I often find myself wondering what on earth a football manager can say to his troops in the half-time break to motivate them to turn around a deficit.
We all know about the Alex Ferguson hairdryer technique of petrifying his players into getting a result, Jose Mourinho’s creation of an ’us against the world’ mentality or Pep Guardiola’s arm around the shoulder. But sometime, these methods must get old and predictable and stop producing results. Managers must be constantly pushing the boat out to find new and inspiring ways of getting their players to pull their thumbs out.
Markus Babbel probably has it a little easier than most: he’s only been in the Hertha hotseat for just over one season, and the switch from being favourites in the Bundesliga 2 to underdogs in the top flight must throw up plenty of simple motivational tools.
This was especially clear last weekend, as Hertha visited Dortmund – the reigning champions, undefeated at home in over a year – and were good value for a 2-1 win with an excellent counter-attacking performance. Both goals came after the half-time break and the first, from Raffael, a blistering, determined gallop through the Dortmund defence. Inspired, one could say, perhaps by slices of half-time orange, strengthened by Babbel’s secret motivational ingredient.
There is, however, a big difference between going into the dressing room drawing 0-0 away to Dortmund, a game you are expected to lose heavily, and taking a break while losing 0-1 at home to Augsburg in a game you are expected to win comfortably.
Whatever Babbel said, it worked even more quickly against Augsburg than it did against Dortmund. Patrick Ebert sliced the visiting defence clean open almost straight from kick-off, and as if a goal after 22 seconds wasn’t rare enough, it was Christian Lell arriving from the right flank to slot the ball home – only his second-ever Bundesliga goal in his 97th appearance in the competition.
Ten minutes later, Hertha had turned the deficit around. Pierre-Michel Lasogga was, as usual, being an energetic nuisance to the opposition defence, and as Gibril Sankoh dawdled on the ball just outside his own box, the Hertha striker pounced, releasing Tunay Torun for a simple finish. The Augsburg trainer, Jos Luhukay, was so sickened by Sankoh’s slipshod attempt that the Dutchman was immediately substituted.
So what exactly happened in the dressing room to facilitate such an efficient comeback? After the game, Torun illustrated just how simple it had been. “During the break, we decided to turn the game around, and we succeeded,“ he expounded blithely.
Facile, certainly, but maybe it really is that simple. Of Hertha’s eight goals this year, seven have been scored in the second half, and over half of those have come in the last ten minutes of the game. There’s a spirit and a backbone to this team that was sorely missing from their last Bundesliga campaign, illustrated by three fightbacks from a losing position to salvage a draw so far this term.
But this Hertha is not all-new. Augsburg’s opener was ridiculous, with Sankoh left in plenty of space to flick on a corner, and Hajime Hosogai left in even more at the back post. He had more than enough time to clumsily control the ball and bundle it home: precisely the type of entirely avoidable goal that Hertha fans are forced to endure again and again.
Augsburg’s equaliser after Hertha’s fightback was no less preventable. Axel Bellinghausen had no right to encroach so far into the Hertha box after his left wing sprint, neither had Jan-Ingwer Callsen-Bracker any right to evade two Hubnik lunges before turning and firing home.
Hertha’s resolve will be tested in the coming weeks as visits to Bremen and Bayern approach. Adrian Ramos and his unpredictability, absent against Augsburg due to illness, should be back in the squad to try help preserve Hertha’s impressive away record – they haven’t lost on the road since December 2010.
Defensive lapses such as those seen today will be brutally punished by the league’s top scorers. Markus Babbel’s magic will have to start working 45 minutes earlier if humiliations are to be avoided.