Ahead of the latest installment of the Berlin derby, ESPN's lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae says that Union have outdone their capital rivals through shrewd football economics and squad building on a smaller budget but that sustaining that over many years might be a much bigger challenge.
On Saturday night, Hertha Berlin host Union Berlin at the Olympiastadion in a German capital showdown certain to be highly charged. This is only the third season in which the two former friends, turned foes, have found themselves participating together in the Bundesliga, and their latest encounter takes place on Saturday (12:20 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+).
After Union's move up to the Oberhaus in 2019, the narrative was meant to be the little corner grocery shop trying, but likely struggling, to take on the bigger, richer supermarket to their west. Instead, Union have demonstrated that efficient use of the cash register -- as well as astute scouting -- can take you places. Hertha fans, meanwhile, are wishing major investor Lars Windhorst had kept his mouth shut about the notion of a "Big City Club" when he arrived in 2019.
Windhorst, a successful businessman and entrepreneur, initially invested by purchasing a 37.5% share of the Hertha operating company, Hertha BSC GmbH & Co. KGaA. He then bought more and more shares, apparently lured by the prospect of awakening a sleeping giant, but his involvement has coincided with utter chaos at the club and a series of dubious sporting decisions. The nadir was the winter of the 2019-20 season, when the club paid AC Milan a €26.4 million transfer fee for Poland striker Krzysztof Piatek, who has been an expensive disappointment. Consider other recent examples of exorbitant transfer fees -- €27.5m for Lucas Tousart, €22m for Dodi Lukebakio -- set against the grain of more modest outlays elsewhere in the Bundesliga.
Last season, Hertha made a narrow escape from relegation after folk hero Pal Dardai had been brought back for a second spell as coach. Dardai famously celebrated by smoking a cigar outside the team hotel during a live ZDF-TV interview on the Saturday night institution, das aktuelle Sportstudio; a rare relaxing moment for the club of late.
Last summer was supposed to be the time when Hertha's trajectory changed for the better. Fredi Bobic, highly respected for his work with Eintracht Frankfurt, was the Sportvorstand (sporting CEO) most people wanted in place. After the sacking of Michael Preetz, Bobic knew he'd inherited a mess, an ill-fitting squad and a coach who would never have been his first choice, as well-liked as he was with fans.
Yet Dardai lasted only until late November. Bobic turned to Tayfun Korkut, but after only two wins in 14 league games and the ghosts of relegation haunting die alte Dame (The Old Lady) once more, the sporting chief had to concede he had failed his first big test.
The choice of 68-year old Felix Magath as the third coach of the campaign raised eyebrows, but Magath got off to a winning start -- albeit from his Berlin hotel room due to COVID -- as his assistant, Scotland-born Mark Fotheringham, used his motivational and organisational powers to guide Hertha to an unexpected 3-0 success over TSG Hoffenheim, with all three goals a result of set plays. Windhorst, meanwhile, showed less than impeccable timing in the immediate aftermath of the club's rare hour of glory by stating he wouldn't work any longer with club president Werner Gegenbauer, whom he accused of being power hungry.
(At this point, it's worth reminding everyone that under the 50+1 rule, members (the fans), not investors, elect presidents.)
A month earlier, Windhorst -- who has invested an estimated €375m in three years at Hertha -- agreed that, while looking back, his financial involvement had brought him "nothing but disadvantages." Magath's first game in the technical area on Saturday saw Hertha lose 2-1 at Bayer Leverkusen, but at least the work put in at the team's training camp near Bielefeld was clear to see, with the team's collective running statistics showing a season-best 124.6 kilometres.
Whether Hertha can outplay, and outdo, a Union side that looks set to finish the campaign at worst comfortable in midtable, and at best in Europe -- something they managed to achieve last season -- is open for debate.
Hertha, back in 17th, really need to make this derby count after losing to their fellow Berliners in November in the league and in January in the DFB-Pokal. Meanwhile Union remain in with a chance of cup glory and a semifinal meeting with RB Leipzig is just a couple of weeks away. While around the club there has been an element of sometimes unnecessary drama and hubris personified by polarising president Dirk Zingler, the football operation run by Oliver Ruhnert is the epitome of calm.
Ruhnert is not afraid to act from left-field as far as making decisions is concerned. Union's period in the sunshine has not coincidentally followed on from his time at the club first as chief scout, then since May 2018 as the overall head of football.
Shrewdly, Ruhnert went to Switzerland to appoint Urs Fischer as coach and the fit proved perfect as he took a team of mostly journeymen and outsiders to the promised land of promotion. Having been in Berlin-Koepenick to commentate on the night that confirmed Union's new exalted status against VfB Stuttgart, I can confirm it was indeed loud and memorable.
Union's squad and tactics have evolved from the days of set-piece reliance and stalwarts like Michael Parensen and Manuel Schmiedebach. Even attacking heroes from that promotion-winning campaign such as Sebastian Andersson have been moved on. Union are a club letting go, but it doesn't bother them. Allow players to leave and get value in their transfer fees, having already identified successors: that is their way.
In this campaign, Ruhnert has raised approximately €19m in transfer fees through the departures of Robert Andrich, Marvin Friedrich and Max Kruse, although Grischa Promel will depart for Hoffenheim on a free in the summer. Taiwo Awoniyi (their record Bundesliga scorer with 17 goals) and Sheraldo Becker are the next candidates to leave the Stadion An der Alten Forsterei for a fee.
When it's their time to leave, can Ruhnert keep working his magic, or will the law of diminishing returns eventually set in? For now, the contrast between the sporting structures and successes of the two Berlin clubs is stark.