Kovac steers Wolves out of the woods amid shambles of Hertha Berlin

With the champions still battling to de-ice the windscreen and get the engine started, who better take on the role of Bayern for the time being? Wolfsburg thrashed Hertha Berlin 5-0 on Tuesday at Berlin’s Olympiastadion, giving them two victories, 11 goals scored, and none surrendered. They are still seventh, but just three points below third place, and have a superior goal differential and defensive record than any club other than Bayern.

They are tyrannical. Die Wölfe’s sixth league victory in a row, and their fifth clean sheet. Niko Kovac’s club had not lost since a setback at Union in mid-September, and it didn’t seem for a moment that the Köpenickers’ capitulating neighbors Hertha Berlin could alter that.

Maxi Arnold celebrates after scoring against Hertha Berlin

Kovac steers Wolves out of the woods amid shambles of Hertha Berlin-1
Maxi Arnold celebrates after scoring against Hertha Berlin

“The first half was the worst thing I’ve seen this season,” Hertha Berlin sporting director Fredi Bobic said, shocked. “The players are aware of it as well.” With a sub-30,000 crowd rattling around the colossal bowl and the Kurve hardcore giving their team the cold shoulder by the end, Kovac expressed genuine sadness for his hometown club, for whom he played 148 Bundesliga 2 games in the 1990s and who were keen to re-appoint him as coach before the eventual appointment of Sandro Schwarz. “I sincerely hope they get out of [the relegation zone],” he said after the game. “My heart belongs to Hertha Berlin

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The disaster that Wolfsburg just walked over may have demonstrated how appropriate Kovac’s decision was, but it also showed how much he might have helped, having dealt with his own troubles an hour up the road in Lower Saxony. Little has come easily to Kovac in his coaching career, but it had been an unlucky start to his new position. Wolfsburg won one and lost four of his first seven Bundesliga games. There were demands for his execution.

Wolfsburg thrashed Hertha Berlin 5-0

On top of that, he had to cope with Max Kruse, who was brought back from Union at a high cost to save the club from dropping this time last year but was seen as a deadweight by Kovac, who prides himself on exceptionally fit, well-drilled groups of players. Despite Kruse’s public jabs, the coach was able to get him off the team with minimal controversy, which was no small task. The striker’s next trip seems to be MLS, potentially even this month.

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Kovac steers Wolves out of the woods amid shambles of Hertha Berlin-2

A more recent example is Josuha Guilavogui, who has asked to be permitted to join VfB Stuttgart despite the fact that his contract is expiring. Despite the fact that Guilavogui is less brazen than Kruse, the scenario is arguably more complicated. The 32-year-old has served well and must be handled with sensitivity and respect. The impression is that Kovac is being hard but fair, aided by a good sports director (and club legend) in Marcel Schäfer.

If a player has a specific request, then we listen to it,” Schäfer asserted after the game in Berlin, “but it doesn’t imply that we’ll realize every one of them. I, too, have many desires, but they are not all feasible.” You can see why Kovac wants to keep the French midfielder, putting him on in the second half in Berlin to see things out while Kevin-Prince Boateng stood in front of the Hertha Berlin bench, prompting at least some responsibility for Hertha Berlin. “You can see how much [Guilavogui] is needed,” Schäfer said. “When things become a little tense, his expertise and presence become quite vital.”

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Wolfsburg has been like Hertha Berlin, splashing money around with no plan or strategy. They perform best when they are practical and consistent rather than flamboyant, which contributes to their resolve to keep Guilavogui for the season. He is one of three players in the team in the top ten all-time appearance makers, along with goalkeeper Koen Casteels and the unstoppable Maxi Arnold, who is closing in on the club’s record of 381 established by Olaf Ansorge in the 1980s and early 1990s.

There is also new blood. Patrick Wimmer, who began the post-Christmas celebrations with a goal in the opening minute against Freiburg the weekend before, was back to his specialty here, laying them on for others, as he set up Matthias Svanberg for the opener Hertha Berlin. As Kicker’s Thomas Hiete pointed out, the Austrian’s colleagues had previously brought up the Opta statistic showing just three players in Europe’s top five leagues produce more than one critical pass every match over lunch.

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Kevin De Bruyne, a former Wolfsburger, leads the way, with Lionel Messi in third, making it a Wimmer sandwich. “I’ve noticed,” he said shyly. “It feels good to be in there.” If there was a reliable goalscorer in Kovac’s mist, his five Bundesliga assists would seem much better. Hertha Berlin, Unlike Wolfsburg’s last successful side, there is no Wout Weghorst to serve as the team’s focal point. Lukas Nmecha, a Manchester City academy product, showed potential in that area this season before suffering an ankle injury that has kept him out since November, thus ending his World Cup chances.

Goals have been distributed in Nmecha’s absence (his younger brother Felix is also at the club), with Yannick Gerhardt, Arnold, Ridle Baku, and now Jonas Wind chipping in, as the latter three did again on Tuesday. Wolfsburg has previously gone on runs. They won their first Bundesliga championship in 2009 after a run of ten consecutive victories in the spring, including the legendary 5-1 victory against Bayern in which Edin Dzeko and Grafite went wild. This generation is unlikely to do something as spectacular, but their tribute to the past has definitely helped the Bundesliga begin 2023 in style.

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