“Number 10... is back!” Hertha Berlin’s Ondrej Duda was lauded by his teammate Salomon Kalou following a game-winning performance against Schalke on Matchday 2 – and it looks like the Slovakian chart-topping playmaker could be a major force this season after also helping bring down Bayern Munich.
He’s not a new signing, but it feels like he is. Duda's time with Hertha has been blighted by injury so far, limiting him to just 67 minutes spread over three brief appearances in his first season and only nine starts last term.
He has more than made up for lost time in a strong start to the current campaign, though, with five goals in six appearances taking him to the top of the scoring charts, including the strike that help inflict a first defeat of the season on Bayern on Matchday 6.
"For me a lot has changed. I’m playing a lot – I play in every match from the start," Duda told bundesliga.com after his team's 2-0 win over the reigning champions in Berlin. "This is important for me. When players play, they gain confidence."
Hertha be like...— Bundesliga English (@Bundesliga_EN) 28 September 2018
"Ignore the big red sign!" 😶 pic.twitter.com/eDfD8hSZWU
In the dressing room after his brace against Schalke, Kalou sang that Duda scores when he wants, but the goalscorer himself was unsure whether he had netted twice in a game at professional level before. The 23-year-old hadn't, but it wasn't just his proficiency in front of goal that stood out against the Royal Blues.
"Everyone's obviously happy for Ondrej because he had a tough year last year," Hertha winger Valentino Lazaro said, after seeing Duda star in only his 22nd league game for the Old Lady. "Our game plan suited him perfectly. His job was to disrupt [Sebastian] Rudy’s build-up play, and then he got free space."
Watch: See what Duda made of his performance in the victory over Schalke.
Two minutes after Daniel Caligiuri had missed from the penalty spot for Schalke, Duda exploited that space perfectly to fire the visitors into an early lead.
With the Slovakia international calling the plays, the Old Lady looked threatening on the counter attack from there on in. In injury-time, Duda planted a free-kick into the top corner to give Hertha six points from six following their opening-day win over Nuremberg.
The classy attacking midfielder said he practised that kind of free-kick on the training ground in Berlin, and Hertha goalkeeper Rune Jarstein – who kept a second clean sheet this season – confirmed as much.
"Ondrej got two fantastic goals, and I’m very happy for him,” the Norwegian said. “He had already started well in pre-season. He’s always strong in training, above all with his finishing. Thankfully he’s finally been able to show that in a game again.”
To prove it wasn't a fluke, and that his hard work on the training ground has been worth it, Duda delivered the goods once again in the 2-2 draw with Wolfsburg on Matchday 3: two direct free-kicks, two goals – 'Dudinho's' set pieces are irresistible.
It’s been a long, hard road for Duda to get back to making headlines on the pitch, though. He arrived at Hertha in the summer of 2016, shortly after he clinched a second league title with Legia Warsaw in Poland and scored against Wales at UEFA EURO 2016. Henning Berg, a former manager of his at Legia, had predicted a bright future.
"Duda's a very talented player with incredible skill," the ex-Manchester United and Norway defender told the Berliner Zeitung. "He reads and understands the game like almost no other. I'm certain that he will become a successful Bundesliga player."
Just days after Duda arrived at Berlin, however, he picked up a knee injury that eventually required an operation. That delayed his Hertha debut until February 2017. Fitness problems again played their part in 2017/18, making the number 10's start to the current season all the more satisfying.
"Everyone knows that the first year I was injured seven months," Duda said after his double against Schalke. "After, I didn’t play, [in the] second season, too much. One time I played, one time I didn't. For players it's also difficult when… he doesn't have confidence. Then it's difficult to show something. But now I'm ready for 90 minutes."
Hertha’s top brass have been patient with Duda, and consistently praised his ability while he battled back from injury and searched for his best form. The player himself said in April that he just needed to stay fit and get a run of games in order to prove his worth.
He got that during a highly successful pre-season, when Hertha’s switch to a three-man backline seemed tailor-made for the former Kosice player. With an extra body in midfield, some pressure was taken off Duda, giving him the freedom to concentrate on what he's good at.
"He can play unexpected, surprising passes," Hertha coach Pal Dardai said ahead of the new season. "To do that, he has to be brave and make the right decisions during a game. Misplaced passes can happen – that's no issue. The problem is when a player hides. He doesn't."
Watch: Duda scores against Bayern again!
Duda certainly stepped up to the plate against Schalke, but he felt it was his contribution to the team – rather than his goals – which were key. "Yeah of course it's important [to score goals] but I don't think like this," he told bundesliga.com after the game. "I have to score. I have to show something to the coach. The coach knows which player I am. I concentrate only on doing my job – in defence, in offense – and work for the team. Not only for myself."
The work is paying dividends, with his fourth goal of the season coming in the 4-2 win over Borussia Mönchengladbach – a result which took the Old Lady to the top of the table for a few hours.
As a delighted Kalou said, Hertha’s number 10 is back. Duda is planning to stick around, too, which could be very good news for the Ivorian striker and his teammates.