It may seem a fair few days premature to say 2015 is over, but it is. With no Bundesliga games due to be played until mid-January 2016, there’s now a worryingly large gap to be filled for fans of the league – perhaps by other leagues which run during the winter, maybe by other pastimes – until Bayern take on Hamburg to kick off the Rückrunde, but at least on Sunday evening we had a game of the highest entertainment, if not quality, to round out 2015/2016’s interesting take on the Hinrunde.
Borussia Mönchengladbach played host to Darmstadt at Borussia Park in the Sunday evening, knowing a win would grant them fourth place in the table at Christmas with a higher points tally than at this point last season. All of these have been earned under current coach Andre Schubert, but in recent weeks there has been quite rightfully cause for concern about the direction Schubert is taking his new charges in. Borussia have found their hopes dashed on two fronts in the past week, with elimination from Europe at the hands of Manchester City last week and from the cup in shocking fashion at home to Werder Bremen a few days ago, but perhaps more worryingly is the rate at which Borussia are conceding, shipping thirteen goals in three matches ahead of Sunday’s clash against Darmstadt.
Darmstadt, for their part, have endured somewhat of a tougher time recently. While exit from the cup in midweek wasn’t so humiliating – losing only to a Xabi Alonso screamer at the Allianz – they sit in mid-table but sinking fast, having picked up just five points in their previous seven matches. The parallels to last season’s relegated minnow, Paderborn, are quite stark, but their coach Dirk Schuster has still won Kicker’s man of the year – that they have made a challenge to stay up is quite remarkable.
Whatever the case, this should have been an easy win for Borussia and a stroll home to the final three points of 2015, a year to remember for all involved with the club – and some who aren’t any longer – and one which will hopefully lay the foundations for better things to come in 2016. Football isn’t that simple, though, and Darmstadt went into a deserved lead just before the half hour through winger Marcel Heller, probably their key player this season. While Heller’s goals thus far have tended to involve hard work and running, it was a simple as they come as Borussia were caught napping at a long throw into the box, one flicked on by former Hertha man Sandro Wagner and tucked past Swiss custodian Yann Sommer by the aforementioned Heller.
Did Borussia have cause for complaint? No. They’d had most of the ball throughout the game but hadn’t really created anything clear cut, with Darmstadt constantly looking the more likely of the two teams to make something happen. A difficult task for Schubert’s charges had been compounded by Heller’s strike, and was made even more difficult minutes later as midfielder Granit Xhaka lashed out on Darmstadt’s Peter Niemeyer, receiving a red card from referee Benjamin Brand after consultation with one of the linesmen, who’d seen the whole incident. Xhaka claimed to have been provoked by Niemeyer, and following incidents earlier in the 2015 – against Sevilla and Ingolstadt in particular – this looks likely, but his subsequent loss of temper was ill-advised and Borussia would be left a man down as well as a goal down.
At this point, some form of inspiration needs to be found. Sometimes this comes from a brilliant managerial decision, the right substitution made at the right time or a slight tactical switch making the difference. Lars Stindl moved deeper, and while this was more out of necessity rather than design, it was Stindl who would prove key moments later, dragging a shot past Christian Mathenia after a solo run to equalise before half time.
For his part, Stindl was probably the best player on the pitch throughout the ninety, grabbing a crucial goal at a pivotal moment in the game and then running the game in the second half, breaking up play as Darmstadt began to pile on pressure in the second half and eventually providing an assist as the game reached its climax.
Nordtveit scored a peach of a free kick for Borussia, but it was largely against the run of play as Darmstadt looked to make their man advantage pay. They missed a handful of opportunities but eventually, an untracked Heller whipped in a ball to an unmarked Wagner, the scorer of the first goal returning the favour to the provider of the first assist as Darmstadt tied the game at 2-2. It was hard to argue with the score at that point, and the goal – as with Heller’s opener – highlighted Borussia’s severely anaemic defence. At half time, Borussia boasted on Twitter that Yann Sommer has made twice as many saves from shots in the six yard box as any other goalkeeper in the league. This is testament to the Swiss goalkeeper, who made several handy saves on Sunday, but is not a record Borussia actually want to have, as it shows the utterly dreadful state of the defence in allowing these opportunities to be created.
Should Schubert be worried about this? Frankly, if he isn’t, he’s not in the right profession, and if he doesn’t have a solution he isn’t the right man for the job. After Darmstadt’s equaliser, Borussia shifted back to playing a back three – a formation which was played in the success over Bayern but also throughout their incredibly leaky games afterwards – and it is worrying that this is his idea of a winning tactic. Against top teams it will be, and has been, exposed as one-dimensional.
Yes, Schubert’s Bundesliga record so far has been sparkling, but there must remain question marks over his squad management and the defence remains a worry – a club such as Darmstadt would not ordinarily put two past a club sitting in fourth in the table under competent management, and while Borussia’s attacking play remains exciting to watch, it must be tempered by the basic fact that you don’t win many games by conceding two, three or even four goals.
January will be a huge test in this respect. Borussia greet the other Borussia, the return of a fixture in which they got drubbed in August, before travelling to Mainz, who until the early game on Sunday had been excellent in recent times. If Schubert doesn’t get those games right, he will be playing catch up for the rest of the Rückrunde, with a number of teams chasing the all-important third placed Bundesliga spot and automatic qualification to the Champions League.
A late Oscar Wendt winner – fitting, after Oscar Wendt has been one of a handful of players who can truly lay claim to having had a nigh-on perfect 2015 for Borussia – snaffled the three points for die Fohlen on Sunday, but against better teams than Darmstadt, things have to improve quickly. Schubert is, then, in the first sticky situation of his embryonic top-level managerial career. Thankfully, he has the winter break to stamp out the defensive woes which have plagued the club throughout the Hinrunde this season. Judgement can, and will, wait.
Borussia Mönchengladbach 3:2 (1:1) Darmstadt
Stindl 44., Nordtveit 51., Wendt 86. – Heller 28., Wagner 67.
Borussia: Sommer; Korb, Christensen, Elvedi, Wendt; Hazard (Brouwers, 72.), Nordtveit, Xhaka, Johnson; Stindl (Dahoud, 88.); Raffael (Drmic, 89.).
Darmstadt: Mathenia; Garics, Sulu, Caldirola, Holland; Niemeyer (Vrancic, 55.); Heller, Rosenthal (Stroh-Engel, 87.), Gondorf, Kempe (Rausch, 76.); Wagner.
Yellow Cards: Stindl 45+1 – Niemeyer 39., Caldirola 45+2., Holland 60., Heller 66.
Red Card: Xhaka 39.
Photo by: PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images