Is Hertha Berlin's Hot Bundesliga Start Down to Luck or Skill?

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Is Hertha Berlin's Hot Bundesliga Start Down to Luck or Skill?

It’s been a weird year in the Bundesliga. RB Leipzig are top the table, and two of the clubs from last season’s top four are currently in the bottom half.

However, there is one club that has managed to match its form from last season: Hertha Berlin. They’ve had another fantastic start to the season, and have even gone one better than they were at this stage a year ago, sitting third in Germany’s flight (by this time last year they were in fourth).

Their remarkable start continued with a stunning comeback last Saturday in Wolfsburg. Down 1-0 and 2-1 away from home, Hertha BSC stormed back to win 2-3 with Salomon Kalou the hero at the end—he buried a penalty in stoppage time to complete the turnaround. After 12 rounds of play, Die Alte Dame (The Old Lady) sit in third place in Germany’s top flight.

So what’s their secret? Hertha don’t exactly have a lot of flashy players that stick out and they don’t have a particularly good youth academy.

Part of it is that the club don’t let in many goals. Their 11 goals conceded this season is the fifth lowest total in the Bundesliga, and the team appear to have a well-organized defense and a midfield that puts more of an emphasis on protecting their own goal than assailing the opposition’s.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch Hertha have managed to score just enough to get by. They boast a +8 goal differential—also fifth best in the league—but have only scored the seventh highest league goal total with 19. Strangely, despite their slim goal difference they are yet to win a game 1-0 this season.

How much of Hertha’s hot start is down to luck? One way to find out is to look at their Expected Goal differential, the difference between the quality of chances they generated and the quality of chances they conceded based on historical conversion rates from similar shot types.

Stats analyst Alex Rathke’s Expected Goals table for example shows that while Hertha enjoy a +8 GD, their xG differential is -4.8. This is a good sign that Hertha are riding their good fortune, as they did last season when they ended up with an xG difference of -9 but a regular goal difference of 0.

It has helped that 43 percent (42.8) of shots taken by Hertha Berlin are on target, a figure that’s second best in the Bundesliga. However, research shows that a high shot on target percentage is unsustainable in the long term. A worrying sign for the club is their low average number of shot attempts (9.8 per game), a figure which ranks Hertha 85th of 98 teams in Europe’s top five leagues.

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Nevertheless, Hertha have kept five clean sheets this season; four have resulted in victories. In league play they’ve only conceded multiple goals twice this season. However, their Bundesliga opponents average 12.5 shots per game against them, 2.7 more than Hertha take per game. But that defense has a few cracks; Hertha rarely catch teams offside; just 1.2 times per match on average, the fourth worst total in Europe’s top five leagues. This shows that either their defence is less organized than it should be, or that they play a very deep defensive line, which is inherently risky. Or both.

All this means that Hertha’s winning ways are likely to come to an end, much as it did last season. As with this year, all looked brilliant for Berlin in the first half when they navigated the Hinrunde (first half of the season) to reach 3rd place at the time of the winter break. From October-December 2015, Berlin were victorious in seven of the 10 Bundesliga, games, drawing none.

Yet in the second half the team collapsed, failing to win any of their final seven matches and losing five. That skid saw the team end up in seventh (with a goal difference of 0). Hertha were in third as late as Matchday 30 on April 15th, but it all started crumbling away two weeks prior when they lost 5-0 at Borussia Mönchengladbach (prior to that, the goal difference was +10 and the stats were even more insane). The club regressed at the end, but the fantastic start cushioned the blow.

Though the wheels came off Berlin’s 2015-16 season in March, there were warning signs as early as January. After the Bundesliga resumed play, Hertha failed to win any of their first five matches (drawing four), making it all the more remarkable that they held that third place spot without winning for more than two months. However they made up for this dip in form by winning the three matches prior to the break.

They must do the same this season. There are still three matches left before the Winterpause, games that could define Hertha’s season. A tricky trip to Leipzig is sandwiched between two very winnable home fixtures against strugglers Werder Bremen and Darmstadt. Take six points from those matches and they’ll head in to the winter break riding high.

There is also a risk that with a month-long break on the horizon, the players could get rusty. It seems like something that happened last year, at least when we consider Vedad Ibisevic. The Bosnian hitman scored six goals and assisted four more in the Hinrunde last year (in just 10 games!), but only managed to score only four times with no assists in 16 Rückrunde matches.

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This season, Ibisevic has scored eight goals and made three assists in 12 first-half games. Last year, Hertha didn’t win any of their games at the start of the second half of the season until Ibisevic provided the only goal of the game against FC Köln on February 26th. He really is crucial to the club’s success, making the win over Wolfsburg at the weekend even more surprising considering he was serving a one-match ban for card accumulation.

Yet there are a few signs Ibisevic too might be riding his luck. The striker hit the target with 58 percent of his attempts (66% if you exclude blocked shots), leading to 8 goals from just 31 shots (18 on target), a number that’s bound to regress. We can compare Ibisevic’s numbers to Thomas Müller of FC Bayern Munich, who is having a notoriously “unlucky” season. Yet to find the back of the net in Bundesliga play this year, Müller’s shot accuracy is just 23 percent. But he’s hit the post twice in that time frame.

Thomas Müller is going to score goals again, but Hertha will be in trouble should Ibisevic cool off. It’s unlikely it will be a steep drop-off, as he’s traditionally been a good finisher, but even a slight regression could have big implications. Ibisevic has scored eight of Hertha’s 22 goals. After him is Salomon Kalou (who looks to be turning back the clock again and getting into good form after missing the first seven games this year after the death of his father and injury troubles) with four goals. Outside of those two, no player has scored more than twice for the Berlin club this season.

So two players have provided scored 55 percent of Hertha Berlin’s goals this season. Kalou’s shot accuracy is 50 percent, and one of his goals came from the penalty spot. Two of Ibisevic’s goals have been penalties, too. So, excluding penalty goals, Hertha have scored 16 times, of which the two strikers have scored half. Should their accuracy take a turn for the worst, and they will be in serious trouble.

Looking at expected goals by player, Alex Rathke’s statistics show that Vedad Ibisevic has 6 non-penalty goals, but only an xG rating of 3.92. He’s over-performing by more than 50 percent. Salomon Kalou’s xG rating is 0.6 but he’s scored three times from open play. That’s 500 percent better!

We can compare these totals with other Bundesliga players. Anthony Modeste, who can’t stop scoring for Cologne, has 11 goals from open play with 7.34 expected goals. His shot accuracy is 34 percent, so maybe more have found the back of the net than they should have done. Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has 12 goals with only 6.31 expected, undoubtedly down to his 60 percent shot accuracy. However, these metrics may not account for his blistering pace, which give him an edge in front of goal.

So, why are Hertha so good? Well, the truth is they may not be—statistics show the club is lucky indeed. But Leicester proved to us last year that if you can ride your luck for an entire campaign, you can reap the ultimate reward. A Champions League place should be nowhere near what Hertha should be able to strive for with this squad and style of play, but if Vedad Ibisevic and Salomon Kalou keep hitting the target at similar rates, and if those goals keep trickling in, it could be on the cards. Scoring consistency in football is often down to a dice throw; however, each and every season a few lucky teams win the jackpot. It could still be Hertha Berlin’s year.

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