Despite losing a man and the game, Rafael van der Vaart provided hope for a beleaguered Hamburg side, overshadowing Milan Badelj in the process.
There was no stopping this Eintracht Frankfurt team — particularly their front four of Takashi Inui, Alexander Meier, Stefan Aigner, and Olivier Occean — which ran the Hamburg defence ragged with their relentless high pressing, good movement, and ruthless finishing. Their continued fine start to the new season saw them go level on points (9) with Bayern Munich at the top of the league table as well as level with Hannover as the second-best scorers with 9 goals.
As for Thorsten Fink’s Hamburg, condemned to yet another defeat, his side now hasn’t won in 6 games (including the final 3 games of last season). Beneath the scoreline, however, the return of Rafael van der Vaart provided an interesting sub-plot while Milan Badelj got a bitter taste of the different times that lay ahead at his new club.
Let’s look at both situations…
Rafael van der Vaart
The Dutchman, upon completing his €13 million move back to the struggling Bundesliga outfit, was seen as a saviour. He scored 29 goals in 74 league appearances for the club between 2005 and 2008, before leaving for an unhappy spell at Real Madrid. Van der Vaart was quick to downplay those suggestions, however.
“Of course I’m not Superman or Messi or Ronaldo. I think I can help the club, though.”
Van der Vaart also went on to state that if Hamburg were to start winning games, it would take the whole team and not just him. But after watching his debut, it’s hard to see how van der Vaart won’t take a leading role in the possible revival of this team.
Before this game, Hamburg had not scored at least 2 goals in a game since January 28 (a 2-1 win away to Hertha Berlin) and had not scored at all since April 21 (a 1-1 draw away to Nurnberg) of this year. The fact that on van der Vaart’s debut Hamburg got both monkeys off its back is hardly a coincidence. The Dutchman’s influence was there for all to see.
Starting this game in his most comfortable role behind the lone striker Artjoms Rudnevs in a 4-2-3-1 setup, his team-mates always looked to get him on the ball, either by hitting it long or simply laying it off to him when he dropped deep into midfield. He in turn looked to release his team-mates into space with some searching balls. Marcell Jansen in particlular was the beneficiary and it was these two that combined to set Rudnevs up for what was a clear-cut goal-scoring opportunity on 29 minutes. Frankfurt’s goalkeeper Kevin Trapp made the save, but Rudnevs should’ve done better.
Van der Vaart also took charge of every single set-piece Hamburg had. In fact, it was his corner kick that ultimately led to Heiko Wesermann’s goal, which made the score 2-1 before the break. His indirect free-kicks weren’t threatening on this day, but he had one direct free-kick that forced Trapp into a decent save.
Generally, van der Vaart didn’t have an easy time, though, as Eintracht Frankfurt’s high pressing combined with Hamburg’s slack and risky (long ball) passing saw his time on the ball limited. Frankfurt dominated possession (66%-34%). The likes of Jansen and Heung-Min Son in addition to van der Vaart had to track back to try and contain Eintracht Frankfurt as every time they broke forward, they looked like scoring.
Van der Vaart, normally shy when it comes to defensive work, made 3 tackles during this game while Son (4) and Jansen (3) also did their best to help out their team’s struggling defence. To make things worse, the over-eager Petr Jiracek went and got himself sent off just before the half-time interval. This forced Hamburg even further onto the back foot.
That saw a change in van der Vaart’s role. He dropped alongside Milan Badelj in central midfield at the start of the second half. Even from there, he was Hamburg’s go-to guy as the team searched for goals in a bid to claw their way back into the game. And thanks to him — again — they found another.
Pushing up the field, van der Vaart slipped a ball through to Son who rounded the ‘keeper and finished with aplomb on 63 minutes. The score was 3-1 before then, after Stefan Aigner took advantage of poor Hamburg defending — something that has become a theme for this club — en route to lobbing a hapless Rene Adler on 52 minutes.
Van der Vaart completed 45 passes on this day — the most by any Hamburg player on the pitch. He also created the most goal-scoring opportunities (3) for his team, giving testimony to the fact that everything went through him. Without his contribution, Hamburg would’ve been worst off on this day.
This 3-2 loss sees Hamburg’s search for their first league win since April 14 (a 1-0 home win over Hannover — 7 games ago) continue. The debut performance of Rafael van der Vaart certainly offers hope that this wait will come to an end soon.
Yes, indeed it’s a good thing he’s not there to be the club’s saviour.
The Croatian midfielder, signed for a bargain €4 million, enjoyed an impressive debut in his team’s loss to Werder Bremen in the preceding fixture, despite coming off at half-time with a hamstring problem. In that game, he was Hamburg’s go-to guy. He was the team’s playmaker-in-chief, dictating the tempo of his team’s play.
Badelj completed 28 passes in the first half — more than his replacement Robert Tesche (22) and central midfield partner Jiracek (27), who played until the 70th minute, emphasising the influential role he had on his debut. Versus Frankfurt, however, he was in for a harsh turn of events as well as a glimpse into the future.
Frankfurt’s high pressing meant that Hamburg couldn’t play out from the back, so Rene Adler often went long in his distribution of the ball, by-passing Milan Badelj deep in midfield as a result. So Badelj saw little of the ball early on. It wasn’t until the 23rd minute that he was finally able to get into the game. His first contribution was to burst forward from midfield and, after exchanging passes with Rafael van der Vaart, cut a pass back to Son, who had his shot saved by Trapp.
In the 30th minute, he attempted a lovely ball over the top in search of van der Vaart, but it was only just out of the Dutchman’s reach and Trapp caught it. His final notable contribution came 10 minutes later, when he ballooned a left-footed volley well over the bar. In fairness, though, the ball dropped awkwardly.
The second half was no easier as Jiracek had been sent off before the break and with van der Vaart alongside him, charged with the responsibility of making things happen further up the pitch, Badelj found himself all alone in central midfield on occasion. This proved disastrous.
Badelj is a graceful rather than gritty midfielder, preferring to stay on his feet rather than dive into tackles (though, he goes to ground at times). As such, he averages few tackles per game (just the 1 so far this season) and is a master of ball interception, intelligent when it comes to predicting the path of opponents’ passes. He made 5 in his 45-minute debut, but mustered just the 1 this time out as he was simply run ragged by an on-song Frankfurt attack.
Going forward, he had to watch on as van der Vaart ran the show for Hamburg. It was to be expected that Rafael van der Vaart would’ve stolen the spotlight having built up a great rapport with all concerned with Hamburg during the time he spent there. The club was not in crisis when the Dutchman was there; his first spell was largely filled with happy memories and top half finishes.
Now that Hamburg is in a world of problems, the fact that Thorsten Fink is looking to a player everyone knows quite well to help rescue the club shouldn’t be surprising. Everyone at Hamburg knows what van der Vaart is about — what he did for the team and what he can do. And his debut performance served as a reminder of the strong influence he provided when he was there. For Milan Badelj, however, it’s an ominous sign — one that’s telling him that he’ll have to play second fiddle to van der Vaart until he establishes his own reputation as a Hamburg hero. (Interestingly enough, Badelj was second behind van der Vaart regarding completed passes in this game with 37.)
This is something Badelj isn’t quite used to. At Dinamo Zagreb, he was team captain, the main man, Luka Modric’s heir. Everything went through him. Even down to his last game for the club in a Champions League qualifier versus Maribor which saw Dinamo progress to the group stages, Badelj ran the show, dominating the midfield. How he adjusts to his change in status and his new supporting role will impact not just Hamburg but his own career. This will prove a valuable lesson in his development.
On the bright side, though, as the spotlight isn’t on him, he has a fair chance to make things work at Hamburg. He certainly has the ability to do so.
It’s fair to say Hamburg has been through a lot in recent seasons. A club that was usually amongst the title challengers has been reduced to relegation battlers.
With Frank Arnesen’s transfer activity coming in for heavy criticism to date, spending €24 million on new players, especially when the club has been operating in the red for the last two years, sounded illogical. However, with van der Vaart and Badelj at the club, all concerned with Hamburg have been given reason to believe that Arnesen has finally got something right and that the financial risk taken will pay off.
With Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund coming to visit on September 22, however, they may have to wait a bit longer for it do so, unless they can spring a pleasant surprise.
**Stats courtesy of Whoscored
**Heat maps courtesy of ESPN FC