Hertha and Union: A tale of two Berlin clubs heading in different directions, as Bobic pays the price

It’s 15 miles in an almost straight line between the Olympic Stadium and Stadion an Alten Forsterei, but Hertha BSC and Union Berlin might as well exist in different galaxies at the moment.

After Saturday’s 2-0 away victory, their fifth successive derby triumph, Urs Fischer’s team is second in the table, a point behind leaders Bayern Munich. “Old Lady” Hertha is second from bottom, heading to Oblivion, also known as Bundesliga 2.

Things are so bad in Charlottenburg that the Swiss manager of Union took pity on the former local rivals. “I wish them the best of luck in the relegation battle,” the 56-year-old Ernst said. “We’re going to miss the games.”

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On the evidence of their latest and possibly last meeting in the top flight, it will not be a sentiment shared by all neutrals. Hertha battled well in the slow-paced, sub-zero temperature contest and could have had a penalty when Rani Khedira connected with both the ball and Mark Oliver Kempf’s foot. But it didn’t take more than a half-decent performance from the typically dogged and well-organized visitors to come away with all three points.

Hertha’s increasingly desperate situation at the bottom of the table has fueled doubts about the suitability of head coach Sandro Schwarz, but instead of appointing the ninth coach in four years, the board took a page from the German FA’s book and Fired the sports director instead. Fredi Bobic, who was a contender to take over from national team director Oliver Bierhoff not long ago, was let go by chairman Kay Bernstein a few hours after the final whistle.

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Bernstein, a former ultra, explained the next day that it was not “an explicit decision against (Freddy) Bobik”, but a reflection of changed circumstances. When the Swabian arrived from a highly successful stint at Eintracht Frankfurt nearly two years ago, Hertha still harbored the fondest dreams of turning into a super club courtesy of backing from investor Lars Windhorst and Bobic’s transfer market.

But Windhorst’s millions are already almost used up and the former Germany international’s big bets on personnel (Tayfun Korkut as manager, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Stevan Jovetic as senior players) only plunged Hertha deeper into trouble.

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Bobic was no longer seen as the right person to lead a much leaner, self-sufficient and academy-focused club into a brighter future, with new investors 777 Group poised to take over and, in addition, the club felt its public dalliance with The German FA has revealed a lack of love for Hertha. Former youth development director Benjamin Weber and club icon Andreas “Zecke” Neuendorf will be tasked with injecting some “Hertha DNA” and defining a “Berlin way” to transform the team’s fortunes, as Bernstein put it.


Bobic was fired as the Hertha sports director on Saturday afternoon (Photo: RONNY HARTMANN/AFP via Getty Images)

The Berlin way? It’s an interesting re-branding effort considering the capital’s well-earned reputation for disorganization and inertia. Whether this new strategy is more than identity politics will become clear in time, but Hertha seems to have arrived at a realistic assessment of their current situation.

The self-styled “Big City Club” is ready for the small time.

Union, on the other hand, is no longer satisfied with being the best side in town. While Fischer continues to talk about avoiding relegation out of sheer habit or superstition, a first participation in the Champions League was basically possible. As things stand in Munich, you can’t even rule out a title challenge in their fourth season in the top flight. Not even the fictional Earls Park FC of Footballers’ Wives fame could have embarked on such a fantastic story arc.

And they didn’t just have a great time on the field. A false rumor linking them with the signing of former Real Madrid maestro Isco has spawned a whole sub-genre of self-deprecating jokes among the players. “This is for Isco!” Captain Christopher Trimmel posted after the win at Hertha, prompting the man to respond with the flexed-muscle emoji. The funny thing is, you can almost see it happening. As it turns out, the East Berlin district of Kopenick will soon become the bonafide football venue that Germany’s re-unified capital has longed for since 1990.

But what about Munich, dubbed the “secret capital” of West Germany before the Iron Curtain went up? Bayern are still top of the league after a third consecutive 1-1 draw – goals from Leroy Sane and Frankfurt’s mercurial forward Randal Kolo Muani – but have become unrecognizable to themselves.

“This is a different team to the ones we saw before the World Cup,” executive chairman Oliver Kahn said after a worryingly uneventful meeting with high-flying Eintracht. Can’s Qatar reference hinted at problems with confidence, but it’s as if they’ve forgotten how to play fast, incisive football altogether.

Unlike August-September’s barren run of four league games without a win, largely the product of poor finishing, the current run has seen them create precious few chances.

According to Thomas Muller, there was no shortage of anger fueling the Bayern engine, but a lack of direction saw them go nowhere. Julian Nagelsmann blamed too much space between the lines, lack of tempo and too much wing play for the lackluster, but his team’s interesting combination of long balls forward and meaningless possession play reminiscent of Louis van Gaal’s second, curtailed season (2010-2011) raised suspicions that something more fundamental was wrong.

Anything short of a win in Wednesday’s DFB Pokal game in Mainz, two weeks before their season-defining meeting with Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, will put the manager’s handling of the team under strict scrutiny.

In happier news, Borussia Dortmund are back where they belong, poised to qualify for the Champions League and with a chance to make a late appearance in the title race. Sunday’s 2-0 win at Bayer 04 Leverkusen made them only the second team to win all three league games this calendar year alongside Union. Karim Adeyemi’s first Bundesliga goal, assisted by a lovely dummy from Sebastien Haller, sent the visitors on their way, and the reliably superb Jude Bellingham forced an own goal from Edmond Tapsoba to secure all three points in the second half.

More impressive still was Borussia’s defensive performance. A five-man defense with Emre Can in the center and two hard-working, no-nonsense wingbacks (Julian Ryerson and Marius Wolf) provided the kind of resilience last regularly seen at the start of the previous decade. The win against Xabi Alonso’s much improved side will help Edin Terzic’s efforts to transform the side into a much stronger proposition. “The game needs to set the tone,” Kahn said. “If you are strong in the duels and work hard for each other, you can keep many clean sheets.”

Fourth-placed BVB is just three points behind Bayern now. “Are we ready to take the next step?” Terzik wondered. For their own sake and for a league that hasn’t felt this competitive in years, it would be nice if the answer is affirmative.

If Dortmund can’t hunt down Bayern, maybe RB Leipzig can. Their 2-1 win over VFB Stuttgart (Brace from Dominik Szoboszlai) was not as exciting as the 6-1 at Schalke in midweek and also saw Dani Olmo pick up a muscle injury, but Marco Rose’s men will need to be taken seriously. Time. The same can be said of SC Freiburg (5), who bounced back from a relatively poor start to 2023 with a 3-1 home win over FC Augsburg. Stefan Reuter, the visiting club’s sporting director, said that Freiburg, contrary to their reputation as the nicest club in the league, were “very street-smart and using all the resources at their disposal”, but also admitted His side seemed to be only blaming themselves after Mergim Berisha provoked the Europa Stadium crowd with his goal celebration.

Nicolas Hofler of Freiburg called the forward a “Drekspiler (scum or idiot),” Reuter also claimed. “This is beyond the pale,” the winner of the 1990 World Cup. While it is true that opposition coaching staff have often privately complained about the kind of language used by their opposite numbers, Freiburg have not punched well above their weight by playing nice. You will just have to deal with it.

(Top photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images)


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