In the space of fifteen short months, Borussia Mönchengladbach went from being almost guaranteed relegation from the Bundesliga to the Champions League qualifying rounds. In that time, coach Lucien Favre created possibly the best defence in the league out of the worst one, nurtured one of German football’s brightest prospects, Marco Reus, and built an excellent team. Despite the loss of Reus during the summer, his €17.5m transfer fee and millions more have been invested in new players, meaning there’s still plenty of reasons for Mönchengladbach to be optimistic ahead of the new season, one in which they will be playing Champions League football for the first time. Can Lucien Favre continue this unlikely success story?
History weighs heavily on the club
Before getting carried away, it’s well worth remembering just how far Borussia have come during Favre’s tenure. The recent upturn marks a complete change in the club’s fortunes over the last decade or so, the reasons for which could not be clearer. Mönchengladbach had been German football’s premier club in the 1970s and were Deutscher Meister five times between 1970 and 1977 (which, incidentally, was the year of their last Bundesliga title and of their European Cup final defeat in Rome against Liverpool FC). In its best years, the club was fortunate enough to count the likes of Berti Vogts, Günter Netzer and Rainer Bonhof among its best players. Fast-forward nearly twenty years to the 1998/99 season, and it had all changed. The club had found success again in the immediate years prior, with some high league finishes in the mid 90s and a DFB Pokal win. Then came the sudden decline. In a period of terrible organisation and a poorly replenished and balanced team, the club went rapidly downhill. Gladbach had just three head coaches in their first 22 years in the Bundesliga, but there were four managerial changes in 1998 alone. Those in higher management positions also lost their jobs, and Mönchengladbach were relegated from the Bundesliga for the first time in their history.
This memory provides an intriguing and telling backdrop to Gladbach’s surprise recent success. The current club management may or may not have the lesson of 1998/99 in mind. But the way the club is being run currently by sporting director Max Eberl and coach Lucien Favre has the organisation, balance, and – looking ahead to this season – the ability to evolve which Borussia’s previous generation so disastrously lacked. In turn, that Gladbach finished last season at the opposite end of the table to what they have become used to recently is no accident at all.
2011/12 brought success to Borussia Mönchengladbach beyond which anyone at the club could have envisaged in pre-season. Under Lucien Favre fortunes have taken a dramatic turn for the better. Prior to his joining in February 2011, the Foals shipped a terrible 56 goals in 22 games of what had looked like a disastrous season. That Favre almost instantly improved the back-line was remarkable; and that Mönchengladbach have sustained their defensive form and last year became arguably the Bundesliga’s best defence (conceding just 24 goals all campaign) is testament to the team’s growth and unity, and, above all, Favre’s coaching. But his side gained most of its praise last season because of its swift attacking play. The fluid interplay of the front four is a result of their own fine form, the stability of the back six and Favre’s tactical flexibility in allowing them free rein up front. Reus, Herrmann, Arango and Hanke’s switching positions was unplayable at times last year, as Borussia produced some of the best football in the league. It’s worth mentioning, too, that one of Favre’s first decisions as coach was to give teenage rookie Marc-André ter Stegen a run in goal. Ter Stegen is maturing very quickly.
For the reason that Favre has built Gladbach around continuity and teamwork, particularly in defence, they would expect to be able to cope with a few losses of squad members during the off-season. However, Borussia have not only lost some of their best players this summer, but also those who made up the core of last season’s great side.
It was announced during the winter that Marco Reus would be joining double winners Borussia Dortmund for the new season. Reus’ impact on the Foals can’t be overstated. Hitting top form to force his side out of the relegation places at the end of the previous season, Reus continued his rapid development to become one of the Bundesliga’s best players. The winger played centrally as an out-and-out forward last year, his switch to the middle putting him at the heart of Gladbach’s attacking game. His absence will be felt.
As well as their forward and talisman, Gladbach lost players in other key areas of the pitch. Dante, the 28 year-old centre-back, has joined FC Bayern, while the club also lost central midfielder Roman Neustädter to Schalke 04 on a free transfer. The rest of the team remains largely intact. Some reserve players, namely forwards Matthew Leckie and Elias Kachunga, have agreed loan deals while defender Tobias Levels joins Fortuna Düsseldorf. But the departure of Reus, Neustädter and Dante leaves a big gap right in the middle of the team. The core of the team will look much different, and how well the replacements fare will be as significant a determining factor as any other in the success of Borussia’s season.
So let’s look at these replacements. The €17.5 million transfer fee of Marco Reus has been put to good use in a summer of huge spending. Mönchengladbach completed the impressive capture of highly-rated Dutch forward Luuk de Jong in July. The 21 year-old already has seven caps for the national team and scored 39 goals in 75 Eredivisie games for FC Twente. Gladbach have paid a club record fee for the striker, reportedly between €15 and 20 million. The unprecedented spending spree continues: around €7 million for Álvaro Dominguez Soto (Atlético Madrid), €2.5 million for Peniel Mlapa (1899 Hoffenheim), around €8 million for Granit Xhaka (FC Basel). Dominguez is another promising, if expensive signing, the 23 year-old central or left sided defender breaking into the strong Spanish national team in 2012. Mlapa adds to the existing strike force of de Jong and Mike Hanke and is only 21, while Xhaka is possibly the most exciting of the summer arrivals.
At just 19 Granit Xhaka already appears to possess many well-developed abilities. He has excellent ball control and dribbling, passing and vision, touch as well as a fairly stocky build and a good tackling ability. At 18 he helped Switzerland to the Under 21 European final, and he dominated the midfield when Switzerland beat Germany 5-3 in May. At Gladbach he will probably play a deep playmaker’s role initially, positionally a direct replacement for Neustädter, and has the potential to become a star.
The new signings, although expensive, signal a promising time ahead for Lucien Favre’s side, even without Reus. Their additions give Gladbach a young and exciting feel. In other areas of the team, young talents like Patrick Herrmann, Tony Jantschke and Havard Nordtveit can only keep progressing, which bodes extremely well. It’s also harder now to ignore Yuki Otsu. The Japanese winger signed for the club last season but spent the year developing in the reserves. His impressive displays at the Olympics will have Favre considering him for a place in the team too.
Preparation and what to expect
The side has had a busy and productive pre-season. Visits to second tier sides 1860 München and Bochum provided two wins and eight goals, while the Foals also won against Norwich City last week. A few goals have been shipped too, leaving Lucien Favre with some work still to do in defence in order that the absences of Dante and Neustädter aren’t felt too strongly. Borussia open their season on Saturday at 3. Liga side Alemannia Aachen in Round 1 of the DFB Pokal, before their Champions League qualifier first leg against Dynamo Kiev. They kick off their Bundesliga campaign the following Saturday against 1899 Hoffenheim.
To conclude, Gladbach have spent huge amounts of money this summer, and with that comes an undeniable element of risk. The club has set itself modest targets this season, and they’re right to do so given recent experience. As we have seen, if any club knows the consequences of mismanagement and complacency, it’s this one. But despite the money spent, it’s hard, for now at least, to see big mistakes having being made here. The sporting director and coach appear on the same page, and the transfers are all young players on long deals, and have the potential to bring a high level to Gladbach both now and in the future. Lucien Favre’s system has worked excellently so far, combining tactical and defensive stability with creative freedom , and there are enough new faces in the team to keep them from becoming predictable. We’ll probably see a more attacking set-up from Gladbach too.
Even without Marco Reus, this Borussia Mönchengladbach side is potentially better than it was last season. But the keyword is potentially. Favre instantly united and improved Gladbach when he joined, and he’ll have to do it again to integrate the new players into a cohesive system of understanding, particularly at the back. How quickly and effectively this happens might determine their exact league finish, as might their luck with injuries and ability to balance their league and continental responsibilities, because they don’t have the deepest squad. But a challenge for the European places is probably on the cards. Having said that, given the amount invested in the new season, even with the money brought in by the players sold, there is now an element of pressure and expectation on this team for the first time under Lucien Favre’s leadership, and it will be interesting to see what impact, if any, this has.
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