Back in August, Borussia Mönchengladbach began the season away in Dortmund with a centre back pairing who were aged just nineteen and twenty. Both Andreas Christensen, loaned for two years from Chelsea, and Marvin Schulz, a product of the club’s youth academy, made their Bundesliga debuts at the Signal-Iduna-Park as Borussia were thrashed by Thomas Tuchel’s new club 4-0.
Many critics saw this as evidence that Borussia’s defence had cost them the game; what else could a heavy loss be down to when two youngsters, with absolutely no experience, play a top-level game against a rival for the top four? This point of view was limited – the loss that day was probably more down to a heavily imbalanced midfield, with Lars Stindl shoehorned into the defensive midfield alongside Granit Xhaka by then-coach Lucien Favre to the detriment of the side’s balance across the pitch but especially in the central areas.
What Christensen and Schulz’s selection away in Dortmund did highlight, though, is that Borussia were short in the defensive department. Martin Stranzl was still suffering a long-term injury layoff from the Rückrunde of the previous season, Alvaro Dominguez had been struggling with back pains, and full back Julian Korb also struggled with his fitness during the season’s early matchdays. The remainder of the defence left over was threadbare, perhaps even piecemeal; starters Tony Jantschke and Oscar Wendt remained available, admittedly, but beyond that veteran Roel Brouwers, whose legs aren’t cut out for playing twice a week in his advancing years, as well as rookies Schulz and Christensen were left to fight it out for starting positions.
With Stranzl and Dominguez still out for the time being, and Tony Jantschke subsequently ruled out for the rest of the season, Borussia’s defensive ranks have gone from thin on the ground to dangerously weak; as such the club have leapt into the winter transfer market with the signing of Austrian international Martin Hinteregger on loan from Red Bull Salzburg.
Aged 23 and having played over 200 games in professional football, Hinteregger is certainly a strong addition to the likes of Christensen and Schulz – who are both clearly talented despite their tender years and moments of inexperience this season – while still representing a continuation in the club’s policy of securing young prospects and making them into bigger names. This policy has been successful with much of the current squad, perhaps most notably Xhaka, while other players – such as German internationals Marco Reus and Christoph Kramer – have also benefitted from stints at the club.
The loan also makes a lot of sense from other perspectives. Having secured an option to buy, Eberl has essentially brought Hinteregger to Niederrhein on a ‘try before you buy’ basis, eliminating an inflated fee should he impress on loan over the next six months and during the European Championships in France this summer, but also giving Borussia an opt-out should a step up to the Bundesliga from Austria’s top flight not prove successful this term. It’s not the first time Eberl has acted quickly in the transfer market before a major tournament – most notably picking up Fabian Johnson up on a free transfer a couple of months before he was one of the United States’ best performers at the World Cup in 2014 – and almost certainly won’t prove the last, either.
With Stranzl’s contract running out in the summer, and with his oft-noted injury problems in recent times, it almost seems natural to see the Hinteregger deal as being conducted with replacing Stranzl in mind. The pair are relatively similar too, beyond the obvious – yes, they are both tall Austrians whose first name is Martin, but both posted similar statistics in 2014/15, with Stranzl winning 69% of his tackles to Hinteregger’s 68% and 79% of his headers in comparison to Hinteregger’s 72%. Both are also noted for strong positional play which reduces the need to make last-gasp tackles in the first place, a quality which has been missed throughout 2015 by Borussia, resulting in a chaotic end to last season. Hinteregger’s passing is not as strong as Stranzl’s, completing just 68% of his attempted passes to Stranzl’s 85%, but perhaps playing in a more possession based system at Borussia-Park, as well as improving with time, will allow Hinteregger to replace his countryman and namesake in this way, too.
If the Salzburg youth product does prove a replacement for Stranzl, Borussia’s defensive woes should ease somewhat; however, this may perhaps only occur to an extent. Under Andre Schubert, Borussia have kept just four clean sheets in twenty games, an absolutely diabolical figure considering the quality of players still available to him despite injury problems at the back, and the fact that Yann Sommer is one of the Bundesliga’s best goalkeepers without whom Gladbach would have conceded a huge amount more.
Schubert’s concept of playing further up the pitch than under his predecessor has led to some pulsating affairs, but a Favre side would likely have done as well; in Favre’s last twenty games as coach of the club – including the seven doomed games he coached at the beginning of the season – the side kept seven clean sheets. Should fans of the club hold out hope of a safer future in the defensive department? At the expense of an attacking, exciting game under Schubert, it seems that this side of the game has been neglected, and it seems unlikely that Hinteregger will be able to stem the sort of tide which saw Borussia concede fifteen goals in their final four games of 2015.
A good deal though? Without a doubt. Eberl has taken a huge step up after the slightly underwhelming of Hinteregger’s fellow 23 year-old Jonas Hofmann, in that this deal clearly adds something which was missing from the squad in an area of the squad stricken by several long-term injuries. And if the Austrian has half the impact of countryman Stranzl on his side’s defensive performances, fans of Borussia should at least feel slightly more secure defensively in 2016.
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