Nothing signifies a rebuilding football club more than dislodging a club icon from its foundation. With Hertha Berlin wallowing in the bottom half of the Bundesliga table for the fourth straight season, it was time to start digging.
Following the team’s 4-1 home defeat to Werder Bremen on Saturday – their fourth loss in six – Hertha parted company with head coach Bruno Labbadia, replacing him with former coach Pal Dardai on an 18-month contract. More importantly, however, the defeat also spelled the end for general manager Michael Preetz.
The 53-year-old will always hold a special place in Hertha fans’ hearts thanks to his goalscoring exploits on the pitch between 1996 and 2003, when he scored 108 goals for the “Old Lady” of German football.
But his career in the boardroom since then has been less successful. Preetz has overseen two relegations, a number of unspectacular mid-table finishes and has generally failed to live up to the huge expectations surrounding Hertha Berlin, expectations which have sky-rocketed since the arrival of investor Lars Windhorst in 2019.
His departure marks the end of a 25-year chapter in Hertha history, and the beginning of a new one. “We want a fresh start,” Hertha chairman Carsten Schmidt said in a press conference on Sunday. “We’re going about this from the ground up.”
Why has Preetz been sacked?
Since purchasing 49.9% of the club in June 2019, billionaire entrepeneur Windhorst has pumped €274 million ($333.5 million) into Hertha Berlin, as he looks to turn them into a “big city club” to compete with the best in Europe. According to Transfermarkt, Hertha’s net spend of €110 million in the transfer market since 2019 is second only to Bayern Munich.
Player recruitment was one of Preetz’s core functions as head of sport, and it’s a role he’s performed poorly. Many of his costly additions, including striker Krzysztof Piatek and midfielder Santiago Ascacibar, rarely see the field. Others, like midfielder Lucas Tousart and goalkeeper Alexander Schwolow, have vastly underperformed.
Hertha’s current squad represents the cliched collection of players rather than a team. That was best exemplified by a dispute between Matheo Guendouzi, a midfielder on loan from Arsenal, and Matheus Cunha, arguably the club’s current best player, at halftime during the 3-0 loss to Hoffenheim last week.
Preetz has been filling up the shopping trolley, but Windhorst has been paying the bill.
According to internal club documents, Jürgen Klinsmann (left) called for Hertha ‘leadership to be sacked’
Preetz’s recent coaching appointments have not helped his job security either. Feeling that Hertha had stagnated under Pal Dardai, who even briefly returned Hertha to Europe in 2017, Preetz gambled on reserve team coach Ante Covic. The bet only lasted 14 games.
Covic’s successor Jürgen Klinsmann was very much Windhorst’s man: a big name coach for the big city club. Preetz survived Klinsmann’s tumultuous 76-day stint, but the writing was on the wall. In a devastating parting shot, Klinsmann heavily criticized the club’s management in internal club documents, even saying that Preetz should be “fired immediately.”
Labbadia steadied the ship and saved the club from relegation last season but, in alignment with Preetz’s tenure, that’s as far as the progress went. Hertha collected a mere 17 points in 18 games in the current Bundesliga campaign and currently sit just two points above Cologne in the relegation playoff spot.
Windhorst’s next appointment, Carsten Schmidt, a former head of the German pay-TV service Sky, as chairman effectively removed Preetz as the club’s public face. Fifty-five days into Schmidt’s tenure, Hertha’s record goalscorer was finally shown the door. Klinsmann got his wish.
Where do Hertha Berlin go from here?
Sporting director Arne Friedrich is expected to assume Preetz’s duties until the end of the season. Meanwhile, Dardai, who has coached the club’s under-16 youth side this season, has returned to the first team, signing a contract until June 2022.
Dardai represents a safe pair of hands on deck but, with Preetz now removed from the helm, the good ship Hertha is entering the unchatered waters of the Windhorst era under entirely new commmand. Windhorst’s lieutenant, Schmidt, is expected to appoint a long-term captain who can steer the vessel in the right direction.
The next head of sport has to make better use of Windhorst’s financial muscle and create management structures capable of unlocking Hertha’s undoubted potential — the structures that Klinsmann was critical of.
“There is no reason why Hertha cannot play a leading role in Germany and in Europe,” said Windhorst following Klinsmann’s abrupt departure. “It’s not rocket science. It just requires certain ingredients, one of which I am providing.”
Preetz wasn’t one of those ingredients, and removing him from the club was likely the only way to move forward. Building from the ground up may be the only way for Hertha to finally become the “Big City Club” they think their city deserves.
Staying up will be a good first step.