It’s no surprise that Hertha Berlin — the 128-year-old Bundesliga club appropriately nicknamed Die Alte Dame or “The Old Lady” — has big aims to return to the upper reaches of German football.
What might raise your eyebrows, however, is that Hertha is pulling for city rivals Union Berlin to continue its rise to prominence ahead of this week’s home Berlin Derby.
At least that’s true in the case of Arne Friedrich, Hertha Berlin’s charismatic 41-year-old sporting director who happens to be an 82-times capped German national team player who was named to Hertha’s “Squad of the Century” for his work as a defender in blue and white. He’s also big on U.S. soccer, keeping a second house in Los Angeles following his experience in MLS with Chicago, but we’ll get to that later.
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As Hertha prepares for just its third derby in the top flight, a Friday afternoon affair at the Olympiastadion, Friedrich tells ProSoccerTalk why he’s hoping the club’s local rival keeps up its end of the Berlin bargain.
The hosts enter the day eight points behind their younger brother, formed in 1966 on the backs of 1906-born Olympia Oberschöneweide. And Freidrich is ready for it, now and well into the future.
“In the future it’s going to be very exciting because I hope that Union continues to do their job as they are right now,” Friedrich said. “It’s really impressive. They are the underdog even if they are sitting higher in the table. It’s kind of upside-down to me but credit to Union Berlin. We have the pressure because it’s not just the expectation of people and media but our own expectation. We will show that on Friday. There’s a lot of potential for the derby and Berlin deserves a good derby.”
Union hasn’t lost since Opening Day, though there are four draws in that eight-match run, while Hertha’s been amongst the more unlucky teams on the Bundesliga table in terms of expected goals.
The goal-busy Bundesliga season has been especially true for the Berlin sides, with just six total zeroes on the scoreboard between their 18 matches.
So open play and two teams from a city of nearly 4 million people? Yeah, sign us up.
“If you consider us to other major cities, capitals, what we are really missing is trophies,” Freidrich said. “We want to become like a capital club in the world. This is a challenge but we have a lot of potential. Even when I was a player here, the media said we were a sleeping giant. Everyone’s waited for the giant to awake. It’s a lot of pressure but it’s also our goal. It has to be our mentality. This is what we’re working on it right now.
“The city longs for football. On the other hand it’s also a challenge because … we’re not a city that’s just known for soccer. You look at Borussia Dortmund, it’s a pure soccer city. The only thing happening is soccer. Here we have the art, basketball, hockey, football, culture, so you have to work on your credits here.”
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Hertha is a fun watch and Friedrich deserves plenty of credit.
Hired by Jurgen Klinsmann in late 2019 and promoted to sporting director within four months, Friedrich hired his former teammate Bruno Labbadia as manager and has drastically lowered the age of his roster.
Gone are 36-year-old Vedad Ibisevic, 34-year-old Salomon Kalou, and 33-year-old Per Skjelbred.
And Hertha’s top performers this early season are… significantly younger.
Matheus Cunha (21), Dodi Lukebakio (23), and Maximilian Mittelstadt (23) look great, while Arsenal loanee Matteo Guendouzi (21) and October purchase Omar Alderete (23) are also thriving in Berlin.
Throw in the luring of veteran Freiburg goalkeeper Alexander Schwolow and Koln striker Jhon Cordoba, and that’s a nice little first transfer window for a sporting director.
“Cunha, there are many clubs who would love to have them on their roster,” Friedrich said. “Guendouzi is just amazing. He came in and started off as if he were here for 10 years already. … We also players like Dedrick Boyata, our captain, who is older, and in the end it’s all about the mixture, too.
“A lot of important and veteran players left the club. This always takes a bit of time. We want to have progress quicker but it’s important that you don’t make mistakes and you don’t question what you’re doing. We know we need more points and we have to get up in the league and we will. I’m very positive that we will.”
Friedrich notes that the club has plenty of talent but needs experience to improve “‘the machinery,” as he calls the wisdom that comes with playing together and knowing each other.
But Hertha can get by, for now, on its youthful vigor and talent.
Cunha has a filthy skill set, the capability to embarrass defenders with typical Brazilian aplomb. Cunha’s amongst the league’s early season leaders in key passes, accurate crosses, duels won, and big chances created. His 26 successful dribbles are two off the league lead and Lukebakio’s 17 put him in the top five, too.
Then there’s Guendouzi, who made an instant impression on Friedrich. The 21-year-old has only been with Hertha for four matches but is averaging 7.1 duels won per 90 minutes and is winning 70 percent of said duels.
Even for a small sample size, that’s solid.
“Guendouzi is amazing,” Friedrich said. “He’s very very confident. He knows his strengths and has huge ambition. He has intrinsic motivation and wants to win games. He’s a winner-type. He proved it from day one in Berlin. He had to sit in quarantine for 14 days and day one, he showed it. If you have an eye for players you know already that this guy is a top player now and is going to be a top player in the future. He will play Champions League. We have him on loan only for one year but we’re happy to have him at least for this one year.”
Friedrich’s also high on the young players coming out of the United States and “has a big heart for America.”
That’s one of the reasons he opted to make a move to Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire after a brief stint with Wolfsburg following his eight years and 288 matches for Hertha.
Friedrich further fell in love with America during his time with the Chicago Fire, where he participated in such institutions as singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field.
He has a second home in Los Angeles and has seen first-hand the capabilities of American talent. German clubs were quick to jump into the United States for their clubs brands, but are now seeing the benefits of the nation’s soccer talent.
“We can learn a lot about marketing and branding, you guys are probably one of the best in the world, but you can see you’re catching up in soccer in the quality of players that come to Europe,” Friedrich said.
“[Brenden] Aaronson is a very good prospect who’s made it to Austria. [Giovanni] Reyna is on another level already. Sargent is also an important player for Bremen and it shows that American soccer is getting more interesting for everyone in Europe. MLS gets bigger every year. The focus is different compared to the time even when I was in America. I was definitely surprised by the quality of soccer then, but now it’s on a different level.”
So perhaps the next American star on the move could wind up in Berlin under Friedrich, who played the 2012 MLS season with Chicago. The Fire finished fourth in the East and were just nine points off San Jose’s Supporters’ Shield pace.
Back to the Bundesliga, though.
Hertha is a big club in a big city with big resources, massive money put into the club since 2019.
As the derby looms Friday, Friedrich is working on both the short- and long-term. The talent is there. The promise is there. The money’s been there.
But now it’s about building a powerful team from top-to-bottom, and it seems like Friedrich’s got the character to go with his aforementioned charisma.
“We want to stand for something,” he said. “It’s about people, how you work together, how you respect yourself. The club has done a fantastic job the past couple of years. We want to be a fantastic team that draws people attention with good football. We want to entertain people. People, values, and success are the most important to us.”
Kickoff is at 2:30 pm ET Friday.