Borussia Mönchengladbach and the Irony of Success

Already, I miss Monchengladbach, circa 2011-2012. In fact, they are the team I will miss most from this season. See, as a fledgling soccer fan, I play this little fandom game where I ask myself: which team will I miss the most from the season?

My question is underscored by what I call “the irony of success,” inflicting pretty much everybody, but the top five or so richest clubs in soccer.

Mainz05 boss, Thomas Tuchel, pondering melting Icarus wings and shaved legs.

Although FC Porto was the ultimate answer to my question from the 2010-2011 season, Mainz05 made a strong push with their 2010-2011 success, then resulting loss of Schürrle, Fuchs, and Holtby. And they were “cursed” with an Europa League appearance, because of their success. I totally pegged them with an Icarus-like performance this season. Sure, they’re still firmly in the top flight, but the O-Fives definitely had some serious wing-wax melting during this season. They currently sit 13th in the table, down from their 5th place finish in 2010-2011. Contrasting the 2010-2011 campaign with the present, the O-Fives could ponder the deep profundity of Deanna Carter’s aphorism: I shaved my legs for this?

Back to Mönchengladbach, circa 2011-2012. The thing is, their Icarus wings are already melting. The last couple months have beaten the Foals thin. Actually, it all began when the Hinrunde ended. The seeds of the letdown were there. Perhaps the seeds were the inevitable holiday break news of the Reus transfer to Dortmund?

The second half of Mönchengladbach’s season resembles a gentle downhill slope hinting at an eventually arrival to the all-too-human valley that is the statistical mean. Here’s the story in line graph form, thanks to Bundesliga.de:

As fixture “34” looms near in this line graph, Mönchengladbach is grazing in the meadow of leveled out footing. Apart from the 3-0 dismantling of feckless Köln in fixture 31, the Foals have been flat middle-aged horses in all the matches I’ve watched since the Hinrunde ended. This letdown is statistically all too natural for overachievers: injuries, opponent managers’ adjustments, less luck, and just plain ‘ol regression to the mean of play. Yet as a sports fan, I’m always sad when the overachievers lose some wing wax, even if I know it’s an inevitable law of Sporting Nature. After all, everyone dreams about flying!

Still, a European appearance is in the books for Mönchengladbach. A massive success for a club dead and mostly buried last season. Believe me, I want to see the future Foals brilliantly streak through Europa next fall. But I’m guessing we’re going to get an I shaved my legs for this? run instead.

So the letdown has already begun for Mönchengladbach, but the downhill slope gets much steeper with Reus, Dante, and Neustädter transferring out. Losing Dante and Neustädter at the back stings, but I’d argue that their loss is not catastrophic, even with Dante completing over 90% of his passes, winning most of his tackles and challenges, and controlling the air; or with Neustädter completing over 80% of his passes, winning most of his tackles and challenges, and controlling the air, like Dante. Yes, an incredibly valuable defensive duo, anchoring the Foals. Finding undervalued defenders can be done though. However, it’s the Reus loss that cripples the Foals. (Aren’t you impressed with my stunning insight?)

Losing Reus is catastrophic, not because of usual stats we trot out: 16 goals, 7 assists, and 107 shots. This standard stat line is likely replaceable. However, his “chances created” stat is a staggering 194! (Contrasted with other Bundesliga stars this season: Lewandowski [173], Huntelaar [133], Gomez [137], and Robben [128]) The “chances created” stat, perhaps like the “On Base Percentage” stat in baseball, is typically undervalued, or at least underappreciated by us fans. Let me put it like this: while Reus’ 16 goals are probably replaceable, his 16 goals + myriad of scoring chances created for his teammates = priceless. By scoring chances, I’d widen the definition to include the headache of marking Reus constantly, which allows his teammates like Arango, Herrmann, and Hanke to slip through into scoring opportunities. Put another way, Reus is a sort offensive multiplier for Mönchengladbach – with or without the ball on his deft foot.

In a stellar November 2011 Bundesliga Fanatic piece, Daniel Nyari illustrates and analyzes the on-field mechanics of the Reus phenomenon at work during Mönchengladbach’s thundering run through the Hinrunde. Basically, Reus does this magical thing wherein he can play both the “False 9” and “False 10” tactical roles in the Foals’ lineup. That is, he can attack and distribute from deep, or he can ride the attack and menace from atop the pitch. This duality, plus the chances it creates for his teammates, leads Daniel to declare that Reus is indeed “the complete attacking player,” an irreplaceable role, an attacking package Daniel describes like this: “Like a Rooney or Messi, [Reus] is the ideal foil for wing-forwards who cut into the middle or look to play the channels that are created by Reus. Moreover he is the ideal player for an Özil or Götze who like to drop off and anticipate runs.”

I would contend that Reus is not simply a relatively replaceable cog in the machine, like – I would controversially argue – the players in the machine Klopp runs at Dortmund. (Fun ironic digressive question to consider: will Reus actually matter at Dortmund? Increasingly, I think: Not as much as we imagine.) So I don’t think we will simply have the case in which the remaining teammates “rise up and meet the challenge” in Mönchengladbach, like we saw in Freiburg this season when goal machine Papiss Cisse left for Newcastle, or even more mundanely this season with Dortmund still chugging along without Götze.

Marco Reus is the machine, “the complete attacking player”

By contrast, Reus is the machine, or at least the machine’s engine. Mönchengladbach is pitiable without him – in that we should pity what is about to be lost. The Foals can’t simply plug in another attacking midfielder, then rock ‘n roll through 2012-2013. Instead, Lucien Favre will probably have to remake the machine.

At least Rues stays in the Bundesliga, and stays out of Bayern’s cannibalistic clutches. So there’s no net loss for the league. But this cheering-for-the-league stuff is little consolation for Mönchengladbach.

Blame it on the irony of success.

In soccer, it seems, success is rewarded with plundering. Unless you’re a Bayern, Real Madrid, Barça, Man U, Man City, Chelsea, or AC Milan (some might throw in Arsenal and Inter too), success brings smarmy suitors luring away your starlets to do magic on their greenback-flecked pitches. Except for these seven clubs, is not the rest of Europe simply a farm system feeding the bloated suitors at the top?

Well, Dortmund is doing its share to join the exclusive club, as it throws around its new clout. However, we all know their current run of Bundesliga success is just that, a run. Sadly, its run too will pass someday soon, I wager. The underlying financials are a determining law of nature. Only Bayern has long-term success at the top in the Bundesliga. Klopp and boys earned another their star above their crest, but will soon fall back with the cruel irony of success. The bloated suitors will eventually have their way – and starlets.

Perhaps Euro-born fans are hardened to this plundering reality. Or simply born into it. But, my god, as an American sports fan, it takes some getting used to! As a new soccer fan, I’ve quickly learned to almost fear success, because of the seemingly arbitrary chaos of the transfer market (imagine if an under-contract Tom Brady could simply be bought outright by some rich Texas oil baron!). Even in salary cap-free sports, like Major League Baseball (with its bloated suitors at the top), you can’t just outright buy off someone’s contracted star players; you pay for them as free agents, or trade for them.

The Bundesliga – excepting Bayern – is something like a farm system; its exports treated like a glittering Mercedes-Benz (even though some of the exports are Marin or Prinz Poldi!). You can expect our starlets to move on like Özil, Khedira, and Sahin. Or move up the system, like Reus to Dortmund.

On one hand, this plundering is tragic with the bitter irony that success begets. On the other hand, the plundering makes the Bundesliga so much more compelling to me than the “bigger” leagues: EPL, La Liga, or Serie A. Why?

Well, every year we come to expect a new wave of youngsters to emerge as the next batch of targeted starlets. The youth development well is seemingly bottomless in Germany. It’s like having an eternal springtide! The cycle of growth is affirming and exciting, if you like surprises.

And besides, the Bundesliga has that irresistible underdog thing going on, which an American like me finds so attractive. To turn over another irony, I almost want the irony of success to inflict my teams, just to spite the whole thing with each wave of news players and with each surprising recovery from the plundering. I want to prove all that money with its purchasing power wrong. Really, it’s about proving power wrong. This conflict with money and power is a compelling narrative, much more compelling than, say, cheering for Man U, Chelsea, or even Bayern. In the Bundesliga, we’re continually compelled to see how this conflict is resolved each season – both in the league and abroad as our teams play in Europe. The Bundesliga is the sympathetic protagonist in this narrative, churning with upward mobility.

Meanwhile, I sheepishly grin at my favorites, Dortmund, and their plundering. But I justify their crime, because they compete in the zero-sum game that is success in European soccer. They plunder. They get plundered. Reus in, Kawaga out. (God knows who else is out at this point with all transfer rumors swirling about like so many bats in the gnat-engorged dusk sky!).

Secretly, I love the irony of success.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website, as well as The Short Pass where he covers the USL and other topics. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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