In the 39th minute on the 30th Matchday of the 2012-2013 Bundesliga season in his first Bundesliga start, Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Branimir Hrgota stepped up to take a penalty he was not assigned to take. Hrgota, only 20 years old, channeled his brash youthful exuberance to score in the most humiliating fashion for the opposing keeper. He used a Panenka chip to slowly lob the ball over diving Mainz goalie Heinz Müller and into the net. It tied the score at 1-1.
Hrgota finished the match with a hat trick, earning all sorts of plaudits. Fast forward to the first competitive match of the 2013-2014 season for Die Fohlen in the first round of the DFB Pokal. Down 5-4, young Hrgota steps up. Same Panenka chip, different result. The crossbar clips his effort onto the line and Gladbach’s Pokal ended in embarrassment with a loss to third division side SV Darmstadt 98. Hrgota’s plaudits were transformed into punchlines. The zenith of last season became a mirror of (hopefully) this season’s nadir.
There were two major additions to Gladbach during the summer: Max Kruse from Freiburg and Raffael from Dynamo Kiev. These signings differ from last year’s three major additions (Xhaka, de Jong, Dominguez) as they come with Bundesliga experience. Raffael has 126 games and 25 goals worth of Bundesliga experience. The latter spent the second half of last season in Kiev on loan from Schalke where he performed well below his ability. Meanwhile, Max Kruse had a breakout campaign at Freiburg last season with 11 goals and 8 assists. (That 11 goal mark is only one shy of Gladbach’s two leading scorer total combined, Herrmann and de Jong with 6 each), while his 8 assists tied Juan Arango’s team lead.
The transition between leagues and enormous expectations may have been what caused roller-coaster seasons for Gladbach’s two biggest signings of last season . Last season, Gladbach’s biggest signings Granit Xhaka, and Luuk de Jong had up-and-down campaigns. To call either a flop is still premature, but their performances did not justify their transfer fees either.
Gladbach’s third summer signing went almost completely under the radar. Christop Kramer comes in from Bayer Leverkusen on loan. He spent last season on loan at Bochum where he was overshadowed by his central midfield partner, and now Schalke 04 wonder-kid, Leon Goretzka. Kramer hopes to reverse the poor record of Gladbach’s loan signings. Last season’s loanees, Tolgi Cigerci and Alexander Ring (whose face resembles Marco Reus, but whose football features certainly do not), were disappointing. The same applies to the loans of previous seasons including Joshua King, who came from Man United, while Hannover’s Mame Diouf and Ron Robert Zieler also came from ManU, and successfully so.
There is definitely opportunity for Kramer at Gladbach though. The two center midfield slots in front of the defense (4-2-3-1) are open. Havard Nordtveit has the most experience and has been successful in his Gladbach career, but may also be used more in defense this season. Granit Xhaka is the big money signing and had been a preemptive favorite to start last season. However, he lost his starting position after an embarrassing 0-4 loss to Werder Bremen (was not the only terrible player in that game) last season, and had issues surrounding his attitude. He earned his starting spot back on Matchday 30 and completed the full 90 in the last five matches. This lack of certainty in the defensive midfield opens up the possibility that Kramer could find a place in the starting XI.
Then there is Thorben Marx. ”Marxi” is player who was featured more significantly than Xhaka last season, and is still lingering on the roster. He came back from the darkness of the deep bench to take over for Xhaka after his dust-up with Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Marx filled in admirably, providing cover for the back four, but was limited in attack. Next, 17 year old Mahmoud Dahoud is a welcome addition from the youth team, providing depth to the backline. He was a surprise starter in the Telekom Cup Final vs. Bayern at this position and was a bright spot in the 5-1 Super Bayern show. Dahoud is definitely one for the future.
Last season, Gladbach finished in 8th place. The loss in the first round of the Pokal and the failure to qualify for Europe means Gladbach will be playing in only 35 meaningful games this season. Last season, Gladbach played 11 more games with 10 additional games coming from European competition (2 in a Champions League qualifier vs. Dynamo Kiev; 8 in the Europa League) and advanced one round further in the Pokal than this year (losing in second round to Fortuna Düsseldorf).
Furthermore, the Europa League was the venue of Gladbach’s greatest successes last season. They beat Marseille 2-0, beat Fenerbahçe 3-0 in a game in which Amin Younes first impressed, giving Favre an option for the present and future). Naturally, the Europa League had contributed significantly to the Foals’ balance sheet, but also offered the excuse of fatigue for poor performance in the league (e.g. used by Favre after the Matchday 29 loss to Stuttgart).
The total of 35 games in 2013/14 is also four less than magical 2011/2012 season when the Reus/Dante-led squad reached the semi-finals of the Pokal before losing on penalties to Bayern. This lighter schedule could result a more focused Bundesliga campaign, but problems of minute distribution may arise.
More importantly, the lack of meaningful matches could most benefit the defensive unit of Gladbach, since the club has only six defenders with Bundesliga experience. Of these six defenders, the left back and captain Daems is approaching 35, backup center back Brouwers is 31, and starting center back Stranzl is 33. While Daems has battled injuries, Oscar Wendt has filled the left back reliably. The greatest concern, however, is the somewhat physical frailty of the squad’s centerbacks – such as Stranzl, Brouwers or Dominguez taking an elbow and breaking a bone in the face, missing a month of play. There are other dangerous scenarios for the centerbacks, too, such as yellow cards piling up or a poor tackle leading to red and a ban. So having one more center back would be optimal for the Foals.
Sporting director Max Eberl blamed this summer’s lack of movement on the lack of talented German defenders. In Eberl’s defense, it was a bull market for central defenders. The moves included Lasse Sobiech (Fürth to Hamburg), Johan Djourou (Arsenal to Hamburg), Timm Klose (Nürnberg to Wolfsburg), as well as Jan Kirchoff (Mainz to Bayern), Felipe Santana (Dortmund to Schalke) and Sokratis (Bremen to Dortmund).
On the other side of the equation is the offense. While Gladbach lost Igor de Camargo and Mike Hanke at the start of last season, their depth on top remains the strength of team. Since last season began, Hrgota scored a hat-trick in his first Bundesliga start, Peniel Mpala showed flashes of dominance with his size and pace, and Luuk de Jong improved as last season progressed. All three strikers are under the age of 23. The age of the strikers are important to note. Take the aforementioned Max Kruse. Max Kruse at 23 played in the 2. Bundesliga with St. Pauli and Max Kruse at 25 had been called into the German national side for its tour of the United States. With the proper opportunities/mentality and luck to avoid injuries, who can put a ceiling on where Hrgota/Mpala/de Jong will be at 25?
At center attacking midfield, is diminutive, but immensely talented, Amin Younes. The 20 year old has emerged as a candidate for regular action. Raffael, 28, is Younes’ main competitor for the central attacking midfield role, and considering this is Raffael’s third team under Lucien Favre’s control, he is the favorite. On the wings, Patrick Herrmann will man the right, while Juan Arango will take the left with Oscar Wendt having experience in backing up Arango. The other new signing Max Kruse is Mr. Versatility with the ability to play striker, central attacking midfield, or left wing.
With all these choices, Favre may have trouble in distributing minutes – minutes that would have gone to Tolgi Cigerci (loan expired/797 minutes in BL), Alexander Ring (loan expired/188 minutes in BL) or may have gone to Lukas Rupp (still with club, ineffective/1,084 minutes) will need to be redistributed.
The 12-million Euro question is: does Favre believe in Luuk de Jong? In the final five games of the season with Europa qualification at stake (5 points outside 4th), Favre did not. Luuk de Jong played 41 minutes in the last five matches. By contrast Mike Hanke, who the club had already decided to let leave on free (Max Kruse’s replacement at Freiburg), had played 319 minutes. Hanke was not the only player ahead of de Jong, however. Branimir Hrgota passed de Jong in rotation and scored a hat-trick in a match de Jong did not play. De Jong spent the summer in the U-21 Euros where he could only muster one goal despite having a talented team around him.
So again the season opens with disappointment for Gladbach, as after one match they were bounced from the Pokal. Meanwhile last season, after one week there was the disappointment of being bounced from the Champions League. With the door of the Champions League closed, it had opened a window to a successful campaign in the Europa League. So hopefully with the elimination from the Pokal comes Bundesliga success.