by Ben Loder
Sure, his name sounds like a Hungarian supermarket chain and he looks like the human inspiration for Roland Rat, but as Hannover 96 prepare to continue their European odyssey this week, it’s clear that Mirko Slomka has completely (if in a rather uninspiring manner) turned the fortunes of the club around.
Having had three previous spells in Hannover as a player, youth coach and then as assistant to former manager Ralf Rangnick, Slomka has been in charge at the AWD-Arena since early 2010 – when he took over from Andreas Bergmann with the club in the relegation zone and proceeded to lose his first six games in charge. An early-March victory away to Freiburg signalled a turnaround however, and the team avoided relegation thanks to a win in Bochum on the last day of the season. Given that the club have often yo-yoed between Germany’s top two divisions, and even dropped lower at times, that was no mean feat. But it was last season that the man from Hildesheim, just 20 miles from Hannover, really made his mark.
Having started the campaign as many people’s favourites for relegation, Slomka and his side went on to make it the most successful in the club’s history – narrowly missing out on a Champions League berth (with the change in UEFA coefficients, whoever matches their fourth-placed finish this term will go into the qualification round for a shot at the big time) but qualifying for the Europa League. Having seen off Sevilla in the play-off round, they finished second in their group and will fancy their chances against a Club Brugge side managed by Slomka’s controversial compatriot Christoph Daum as the last 32 gets underway on Thursday. A performance worthy of praise indeed, so why do I offer it only grudgingly?
Well, like so much in football, it basically comes down to style. I just can’t enjoy the way Slomka’s team play the beautiful game. I have no problem with solid counter-attacking sides in general – Borussia Mönchengladbach, for example, have repeatedly proved this season that a quick break can be exhilarating to watch. Indeed, Hannover themselves have scored some lovely goals by catching their opponents unawares with one-touch passing when they get the ball. But, too often, they really take the countering concept to extremes.
Hannover set out every game in the traditional “away team” role.
Even at home, they rarely dominate possession. And when they do, they don’t seem to know how to use it. In the first half of the Bundesliga season, the team didn’t win a single match when they saw more of the ball than their opponents. But out of the ten occasions when they were beaten in the possession stakes, they took all three points five times (four of those matches were at home), and only lost once.
So how does Slomka make it work? Effectively Hannover set out every game in the traditional “away team” role. They sit deep, usually in a 4-4-2 formation, and let the opposition come at them. The plan thereafter is simple and unchanging – to win the ball around their own box, and have it in the opponents’ penalty area within ten seconds. They achieve this time and again by getting their two wide men (usually Konstantin Rausch and Lars Stindl) to race away upfield whilst staying close to the touchline. Before the opposition midfield has reorganised, they have been bypassed through a quick long ball to the wing, either from defence or one of the central midfield pairing – Sergio Pinto and Manuel Schmiedebach – who stay not far ahead of them. Suddenly the opposition defence is stretched, and a ball into the box can soon cause problems if there is someone there who can put it away.
That’s where Mohammed Abdellaoue comes in. Signed by Slomka from Vålerenga in his native Norway in summer 2010, “Moa” is the final link in the Hannover chain. At a price of €1 million he has proved to be a bargain – ten games into this season he was ahead of the likes of Rooney, van Persie and even Andy Carroll as Europe’s “most-efficient” striker, having scored eight times from just 16 attempts at goal. His prolific nature is significant, as Hannover don’t create many chances, and they don’t score many goals. The Lower Saxon side have only hit the net more than twice in the same match once in the Bundesliga this season – a 3-2 home win (with 42% possession) against Werder Bremen, where Abdellaoue grabbed a hat-trick from three shots.
Slomka simply doesn’t have the resources to compete with the likes of Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund.
Now, as I say, I don’t much enjoy watching Slomka’s team play football, but I can respect his winning record. However, a different problem has arisen of late. Hannover have drawn ten of their 21 league matches thus far, more than any other side in Germany’s top division. That is not grounds for criticism in and of itself, but on none of those occasions has the man in the dugout ever really looked to change the game with attacking substitutions that could secure all three points. Of course, when your game plan is based on soaking up pressure from the opposition, this is understandable. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
One area where Slomka has been forced to act reservedly is in the transfer market, and there too he has shown admirable nous without setting the world alight. The €1.8 million capture of Mame Biram Diouf from Manchester United in January can be considered splashing out in comparison to his previous purchases; aside from the aforementioned worthwhile investment in Abdellaoue, Slomka had only twice broken the €1 million mark. Indeed, many of today’s first-team regulars arrived on free transfers, among them the impressive Lars Stindl, goalkeeper Ron-Robert Zieler (now a German full international) and Emanuel Pogatetz. Yep, that one. And suddenly I can’t help but feel less charitable towards old Mirko again. The serial leg-breaker is selected at centre back whenever possible, which often results in several appearances each season in between suspensions. But the fact is, Pogatetz has often performed well at Hannover, as have a host of lesser-known players. Slomka simply doesn’t have the resources to compete with the likes of Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund. And yet, his team defeated both of them 2-1 this season.
As we hear time and again from impatient chairmen, nervous managers and apologist pundits, football is a results business – so long as those results are good, the system is unlikely to change. With no wins in Hannover’s last seven games in the run-up to Christmas and a goalless draw at Hoffenheim to ring in the new year, it looked like Slomka’s luck (if that’s the word) was running out, but wins thereafter against Nuremberg and Hertha Berlin (naturally both 1-0, with Abdellaoue grabbing both goals from a total of four attempts) suggest Hannover’s success is not at an end. That day probably won’t come until better teams accept the best way to beat 96, bizarrely, might be to let them have the ball.