Hinrunde Review: Borussia Mönchengladbach and Favre’s Redux

You cannot have any Gladbach-related conversation without mentioning Marco Reus, Dante, or Roman Neustädter. The beginning of last season was a euphoric experience for Gladbach. The team that survived certain doom the year before continued its great form under Favre and finished in a Champions League spot. It was special. When Marco Reus returned from the winter break last season, it was known he would be transferring to Borussia Dortmund, a club he played for and supported in his youth. Marco was worried about fan reaction before their match against Bayern early in the year. Instead, Reus was greeted with strong reaction. Signs of thanks and cheers for Reus filled the terraces. Reus had a goal and an assist in a memorable and season defining 3-1 victory over Bayern. Borussia Park was not just a Reus fan club, but it was common to see faux black afros as well.

That afro paid tribute to Dante who brought a German sense of organization to the defense with a Brazilian smile and the typical Brazilian passing ability. Gladbach had an odd pairing of Dante’s smile and Marc-Andre ter Stegen “Oliver Kahn” demeanor. Neustädter on the other hand did not have the hair of Dante, or the highlight moments of Reus, but there was nothing he couldn’t do well.  All three left Gladbach at the end of the season and as every true Gladbach fan would have hoped, all three players have been successful in their new clubs. These three were and are special. They led Gladbach to the best finish since 95/96.  Gladbach fans also knew things would be tough.  And they were right.

Money well spent?

Favre needed to bring in replacements for his departed stars. A Dutch international, a Swiss international, and a Spanish international walk into the Borussia Mönchengladbach locker room. The Dutch international is a record signing of 15 million Euros, the Swiss international is the second largest signing in club history at 13 million Euros, and the Spaniard is third at 8 million Euros. So what is their impact/value at the end of 17 Rounds in the Bundesliga? Inconclusive.

Max Eberl, the managing director and former Borussia player, had the mission to replace the departed trio. The figures of 15/13/8 million Euros outspent every team that did not buy Javi Martinez. To put the insanity of the values in context for Gladbach, the transfer fee for Neustädter from Mainz II (fun fact: played for his father, Peter, at Mainz II) was free, Reus from RW Ahlen was valued at 1 million Euros (according to Der Tagesspiel Jan 24, 2012 article – Blame on Hertha not signing Reus is leveled at Favre by Club, Favre blames Club), and Dante was 2.5 million Euros from Standard Liege.

The values for the Summer 2012 acquisitions are higher because Eberl knew he needed to seize the rare opportunity to play in Europe (win now) and he brought young (win later too) with the oldest being 23 (Alvaro Dominguez). All three had a resume beyond their years. Dominguez was coming off a 2012 Europa League Championship with Atletico Madrid (he came on in the 93rd minute and in 2010 he and Atletico won with Alvaro playing the full 90), Xhaka had reached the Round of 16 in UEFA Champions League last season with Basel playing Bayern and tying Manchester United at Old Trafford, and De Jong played in the Group Stages with Twente in 2010-2011, scoring once, finishing third in the Group, and last year losing to Benfica in a third round playoff where Luuk impressively scored from 25 yards out with his right foot.

For Gladbach fans the acquisition of high profile talent was unheard of. The biggest talents of Gladbach in the last 15 years had all gone to bigger clubs by 23 (Deisler 19, Marin 20, Jansen 23). Luuk de Jong was aggressive in his transfer dealings, declaring his desire for a move to Gladbach in the media, going so far demand for Twente’s chairman to deal in good faith. Xhaka is rumored to have chosen Gladbach over Hamburg and had suitors in England. The Hamburg link, if true is funny as it would be him spurning his ex-Basel coach in Thorsten Fink. These three had the combination of experience, ability and youth that few others in the world held.

Keeping Favre was crucial and early Champions League trauma

The largest financial investment in club history is also important in the appeasement of Lucien Favre. Other than Bayern fans, there is no other club who rooted for Pep Guardiola to Bayern more. Keeping Favre will be crucial for success. Favre has survived Gladbach’s relegation battle, and led the team to a 4th place finish. In Favre’s previous job at Hertha Berlin, he led them to a 4th place finish (08/09) then lost his job the next season at the end of September following a streak of poor results. Hertha was 18th at the time, and finished in 18th. As Favre declared in Der Tagesspiel article earlier reference, Hertha had no money to put into the squad. Gladbach and Favre did not want a repeat of the 09/10 Hertha story.

Heading into the one of the club’s biggest games in decades, the Champions League playoff against Dynamo Kiev, the signs were not good. Herrmann, Hanke, and another new signing Penial Mpala had battled early season injuries. New signing Alvaro Dominguez and Spain had a very poor Olympics, and ironically the best Gladbacher at the Olympics was Yuki Otsu, scorer in Japan’s 1-0 over Spain. Yuki was a player Favre commented as not being good enough in July 2011. Otsu was sold later in August to “Japanese friendly” VVV Venlo (previously had Japanese stars Keisuke Honda, Maya Yoshida) in Holland.

Another issue heading into the match is how all the new parts will fit. The first leg in Mönchengladbach went great for the first 26 minutes. Juan Arango, unusually positioned on the right flank, cut the ball onto his trademark left foot played a 35 yard diagonal pass on a rope and Alexander Ring settled, cut and coolly slotted it into the near post. Ring, who on appearance could pass for Marco Reus’ little brother has cruelly disappeared in Favre’s rotation (has not started a game after August). A 30-35 yard drive by Taras Mikhalik off Filip Daems’ thigh and the momentum was lost 1-1. 2-1 Kiev comes in the 35’ with a messy sequence of hot potato with the ball bouncing all over between Xhaka and de Jong leading to a giveaway in the middle of the field to Denys Garmash (Kiev). With leftback Daems up the field in transition a gap is created allowing for a Kiev counter as Kiev’s Yarmolenko takes the pass at the edge box stepovers then cut on Alvaro Dominguez and scores. It finishes 3-1 on Luuk de Jong’s first goal for Gladbach, an own goal. One game into the new season and things looked like they were already slipping away. On August 29 in Kiev, a week after the Champions League run had started, it was over.

Domestic

The Bundesliga form was also troubling. The first Matchday took place between the two Champions League legs. Gladbach salvaged a 2-1 win thanks to a Juan Arango free-kick (theme of the season) versus Hoffenheim. While 3 points is most you can earn, this was only a 2-1 win over a team that lost in the DFB Pokal to Regionalliga Nordost (4th division) AK Berliner AK 07 4-0. Hoffenheim would go on to give up 4 and 5 goals in its next two games. Gladbach did not play better in the Second Matchday, drawing in Dusseldorf, 0-0 the most boring game of possibly the entire Bundesliga season so far.

On the third matchday Xhaka and de Jong get the first Bundesliga goals, yet it is not enough. Hiroshi Kiyotake led Nürnberg to 3-2 with a goal and two assists. On the fourth match day, Gladbach tied Leverkusen 1-1. Granit Xhaka commented to bundesliga.com about the Match, “If we (Gladbach) didn’t have him (ter Stegen), we could have lost at least 5-1.” Matchday 5 is memorable for a van der Vaart half volley from the edge of the area. Juan Arango will score a similar goal on Matchday 14 versus Wolfsburg, only Arango’s is more difficult as it was taken directly out of air instead of van der Vaart’s approach of letting it bounce before sizing it up. A Juan Arango free kick to Alvaro Dominguez’s head in the last seconds of the game secured a 2-2 but the worst was yet to come.

Matchday 6 was the return of Reus and Gladbach suffered the heaviest defeat in the Favre era 5-0 with their former player being the star of the game. They would respond the next weekend by stealing victory from Frankfurt 2-0. An amazing goal by Arango, and an underrated goal by Luuk de Jong within the first half hour was the difference. The nadir of the Gladbach season was October 20, 2012 after the 4-0 loss to Bremen. In the match, they were completely bossed by the young, fast and physical Bremen midfield of Kevin de Bruyne, Junuzovic, Arnautovic, Hunt, and Elia as they had been bossed by Dortmund’s young, fast and physical midfield.

After that match, they were in 13th with 9 points from 8 games, and 3 points above the relegation playoffs spot. Things were not faring well in the Europa League either. They had one point in two games, with a draw versus the weakest team in the group, Limassol (played in between MD 3 and 4) and a 4-2 thrashing against Fenerbahce at home (played in between MD 6 and 7).  The next two fixtures were against last year’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinalists Marseille and looked increasingly like the last chance to salvage the season that appeared so promising less than two months earlier.

Turning Point

Favre at this point changed the personal. Granit Xhaka had a halftime bust up with Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the match versus Fenerbahce two weeks before and criticized the club for a lack of “winning mentality.”  In came Thorben Marx. Under Frontzeck in the first part of 2010-2011, Marx started 15 games, completing 90 minutes just 11 times. Frontzeck was fired, replaced by Favre. The rest of the season under Favre, he started 3 games, completing 90 minutes only once. It was much the same in 2011-2012 with 7 starts (completing 90 minutes once again), and 12 substituted appearances (8 coming after the 82 minute). Marx was a forgotten man under Favre. Favre’s addition of now central midfield partner Havard Nordtveit from Arsenal in January 2010 pushed Marx to the bench. It should be noted, Favre has tinkered with his starting eleven the whole hinrunde, and it is still not evident he was found his first eleven yet. Yet Marx’s inclusion proved to be an important stabilizing factor in the season.

Gladbach would save its best match of the year for Marseille (at home). They won the first leg convincingly 2-0 and it included an incredible 25 yard strike by Peniel Mlapa just seconds after coming on for an injured Luuk de Jong (knee/6 week injury). The second leg in Marseille was a 2-2 draw. It featured a Juan Arango goal and assist. The first goal was caused by Arango’s capitalizing on Benoit Cheyrou mistake and assisting Mike Hanke, and the second was scored by Arango in the 93rd minute from a cross for Lukas Rupp. It was Arango’s first (and only) non-YouTube worthy goal of the season.  The goal was crucial. Not only did it secure the point but it gave second-placed Gladbach the head-to-head advantage to third place Marseille. In the next round, a Gladbach win over Limassol 2-0 by 2 Igor de Camargo substitute goal (the 2 goals lead to an extended run in the starting lineup, where he was average), and Marseille lost to Fenerbahce, ensuring a second place finish in the group and advancement to the next round. Gladbach will face Lazio in the next round.

After the Bremen humiliation, Gladbach looked in serious trouble again. Gladbach were down 2-0 to Hannover for 70 minutes, before Juan Arango won the match with 1 goal and 2 assists in 10 minutes, one of the standout individual performances of the season. Another crucial goal by Alvaro Dominguez opened the score for Gladbach. The next game was a tie to Freiburg, where, if not for a controversial penalty for Freiburg and Lukas Rupp missed empty net, Gladbach rightly would have won. Gladbach scored its first multi-goal victory over Furth (4-2) on Matchday 11. A loss occurs with an unlucky own goal by Rolf Brouwers. Gladbach finished the year with 5 unbeaten games (Augsberg tie, Wolfsburg win, Schalke tie, Mainz win, Bayern tie).

Going into the winter break, Gladbach lay in 8th, solidly mid-table: 7 points out of 2nd (Leverkusen), 6 points above 15th (Wolfsburg). Where they do they finish? I am not sure. Schalke is in 7th,  and their tough to predict. Gladbach outplayed 5th placed (Freiburg) and 6th place (Mainz). But as Cristian Nyari’s article “The Creative Gene” pointed out, this is a team third lowest in terms of chances created. Freiburg and Mainz are two of the few teams they outplayed. The offense consists of Arango supergoal, or Herrmann into space using his speed to make something happen. Hopefully de Jong can discover his form in the second half of the season and lend a helping hand.

What were the problems ultimately?

Luuk de Jong has had a tough start to his Gladbach career. Luuk has always played hard for Gladbach, and publicly stated he does not regret his move. He has hit a couple posts, he had a beautiful side volley saved by Fabien Giefer. Plus the own goal and injury. Luuk early season struggles can be attributed to the lack of support in the midfield. Luuk’s struggles mirror the team’s struggles, as they were often unable to possess the ball (the loss of trio has affect possession greatly) in an attacking position. In a defensively inferior league (Eredivise) Twente had superior talent in support for Luuk. In his time in Twente (09-12) some of his fellow midfielders/strikers were: Cheik Tiote (defensive midfield, but you need to possess the ball in order to get it to the forwards), Bryan Ruiz, Ola John, Theo Janssen (Eredivisie Player of the Year 10/11). It would unfair to see Luuk de Jong must replace Marco Reus. Luuk is a traditional strike, while Reus can be a one-man team.

Granit Xhaka has played approximately 54 minutes in the last 9 Bundesliga games. He had not looked decisive in his passing early in the season (though not as bad coming off the bench recently), and that differs from his replacement Thorben Marx. Marx also added more defensively with his solid tackling. Granit’s best performance came against Nürnberg where he scored. Unfortunately in that match he was playing behind the striker.  The position behind the striker is now Patrick Herrmann’s and that will not change (at the time of Nürnberg goal Herrmann was the right winger). Favre opted to start Tolgi Cigerci over Granit in the last match of the hinrunde versus Bayern. As critical as I have been of Granit Xhaka, if the choice is between Xhaka and Cigerci I would take Xhaka every time. Cigerci (on loan from Wolfsburg) is big, and likes to shoot. Those qualities are Xhaka’s strengths as well except Granit is better at both. Xhaka has looked supportive of his teammates while on the bench. In an interview with Bundesliga’s official website, he admits to not playing well, understanding why Favre turned to Marx, and expresses his desire to win back his starting spot. This character and self-awareness shows he has the mentality to become the midfield general Gladbach fans hope he can be.

Dominguez has played the most of Gladbach’s summer signings. He gives the center of defense the pace it lacks in either Stranzl or Brouwers. He has 2 crucial goals, and his worst games (Bremen and Dortmund) the whole team looked more lost than ter Stegen’s lost dog. Not a criticism of Dominguez but the defense has significantly dropped since the loss of Dante. In 17 games, Gladbach has conceded 26 goals. Last season, Gladbach concede 24 goals total. This is still far, far off the 2010 mark of 47 goals conceded through 17 games. Ter Stegen has also fallen in the pecking order in the German NT with his average performances and the return of Rene Adler.

Winter Transfer Updates

Max Eberl’s first transaction in the transfer window has been sending right-back Matthias Zimmermann on loan to Greuther Fürth. The German youth international has yet to break into Favre’s rotation. This was most evident when Tony Jantschke missed Matchday 9 (Hannover) and 10 (Freiburg) with injury. Favre, instead of turning to Zimmermann, put Rolf Brouwers as center back and pushed Martin Stranzl to right back. Zimmermann had 50 2. Bundesliga games for Karlsruher SC before the age of 19, when he joined Borussia. He has single Bundesliga substitute appearance and a single Europa League appearance for Gladbach in his year and a half.

Eberl has also signed left-footed striker Sven Michel.  Before this signing, the strikers were de Jong, Hanke, de Camargo, Mpala and Hrgota. It is a curious signing as those 5 strikers compete for the other striker position next to Herrmann. The logic of the signing makes sense considering 1) He is a big talent, and 2) Favre does like to replace both strikers around the 70th minute.

Favre has also complained about the similarity of his strikers. This hints to the same qualities of de Jong and Hanke. Hanke has the advantage in his passing, and build up play, while de Jong has more strength, elite finishing (as shown with volley vs. Frankfurt and his years at Twente). Luuk has the advantage of being almost 7 years younger, and costing 14 million Euros. Hanke is out of contract in the Summer, and there have also been rumors of Igor de Camargo’s departure.

In the Winter period of contract extensions, Borussia has been active with Jantschke (2015), Nordtveit (2016), Stranzl (2014) recently signing contracts. Marx is another player seeking an extension at the moment.

Future Transfer Suggestions and Rumors

According to Borussia’s official website the average age of the first team is 23.62, with only Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen, Werder Bremen, Hoffenheim younger. The figure is slightly manipulated by counting Alexander Bieler, Amin Younes, Julian Korb, Matthias Zimmermann (now on loan) and Niklas Dams in the first team. All of the youngsters have combined for three Bundesliga appearances. Amin Younes is the most likely of the bunch to turn into a real player, and could feature in the second half of the year in a wing position (right wing over Lukas Rupp). A concern for Gladbach is the reliance on older players. Four of the eleven starters are over 30; Arango is 32, Thorben Marx is 31, Filip Daems is 34, Martin Stranzl is 32. While top defensive replacement Roel Brouwers is 31.

You can make the counter-argument that Arango can just stand 40 yards from goal and score supernatural goals until he is 60, Marx has his natural replacement on the roster with Granit Xhaka, Daems has been adequately replaced by Oscar Wendt while Daems was out with injury, and Stranzl has recently signed a contract extension (he was previously considering retirement). An interesting figure on the 25 man roster (as of December 31, 2011), is only two players are from the age of 23-28 on the roster (Dominguez 23, Wendt 27) showing lots of youth, lots of experience, not a lot in the middle.

In future transfers, I suggest Lasse Sobiech of Greuther Furth (on loan from Dortmund). He is 23, physically imposing at 6’5’’, disposable for Dortmund (center backs include: Hummels, Subotic, Santana, Günter). He could challenge Alvaro Dominguez’s for the center back spot temporarily, and push Dominguez to the left back position, where I am confident he would provide more than Wendt (Daems is 34, out of contract in Summer as well). Though in Favre system, left and right fullbacks play very conservatively. They do not play endline to endline. With Alvaro’s rumored fee of 8 million Euros, it would a lot of Euros for a player in not a key position of Favre’s system. I worry about Alvaro’s physical ability against bigger strikers. Alvaro is visibly smaller than the Gomez and Lewandowskis of the Bundesliga. Alvaro’s biggest strengths are his adaptability and character. Sobiech could also be the natural replacement to Martin Stranzl. Whether you agree with the suggestion of Sobiech or not, a central defender is need in one of the two next transfer windows.

A side note on the lack of wing fullback going high up the pitch to deliver crosses. It affects Peniel Mpala’s playing time the most (at 6’5, best aerial threat). Mpala, signed from Hoffenheim in the summer has given energy to the attack off the bench but has yet to show his best. His shining moment was a 25 yard strike versus Marseille. He has shown ability on the ball, and deserves more playing time.

I also would not mind a more attack minded winger than Lukas Rupp. Rupp does not possess the pace to threaten defense with his speed. Reus could score goals created by himself from solo runs for example. Or he could dribble at defenders and lay it off to another player, usually Herrmann. Borussia’s offense has become too reliant on ball to Herrmann in space.I will throw out two names on loan (unless Favre turns to Amin Younes or Alex Ring, then void suggestion):  Leonardo Bittencourt (Dortmund) and Serge Gnabry (Arsenal). I do not know if the clubs would accept, but we could offer more playing time than their home club and in an attacking style. It is worth a kick of the tires.

Player of the Hinrunde

Juan Arango – He has stolen many headlines and points (all 5 Arango goals were in victories, with Gladbach having 6 victories) with the typical miracle goals. Versus Wolfsburg, Versus Hannover, Versus Frankfurt, Versus Hoffenheim, the difference between 3 points and 0 points was Juan Arango. The term Most Valuable Player of the Bundesliga could be attached to Arango. Borussia.de has chosen Patrick Herrmann as Forward of the Hinrunde, Juan Arango as the Midfielder of the Hinrunde, and Martin Stranzl as the Defender of the Hinrunde. I agree.

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Andrew Wohlfort

Andrew Is a Borussia Monchengladbach supporter, a fan of cheap Mexican food and the National Basketball Association.

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