Tuesday, 4 December 2012

German football's inconsistent dinosaur

So there's a bit of a love-in with the Bundesliga at the moment, which is nice when you ignore hooligans, extremists and all. Borussia Dortmund has been propelled to European relevance and domestic success by general manager Hans-Joachim Watzke and trainer Jürgen Klopp. Nice. The club that exists to dominate all domestically and dine at Europe's top table, FC Bayern München, seems imperious once again with a mightily impressive squad. Behemoth. Schalke are proving to be a decent Champions League side too. Depth. Yet the interesting story is at Hamburger SV, Germany's oldest professional football club in its 125th year of existence under the guidance of head coach Thorsten Fink.

Thorsten Fink was a reasonable success as a player at Bayern picking up a number of trophies as is expected. Yet it was as a manager, in his second appointment, that Fink showed serious potential. After replacing FC Basel's manager of ten years, Christian Gross, Fink went on to achieve success in Switzerland with two Swiss Super Leagues and a Swiss Cup. Youth often captivates fans with the intoxicating hope of a better future and Fink was instrumental in the promotion of young players such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, both of whom have moved to the Bundesliga in 2012's summer transfer window. With a win percentage of 63 per cent in his time with FC Basel, albeit in a relatively weak European league, Hamburg turned to Fink as the solution to unwanted but self-inflicted years of instability since the quite merited sacking of Thomas Doll in 2007.

"Xhaka and Shaqiri: Fink's Basel babes currently in the Bundesliga."
Since Fink's appointment in October 2011, Hamburg’s performances and results have been as inconsistent as its managerial appointments of recent years. Fink took over a side at the bottom of the Bundesliga and his tactical knowledge resulted in a dramatic rise to a relatively safe 13th position just in time for the winter break. No signings were made in January and Fink did what a coach should do at times...work with and try to improve the players he has. Yet the side's poor defending of set pieces halted such marked improvements and Hamburg only narrowly escaped relegation by finishing 15th, just one place above a relegation play-off position. 

Interestingly, Frank Arnesen sits on a financially comfortable throne as Hamburg's sporting director. Formerly of Tottenham Hotspur and Abramovich FC, sorry Chelsea FC, Arnesen has recently spoken of Hamburg challenging Bayern's dominance. No, don't laugh. Okay, laugh a little. Hamburg is a rich city with a significant fan base but Fink will need more than Arnesen spotting England's Michael Mancienne as Hamburg's next defensive titan. Signing a clutch of former Chelsea youngsters to improve the squad? Maybe it'll work. It seems to be part of Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool resurrection plans too.

What of Hamburg's current life and times? Well, England has a player sensible enough to play abroad at a young age and he's doing well this season, speaking foreign and learning foreign. Hamburg has been inconsistent this season but has shown signs of a revival. Rene Adler, once Neuer's great rival for Germany's number one spot, has excelled in goal. Hamburg's defence is decent on paper but paper never protected a goalkeeper. Adler regularly showcases his talents after a blank season at Leverkusen. The rise of another German goalkeeping prodigy, Bernd Leno meant Adler had to move in May. If a goalkeeper ever needed to show his worth, Hamburg is the best joint in town. Rafael van der Vaart, Milan Badelj, and Petr Jiracek followed Adler in the final two days summer transfer window. Arnesen seems to have picked up a few tricks from Daniel Levy and only Jiracek has failed to impress for the Red Shorts. Van der Vaart and Badelj may not offer aerial dominance but do provide tactical intelligence, technique, and creativity at both ends of the midfield. Obviously van der Vaart's return to Hamburg has been dubbed the second coming of The One but there's a new kid on the block.

"Son's feats this season have made "father" proud."
Heung-Min Son. Remember the name. Hamburg fans certainly do. He can shoot powerfully with both feet, has excellent movement, links up well with attacking colleagues and is dangerous in the air. Quick too. When he scores Hamburg's results are usually positive although that has changed with a home win against Schalke and a draw away to an improved Wolfsburg...without Son. Fink has a close, fatherly relationship with Son and the South Korean seems to be adding consistency to his game with six goals in 14 games from a wide forward position. His finishing needs to improve but there's plenty of promise in Son. So too in Hamburg with impressive victories against Dortmund, Mainz 05, Hannover 96 and Schalke 04 to date but Fink's talented side impress only to flounder once more.

Defensive problems remain as irksome in 2012 as they were in 2011; Hamburg offer Adler far too many opportunities to warm his hands and goalscoring chances are offered to opponents as if they were bailouts for banks. Son also carries too much of a goalscoring burden at just 20 years of age and needs support from Rudnevs and Van der Vaart. Maximilian Beister provided vital goals in Hamburg's last two games but he too is a young player. Chairman Carl Jarchow and Arnesen aren't entirely unrealistic in believing that this squad is capable of finishing in the Bundesliga's European positions; the squad is certainly capable of achieving such aspirations and both are committed to supporting it. Fink's task is to continue his side's good form in the two remaining games before the winter break and ensure that next year, Hamburg possesses both greater defensive discipline in set pieces and the right defensive balance in an interesting midfield.

Hamburg remains only two points behind Thomas Tuchel's sixth placed Mainz. The talent is there, the structure and the support too. If Fink can ensure his tactical puzzle fits into place with a run of victories instead of solely attaining big results, he might be the one to finally awaken a sleeping dinosaur.


  1. I wouldn't exactly say vdV offers tactical intelligence as he's the very definition of an anarchic footballer, but a very interesting and excellent post, mate!

    1. Thank you JK Saturnine! When will your tactical musings grace the blog again?

      Good point on vdV, he offers creativity and intelligence as opposed to tactical flexibility. It is Badelj who offers Fink tactical flexibility and intelligence for his favoured 423 formations.

      VdV and Son are currently injured so Badelj, another Croatian schemer usually dictating the play from deep, has been pushed in vdV's usual position in a 41212 formation.

      Bundesliga is a great league to watch, lots of interesting players and progressive sides.

  2. Nice one C...
    Very interesting renaissance in the Bundesliga. I don't get to see many games but the European outings are very strong. Loving Dortmund this season [I'm content enough with Rodgers' project - but Klopp at Anfield would have been VERY interesting!]

    1. Hi McrRed, thanks for commenting! Dortmund are shaping up to be the people's champion this season. You're right about the German teams looking strong in Europe and now Germany has the same number of Champions League slots as Spain and England.

      Jürgen Klopp is fast becoming the next big managerial thing. He spent his whole playing career at Mainz, retired and became manager, stayed for 7 years and left to manage Dortmund. He's someone who I think won't move to just any club so flippantly.

      As for Rodgers, "content" is the best adjective to appraise what we've seen in the past six months. A lot of fans are waiting to see what he does in January, or is allowed to do. I don't think anyone's sure how much we have to spend, what the policy is and what sort of players Rodgers really likes. It's causing a lot of angst because we're nervous as well as sore from two years of disastrous transfers under Hodgson and Dalglish.

      I'd like us to follow Dortmund's path, building cohesion through stability in management and player personnel but Klopp's first two seasons brought 6th and 5th placed finishes. Okay, he won the Bundesliga in the next two but will Rodgers be afforded that kind of time?

      Klopp and Liverpool would have been a good fit though.

  3. You're CStars from the Guardian right? I see your posts on there and they're really good. You know your words and your football beans, have you ever considered working as a football journalist? You'd definitely fit in at the Guardian! :-)


    1. Thank you Rob, that's very kind!

      Yes I am CStars from the Guardian, I put my blog address in my profile for anyone curious or interested enough to read more.

      I hope you enjoy the blog and thanks for the comment. :-)