After narrowly securing survival in each of the last two seasons, Hamburger SV are enjoying a revival of sorts this term. The improvement is in no small part down to head coach Bruno Labbadia, who has been a breath of fresh air at one of Germany’s biggest clubs.
Fresh from extending his contract at HSV until 2017, Labbadia spoke exclusively to bundesliga.com about next week's Rückrunde opener against FC Bayern München, his side’s upturn in form so far this season, and aims for the rest of the year…
bundesliga.com: Mr Labbadia, Hamburg have now been at a training camp in Belek for almost a week. What has been your impression so far?
Bruno Labbadia: So far, it has been an outstanding training camp. Due to the weather - especially compared with what it's like in Hamburg at the moment - and the training pitches we have been able to work really well, particularly on the tactical side of things. Our first friendly against Ajax was very promising. We did a lot right against tough opposition, although there are still things to work on. To that end, we'll be putting in the hard yards over the next few days.
bundesliga.com: And how are the team coming along after a few days of training?
Labbadia: It's not yet full and proper preparation. We only had 14 days off, which is a relatively short break. On holiday, the players had to keep their fitness up, just as we expect, but we have a few injuries at the moment, particularly in the middle of the park. That has led to a few problems, as the defensive midfield is the engine of any team. We're trying to make up for their absences and are trying a few things out, but there are still several question marks.
bundesliga.com: So you're struggling in defensive midfield. What sort of alternatives do you have there?
Labbadia: When you have four regular central midfielders and they're all injured, then it's a problem. We've been trying Lewis Holtby in there, but he's really an attacking player. Against Ajax, we had a go with Cleber in there, but he's a centre-half by trade. It's tough, but that's how it is. We have to live with it and find a way around it.
bundesliga.com: There are a number of Bundesliga clubs currently in Belek preparing for the second half of the season and scouts are constantly watching other clubs’ training sessions. Is it a disadvantage that everyone can see what you’re doing?
Labbadia: For us it isn't. Nowadays, it's all obvious what's happening anyway, given that training videos usually find their way onto the Internet. Sometimes it's even our own reporters posting them! You can't really train in secret any more, unless you're training in your own stadium behind closed doors. We're doing it ourselves anyway, our scouts are out and about watching upcoming opponents. The more important things are the conditions and the opponents in friendlies. Here in Belek, both of those are well-covered.
bundesliga.com: After almost going down in the last two seasons, Hamburg are now in a comfortable mid-table position. How do you think the negative experiences of the last couple of seasons have changed the team?
Labbadia: It's obviously not yet forgotten. When you almost go down with a club as big as Hamburg two seasons running, you don't forget it quickly. Saying that, we came through an unbelievably difficult battle against the drop with an incredible team spirit and the team has grown close despite all the difficulties. We wanted to keep that this campaign, which we've managed so far.
bundesliga.com: Successfully, in fact – HSV are tenth with a seven-point cushion over the relegation spots.
Labbadia: That may be the case, but we're not out of the woods yet. We have 22 points which, in my view, is too few considering how well we played in the first half of the season. We're also aware that the sides below us are going to be giving it everything and so we will have to work hard. There's a long way to go to safety, although the basis for our good first half of the season was our real willingness to fight. We have to not only keep that up, but also to improve it. There's a lot of hard work to come and nobody can afford to take their foot off the gas – even for a second. We need to keep progressing on the field, and everyone has to keep improving. That was a process that started in the first 17 games and is not yet finished.
bundesliga.com: You spoke of players who have been improving. What did you do to push them to the next level?
Labbadia: Mainly, it was the boys working hard themselves and putting into practice what we had been talking about, whether that was fitness, technically or tactically. You can see the boys are out of the negative spiral of the last two years and they were all really motivated [coming into this season]. Due to our situation - it's no secret that the club aren't in an optimal financial position - the players here at the moment have had to improve, which they've done. We also think, though, that there's more to come and we need to draw that out.
bundesliga.com: You are very active on the training pitch. You get involved a lot and speak to the players, for example. Is that an inner energy or just part of your philosophy and style of management?
Labbadia: It's a bit of both. I have to keep working on the little things we have planned. Football is about the details and because we do a lot of work on our organisation and positional play, I have to do a lot of coaching. When the boys are doing fitness work and a lot of running, nobody can hide. But when it comes down to the organisation, you have to keep pushing people and sometimes tell them exactly what they have to do. I enjoy it, though, and it's part of my philosophy.
bundesliga.com: Preparing for your next competitive opponent might be less enjoyable, though. On Matchday 18, next Friday, you face Bayern. Would you have preferred to play someone else?
Labbadia: Well, we played them in the first game of the season, so we knew we'd kick off the second half of the season against them. In the last few years, it has become a lot more difficult to beat Bayern. They have a fantastic side and, while being blessed with outstanding individuals, they work incredibly well as a team. Despite that, they're not unbeatable. It is tough, granted, but we’re going to try and put in a good display and pick up points. Everybody has to play Bayern twice a season – we just have them right at the start.
bundesliga.com: What, then, is possible for Hamburg this season?
Labbadia: It's hard to say because we've been pretty inconsistent performance-wise, which is not a huge surprise. If you look at the first half of the season, it’s obvious that we could have picked up more points, which we can take as a positive. But there are also reasons for us not having more points. For us to be successful, everything has to click and we always have to try to give our best. The best thing for us would have been to be coming into the second half of the campaign with 26 or 27 points.
bundesliga.com: With that in mind, then, where will HSV be at the end of the season?
Labbadia: We hope to have nothing to do with the relegation battle and to be in touch with the sides above us, not below us. But because of our situation, we have to always make sure that we're above the teams chasing us and that we secure safety as quickly as possible. Once we've done that, we can keep working hard, particularly looking ahead to next season.