Germania: Is fussball coming home?

There were tears in the Basle dressing room when the players heard that coach Thorsten Fink was leaving.

Everybody knew that Hamburg would approach Fink but Swiss football assumed that, with Basle doing the business in the UEFA Champions League, their promising young coach would stay. But Fink couldn't resist this opportunity and, given the variables and vagaries that afflict the coaching profession, it’s hard to blame him.

If the 44-year-old coach had any doubt what his mission at Hamburg was, he only had to look at the clock in the corner of the club’s new stadium, which proudly counts down the months, days, minutes and seconds that the Red Shorts have been in the Bundesliga.

Before the Hoffenheim game kicked off, the clock stood at 48 years, 88 days, 33 minutes and 32 seconds, celebrating the fact that Hamburg are the only club to have played every season in the Bundesliga since it was formed in 1963. That is not a record the club plans to lose without a fight.

No pressure, then…

But has Fink instilled that urgency into his new players? Playing 3-4-3, they beat Hoffenheim 2-0 to earn three points that lifted them out of the relegation zone. But in the first 10 minutes, the Hamburg man who showed the most composure on the ball was probably Fink himself, trapping a ball on his chest on the touchline and calmly volleying it back onto the pitch. Some coaches would have turned this act into a piece of comedy, or self-congratulation, but Fink did it simply with minimal fuss and immediately focused on the game.

Peruvian striker Paolo Guerrero and German midfielder Marcell Jansen got Hamburg’s goals – Jansen made the second with a slalom through the Hoffenheim defence and scored with a calm finish – but the most assured players in red shorts were probably German international Dennis Aogo and Jeffrey Bruma. Given the challenges Chelsea face in central defence, the loan of Bruma – once hailed as the new John Terry (when JT was in his prime) – to Hamburg seems an odd oversight.

Fink (centre) with Arnesen and Bruma

The matchday programme’s cover star was Gokhan Tore, Hamburg’s tricksy, muscular Turkish wide player who – at the age of 19 – already looks as accomplished as Hoffenheim’s Ryan Babel. The 24-year-old Dutch winger, once tipped alongside Lionel Messi to be one of the stars of the 2006 World Cup, raised hopes with his mazy runs but, as he did so often at Anfield, cruelly extinguished them with a lack of end product.

Still, it doesn’t pay to be too dogmatic about such matters. To the layman’s eyes, the best that could be said of Hamburg striker Marcus Berg’s performance was that he was constantly on the verge of being effectual. After the game, the first question put to Fink was about Berg. The coach replied that the stats showed that Berg had set up more shots – five – than anyone else on the pitch so he was happy with his No.16’s performance.

Three points, after too many draws, was a step in the right direction for Fink. But we may have to wait until next season to see if one of Germany’s most promising coaches can really bring back the glory days to Hamburg. As I write this, it is 10,411 days since the great Ernst Happel’s Red Shorts won the European Cup.

Happel, the missing link
Orthodoxy has it that Victor Maslov invented pressing in the 1960s. The tactic was then used, in differing degrees, by Rinus Michels and Valeriy Lobanovskiy before Arrigo Sacchi triumphantly deployed it with Milan in the late 1980s. But when I discussed Happel with Uli Hesse, author of the seminal German football history Tor!, he reminded me that the Austrian had used this very tactic as Hamburg coach in the 1980s.

Happel in his Hamburg pomp

Happel was an eccentric, inspirational coach who won the European Cup with Feyenoord in 1970 before steering Hamburg to an unlikely victory over Juventus in 1983. His players were never quite sure what he was going to say to them before a match. Sometimes, he would barely talk at all – but the Hamburg players do remember that often, just as they were about to run out into the stadium, his closing words would be: “And don’t forget the pressing.”

The trouble with genius
Pressing isn’t one of the qualities you associate with Arjen Robben. The Dutch master of the wing is arguably the greatest conundrum facing Jupp Heynckes as he tries to win the Bundesliga and ensure Bayern take part in the UEFA Champions League final on their own turf next May.

Robben has the pace, trickery and technique to turn any match against any calibre of opposition, as he showed with that wondrous volley against Manchester United in April 2010. And yet his brand of greatness is, let’s be honest, more predictable than that of Franck Ribery (who, gratuitous plug, is the cover star of the latest Champions).

When Robben gets the ball, you know he isn’t going to run to the by-line to whip in a cross. It’s also not especially likely that he will pass. Robben is invariably looking to create the opportunity for him to score. And this single-mindedness presents the opposing defender with fewer uncertainties than Ribery or Thomas Muller, who has looked remarkably good on the right for Bayern this season. And to accommodate Robben, Heynckes has to play Muller infield, which means that Toni Kroos, who had a foot in both Bayern goals against Villarreal, has to change his game too.

Germany’s Dutch lesson
“English football,” the Austrian journalist Willy Meisl (brother of the great coach Hugo) liked to say, “has forgotten much and learned nothing”. The same cannot be said of the German national team. When they beat Netherlands 3-0 in their recent friendly, there was only one team playing in the style the Dutch have made famous – and it wasn’t the team in orange. You should never build too much on one result but that performance – and the national side’s record in qualifying (Played 10, W10, D0, L0, F34, A7) – suggests this could be the best German side since the one that won Euro 1972.

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