The last weekend of the Hinrunde in the 2011/2012 Bundesliga season was one of the low points of the last five years for Bayer Leverkusen fans. Floating dangerously between the final European spot and the middle of the pack, the match against FC Nuernberg in the BayArena was supposed to send Leverkusen into the winter break with a victory and an important 3 points. The result was anything but that. Looking timid, tired, and totally out of ideas, Leverkusen had their collective rear-ends handed to them by a Bundesliga team battling to get out of the relegation zone. The mood of the trainer, team, and, most importantly, the fans after the game was a mixture of disbelief, confusion, and cynicism. Already during the game, fans had turned their backs to the embarrassing charade on the pitch and serenaded Robin Dutt and his players with sarcastic chants suggesting the trainer and a large portion of the team might be better off with other clubs.
The shock of finishing the first half of the season so poorly quickly gave way to feelings of anger, however, as Robin Dutt seemed to have taken the fans advice and began to clean house. The first player (and maybe not the last) to feel the wrath of the controversial trainer was Leverkusen’s defensive all-arounder, Hanno Balitsch, who was told that he no longer fit into Dutt’s plans for the team and could begin looking for a new club. Both trainer and player seem to have had a very strained relationship, one that apparently wasn’t helped by the outspoken Balitsch’s suggestions that Dutt’s system wasn’t working or wouldn’t work at Leverkusen. And so it seems the qualities that made Hanno such a fan-favorite, namely his outspoken nature and confrontational spirit, also helped speed up his departure from the club. Those fans who remember how Balitsch arrived at Bayer Leverkusen will also remember that he had a similar run-in at his former club, Hannover 96, with then-coach, Dieter Hecking. I am neither condemning nor condoning Balitsch’s supposed behavior, and at this point what occurred between trainer and player is still unclear, but Dutt’s reaction should be examined.
It’s no secret that Bayer Leverkusen has one of the smallest rosters in the Bundesliga. Add to that the fact that several key players, including Renato Augusto and Tranquilo Barnetta, are only just returning from injury, and Dutt’s release of an experienced and combative defender/midfielder seems, at best, bold. At the very least, Balitsch would have provided depth for a squad sorely in need of players, but for many fans he was also an answer to some of Leverkusen’s problems between defense and midfield. An active Balitsch, for example, could have been played at the RB (right-back) position, where the creative Gonzalo Castro has been marginalized in a limited defensive role. Alternatively, Balitsch’s style could have (and has) worked as a midfield “destroyer,” in which he is responsible for breaking up the opposition’s link-up play between midfield and offense. In short, his ability to play a number of positions like a pitbull should have made him an attractive candidate for more playing time. Dutt, ostensibly with the tacit permission of Rudi Voeller and Wolfgang Holzhaeuser, nevertheless felt Hanno’s worth on the pitch was not worth the headache he caused off of it.
Robin Dutt has made the task of bringing Leverkusen back among the top four Bundesliga clubs that much more difficult for himself. Not only because he removed a player from the roster, but primarily because he has removed a player who had very little to do with Leverkusen’s first-half swoon. Dutt seems to be grasping at straws as he tries to reassert his authority over a team that has seemingly stopped listening to its trainer. Whereas the removal of a player such as Simon Rolfes or Michael Ballack from a position of influence would have made a statement, the dismissal of Hanno Balitsch appears to be spiteful and not a little short-sighted. For the remaining players on the team, Dutt’s move will appear to be retribution for opening one’s mouth against the coach, and one has to question if any trust exists between the two parties anymore. If it does exist, there is a chance that Bayer Leverkusen can find their way back into the top three at the end of the season. If not, then Hanno Balitsch will be one of the lucky ones at the end of the season.
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