What do you get when you combine a couple of seasoned football veterans with group of young whippersnappers and a coach with a thing for the Old(er) Lady, aside from a very questionable soap opera script? Only the most well proportioned Hertha Berlin team in almost a decade!
Hertha's recent 2-0 win over Bayern Munich was the picture of perfect harmony: young and old, pragmatism and verve - collective hearts beating as one. Pal Dardai's eclectic ensemble have passed the compatibility test with flying colours - but what are the secrets to the Berliners' happy marriage? bundesliga.com goes under the covers to find out...
Ha-Ho-How about THAT!— Bundesliga English (@Bundesliga_EN) September 28, 2018
Party in Berlin tonight 🎉 pic.twitter.com/u7DmaRPqXc
Ok, technically that something is a someone - and there are two of them, but that's beside the point. With a combined age of 67 and over 400 Bundesliga appearances between them, Vedad Ibisevic and Salomon Kalou are endurance personified. They've featured in every game for Hertha so far in 2018/19; in the case of club captain Ibisevic - marginally the elder of the two at 34 - he's started the lot, scoring four goals. For two guys supposed to be in the twilight of their careers, these are no fading stars.
"They're the granddaddies of our attack, but right now they are the pillars of the team," said Hertha sporting director Michael Preetz of Ibisevic and Kalou. "They're doing a fantastic job - they're setting a real example. The youngsters around them are thriving. If we're still performing like this at Christmas, we'll be very happy."
Watch: Vedad Ibisevic scored his fourth goal of the season against Bayern
If Ibisevic and Kalou are the pillars of today, then Ondrej Duda and Jaivaro Dilrosun are Hertha's bastions of tomorrow. And while Duda isn't strictly a new signing, it feels like he is. The Slovakian midfielder actually joined Hertha in August 2016, but injuries restricted him to just 20 appearances in his first two seasons in the capital. Reborn in the No.10 role, the 23-year-old is currently the Bundesliga's leading scorer with five goals. "My most difficult years are behind me," Duda revealed after scoring Hertha's second against Bayern. "Everyone at the club supported me. I feel at home now at Hertha."
Another youngster with his feet firmly under the Hertha table, Dilrosun has not missed a kick since being summoned from the bench to replace the injured Karim Rekik on Matchday 2. The 20-year-old has already scored twice, while his return of three assists is bettered only by Borussia Dortmund's Jadon Sancho. He knows his worth, too. Like Sancho, the Netherlands youth international had the confidence to walk away from the Manchester City reserves and join a league where his talents would be given the necessary platform to prosper. As the saying goes: wind him up, and watch him go!
Watch: Ondrej Duda reflects on his sparkling start to 2018/19
The industry to Duda and Dilrosun's invention, Liverpool loanee Marko Grujic made a telling contribution to Hertha's four-match unbeaten start to 2018/19, before suffering an ankle ligament injury in the 4-2 win against Borussia Mönchengladbach. It came as no great surprise when the Old Lady slipped up in their first assignment without him, losing 3-1 to Werder Bremen on Matchday 5. "Grujic has been key to Hertha's upswing," wrote Uwe Bremer of the Berliner Morgenpost. "He is world-class."
Dardai couldn't have put it better himself. "Marko is an exceptional midfielder," the Hungarian commented. "I've never said that about anyone since I was coach here. He's fantastic on the ball and a very good passer. We want to play attractive football, and he can help us do that, but the injury is a massive blow. We hope to have him back as soon as possible. It's not normal for us to be able to get a player like him."
Something blue (and white)
Then again, these are abnormal times for Hertha. It's almost a decade since Die Alte Dame last finished in the top four and, until Bundesliga Matchday 6, they hadn't taken three points off record German champions Bayern in nine-and-a-half years. The club have suffered relegation to the second tier twice in the interim, but underachievement and mediocrity appear to have been blue-penciled from the script since Dardai - Hertha's record appearance-maker - returned to the Olympiastadion as coach.
After taking a side that was threatened with the drop upon his appointment in February 2015 to within five points of a top-four finish in 2016/17, seventh the following year and 10th last term, Dardai has reset the bar. Success no longer means survival for a man who has spent over half his working life in blue and white. "We've grown together, the team are coping better with the pressure of playing in the Bundesliga," the 42-year-old explained. "We have our eye on the European places, but the next step is a title. The DFB Cup would be our likeliest route."