Gisdol leading Hamburg cautiously out of the woods

Markus Gisdol’s side moved out of the relegation zone for the first time since September. But their upturn in progress is only bettered by champions Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach.

The outcome of relegation battles aren’t decided in February. However, Hamburg have every reason to be basking in the sun this week following three successive wins – including a berth in the German Cup quarterfinals.

Last week, the northern Germans, who have contested the relegation playoff in two of the last three seasons, defeated the impressive RB Leipzig at home, ending the club’s unbeaten run at home in the Bundesliga. Inspired by a dogged defensive performance, Markus Gisdol’s team added a third win on the spin to their recent run – only Bayern and Gladbach have performed better in the last five games.

“We aren’t yet over the hill,” cautioned the Hamburg coach. “Victories can, of course, have a galvanising effect, especially in the integration of new additions. But already next week, another game awaits us, on which we must be prepared for,” warned Jens Todt, the club’s recently-appointed sporting director.

Chaos is something that Hamburg, as a club, know well. But Gisdol’s side are flicking the switch and turning chaos on their opponents. The win over Leipzig, the team to impress most with their pressing this season, was a case of turning the skills of their opponent against themselves. Hamburg’s pressure against the ball was compact, well-organised and targeted, as Ralph Hasenhüttl’s side have done with great regularity in the league.

This newfound aggression is embodied by on-loan centre back Kyriakos Papadopoulos and midfielder Lewis Holtby. Hamburg’s wiry number eight turned in statistically one of the best individual performances in his position, according to ‘Packing’ data from Impect Media.

He recovered the ball 46 times – his personal best for the season. But in possession, his direct and aggressive passing created numerical overloads against an exposed Leipzig defence. Holtby eliminated 17 defenders from the game with his passing, which the concept of Packing argues leads to greater chances at goal.

Similarly, Nicolai Müller has discovered perhaps his best-ever form in the Bundesliga. The 29-year-old, a hard-working wide forward, earned a brief role in the German national team off the back of a solid season in Mainz. But with seven assists and four goals, Müller has become fairly indispensable under Gisdol.

While there’s been a degree of focus on Hamburg’s improvements defensively, the biggest obstacle for Gisdol was, in fact, scoring at the other end. Hamburg had scored two goals in five games under Bruno Labbadia, Gisdol’s predecessor, and then went until November without finding the net in the Bundesliga.

With four goals this season, Bobby Wood has given a solid return in front of goal, but his speed and strength are precisely the attributes required to lead the line in this shape. Meanwhile, Müller, Holtby and Filip Kostic bring buckets of energy and Papadopoulos’ set-piece power has led to two goals in his last two appearances.

After beating second-placed Leipzig, there will be a sense of expectation at the Volksparkstadion on Saturday when Freiburg visit. But the south-western side are no mugs, performing brilliantly in their return season to the Bundesliga under the ever-impressive coach Christian Streich. A win over Cologne saw Freiburg move within five points of the Bundesliga’s top four.

It all seems set up for a typically Hamburg fall on Saturday evening against a team like Freiburg. Gisdol summarised the situation eloquently when faced with talk of Hamburg being out of the woods: “Achtung!” or “Caution!” in English. But considering the early criticism of the former Hoffenheim coach, he is entitled to enjoy this week after turning around Hamburg’s fortunes – at least for the moment.

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