Hamburger SV and the Bundesliga Great Escape

One week on BT Sport, German football pundit Raphael Honigstein quipped that “Hamburg have been trying for years to get relegated”. This season, it very nearly happened. Not for the first time, Hamburg needed the reprieve of the Bundesliga relegation playoff.

HSV are known as “the Dino” because they are one of the oldest clubs in Germany.

They officially founded in 1919 as a merger of three clubs and can even trace its founders, SC Germania, back to 1887. Even more impressive is that HSV have been a part of every top flight season since the end of the First World War, which means that they have been a part of every Bundesliga season since its inception in 1963.

Despite not winning a major trophy since 1987, HSV can genuinely stake a claim to be one of the great sporting institutions. At the start of the new millennium, HSV were consistently pushing for European competition, as the ambition of the club to play amongst the elite of Europe.

No team can “afford” to be relegated, but Hamburg now seem to be caught in a cycle of underperforming, shackled by the burden of their famous streak. For better or worse, relegation would have broken those shackles and allowed the club to work on a clean slate.

Last season, HSV finished 16th which meant that they had to play Greuther Fürth in the relegation play-off, a two legged tie which they only just won on away goals thanks to a 1-1 draw in the second leg at Fürth’s ground.

In preparation for the new season, the club somewhat controversially sold main player Hakan Çalhanoğlu to Bayer Leverkusen, but bolstered the squad in other positions.

That summer they rewarded Pierre-Michel Lasogga’s away goal against Greuther by making his loan deal from Hertha Berlin permanent.

They also signed Valon Behrami from Napoli and snapped up Mainz winger Nicolai Müller.

During the January window, the club bolstered even further, signing midfielder Marcelo Díaz from FC Basel and bringing back Ivica Olić from Wolfsburg.

Yet just a couple of days before I started to properly sit down and write this article, HSV needed a very fortunate free-kick decision and extra time to beat second division Karlsruhe 2-1 on the night (3-2 on aggregate). It was a very entertaining, end to end game that neither team really deserved to lose.

But over the course of the Bundesliga season, it was easy enough to argue that HSV absolutely deserved to go down. On the pitch they’ve looked uninspired: they scored the least amount of goals out of any of the 18 teams in the league, even newly promoted club Paderborn were more adventurous in front of goal.

There have been a couple of low points for Hamburg this season; there was the annual thrashing at the hands of Bayern and during their defeat to Wolfsburg in April, Swiss teammates Johann Djourou and Valon Behrami had to be separated at half time as tempers flared and they began to fight with each other.

Both players came back out for the second half, but it didn’t get much better. Wolfsburg scored another goal and were pretty much in cruise control to seal a 2-0 win, which planted HSV at the bottom of the Bundesliga.

After the match, both Djourou and Behrami were disciplined, but blame for that defeat fell squarely on the lap of new signing Cléber. Things looked so bleak that the brother of Ivica Olić actually told him that “even Cristiano Ronaldo would not help us right now”.

Uninspiring on the pitch, also a complete omnishambles off the pitch.

Hamburg decline
Image source:

Since 2011, the club has had 10 different head coaches. It took them 11 coaches to get back to re-hiring Bruno Labbadia, the man who was let go just days before their Europa League semi-final second-leg tie against Fulham.

Bruno Labbadia wasn’t even their first choice candidate. They only went for him after talks with former Mainz coach Thomas Tuchel broke down, who eventually saw his future at Borussia Dortmund after Jurgen Klopp announced that he would step down.

But Labbadia actually achieved what seemed like an impossible and thankless task. He was hired on the 15th April with six weeks left of the season and the club rock bottom of the league. He somehow kept them up.

His first match back in charge ended in a derby-day defeat to Werder Bremen, but following wins against Augsburg, Mainz and Freiburg gave the fans hope. A defeat to fellow relegation candidates Stuttgart would follow on matchday 33 which would set up a tense, 5 team relegation battle to end the season.

[Tweet “”Hamburg is a team of career underachievers and nearly-men who never made the grade…””]

Regardless of what happened elsewhere, Hamburg still needed a win in their fixture and they had the good fortune of playing a team managed by Roberto di Matteo in Schalke. Hamburg won 2-0, ensuring their Bundesliga status for at least 2 more games.

To be fair to Hamburg, under Bruno Labbadia they look like a completely different team. They actually look like a team that is willing to dig deep and keep on fighting, especially in the 3-2 win over Augsburg and the 2-1 win over Karlsruhe. The last minute free-kick against Karlsruhe may have been a fortunate decision, but when your team is about be relegated you still need to put the ball in the net.

Marcelo Díaz ignored the advice of captain Rafael van der Vaart and calmly hit the free-kick into the top corner to equalise and send the tie into extra time, which they then went on and won thanks to a Nicolai Müller goal.

The club were clearly willing to spend to stay up after the tie last season against Greuther, but that will only get you so far. Plus, Hamburg are hardly flush with cash.

Some backroom stability would be a start, and actually keeping hold of a manager for a whole season would be an improvement. The club also needs to trim some deadweight off of their wage budget, something that relegation would have given them the perfect opportunity to do.

What I see when I look at Hamburg is a team of career underachievers and nearly-men who never quite made the grade elsewhere, getting some bad results and struggling to cope with the weight of history that the famous Bundesliga clock at the Imtech Arena represents.

It’s quite the fall from grace for the “Dinosaurier”, and at times, not even a spectacular fall. If I was to put an image on it, it would probably be Homer Simpson’s attempt to jump the Springfield Gorge as that’s how far this club has fallen. Sadly, it hasn’t been nearly as funny to watch.

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