In the 2007/08 season Bayern München broke the Bundesliga’s defensive record, conceding just 21 goals in 34 league matches, a fantastic achievement in its own right and one that is quite unprecedented in one of Europe’s highest scoring leagues. Borussia Dortmund nearly equaled that record last season and this year it seems that Borussia Mönchengladbach are well on their way to do the same. Lucien Favre’s team have conceded just 12 goals in 20 league matches so far, kept nine clean sheets and have conceded more than one goal in a match on only two occasions since Favre took over in February of last year. In his 31 matches in charge, Gladbach have conceded just 21 goals compared to 74 in the 31 matches preceding his arrival. So, what is the secret behind the Bundesliga’s best defense?
Are Gladbach a counter attacking side?
Before we examine Gladbach’s defense in more detail let’s address a question that has arisen quite often over the last couple of weeks and one whose answer will serve as an appropriate segway and shed some perambulatory light on the topic at hand. The level of defensive organization, the quick transitions out of defense, the lightning quick breaks and the mazy runs from Reus and Herrmann make Gladbach appear like a side that have perfected the art of counter attacking and utilizes it as its primary game plan. They certainly executed their counter attacks to perfection against Bayern on the opening day of the Rückrunde and against many other sides in the league this year. Their ability to launch attacks within seconds have led many to label them a counter attacking side but that fails to do justice to the other facets of Favre’s team.
When you think of teams whose game plan revolves around counter attacks the likes Hannover and Napoli spring to mind for example, both of which have become renowned for the way they hit opponents on the break. Both have been extremely successful in using that strategy but there are distinct differences between what Hannover and Napoli do and what we see from Gladbach. Before we expand on that let’s examine what constitutes teams specifically tailored to attack on the counter. The basis of any counter attacking side is defensive organization, utilized both to draw opponents in as well as to launch the eventual attacks in a timely and precise fashion. Napoli and Hannover both have very well drilled backlines, which ultimately make their counter attacks so effective. Napoli conceded the fewest goals last season after champions Milan and Hannover had the league’s sixth best defense last year.
For the purpose of this article, let’s use Hannover as an example. In their system, coach Mirko Slomka generally prefers a sitting backline. That is not to say that his fullbacks are not encouraged to get forward but generally speaking, they are more defensive minded than most others in the league. The reason for that is to present the opposing wingers and fullbacks with the space and time to come forward, thereby leaving ample space behind them. In fact, 78% of Hannover’s attacks have come from wide positions. In addition, numerical advantage in the back generally makes for a more stable defense. Hannover under Slomka are systemic in the sense that roles are specifically assigned and executed almost in an assembly line manner. Defenders recover possession and immediately lay it off to their central midfielders, who are never far from their own sixteen-yard box. They in turn locate the wide players and forwards in as few moves as possible as if scripted and practiced to perfection in training.
Now on to Gladbach. They too have a very well drilled backline that initiates quick transitions and we all know about the pace and ingenuity of Arango, Reus and Herrmann. There is more to them than meets the eye however and a glance at Gladbach’s defense, specifically their use of possession, passing and tackling, reveals a much more calculated approach, not necessarily one that excludes counter attacks, but one that utilizes the strategy as one of many in their arsenal. Moreover, using a counter attacking side as a backdrop explains what makes Gladbach so strong defensively and brings us closer to the answer to the above question.
The Building Blocks
Given that counter-attacking sides choose to sit back in order to initiate their attacks, it is no surprise that they rarely if ever see more of the ball than their opponent. The possession statistics are then almost always in the favor of the opponent, the counter attacking team content to let go off the ball, knowing that they will recover in defense and quickly hit them on the break. We see this with Hannover who have averaged just 47% possession throughout the season. Their best run of form this year came in their four opening league matches in which they collected 8 out of 12 points. In that stretch Hannover had 45%, 42%, 45% and 55% possession respectively, the Mainz match being the only one in which they saw more of the ball. The rest all followed a similar pattern, stay compact at the back, maintain their positions and try to win back possession when most of the opponent was far advanced into Hannover’s half.
Gladbach on the other hand have averaged 52% possession this year, behind only Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund, and for the sake of comparison, let us take a look at their best run of form, a five match unbeaten run at the end of October where they collected 13 out of a possible 15 points. Coincidentally, that run started with a win over Hannover in which Gladbach had 53% possession, followed by 57% vs Hertha, 51% vs Bremen, 58% vs Köln, 55% vs Dortmund. The result against Dortmund is especially impressive considering that Dortmund rarely concede more of the ball to their opponents and average a possession % in the league bettered only by Bayern. The link between possession and defense is quite simple, the more you have the ball, the less likely the opponent is to score.
Whereas Hannover primarily use their attackers in the opponents side Gladbach’s offensive players are very much involved in their half of the pitch and are thus more active in the game’s events. Therefore a significant part of Gladbach’s successful defense is the the collective participation of the team. Possession as a means of defense, in all areas of the pitch. That is also why Gladbach goalkeeper Ter Stegen sees the ball more than most of his peers in Germany. In the match against Nürnberg for instance, Hannover’s striker Moa Abdellaoue touched the ball just 15 times. Player involvement is actually directly linked to player positioning, defenders seeing the most of the ball, the midfielders following and the strikers last. Gladbach are more spread out in that category. Against Werder Bremen for example, Marco Reus had the second most touches in the game, same with Juan Arango against Borussia Dortmund. This adds an additional safety net to Gladbach’s backline.
The fact that Gladbach’s game does emphasize possession is a significant deviation from what is traditionally expected from a prototypical counter attacking side. That will also become more apparent when we look at the next element of their game.
Passing can be a key component to an effective defense. Precision in passing equals precision in possession and as mentioned above, possession is inversly proportional to the likelihood of conceding goals. Sure enough, the two sides with the highest average possession this season are the two with the best defenses apart from Gladbach. (Bayern and Dortmund) Let’s use Hannover as an example once more. In that stretch of four matches, Hannover were out-passed on all but one occasion, that being the game against Mainz. In each of the other three matches they were out-passed by their opponent by more than a 100 passes. Hannover are not worried about passing statistics though and focus more on moving the ball quickly. They take a more conservative approach and maintain a flat backline so their defensive strategy is based more on numerics than passing and build up play.
Contrast that with Gladbach who use passing as part of their collective defensive strategy. Favre has constructed a well drilled group of players who put in an industrious shift in every match and as mentioned above, their offensive players are asked to do a lot of defensive work. That industry is not just cosmetic but a means to optimize their passing game. Rather than release the ball as soon as they win it back like Hannover, Gladbach contemplate their attacks and build them patiently unless they see immediate gaps or deal with sides like Bayern who are harder to dispossess and break down than most teams in the league.
Gladbach’s center backs, Brouwers, Dante and Stranzl are three of the most precise passers in the league this season, all having a passing completion rate of over 90%. The same can be said of their fullbacks, Jantschke and Daems, who have 83% and 86% completion rate, bettered by few fullbacks in the league. Passing the ball rather than surging up the field with it at every turn is a means of expanding a player’s on field options, which has the added benefit of improving every surrounding player by virtue of increased passing lanes and destinations. Footballers are taught at an early age to look up before releasing the ball, a truism that has been proven beyond doubt by the current generation of Spanish footballers for example and Favre’s adoration for Barcelona and Spain is fairly well known. In a sense, Favre’s Gladbach is an amalgamation of Barcelona and Spain’s retention game and Germany’s new direct fast paced attacking style.
To hammer home their passing efficacy, here are some statistics from the above mentioned unbeaten run. These are Gladbach’s completed passes in each of those matches, the opponent’s completed passes being in parentheses.
434 passes completed vs. Hannover (346)
439 passes completed vs. Hertha Berlin (296)
343 passes completed vs. Werder Bremen (323)
535 passes completed vs Köln (349)
351 passes completed vs. Borussia Dortmund (252)
This video sums it up better than I ever could and it is a visual guide to the points I am trying to make if you find my ramblings excessive.
Tackling & Positioning
Because Hannover invite opponents into their own half more than most other sides they also end up committing more fouls in an attempt to regain possession. They are only behind Köln this season in total cards collected with 45 whereas Gladbach are much more precise in their tackles, having been booked only 31 times in total. Fouls can have an adverse effect on a team in more ways than one. They can interrupt the run of play, stop a side’s momentum, lead to a potential dismissal and subsequent change in tactics and they can disrupt a team’s flow. For any side emphasizing passing and possession it is crucial to commit the least amount of fouls possible, allowing for the continuation of their natural game without any disturbances. Gladbach did not get to where they are by just keeping and passing the ball faster than their opponents. Their tackling and ability to both win the ball and ward off attacks has been impressive to say the least and one of the biggest factors in their impressive defense.
Similar to the possession and passing statistics, Gladbach’s attacking players also have unusually high tackling statistics. In that sense, they are the team’s first line of defense. Against Köln, Patrikc Herrman and Marco Reus had more successful challenges than Gladbach’s center backs and central midfielders. Similarly impressive is Gladbach’s backline. Dante, once one of the most erratic players in the league is now a composed and intelligent defender and Gladbach’s primary outlet for build ups at the back and his defending has improved tremendously under Favre. The Brazilian has won 63% of his 188 challenges so far. His partner Martin Stranzl has won an even more impressive 68% of his tackles and duels and had the best tackling quote in the league in the first half of the season. That standard applies to their fullbacks as well. Their right back, Tony Jantschke, has won 60% of his 234 challenges, an average of 12 per match and the fourth highest in the league in his position, even higher than Bayern’s Philipp Lahm.
In addition to their tackling is their positioning, without which none of the above stats would even exist. As show below, Gladbach’s backline is extremely well disciplined positionally and don’t show much space to the opposition. It is the best execution of zonal marking in German football at the moment. Basically, every defender is alloted an area of the pitch that they are responsible for and in which they perform their defensive duties. What may seem like a straightforward strategy in theory is much more difficult in execution. It requires a great degree of communication to avoid errors and good enough awareness to read the opponent’s next moves. When successful though it can help with possession and quick transitions, the players always ready and present in their zones to make the next move. It is what allows Gladbach to be so sharp on the counter and so prescient in defense.
Ultimately one cannot consider Gladbach a purely counter attacking side but one also cannot exempt the tactic when describing them. A more appropriate description would be a “retention based counter attacking team” or “calculated quick passing counter attacking”, picking the moments most appropriate to utilize the strategy. Their impressive defense under Favre is built on existing foundations of counter attacking philosophy though, namely an orderly backline with great both positional discipline but also on a quick passing game going forward and collective pressing from front to back. In addition, it includes high awareness in all areas of the pitch, precision in passing (both defensive and in the build up) and clinical tackling.
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