He was supposed to lead Hamburg back to the top six - and preferably higher. But late Monday night, coach Thorsten Fink got his pink slip. It was a sacking that had been on the horizon for the past few weeks.
Team management and the coach confirmed they were parting ways on Tuesday morning, after Hamburg had won only one of its first five Bundesliga matches - far too poor a record for a club that fancies itself one of the leading sides in Germany.
Fink's sacking follows a 6-2 loss in Dortmund last Saturday in which the team conceded four goals in the space of fifteen minutes. The coach attracted criticism or fielding a 3-5-2 formation and for heading to his home town Munich immediately after the drubbing.
"It's unfortunate of Fink that he decided to fly back to his family so soon," Hamburg sports director Oliver Kreuzer said on Monday. "After a defeat like this, you need to change your private plans."
Team management cited Hamburg's manifest defensive difficulties. With fifteen goals conceded in only five rounds, the Northern Germans' back line is the most porous in the land.
"Fink is responsible for the sporting aspect," Hamburg chairman Carl E. Jarchow said. "Defense is our weak spot, and we need to correct this immediately."
For his part, Fink took the news of his dismissal calmly.
"I got to lead a great club," the coach said in a statement. "It's still early enough for Hamburg to achieve their season goals, even with a different coach."
Fink sounded neither surprised not particularly disappointed to have been relieved of his duties at the club, which is currently fifteenth in the table on four points. Many of Hamburg's problems are of the long-term variety, and some might say they've left the team nearly uncoachable.
Turbo coaching carousel
Hamburg's current misery is the product of fundamental structural problems. On the one hand, the pressure to succeed is enormous since Hamburg are a large-market club who were a German powerhouse in the 1980s. On the other hand, they have a bloated board of directors with - uniquely in Germany - direct fan representation.
Too many people are involved in the decision-making process, and the club has been unable to develop a consistent strategy. Hamburg have run through eight coaches in the past five years. Some - Martin Jol and, more or less, Armin Veh - have left the club voluntarily. Not coincidentally during this period, Hamburg have gone from a club that perennially qualified for the Europa League to one that usually battles relegation.
Typical of Hamburg's development is the club's relationship with talismanic playmaker Rafael van der Vaart. The Dutchman was sold in 2008 as part of what was announced as a youthful rebuilding program. But at the beginning of last season, Hamburg had to buy him back after poor start had management worried that the club might lose its distinction of being the only team never to be relegated from the Bundesliga.
The current squad bears the fingerprints of Kreuzer's predecessor, Frank Arnesen, who invested heavily in players from English side Chelsea's youth program. But none of them proved value for money, Arnesen was sacked at the end of last season, and Hamburg have been left sitting on a number of expensive contracts from his reign and before.
Michael Mancienne, Slobodan Rajković, Gojko Kacar and Robert Tesche are just some of the names drawing salaries while sitting in the stands. Hamburg also took a bath on supposed star transfers like Marcus Berg. The team's financial reserves are now so strapped that they're forced to sell-off promising youngsters like Heung-Min Son, who went to Leverkusen this season for – pardon the pun – a song.
Hamburg's rebuilding process has produced nothing short of a shambles, and all eyes are now on Kreuzer.
Next conflict on the horizon?
There was no immediate word on who Fink's replacement might be, and the heat will be on Kreuzer to get that decision right since friction between him and Fink greatly contributed to the latter's demise.
In the run-up to the Dortmund debacle, Fink suggested players like Rajkovic might be given a second chance, only for the idea to be immediately vetoed by Kreuzer. The two also butted heads over Fink's decision to retain practice-free days after an earlier Hamburg thrashing at the hands of Hofffenheim.
Kreuzer's resume is a bit underwhelming. His main achievement thus far as a manager was getting Karlsruhe promoted back to division two from division three last season. And not everyone is happy about his firing of Fink, especially as Hamburg are facing a match against their fiercest local rivals, Werder Bremen, this weekend.
"I don't really understand the timing of this, right before the heated Northern German derby," Rafael van der Vaart said. "I thought the coach would be on the bench against Werder."
Kreuzer was obviously nonplussed, when asked by a reporter whether the playmaker had a right to his own opinion in this matter.
"No, actually," the sports director said. "We discussed the decision, and Rafael has to accept it too."
So storm clouds could already be brewing again in Hamburg before the club have even begun their search for a successor to Fink in earnest.