The European dream is over for another year. Borussia Mönchengladbach, long since confirmed to be crashing out of the Champions League at the group stage, saw their adventure in any European competition end abruptly with a 4-2 loss at the Etihad on Tuesday, despite a spirited display unfortunately not garnering a result which would have taken Borussia into the Europa League knockout phases. Sevilla will take up Group D’s slot in the Europa League instead, and fans of Borussia will be left without any interesting trips to the far-flung corners of Europe until next season, unless planning them on their own volition, of course.
In many ways the premature end to an interesting European season for Mönchengladbach is a crying shame. The club’s fans arguably represented German football better than any other German team in the Champions League, with Bayern struggling to generate any noise during heavy victories, Leverkusen fans not really coming up with anything of note, Wolfsburg not managing to pack out stadiums or away ends despite having an interesting group. Neither Schalke nor Dortmund have seemed particularly bothered by the Europa League so far either – only Augsburg fans seem to be enjoying the ride in that particular competition from a German standpoint.
In contrast, Borussia have been a credit to the Bundesliga wherever they have travelled, drawing plaudits from fans of opposition clubs along the way, and generally displaying the fervour for European competition which impresses so many throughout the continent. This has only served to bolster the club’s reputation and standing internationally.
In a domestic sense, though, their exit before Christmas could however prove to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise. The stresses of playing on three fronts – with Borussia obviously competing in the Bundesliga but also currently the DFB-Pokal (a third round match against Werder Bremen pending next week, of course), playing midweek on a frequent basis increases the amount of stress put upon the squad, with more games and a must for rotation. Thus far, new coach Andre Schubert hasn’t shown as much willingness as his predecessor Lucien Favre to rotate after European games to keep legs in the squad fresh, instead swapping a few individuals every now and then to maintain the huge momentum the club currently has.
This has its pros and cons – Schubert’s Bundesliga record of twenty-six points from a possible thirty since Favre’s exit is absolutely not to be argued with, while performances have increased vastly in the past few months to a point where Borussia can quite rightly be heralded as one of the most exciting sides in the Bundesliga once more. It must, however, not be forgotten that this new, more intensive playing style, coupled with the sheer amount of games which midweek European football ensures, does take its toll on a squad over a whole season, and it’d be ridiculous not to expect this to catch up with the players.
Perhaps an important example of this is the young midfielder Mo Dahoud. The young German-Syrian midfielder has become an integral part of Schubert’s Borussia, forging a magnificent partnership with the imperious Granit Xhaka and contributing with important goals and assists as he grows in confidence. It’s safe to say that Dahoud is currently playing out of his skin, at a level beyond his tender years and relative lack of experience. But once fatigue begins to enter his game, which it inevitably will when one considers the amount of games he is playing at the highest level for the first time in his career, it’s hard to expect him to keep his impressive performances up for an entire season if he’s expected to be playing twice a week for a prolonged period after the winter break too.
The same argument applies to Chelsea loanee Andreas Christensen, who has become a fulcrum of Schubert’s team in defence, and also to other younger players who’ve broken into the team, such as Nico Elvedi – who marked Kingsley Coman out of the game last weekend, at least in the second half, on his full Bundesliga debut – and even to more seasoned players, such as Julian Korb. Borussia’s squad is, for the most part, a young one, and while the players have the energy and willingness to run through brick walls for Schubert, it seems, the situation cannot be mismanaged in the way that Borussia Dortmund managed their squad in seasons past – an injury crisis could be terminal to a squad which is not particularly huge.
Borussia have actually performed reasonably well in post-European fixtures this season – with two wins, two draws, a loss and one yet to play at the weekend – but it mustn’t be forgotten that die Fohlen struggled to cope with the Europa League last season, winning just one match from ten post-European jaunts. Elimination at the hands of Sevilla in March actually sent Borussia on their best run of the season, with magnificent wins against Bayern, Dortmund, and direct rivals in the table such as Wolfsburg and Leverkusen – able to focus mostly on the Bundesliga from the off in the Rückrunde this term, Borussia could well push on from a third placed finish.
It must also be pointed out that qualification for the Champions League last season was achieved – in part at least – off of the back of a weak chasing field, with Dortmund and Schalke absolutely dreadful for stretches of the season, and the likes of Augsburg (impressively) and Leverkusen (less so) only just keeping touch with Borussia and Wolfsburg in the European. The chasing pack is much stronger this year: Dortmund are back to what they do best, Wolfsburg are still very strong if somewhat woeful away from home comforts, while Schalke and Leverkusen – as well as a few other mid table clubs such as Hertha or Mainz who might reasonably hope for Europa League football come May – aren’t lightyears behind and will prove a very real threat for Borussia’s European hopes in the Rückrunde. Any marginal gain, even one which means losing the prestige of European football for a few months, should prove useful.
Is being out of the Europa League a gain, or could the club quite reasonably have won it? It’s difficult to quite know. There are a number of strong outfits in the competition, and it’s difficult to know whether Borussia would come up trumps against some of the better teams in the draw for the Round of 32, while it also must be stressed that the Europa League would be a very difficult tournament to win for the club at this stage. There’s strong competition from a fair few top English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and even other German clubs, and while it’s not completely impossible that Borussia could have gone all the way, challenging for such honours might still be a little while off.
On a final note, perhaps some solace can also be taken from a somewhat relevant case study from just a few years ago. Dortmund’s first foray into the Champions League for many years, back in 2011/12, led to them crashing out of a (notably less tough) group with just four points, but the same team went onto become historic double winners fewer than six months later, with a memorable roasting of Bayern in the final thanks to a vintage Shinji Kagawa performance. The bulk of that side then formed the squad which took Dortmund to Wembley in 2013 to contest the competition’s final. While it’s somewhat impossible for Mönchengladbach to win the league at this point, it’s safe to say that success in the Pokal is not out of the question, and a continuation of their current league form would make Champions League football at Borussia-Park for a second season running a near-certainty.
It’s a shame that Borussia are out of European competition. The prestige is useful, the exposure even more so, but also the magical European nights which we’ve seen at Borussia Park in recent times have been greatly enjoyable for all around the club. However, come season’s end, it might turn out to be an unintentional sacrifice worth making.