Five Reasons for Hamburg's Resurgence in the Bundesliga
Hamburg SV upset the odds on Saturday, beating Borussia Dortmund 4-1 at Signal Iduna Park, and keeping their dream of a European place alive. The Red Shorts sit seventh in the Bundesliga, level on 31 points with Freiburg and Mainz above, and continuing an impressive turnaround under Thorsten Fink.
Surprisingly, to most, Hamburg are just eight points off second-place and six outside of the UEFA Champions League positions in the table.
On Matchday 21, Artjoms Rudnevs and Son Heung-Min scored a double each, as Hamburg came from behind against 10-man Dortmund to take the three points. Fink’s side have beaten Dortmund twice this season—scoring seven in the process—and handing the champions their highest home defeat since 2009.
Their defeat against Eintracht Frankfurt last week aside, Hamburg have started the second half of the campaign strongly with a win over Werder Bremen in the Nordderby and a point away to 1.FC Nuremburg.
The “surprise factor” of Hamburg and Fink’s change in tactics—to press higher up the park and force defenders into poor passing—might have been a factor in their impressive win.
Fink told HSV’s official website:
Before the game probably no one had expected the outcome, especially after losing to Frankfurt on the last matchday. We had decided to play boldly and briskly going forward and my team also implemented it great today. We have acted really clever hence we totally deserved to win.
He added later: “When nobody expects us to do it, we can produce things like that.”
So, what are the reasons behind the massive improvement at the Imtech Arena in recent months?
Change in Tactics and Counter-Attacking
Thorsten Fink, Hamburg’s head coach, has stuck with a new-found 4-4-2 diamond formation in recent matches, having already experimented with 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 4-5-1 across the season.
Similarly to the 4-3-3 used earlier in the season, Hamburg are most dangerous in counter-attacking situations, and they execute this approach very effectively. As seen in Dortmund, Hamburg’s energetic and lively forwards look to press higher up the park and when interceptions are made, they can rely on midfielders flooding forward to support Artjoms Rudnevs.
In addition to their four goals, Hamburg defended resolutely and exploited Dortmund pushing men forward when a man lighter than the Red Shorts. Fink realised the danger of BVB’s overload in wide positions through Marcel Schmelzer and Lukasz Piszczek. But if their midfield could win possession during Dortmund’s attacking transition, then there would be spaces to exploit in areas vacated by the full-backs.
The compact midfield system is best used when HSV pack men behind the ball, allowing the opposition to dictate the tempo of the game and hold the ball for longer spells. Croatian defensive-midfielder Milan Badelj positions as the deepest of Hamburg’s midfielders, looking to intercept through balls and track opposition runs.
Although Aogo and Skjelbred may be seen as wide-midfielders, they are instructed to tuck in when the ball is on the opposite side of the field. This creates a condensed area of the pitch which leaves limited space for attacking-midfielders to play between the defensive and midfield lines.
Having experimented with a more attacking 4-2-3-1 style, Fink realises that HSV are weaker when looking to play on the front-foot and using Rafael Van der Vaart to control the tempo of the game—in a similar style to Bastian Schweinsteiger or Ilkay Gundogan.
With a European place a realistic reward at the end of the season, the Hamburg coach might decide to focus on being hard to beat, first-and-foremost, to grind out results.
Forming a Prolific Two-Man Forward Partnership
How many teams in modern football still try to perfect the ‘big-small’ striking partnership?
During the 1990s, this style of attacking was very popular in the UK with famous duos, such as, Dwight Yorke/Andy Cole, Michael Owen/Robbie Fowler and Alan Shearer/Teddy Sheringham, flying the flag for the two-man forward partnership.
Leading the line in Hamburg is Latvian striker Artjoms Rudnevs who moved into double-figures for the season with his brace in Dortmund on Saturday. The 25-year-old striker was a summer signing from Lech Poznan and never got off to the best start in Germany, failing to score in his first five league matches.
He broke his account in Gladbach, showing his strong aerial ability and convincing finishing in-front of goal when given the ammunition. Rudnevs averages a goal every two matches and has created another three goals for his team-mates.
Rudnevs is an industrious striker, looking to move across the line, holding the ball-up and bringing others into play. That said, he is the perfect foil for South Korean starlet Son Heung-Min and we have seen the making of an exciting partnership emerging in Hamburg. The 20-year-old has nine goals this season in 21 games and his acceleration is so effective on the counter-attack for Hamburg.
Son is a flexible forward, who is capable of playing across the front-line, but has found himself in a more orthodox centre-forward role alongside Rudnevs. His pace and anticipation of Rudnevs’ flicks has the seen the two complement each other very well and allow midfield-runners to get involved in the game.
And this was evident even with Maximilian Beister earlier in the season.
A Reliable Goalkeeper: Rene Adler
Rene Adler has proven to be a wise addition by Hamburg this season, and the experienced goalkeeper has been one of the signings of the year in the Bundesliga.
The 28-year-old’s time at Bayer Leverkusen came to an end following the emergence of Bernd Leno at the BayArena. Adler could not wriggle his way back into the first-team because the outstanding form of his young team-mate, so looked for a new club in the summer.
With high-wages and a falling reputation as a ‘world-class’ keeper, it took a while for interest to grow in the players—except for Hamburg. The Red Shorts made their intentions pretty clear and he agreed to sign a deal keeping him at the Imtech Arena until 2017 in the close season.
It has been an inspired move. Adler has brought stability, consistency and is capable producing big-saves at important points in the game. His predecessor Jaroslav Drobny was far from convincing as the ‘No.1’ and Adler certainly had an impact on his defence by bringing some confidence and assurance to low-confidence players.
The likes of Michael Mancienne have kicked on since Adler’s arrival and given his vast experience in the game that can surely be no coincidence. The German international is a demanding figure, organising his defence at set-pieces and is certainly not afraid to be the commanding voice in the HSV side.
As a shot-stopper, though, he is one of the best in Germany. Adler has excellent reflexes and makes himself dominating in one-on-one situations. And standing at 1,91m, that can be an easy thing to do.
Now, Adler is aiming to challenge Manuel Neuer for the ‘No.1’ Germany shirt and there have already been clamours for the former Leverkusen man to replace the Bayern keeper in the national side. His ‘signing of the season’ tag is fully deserved for his performances in Hamburg under Thorsten Fink.
The Rebirth of Dennis Aogo
Dennis Aogo is no stranger to Hamburg fans.
The defender has been with the club four years and is one of the more experienced figures in the HSV dressing room. At 26, Aogo has 134 Bundesliga matches under his belt with Hamburg and SC Freiburg, predominantly, figuring at left full-back for the majority of his career to date.
His defensive attributes have been a cause for concern at Hamburg for some time. Thorsten Fink’s side are regularly exploited in the wide-areas when up against pace, or from cross-balls which the central-defenders are not too strong at dealing with. Aogo has been shifted around the side—as well as spending time on the bench.
In recent weeks, Aogo has been an outstanding performer for Hamburg. The defender has had a new lease of life in a left-central midfield role, as part of Fink’s 4-4-2 diamond formation. Aogo has played 15 games this season, including the last eight matches, breaking his HSV account with a goal against arch rivals Werder Bremen.
One thing about Aogo is that he is very physical presence. He is strong, powerful and very capable of out-sprinting players in long distances. His physique, more than positional awareness, has been asset to Hamburg’s compact midfield style and he has shown to be adept at breaking up play.
In addition to that, Aogo is the main counter-attacking threat from midfield, using his stamina and endurance to get forward in support of the front-two. Technically, Aogo has always been very sound and his left-foot is of a high-standard which is no surprise to see him assisting a number of goals in the second half of the season.
Whilst it may not be a long-term fit for Aogo and Hamburg, the full-back is excelling his new role, much more than he did in defence.
Strength in Depth
Depth is a term we hear quite often at this time of the season. Take Borussia Dortmund, for example, who have struggled with squad depth this season, leaving them trailing behind FC Bayern’s incredible array of options.
The debate further down the table is that clubs like Freiburg and Mainz would struggle to cope with so many matches next season should they qualify for Europe. On the contrary, Hamburg have a wealth of options in their ranks for Thorsten Fink to choose from.
The injury to Michael Mancienne has opened an opportunity for Dutch defender Jeffrey Bruma who has spent most of this season behind the Englishman in the pecking order. Fink also has the option of calling upon Slobodan Rajkovic, but he has fallen out of favour with the management team after a spat with team-mates earlier in the season.
In the full-back areas, Hamburg have four players to cover the two-positions in Marcell Jansen, Dennis Aogo, Dennis Diekmeier and Zhi Gin Lam, as well as, the likes of Mancienne and Bruma who have covered there when necessary. The names might not have the same quality as Bayern, or others, but they are all capable of performing in the Bundesliga.
Two players rarely featuring under Fink are Petr Jiracek – a £4m summer signing from Wolfsburg – and Tomas Rincon. Both midfielders would possibly be regulars in other top-flight sides but the consistency of Milan Badelj, Rafael Van der Vaart, and others, have meant they have had to adjust to a place on the bench. Jiracek, in particular, considering the money spent on the Czech playmaker is a surprising omission from the Hamburg side.
Further forward, aside from Artjoms Rudnevs and Son Heung-Min, Hamburg have talent in Maxi Beister, Ivo Ilicevic and lesser so, with Marcus Berg. Beister, though, is a similar option to Son in his playing style, quick feet and guile and enjoyed a sustained run in the team for the middle part of the hinrunde.
When you look at this list of options in respective positions, it is surprising to see Hamburg’s demise as a force in German football over the last 18 months. In hindsight, it looks like confidence has been a big issue among the squad under Michael Oenning, firstly, and for a spell under Fink last season.