Hamburg - As England's only current active representative in the Bundesliga, and a follower in the footsteps of 1. FC Köln's Tony Woodcock and Hamburger SV legend Kevin Keegan, HSV defender Michael Mancienne has quite a legacy to maintain. Now in his second season with the Hanseatics, the former Chelsea man does not seem to be unduly burdened by the weight of history.
Baptism of fire
Woodcock, the first Englishman to grace Germany's top flight, is one name that Bundesliga fans of a certain generation will be familiar with, but Keegan's association with German football brings its own unique pressures. As one of England's all-time greats, Keegan was twice named European Footballer of the Year at HSV and he won the Bundesliga title in 1979. On joining the club in June 2011, Mancienne had some rather large shoes to fill.
The 2011/12 season heralded a new age for Hamburg as the club embarked upon a new policy of blooding young players in the first team and phasing out high-earning stars. No fewer than seven professionals under the age of 24 were added to the senior squad that summer, including five from Chelsea alone, Mancienne's club since 1995.
Losing so many experienced players in one fell swoop was a gamble, and the season began disastrously for HSV. The team was bottom of the league after six games, head coach Michael Oenning had lost his job and Mancienne was having a far tougher baptism to his Bundesliga career than he might have expected. It took a mammoth effort from new boss Thorsten Fink to eventually maintain Hamburg's unique record of having never been relegated from the Bundesliga.
Things rarely seem to be done the easy way at the club these days, so much so that this season also began badly with three straight Bundesliga defeats. Recently, however, the club has experienced a massive turnaround in form, winning three and drawing one of their last four. With Mancienne excelling and Hamburg recording consecutive league clean sheets for the first time since December 2011 they have risen to the relatively lofty heights of eighth in the table.
The impact made by goalkeeper Rene Adler has been massive, as has that of returning superstar Rafael van der Vaart. Yet also strongly indicative of the team's improvement in results and form have been the individual displays of the Londoner.
Formerly captain of the England U-21 side, Mancienne is the first to acknowledge how much the team's recent resurgence has been a collective effort. "We're defending as a team, and that's what's helping us keep the clean sheets. Everyone is putting in a shift", he said modestly during an interview with bundesliga.com.
There is no doubt, though, that HSV are benefitting from the 24-year-old's form, and that coach Fink is reaping the rewards of his decision to recall him. Picking up from last season, when he regained his place to feature in the club's last nine matches, Mancienne has started all seven games of the new Bundesliga campaign, completing 90 minutes on six occasions.
Fulfilling his potential
He is also doing justice to his reputation as a ball-playing defender by conceding just ten fouls, not picking up a single yellow card and winning 62.5 per cent of his challenges. "Obviously I'm happy to be here. I think the football is great and it's a great league", remarked the former Wolverhampton Wanderers loanee, clearly enjoying himself in his second season in the German top-flight.
His improvement has gone hand in hand with that of central-defensive partner Heiko Westermann, recently recalled to the Germany squad, and the resurgence of Adler, who is knocking on national team head coach Joachim Löw's door. Given his current form curve, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Mancienne, who turned out 30 times for England at U-21 level, could soon be a candidate for the senior squad.
Onwards and upwards
Most encouragingly for Fink and sporting director Frank Arnesen, the driving force behind Mancienne's transfer to HSV, is that, after treading the inevitably stony ground following the departures of high-profile stars such as Piotr Trochowski and Ruud van Nistelrooy, Hamburg seem to be back on the straight and narrow, a journey typified by the steady progress now being made by the Englishman in their ranks.
Mancienne has made huge strides since his move to HSV a year ago and, by his own admission, is now part of a team that "is starting to gel more". He has used his first year in the Bundesliga to establish himself as a competent and increasingly reliable defender, and one capable of performing to the standards of one of the Bundesliga's biggest and most prestigious clubs.