hertha’s success began to emerge. Yet, 10 points from their next five games (with an ugly loss to HSV) have seen Hertha right the ship and the team sits three points clear of fourth place Gladbach after 26 games on 45 points. In the next five points we will examine the reasons for the Berlin club’s remarkable success.
- Former player and youth manager Pál Dárdai deserves all of the credit for instilling a work ethic and ruggedness to the Hertha side that was characteristic of the Hungarian midfielder in his playing days. The team’s move toward a more possession-based approach (up to 49% from last year’s 42%) has started with developing a strong core in the central positions. John Anthony Brooks (who in 2014 was benched for the derby against Leverkusen for getting a “large-scale back tattoo” the night before the game) has developed into a rugged defender alongside the ever-solid Sebastian Langkamp – both are passing at a career-high rate of 83.6 and 85.6% respectively. Mitchell Weiser (21) and Niklas Stark (20) have added youth, depth and 3 unlikely goals in key matches for a team that averages just 1.3 a game.
- Vladimir Darida’s 3 million move from the relegated SC Freiburg is arguably the signing of the season, as the Czech midfielder has revitalized Hertha’s midfield. He has covered the most distance in the league on 13 of 26 matchdays and has scored 4 goals and provided 2 assists. His partnership with Per Skjelbred has sured up Hertha’s midfield, which is now completing 85% of its passes, compared to last season’s 75%.
- Vedad Ibisevic, a Bundesliga veteran on loan from VfB Stuttgart has scored 8 goals, and when that happens Hertha are yet to lose a game this season. Salomon Kalou, a massive disappointment during his lengthy tenure at Chelsea has scored 8 of his team high 12 goals away from home. Dárdai should win coach of the year just on what he has gotten out of Kalou alone.
- Prior to this season, Norwegian Rune Jarstein was a 31-year-old backup goalie signed from Viking in 2013, who has played a grand total of 180 minutes in the last 2 Bundesliga campaigns. He got a chance to start after the Sep 21st injury to regular goalie Thomas Kraft, and has been an enormous reason for the team only conceding 26 times. Prorated for a season, 34 goals allowed would be a monumental upgrade over the 52 they let in last year. The Norwegian’s 75% save percentage is ranked 2nd among goalies, behind who else, Manuel Neuer and in some lofty company. Jarstein’s 75% save percentage is massively superior to Thomas Kraft’s save % of 66% from 2014/15.
- Getting that kind of goalkeeping miracle performance for over a season is just another example of the tremendous luck/overperformance that Hertha have been riding all year. They have taken the fewest shots in the league (248) – Cristiano Ronaldo has taken 252 by himself in the UCL and La Liga –, but their team conversion rate has been a whopping 14%. The standouts are Salomon Kalou, whose 12 goals came on just 42 shots, a 29% conversion rate, while Vedad Ibisevic has 8 goals on 48 shots for a very good 17% rate. Vladimir Darida also has 4 goals on 31 shots for a 13% conversion rate – astounding for a central midfielder. On the other side of the ball, the team’s 8.3 conversion rate against is second behind Bayern’s 7.6. Their conversion rate plus-minus is a net +5.9 which tops Bayern’s 4.5, while at least 12 teams have a net rating of +1 or below. They allow the same number of shots per game – 12.5 against, but are exceeding all statistical models. As of late February, Michael Caley’s advanced stats have them allowing the 5th most danger zone (central areas of the box) shots with 130 – closer to 2nd worst Darmstadt’s 135 than to the elite defense of Bayern, which has allowed 48 of those shots –, or very good ones in Dortmund – 80 and Leverkusen – 91. The result is the same when it comes to danger zone passes, Hertha are again 5th worst. While, the team has improved defensively, it’s far more likely that Jarstein’s heroics + randomness account for most of their defensive success. Overall expected goals (XG) also tell the same story– through February 22nd, Hertha’s actual goals ratio of + 6, (with 30G for and 24 GA) outperformed its XG of 21 for and 27.5 against for a -6.5 ratio. That is a 12 goal difference for a team that averages 1.3 goals per game!
In conclusion, Hertha’s miracle campaign, which has a whiff of Leicester City to it, has been an amalgamation of managerial genius, front-office hitting on 4-5 key players for cheap, career seasons and conversion rates from two 31-year-old strikers, their 31-year-old backup turning into Petr Cech, plus a gigantic statistical outlier of shot luck thrown in for good measure. What a wild and exciting ride!