Underachieving giants Hamburg and Werder still searching for hope

The passion from both sets of fans remains undimmed, but the question is whether the teams will get away with underachieving again this season

Even by the standards of local tussles and their particular intensity, it wasn’t much of a spectacle. Pundit Lothar Matthäus told the Sky audience that Saturday’s 107th top-flight Nordderby between Hamburg and Werder Bremen “didn’t deserve a sold-out stadium” – nearly 55,000 were there – but what did anybody expect? These two grand old clubs have been on the train leaving Worried, headed for Desperate, for a while and after this fractious encounter, neither look like taking a diversion soon.

For HSV, who had a muted celebration of the club’s 130th birthday on Friday, it was tougher to distil a prevailing emotion after this goalless draw, as their coach Markus Gisdol acknowledged. “I’m torn on what to think,” he said, praising the performance of his side who nevertheless completed a goalless September, and have gone 450 minutes without scoring.

Underachieving giants are nothing new in the German top flight, as the returns of Stuttgart and Hannover – almost guaranteeing the Bundesliga’s average attendance will get a healthy bump up from last season – underline. The question is more how these two, and HSV in particular, have managed to get away with it so often in recent seasons, and whether they will again this term.

Gisdol’s dilemma from Saturday is Hamburg’s current situation in microcosm. There were positives to take – bringing a run of four straight defeats to a close, performing with pride in a match that meant so much to their supporters. On a personal level, the coach might be pleased to eke anything out of Werder, his bogey team, having never beaten them in eight attempts with Hoffenheim and Hamburg.

He had reacted decisively to recent disappointments with four changes, and big ones at that, leaving out Walace, Mergim Mavraj, Sehad Salihovic and Lewis Holtby, with gambles on the recently-returned Albin Ekdal and Aaron Hunt plus the youngsters Tatsuya Ito (20) and 18-year-old Vasilije Janjicic coming in for first starts of the season. The presence of the latter pair felt symbolic, and that early zest gave HSV the upper hand in the first half in particular. Seventeen-year-old Jann-Fiete Arp – a prolific scorer for Germany in the summer’s Euro Under-17s – joined the party in the second half and Gisdol praised the youngsters after.

“I’m very happy for the young players,” he said. “They made a good impression. They could be our future.” It all sounds great, but it shouldn’t sound like the product of planning, because it plainly isn’t. Ito, the shortest player in Bundesliga history at 1m 66cm, excited with his bursts down the left. “Ito didn’t succeed at everything,” wrote Kicker, “but he tried everything.”

The problem was that he was withdrawn in the 53rd minute after cramping up. Ito was hard on himself afterwards, musing to journalists in the mixed zone that “professionals should be able to last,” while simultaneously marvelling at making the step up from Regionalliga action. He shouldn’t be taking the blame for it. What about the coaching staff who have thrown a young player in at the deep end, underprepared, on a wing and a prayer?

This, unfortunately, speaks volumes for HSV’s planning, after a summer transfer window which – for the second successive year – didn’t do enough to deal with the squad’s deficiencies. André Hahn was a good signing, but he is a lone beacon of established forward quality with Nicolai Müller and Filip Kostic on the treatment table. Bobby Wood, who hit the most presentable chance of the afternoon straight at Jiri Pavlenka, is unlikely to ever be as regular a scorer as his team needs.

When Sunday’s Hamburger Morgenpost declared HSV “hexed” in front of goal, they might have taken a closer eye on who was taking the shots. “In the hundredth of a second where we have to make a decision,” lamented Hahn, “we choose the wrong one.”

Werder left grateful of the point, which is a pretty damning indictment in itself. They committed 27 of the game’s 40 fouls, the most of any team in a game this season. Weser Kurier wrote that a point “flattered” Bremen, and it was hard to argue, despite an upturn in the second half, partly as HSV left themselves open to counters, and partly due to the introduction of Zlatko Junuzovic as a substitute for the final half-hour. The Austrian playmaker’s arrival immediately transformed Fin Bartels from peripheral to a pacey threat, and one Junuzovic backheel manufactured a chance that, with a slightly cooler head, Bartels could have made into the winner.

Hamburg goalkeeper Christian Mathenia beats a shot away.
Hamburg goalkeeper Christian Mathenia beats a shot away. Photograph: David Hecker/EPA

Those injuries, to Junuzovic and the still-absent top scorer Max Kruse, are perhaps what’s keeping Alexander Nouri in a job, even if the sporting director Frank Baumann flat-batted questions on the coach’s future even more monosyllabically than usual. Certainly both they, facing Köln in a few weeks, and Hamburg, who go to Mainz next, are running out of excuses.

Those fans expect more – not the earth, just more. Their passion is undimmed, with Hamburg having to employ a 30-strong security presence around the Volksparkstadion from Thursday in an attempt to prevent pyrotechnics coming in, with one intruder intercepted at 3am on Saturday morning. On the other side, a group of 170 Bremen ultras were turned away by police on the day of the game, another incident which will fuel feeling in some quarters that the DfB are continuing to wage war on fan culture.

Fans, of course, are the reason to continue caring about these great names. Their representatives on the pitch underlined again how far away they are from being rewarded.

Talking points

• It was into the post-Carlo Ancelotti era for Bayern Munich at Hertha Berlin, starting with a roar but closing with a whimper. Under Ancelotti’s erstwhile assistant Willy Sagnol a fairly classic, fully Robbery-ed-up XI started off like a train, and led 2-0 just after the break via Mats Hummels and Robert Lewandowski goals. It looks like Ancelotti didn’t take the below-par defending with him though, with eye-poppingly passive efforts to deal with Genki Haraguchi’s dribble and Marvin Plattenhardt’s free-kick allowing Ondrej Duda and Salomon Kalou respectively to score and glean a point for Pal Dardai’s team. Worse was to follow as Franck Ribéry was helped off on the hour, after suffering what looked like a bad knee injury – reports suggest he’ll miss 10 weeks – with sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic looking on, disconsolately, on the day the Frenchman equalled his record as the non-German player with most appearances for the club. “We are no longer the strongest team in Germany,” said Sagnol afterwards, which is either disarmingly frank or a high-risk strategy to coax a bigger response from his players.

• One of the strongest candidates to succeed Ancelotti on a permanent basis, Julian Nagelsmann, had a lousy weekend too, with his Hoffenheim becoming the first team to lose to Freiburg in the Bundesliga this season in a five-goal thriller. They, like Hertha, were coming off a tricky Thursday night trip in the Europa League, as they lost at Ludogorets, though the numbers in terms of kilometres run (over 116km in the Black Forest) would make one think physical fatigue wasn’t at the root of the defeat. “Freshness in the head is more the issue,” suggested midfielder Kevin Vogt, who also pointed to a clutch of injuries.

• This all means Borussia Dortmund have a five-point lead at the top going into the international break, after winning at in-form Augsburg despite a performance that Peter Bosz described as “the worst game since I’ve been coach of BVB”. They scored two high-quality goals in the first half, with an early Andriy Yarmolenko backheel and a glorious Shinji Kagawa chip sandwiching a meaty Caiuby header for the hosts, who ramped up the pressure after the break. “At 2-1,” said their coach Manuel Baum, “we made Dortmund suffer”, though perhaps not as much as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who missed a chance to extend the lead after his Panenka penalty was dollied to Marwin Hitz.

Kagawa celebrates after going past Shinji Okazaki as the highest-scoring Japanese player in Bundesliga history.
Shinji Kagawa celebrates after going past Shinji Okazaki as the highest-scoring Japanese player in Bundesliga history. Photograph: Daniel Kopatsch/EPA

• Someone who was successful as well as sanguine from the spot was Thorgan Hazard, who converted in stoppage time to allow Borussia Mönchengladbach to hand Hannover their first loss of the season. The Belgian had to wait nearly three minutes to take the kick as the referee Christian Dingert double- and triple-checked his award, for a foul on the debutant Vincenzo Grifo, using VAR. “Dingert does everything right,” was the rare-as-hen’s-teeth headline in Kicker, while even Hannover’s sporting director Horst Heldt praised him. “They exhausted every possibility,” he said appreciatively. The 96ers could still rue what might have been – Martin Harnik continued his great scoring run with a fine header but then hit the bar from around a metre out on 87 minutes, with the score 1-1.

• It takes a lot to move the usually-stoic Niko Kovac, but his striker Sébastien Haller managed it with his sensational injury-time bicycle-kick winner for 10-man Eintracht Frankfurt against Stuttgart. Kovac looked overcome as the ball hit the net, covering his eyes to compose himself.

• A point each for Schalke and Leverkusen on Friday night in the battle of the Bundesliga’s could-be-agains, which felt about right, with Leon Goretzka and Bailey swapping goals. After scoring a free-kick Goretzka missed a much simpler chance to make it 2-0 – “my Grandma could have scored it,” he drily noted – but the highlight of the evening was Breel Embolo’s first start for the home side in almost a year.

• More misery for Köln, bottom with a single point after another home defeat, to Leipzig in a pulsating game. They did at least get a second league goal of the season via Yuya Osako’s header, but need more – with the pressure squarely on newly-arrived Claudio Pizarro, who is 39 tomorrow. Pizarro will probably get a first start in the trip to Stuttgart, which restarts the Bundesliga on Friday week.

Results: Schalke 1-1 Leverkusen, Borussia Mönchengladbach 2-1 Hannover, Frankfurt 2-1 Stuttgart, Augsburg 1-2 Borussia Dortmund, Wolfsburg 1-1 Mainz, Hamburg 0-0 Werder Bremen, Freiburg 3-2 Hoffenheim, Hertha 2-2 Bayern Munich, Köln 1-2 RB Leipzig.

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Borussia Dortmund 7 19 19
2 Bayern Munich 7 9 14
3 TSG Hoffenheim 7 5 14
4 RB Leipzig 7 4 13
5 Hannover 96 7 3 12
6 Augsburg 7 3 11
7 Borussia M'gladbach 7 -2 11
8 Eintracht Frankfurt 7 0 10
9 Schalke 04 7 -1 10
10 Hertha Berlin 7 0 9
11 Bayer Leverkusen 7 2 8
12 Wolfsburg 7 -3 7
13 Mainz 7 -4 7
14 VfB Stuttgart 7 -5 7
15 SC Freiburg 7 -6 7
16 Hamburg 7 -7 7
17 Werder Bremen 7 -4 4
18 Cologne 7 -13 1