When Werder Bremen defender Niklas Moisander deflected the low cross of Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Dennis Zakaria into his own goal last Friday, Foals coach Dieter Hecking must have been the happiest man in Borussia Park. With Zakaria opening the scoring earlier on, Werder now trailed Hecking’s team by two goals, just half an hour after proceedings began.
Hecking, though, would not have had much to be happy about come the final whistle. Gladbach’s first half domination was completely lacking after the break. With star man and goalscorer Zakaria already on a booking, his substitution by Hecking meant that the offensive spark deserted them and they began to falter. By the end of the game, Bremen had not only levelled it up, thanks to Thomas Delaney and Aron Jóhannsson, but they also appeared the more likely side to take all of the points.
The disastrous collapse came just a week after the team’s four game run of defeats was finally brought to an end by the narrow 1-0 victory over Hannover. It was a run that seems to have put paid to Borussia’s European qualification aspirations, and also one that put a large amount of pressure on the coach. It was Gladbach’s worst spell since the beginning of the 2015/16 season, where Lucien Favre’s side lost their opening five fixtures. Hecking hasn’t been in charge as long as Favre, nor the man who came between the two, André Schubert. This is, of course, his first full season with the Foals, but already some feel the time for a change has arrived.
Perhaps it would be harsh to think of relieving Hecking from his duties. The Foals, after all, are still in the top half of the table. Only eight points separate Gladbach from Schalke, who finished Matchday 25 in 2nd place, and amongst the chaos that has defined the race for the European spots there is certainly a way back for Borussia. The problem is the fact that they seem headed in a different direction entirely; thanks to their bad streak, they have won just seven points since the winter break. Only Wolfsburg and Hamburg have been worse in the Rückrunde so far, which is impressively bad.
That is why it was so imperative that Hecking’s charges held onto their lead last Friday, and why it was so galling that they were unable to do so. This was the all-important opportunity to build some momentum after the calamitous four games without so much as a goal, let alone any points. Against Hannover they scored two goals in around half an hour of football, a major step forward after nearly 400 minutes without a goal. Failing to capitalise on that means that they risk lapsing into another spell of profligacy, at a time when they cannot afford to drop any more points. Now that they have stopped their losing streak, crisis would be too strong a word to describe the predicament, but the form guide still doesn’t make for pleasant reading.
It’s not fair to put the blame solely on Hecking, though. Indeed, it could be argued that he is not responsible for the Foals biggest problems. Looking at the results, the main issue is the team’s inability to put the ball in the net. The best example of this is the 1-0 defeat to Borussia Dortmund. It was rather fitting that it was the former Gladbach star Marco Reus who scored with Dortmund’s only real chance of the match. Had he or his teammate Michy Batshuayi been in black, white and green that day, there’s no doubt the result would have been completely different. The Foals fired off an astonishing 28 shots, forcing Roman Bürki to make an incredible 11 saves, but none were out of this world, and despite managing 1.85 expected goals (the same figure they achieved against Bremen), they went home without hearing the Scooter tune that greets their goals.
The chief culprit for the malaise in front of goal is the captain Lars Stindl, whose hopes of making the World Up squad are in tatters, having not scored in 20 hours of football. Desperately attempting to solve their strike problem, Hecking has tried playing Thorgan Hazard up front, with little success, and he has even started Raul Bobadilla, though the Argentine has yet to score in the Bundesliga this season. The coach should take a share of the blame too. Hecking has only once tried out a formation other than the 4-4-2 that has become Gladbach’s trademark (in January’s 2-0 defeat to Frankfurt). Peter Bosz showed earlier this season that tactical inflexibility could lead to disaster – and just like every team eventually figured out how to breach Dortmund’s defence, Gladbach’s offensive threat may be too predictable, and can easily be neutralised by coaches who could be labelled as more tactically astute.
Gladbach’s struggles of recent weeks have also come with a multitude of injuries ruling out a significant proportion of the squad. It is undeniable that the Foals have suffered from some terrible luck in terms of injuries – their injury epidemic has even stretched to transfer targets, with the €6m signing of Polish fullback Robert Gumny falling through after a failed medical. Training this week featured just 15 outfield players, and with 9 players missing, the squad has been stretched in recent games. Reece Oxford, the young West Ham loanee, has been thrust into a starting role, playing out of position at right back, where it is clear that he is not entirely comfortable – and he has been playing through calf problems. Hazard, as mentioned above, has frequently played as a forward, where he has failed to impress, and with Tony Jantschke and Oscar Wendt out, Nico Elvedi has become first choice left back. Youngsters Mandela Egbo, Florian Meyer and Aaron Herzog have all appeared in the matchday squad, Egbo coming on in the latter stages of the Hannover match.
It is not a surprise to those who remember the acrimonious retirement of Alvaro Dominguez that Gladbach are suffering from an injury crisis. Much like Dominguez, the currently sidelined Raffael serves as a reminder of the dangers present when players rush back from injury, having aggravated a calf problem against Stuttgart, when he returned to the line up. The team has plans to improve the medical department, but the proposed changes are unlikely to come before next autumn. By then, it will be too late to save Gladbach’s season, and if Dieter Hecking cannot make the best of this bad situation, it may be too late to save his job.
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