The Bundesliga has seen several clubs pull off remarkable feats in recent seasons, but Hannover's achievements in the last two campaigns put most of them in the shade, and Mirko Slomka's men show no signs of letting up.
The 2009/10 season is not one many Hannover fans will forget. Robert Enke's suicide understandably cast a massive shadow over the club, which only salvaged its top-flight status with a run of three wins in five matches including a dramatic and decisive victory on the final day of the season. It was one of two bright spots in an otherwise gloomy season — the other being the appointment of Slomka.
Brought in to save the club in January 2010, Slomka did so. The northern club's most successful season — a fourth-placed finish — followed while seventh last time round was more than creditable, particularly given they also reached the Europa League quarter-finals.
Last weekend's 4-0 schooling of Wolfsburg was his 32nd win in 70 matches since that 2009/10 final day cliffhanger offset by just 22 losses, a healthy record indeed given the suffocating constraints of Hannover's budget.
Though a qualified success in his time at Schalke, Slomka — in his second spell at Hannover — is staking a claim to being one of the Bundesliga's elite coaches. Whether he can work with the major egos at a big club is an enigma which still requires unravelling, but he has certainly dragged the utmost out of his current squad, who — after scoring 22 goals in their first five competitive fixtures of the season — are playing some of the most exciting football in the Bundesliga right now, if not Europe.
Not that sporting director Jörg Schmadtke has given Slomka second-rate instruments with which to fashion that success. It is easy to see why the club, and particularly president Martin Kind, have worked so hard to convince Schmadtke he could marry his family life with his professional one.
Schmadtke wanted to quit the club last season with his wife and daughter still living in Düsseldorf, but the family have now been united in Hannover with Schmadtke also given an extended holiday until 10 September. He'll even work part-time until January 2013, quite a compromise on the part of the club.
Schmadtke has earned it though, having brought in high-quality players at bargain basement rates. Mamé Diouf last season and Artur Sobiech this have shown they can be effective at the sharp end of Slomka's loose 4-4-2 as can Mohamed Abdellaoue, Schmadtke's previous 'rabbit-from-the-hat' striker signing.
The arrival of Szabolcs Huszti, who like Slomka has returned to Hannover, appears to be another smart move with his feat of four assists in the Wolfsburg game matched by only six other Bundesliga players in the last two decades; and if Lars Stindl, plucked from Karlsruhe in 2010, can build on last season, the team will not be found wanting for creativity.
Further back, Schmadtke has also manoeuvred cleverly, particularly in luring goalkeeper Ron-Robert Zieler to the AWD Arena; Felipe looks a solid replacement for Emmanuel Pogatetz; while the decision to take a chance on Christian Pander, after all his injury troubles at Schalke, has proven inspired. Leon Andreasen's displays this season, after a seemingly interminable injury lay-off, suggest the Dane will also be an asset.
Once frozen out by Slomka, Jan Schlaudraff has become an integral part of the Hannover coach’s plans
Schmadtke has been careful to develop strength in depth to allow Slomka to juggle domestic and Europa League campaigns in the last two seasons. To further that, Slomka has dotted experienced heads, such as Sergio Pinto and the evergreen Steve Cherundolo, throughout his side to help younger players like Stindl, Konstantin Rausch and Manuel Schmiedebach.
Importantly, Slomka has also shown a quality not often displayed in football, forgiveness. Jan Schlaudraff was persona non grata in summer 2010 with Kind promising he'd never play for the club again, but — albeit forced into it by injury — Slomka relented, and has been rewarded with the artful midfielder now regularly showing the talent which once saw him on Bayern Munich's books. With the arrival of Huszti, Schlaudraff is no longer Hannover's sole creative element, lending the team a dangerous unpredictability.
Given the abject nature of their opponent's display, the Wolfsburg game may have given a slightly exaggerated sense of just how good Hannover are right now. However, they also showed enough in their opening-day draw with Schalke to suggest they are well-armed to qualify for Europe for an unprecedented third successive season.
Though the top three places in the Bundesliga are sown up, fourth — and the final Champions League spot — is wide open, and Hannover are one of a half-dozen teams who could claim it. If they do that, Slomka, whose contract runs out next June, will be able to name his price, and not necessarily at Hannover.
Ian Holyman, Eurosport 2 Bundesliga commentator
- Sports & Recreation
- Mirko Slomka