Borussia Mönchengladbach Player by Player Review, Part Two

Despite the defence being arguably the most obvious strong point of their season, Borussia Mönchengladbach have also impressed in attacking positions this season, thanks to a number of top class goals, exciting attacking play, and sweeping counter-attacks characterising their playing style throughout the season – exciting both fans and neutrals alike.

As such, part two of the Bundesliga Fanatic’s player by player review of Borussia Mönchengladbach’s season will be dedicated to the Foals’ midfielders and attackers. Let’s carry on then.

Midfielders

Patrick Herrmann: 46 appearances (15 as substitute), 16 goals.

The rise (and more rise!) of Patrick Herrmann is certainly a good place to start. The diminutive winger had endeared himself to the Borussia faithful over the years with a number of vintage performances, for example against Bayern in 2012.

Previously, consistency was an issue for Herrmann, who actually gained the record for the amount of times a player had been substituted out of a game in a Bundesliga season, only completing 6 of 34 starts in the league during the 2013/14 season. This flaw, along with Max Eberl’s strengthening of ranks in the wide positions (Fabian Johnson, Andre Hahn, Ibrahima Traore and Thorgan Hazard all joined the club with only Juan Arango departing) perhaps hinted at a difficult season for Herrmann.

So the question emerged: how would Herrmann respond to increased competition?

The answer is brilliantly. Arguably, Herrmann’s best spell of play came during the Rückrunde, with game-deciding goals against Stuttgart and Freiburg as Borussia slowly felt themselves into 2015 with back to back one goal wins, and a handful of vintage performances during the Spring against the likes of Hannover, Bayern, Hoffenheim and Dortmund. However, a closer inspection reveals that Herrmann actually impressed throughout most of the season, winning his starting place back after six matches in an away win to Paderborn and barely looking back.

Herrmann certainly benefited early on in the season from the rotation that the Europa League forced Favre into employing; had Borussia not taken on the likes of Sarajevo, Villarreal, Limassol and Zürich early in the season, Herrmann could quite conceivably have been stuck behind the early season wing duo of Hahn and Johnson for some time; but when given the time to prove himself, he did so with aplomb.
Herrmann’s record this season speaks for itself. Despite starting just 31 games, from a wide position, he was easily the club’s top scorer and has finally earned himself a spot in the Germany squad, and based on his performances against the United States and Gibraltar recently, it looks like he might not relinquish for awhile. That’s not bad going for someone who’s starting spot was under threat less than twelve months ago.

Granit Xhaka: 42 appearances, 5 goals.

Oddly, the verdict was still out on Granit Xhaka going into this season. Despite a breakout season in 2013/14 (a season of excellent performances albeit cut short by ill-discipline and the form of Havard Nordtveit), it was seemingly difficult to find anyone who rated the Swiss national team stalwart as highly as his partner in crime Christoph Kramer.

Of course, Kramer won the World Cup in the intervening months between both seasons, but even so it was slightly baffling that Xhaka had cut a slightly unloved figure among Bundesliga fans and even some sections of the Borussia support. Here was a player who, when at Basel, was proclaimed the better prospect of the promising pairing of Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri by then-coach Thorsten Fink, whose only real crime in the Bundesliga was a poor debut season at the age of 20, linked to his tendency to pick up frivolous bookings. So it’s been refreshing to see how Xhaka has matured in his spell at Borussia-Park.

During the pre-season, the Swiss midfielder was full of praise for countryman and coach Lucien Favre, claiming he’d helped him mature as a player. This statement was certainly true tactically, as Xhaka has slowly developed into the lynchpin of Borussia’s midfield, capable of breaking up the play, orchestrating attacks for his own team and even getting on the end of them as well.

Xhaka’s ball retention is brilliant, his tackling usually superb, his ability to create something brilliant moving forward well-documented; Borussia’s sweeping attacking game couldn’t be as effective without him. The ruthless streak remains; Xhaka received sixteen yellows this season, two of them second yellows; and this has cost the side at times, slightly negating the effect of arguably their most important player. But it is the same streak that allows him to be the explosive player he is; if a double-edged sword which holds last-minute derby winners, spectacular long-range goals and sensational free kicks on one side, then it’s probably worth taking a few bookings here and there. And it’s the brilliant side of his game that has transformed Xhaka from the “poor signing” of his first year to the absolute star that he’s been in his third year in Germany; there are no doubts that Xhaka ranks among the best midfielders in Germany, if not the world, and the fact that he signed a new contract with the club until 2019 in February is a great relief to fans of the club, able to see rumours of summer switches to Bayern or Atletico as the fabricated nonsense that they are.

All in all, an almost perfect season for the 22-year old. Being a Bundesliga player linked with a big money move to Bayern usually means that both player and club are doing something right. This result is certainly the case here.

Thorgan Hazard: 41 appearances (25 as substitute), 5 goals.

What, really? Thorgan Hazard is the midfielder with the third-most appearances this season? Yes, apparently. The Chelsea loanee, who signed for Gladbach until 2020 in February after a successful initial spell, had a year of development from brother-of-star to star-in-own-right at Mönchengladbach, performing his role as a super-sub excellently, as well as contributing some memorable moments when given the opportunity to start. Arguably his most important involvement in Borussia’s campaign was the wonderful free kick from which he assisted Granit Xhaka’s winner against Köln back in February, but leaving it at that wouldn’t do the Belgian wonderkid justice.

Arguably, Hazard’s most important role in the squad this season was in European competition; he played nine of a possible ten games in Europe, with three goals and three assists making him one of Borussia’s key players in the Europa League. Having already garnered Europa League experience with former club Zulte Waregem, Hazard became a driving force for the Foals in the tough games, particularly over both legs against Sevilla in which he played every minute. Moreover, Hazard was also vital to the DFB-Pokal campaign, scoring a decisive goal against Eintracht Frankfurt in the second round and playing well against Offenbach and Bielefeld given the circumstances.

Perhaps Hazard’s main contribution, however, was the versatility he added to the front line, evidenced by the 41 games he played this season; Hazard played everywhere for the club from left wing to right wing, e.g. Raffael’s shadow striker position and even at one point as an all-out striker.

Hazard, clearly put, offers Lucien Favre a range of tactical options from both the start and the bench, and has shown himself to be effective when on the pitch. Having gained a year of first team experience, he’ll surely be raring to go for another season, hopefully playing more of a role from the start and stepping out of the shadow of brother Eden in his first Champions League season.

Christoph Kramer: 39 appearances (2 as substitute), 2 goals.

Kramer’s most memorable moment of the season – for all the wrong reasons – came at the end of Borussia’s incredible unbeaten run at the start of the season. Under absolutely no pressure from Dortmund’s midfield, the Leverkusen loanee contrived to lob Yann Sommer from around the halfway line, netting the season’s most spectacular own goal. It was a moment of madness from the World Cup winner. Yet this moment, fortunately, wasn’t indicative of the season Christoph Kramer had.

Although Kramer admitted at the season’s start that he’d be returning to Leverksuen for 2015-16, he always put in a ridiculous amount of effort in a Borussia shirt. While effort isn’t always indicative of results, Kramer reprised his effective box-to-box role that he pioneered the season before, always running efficiently for his team, complimenting Xhaka excellently, keeping the ball and creating a number of chances for his attacking teammates.

Perhaps Kramer’s chief disappointment season was not developing further than last season’s promising showings of last season. For example, it seemed that earlier in the season (e.g. on the opening day when he scored a last-gasp equaliser against Stuttgart after coming on as a substitute, and given the whole winning-the-world-cup thing) that Kramer could become a truly world class midfielder capable of shifting the course of games. This promise wasn’t quite fulfilled, however, given the Gladbach’s sensational midfielder pairing, especially with Xhaka’s rise to stardom, perhaps this is not the fairest criticism of Kramer. But here we are: Kramer played his last game for the Foals and is returning to Leverkusen. He’ll definitely be missed as Favre tries to work out who of his current crop of midfielders – or one of Eberl’s replacements – will properly fill in his role.

Ibrahima Traore: 35 appearances (20 as substitute), 5 goals.

It’s hard to see Ibrahima Traore’s first season in Niederrhein as anything other than a success. Signed for free from VfB Stuttgart in the summer, having been one of their few impressive players over the past few years, Traore has offered something different from the bench for Favre’s men this season, while also enjoying an excellent African Cup of Nations campaign for Guinea.

Like Hazard, another Francophone with whom Traore is close to off the field, Traore’s most important squad role this season was in cup competitions as the former Augsburg man played almost every game outside of the Bundesliga. The other goal, alongside Hazard’s, against Eintracht in the cup and a fine performance at home to Apollon Limassol were high points for Traore before the winter break, after which he really came into his own.

Having played through January with Guinea, Traore looked relatively fresh at the start of a Rückrunde which began in laboured fashion for Borussia, providing one of the few performances of solace in the drab loss to Schalke before a starring role in wins over the likes of Köln and Paderborn. Even though Traore’s appearances were limited to short cameos at the end of games after Borussia crashed out of Europe, he again furthered his credentials for the club with a stunning late winner at the Olympiastadion against Hertha BSC and a similarly stunning late goal, albeit less decisive, against Leverkusen.

Fabian Johnson: 34 appearances (14 as substitute), 1 goal.

Imagine this: a player has just signed for a new club for free, before going on to be one of the World Cup’s stars at right back. Upon arriving at his new club, he’s told he’s being considered a left winger, and then still produces some excellent performances there too.

This story is Fabian Johnson’s. Signed from Hoffenheim for free, he’s played a position completely opposite to the one he played in the months preceding his transfer. Yet this shift is not completely new for the German-American, who has played games at right back, left back, right wing and left wing for a number of teams, such as 1860 München, VfL Wolfsburg, TSG Hoffenheim, the German youth ranks and the US national team all ranked on his CV before signing for Borussia. But the fact he’s kicked on since joining Borussia is all the more impressive.

However, the story didn’t look so successful at Christmas. Nope, Johnson had actually struggled to feel his way into the team during the Hinrunde, not making the most of Favre’s Europe-forced rotation. This absence was all the weirder since Johnson started as Favre’s preferred option on the left, as his defensive nous added balance to the likes of Herrmann, Hahn, Traore and Hazard’s attacking expertise.

However, the winter break came at the right time for the American international as Johnson started in the wins over Stuttgart and Freiburg, helping with defensive solidity in both games, eventually becoming the nailed-on left winger after Borussia’s European exit. His late discovery of form, beginning with a goal against Paderborn and five assists in the final stretch of the season, shows promise for the coming season. As stated, Johnson adds a balance and stability to Borussia’s flanks which his rivals for the position don’t quite offer; as such, he’ll be a vital cog in the team next season as they look to push on.

Andre Hahn: 32 appearances (11 as substitute), 6 goals.

Hahn’s story is somewhat the reverse of Johnson’s. Somewhat. Hahn started the season in lethal form with opening goals against Homburg, Sarajevo and Schalke, setting Borussia on their way to wins in each competition. However, an injury suffered over the winter break sent the former Offenbach and Augsburg man into a downward spiral of form with his Rückrunde opportunities limited to a few cameos, barring a limp start against Hamburg and a slightly less limp start against Bayern.

He also learned a new position – rather than reverting to an old one – as Favre began to see the 6 foot 1, pacey, strong attacker as a player capable of performing the role of a striker. His only real test in the position was against Bayern – as well as a handful of couple-minute cameos against Hannover and Leverkusen – but a pre-season of training for the position properly could help Hahn enjoy more minutes than he did this season, and eventually challenge for the role vacated by Kruse upon his departure to VfL Wolfsburg.

By no means did Hahn have a bad season, rather he was dealt a tough hand by Gladbach’s impressive squad depth and his injury, but he’ll certainly have to start next season well to stake a claim. He has the talent; nobody (apart from a few notable call-ups) gets called up for the Germany squad undeservedly, and Hahn will most likely return there one day.

Havard Nordtveit: 30 appearances (12 as substitute), 3 goals.

Last season, Havard Nordtveit was a good, stable, relatively versatile guy stuck behind a brilliant midfield pairing. This season was basically a reprise of this role, as the Norwegian international was mostly stuck on the bench with notable starts actually coming during Borussia’s tough patch in November (when the club lost three on the bounce to Dortmund, Frankfurt and Wolfsburg), and in drab displays against Schalke and Hamburg in the Rückrunde, and the opening day draw against a poor Stuttgart side.
Is this evaluation of Nordtveit harsh? Yes and no. Havard Nordtveit is a very good player, who worked well for Gladbach in the right system in the past, most notably when he arrived in Niederrhein shortly before Lucien Favre’s arrival in 2011. He doesn’t, however, quite fit the evolving system of Favre’s midfield, with the flair of Xhaka and guile of Kramer fitting better to the more attacking system of the present.

Nordtveit has played very well in moment; for example, his performance against Dortmund in the Rückrunde was brilliant as was his performance away to Zürich – both performances marked by goals – but for the most part Nordtveit’s probably impressed more for the Norwegian national team than for Borussia this season.

A good option to have on the bench? Yes, definitely. Nordtveit’s probably the most defensively secure option that Borussia have in midfield and he’s not exactly limited in other aspects of his game. Though not Champions League class, he’s certainly been useful for the squad this season and could well continue to be. The question, though, is whether Nordtveit, whose contract expires at the end of next season, would prefer a stay at Borussia-Park or a switch in pursuit of first team football elsewhere.

Mo Dahoud: 3 appearances (3 as substitute).

Having made his first steps as a professional footballer at the age of 17 in pre-season at the start of 2013/14, Syrian-born midfielder Mo Dahoud has been surrounded by some intrigue. Just how good is this guy? He can’t be all that bad if he’s been trusted with game time in the most important of all competitions, the Telekom Cup, right?

Truth is, he’s not all that bad. Though he’s been stinted somewhat by injury and, like Nordtveit, limited regards game time by the excellent duo stood in front of him, Dahoud’s shown enough during matches with Borussia II and over pre-season games to deserve a spot in the squad despite his relative lack of years, finally making his Bundesliga debut with an injury-time cameo against Dortmund following a handful of minutes against Sarajevo and Apollon Limassol in the Autumn.

Is there anything to analyse here? Well, no, Dahoud’s played exactly fifty-eight minutes of top level football. Make sure to return to the Bundesliga Fanatic this time in 2016 for some thoughtful analysis of a season in which Dahoud plays a slightly larger role. If that’s not a carrot, what is?

Thorben Marx didn’t appear for the team in his final year as a professional, meaning his last minutes for Borussia came in 2013 in a 1-0 loss to Schalke. Having played an important role in Borussia’s transition from bottom-half also-rans to top half European challengers, Marx will certainly be remembered fondly by the club’s fans. Nico Brandenburger and Bilal Sezer, both at the other end of their careers, didn’t appear for the club either, playing a larger role for Borussia II, but both players received professional contracts at the start of the Rückrunde. Brandenburger already has the same hairdresser as Granit Xhaka while Sezer has recently been called up by Azerbaijan U21s. Not bad going by the pair.

Attackers

Raffael: 42 appearances (6 as substitute), 14 goals.

Raffael’s Rückrunde was explosive. After a slow first half to the season in which he managed just five goals in total; a brace against Mainz in March finally got Raffael’s season up and running. However, Raffael’s form this season was not quite as astondishing as it was during first season at Borussia, in which the former Hertha man grabbed an impressive fifteen goals as a shadow striker.

Raffael’s overall play is perhaps more important than then goals themselves, however. He plays a position where you’d expect him to bag a fair few, but he creates many goals for his team too, thanks to his intelligent running, exciting passing, and thoughtful positioning. That said, he finished the 2013-14 season in a slight slump, which begs the question: was this season’s Hinrunde part of a protracted decline for a player soon to hit his thirties?

Well, no. Sure, Raffael might eventually hit a point where he’s not the player he was, but after the double against Mainz, the Fortaleza-born forward managed to net twice again two weeks later to sink Bayern (at the point where they hadn’t decided to stop trying), before goals against Hoffenheim, Dortmund and Bremen all proved crucial. And that’s the thing with Raffael, really; he’s a crucial part of a Borussia team who pretty much always perform better with him in it. The win over Bremen aside, most of Gladbach’s games without Raffael weren’t much to write home about, while as he began to come to the fore in the Rückrunde, the whole team’s performances began to hit fever pitch. Cause or effect? Correlation or causation? Hard to properly quantify. Regardless, the main thing is that Raffael’s a joy to watch when in all his pomp.

Max Kruse: 42 appearances (6 as substitute), 13 goals
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How on earth are Borussia going to replace the Wolfsburg-bound Max Kruse? If we’re being pragmatic, you’d probably have to say “with another forward”, and this looks likely. Furthermore, the club will make a tidy profit, selling Kruse for €12m after picking him up from Freiburg in 2013 for just €2.5m. Kruse will make the “next step” (at a club playing roughly on the same level as Mönchengladbach next year), too. It should work out well.

But at the same time, Max Kruse has been ridiculously important for Borussia these past two years. Not just in terms of goals – Kruse’s not exactly the most prolific forward ever, netting just thirteen in all competitions, many of them from the spot, but he’s mobile, hard-working, good on the ball and always probing for openings. Only Kevin de Bruyne has created more chances this season than Max Kruse. In a league like the Bundesliga, full of highly-trumpeted attacking midfielders, that’s not something to be sniffed at.

And then there’s the moments he created. Such as a vintage performance against Hoffenheim, in which he scored his first open play goal in over six months and set up two more goals, or a last-gasp winner against future employers Wolfsburg, which set the Foals on course for Europe, or a stylish double against Hannover in the Autumn. The list goes on. It was inevitable he’d move along sooner or later, having had spells at Bremen, St Pauli and Freiburg in quick succession in relation to his relatively short career before linking up with Borussia, but it’ll still be quite odd not having him haring down the opposition’s channels in search of a teammate or goal.

Branimir Hrgota: 30 appearances (11 as substitute), 12 goals.

Remember that time when Hrgota scored a hat trick against Mainz on his full debut for Mönchengladbach? Or that time he tried a Panenka against Darmstadt in a penalty shoot-out and missed? Until this season, this was pretty much everything we’d seen of the lanky Swede.

Thankfully, this was soon to change. Seven goals over three games at the
start of the season, against Homburg and over two legs with Sarajevo, secured Hrgota a slot in the full Sweden squad for the autumn internationals, and soon Hrgota was getting his chance in the Bundesliga, not playing too badly against Stuttgart and Freiburg at the start of the season while first choice striker Max Kruse was injured.

The search for a Bundesliga goal would, however, go on until December for Kruse, when he finally netted against Bremen. In the meantime, he earned a reputation as a bit of a Europa League hotshot, with goals against Apollon and Zürich making Hrgota easily the club’s top goalscorer going into Christmas. After the break, bar starting games against Stuttgart and Freiburg again – this time deputising for the injured Raffael – and actually assisting both goals in those affairs, Hrgota was made to wait for game time. He made short cameos against Köln – being ‘fouled’ slightly farcically for the set piece from which Borussia scored – and Hamburg – scoring a dramatic equaliser with virtually the last touch of the game – but that was it. An hour against Paderborn on the first day of March were, it turned out, his final minutes of the season. At that point, he was still top scorer for die Fohlen. It’s weird how these things work out.

Finally, completing the Borussia squad for this season was Marlon Ritter. The youngster, who joined Borussia from Rot-Weiss Essen at the age of 16, is another of the players who were a part of the full squad without playing, aside from in friendlies. He was prolific in the Regionalliga West, though, and is versatile (turning out as a second striker and a winger on both sides throughout the season for Borussia II). Again, with the likes of Schulz, Brandenburger, Sezer and Dahoud, he could well gain some professional minutes over the course of the coming year; the potential’s certainly there.

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Conor Garratt

I am Conor Garratt, a 21-year old student from South West England. I study German and History at the University of Southampton, currently spending a year abroad in Mainz, Germany. I love football, especially German football, and am a Swindon Town & Borussia Mönchengladbach fan in my spare time.

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