Hertha Berlin made a big call during the coronavirus-enforced break from football, bringing in Bruno Labbadia to replace Alexander Nouri in April. Following a 3-0 win over Hoffenheim on Matchday 26, the early signs are that the new man in charge could make a telling difference.
Not for the first time in his career, Labbadia has taken over an ambitious club which finds itself in the wrong half of the table. Ahead of the Bundesliga resumption, the Old Lady were 13th in the standings and only six points above the relegation play-off spot. Only dramatic comebacks in Hertha's previous two matches against struggling Fortuna Düsseldorf and Werder Bremen – from three goals down and two goals down respectively – had prevented an even worse fate.
Labbadia, though, knows what's required to turn a club around. He has saved both Hamburg and Wolfsburg from the drop in recent years, although this time he is hoping to do so without needing to negotiate a tense, two-legged play-off.
"His ideas of playing attacking football, his meticulousness and his ambition all fit perfectly with Hertha Berlin and our goals," Hertha sporting director Michael Preetz had said when Labbadia was appointed.
The trip to Hoffenheim presented an early test of both that appraisal and of Labbadia, who is the capital club’s fourth head coach of the season after Ante Covic, Jürgen Klinsmann, and Nouri.
The players, no doubt, will have been receptive to someone who had guided Wolfsburg to an impressive sixth-place finish in 2018/19. The question was whether the 54-year-old could turn training ground enthusiasm into matchday efficiency in time for his first game in charge.
The former Bayern Munich striker immediately showed that he wasn't afraid to make strong decisions early in his reign, leaving out defenders Lukas Klünter and Niklas Stark as well as expensive winter signings Santiago Ascacibar and Krzysztof Piatek.
There were seven changes in total from the 2-2 home draw against Bremen on 7 March, with recalls for the likes of Marko Grujic, Dodi Lukebakio and fit-again Dedryck Boyata. Veterans Peter Pekarik, Per Skjelbred, and club captain Vedad Ibisevic also came in from the cold to play for an aggressive, hungry-looking side that deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation.
It was 70 days since Hertha's last game but Pekarik, in particular, had more reason to be rusty than most. The 33-year-old was making just his second start of the season at right-back, and a yellow card after 10 minutes was a cause for concern. In the end, though, it was from the Slovakian's drive on 58 minutes that Hoffenheim defender Kevin Akpoguma inadvertently gave the visitors the lead.
Ibisevic – who helped Labbadia steer VfB Stuttgart to a sixth-place finish in 2011/12 – was also determined to seize the day. The experienced striker had not started a league game since December, but he looked the sharpest player on the pitch on Matchday 26. The former Bosnia-Herzegovina international will turn 36 in August, but here he rolled back the years to produce an inspirational centre forward display against his former club.
Hassling and harrying, continually seeking an opening, Ibisevic was a constant threat in the first half. In the second, he showed that he's still a natural goalscorer. Having been denied by Oliver Baumann shortly before Hertha's opener, he swiftly made it 2-0 on the hour mark. A thumping close-range header brought Ibisevic the 124th Bundesliga goal of his career. After scoring 43 in 92 league games for Hoffenheim between 2007 and 2012, he now has 42 top-flight goals for Hertha.
"The break did me good," Ibisevic told the Hertha website after the game. "The whole team worked really well, so we deservedly won. I'm really happy to have scored, and I'm just trying to enjoy every game."
While Hertha's second goal was rich reward for Ibisevic's stellar performance, the third was a moment of pure magic from Matheus Cunha to finish the scoring in style. The Brazilian was thwarted by Baumann late in the first half, but with 16 minutes left the ex-RB Leipzig attacker slalomed in from the left wing to seal a hugely impressive win for the visitors.
After the game, Labbadia told bundesliga.com that you can't underestimate how important the three points are for both players short of confidence and a new coaching team looking to earn their trust. Having also shepherded Stuttgart away from relegation trouble in 2010/2011 – as well as to the DFB Cup final the following season – he knows a thing or two about the importance of momentum.
Hertha's victory was hard-earned, however, with Christoph Baumgartner and Maximilian Beier missing huge chances for the home side when the game was still scoreless either side of half-time. Perhaps Hoffenheim were the right opponent first up for Labbadia, though. This was the 10th time he had got the better of them in his coaching career – meaning he has more wins against TSG than any other club.
The latest success is testament to what Labbadia has managed to get across in training. Germany international Marvin Plattenhardt said many things Hertha had planned had come off in the game, while Maximilian Mittelstädt – whose delightful cross set up Ibisevic's goal – suggested that the outcome was a natural one.
"If you train as intensively as we did in preparation, then you reap the rewards," he told the Hertha website. The 3-0 win victory, according to Labbadia, was the "super start" that his new team had needed.
"That was a very, very cohesive team performance," he said afterwards. Now his players have to back it up in the remaining eight matches of rest of the season – starting with the derby against Union Berlin on Matchday 27.