November 24, 2017

The Evolution of Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Lars Stindl

Lars Stindl has paid his dues. He did not come up as a phenom like a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. He was never considered the future of German football like Mario Götze or Thomas Müller once were. He did not come up through the youth ranks of a top club to become their next great leader like Phillip Lahm or Benedikt Höwedes. No, instead, Stindl moved up the ranks the old-fashioned way, through hard work, determination, and perseverance. All of his efforts ultimately paid off as the then-28 year old at long last made his German national team debut in 2017, which culminated in winning the Confederations Cup, giving Germany a wave of momentum they hope to ride all the way to the World Cup next year. To understand how Stindl got to where he is we must first look at where he has been. How did this one-time relative unknown become a centerpiece for reigning world champions Germany in 2017, as well as the leader of Borussia Mönchengladbach, one of the the Bundesliga’s most storied clubs?

Humble Beginnings at Karlsruher SC

Premiering for Karlsruher SC early on

Stindl began his youth career at TSV Wiesenthal and later moved to the much larger and more prominent Karlsruher SC where he spent seven years in the developmental system. It was with KSC where the youngster would make his professional and Bundesliga debut on March 15th, 2008 in a 0:1 defeat against Eintracht Frankfurt. From that point onward Lars was a regular in the Karlsruhe senior squad. Later that year he would score his first Bundesliga goal against the club that would only a short time thereafter become his home for many years to come, Hannover 96.

Karlsruhe was relegated after the 2008-09 Bundesliga season. A young talent like Stindl is normally sold off to minimize the financial ramifications that come with a drop to a lower division.  Stindl however, stuck it out and played in 33 of Karlsruhe’s 34 matches in the German second tier in 2009-10 on his way to leading the team with nine goals, while assisting six more. Though he would later go on to find his niche as a forward, his best season to that point (2009-10) was split almost evenly between left, right, center, and attacking midfield (matches played at each position: LM-6, RM-10, CM-8, AM-6). It was at this point when several Bundesliga clubs started to take notice of the versatile KSC man. Eventually, it was Hannover 96 who were announced as his future club on March 16th, 2010. After a solid start to his professional career at Karlsruhe it was time to move on to bigger and better  things. Stindl did just that.

Taking The Next Step With Hannover 96

Stindl was a workhorse in his first season with Hannover, starting 23 of the 33 matches in which he appeared (he missed one due to yellow card suspension) while scoring two goals and assisting five. He was primarily used as a right midfielder during his inaugural season with The Reds, though Hannover management would come to find out that he was much better suited for a different role.

The 2011-12 season saw Stindl become the permanent starter for Hannover at right midfield as he started all 28 matches in which he played during that campaign. He was progressing as a player on the pitch and as a leader inside the dressing room. Besides coming into his own in the Bundesliga, Stindl enjoyed a successful Europa League campaign with Hannover 96 in 2011-12 as they defeated a dangerous Sevilla side to qualify for the tournament. Upon finishing second in their group, the club advanced all the way into the quarter-finals of the competition before being eliminated by Spanish powerhouse Atletico Madrid, 2:4 on aggregate. Out of Hannover’s fourteen matches in the Europa League in this season (including the qualifying round) Stindl started thirteen of them. The only match he missed (due to injury) was the second leg of the Atletico fixture, which resulted in a 1:2 defeat. By May of 2012 Stindl had become a focal point in what appeared to be a 96ers team on the rise, following a respectable performance in Europe and another top 7 finish in the Bundesliga.

Stindl, along with Hannover 96, was in the midst of another successful campaign in 2012-13 when disaster struck. The midfielder ruptured a ligament that would see him miss five months of action. Stindl was playing his best football yet for the Saxons, scoring two goals and assisting five by match day fourteen. Hannover sat comfortably at sixth place in the table prior to Stindl’s injury, well within striking distance of a Champions League position. Though the club never collapsed, they did drop down to as far as eleventh place in the Bundesliga during Stindl’s absence. Their Europa League dreams were also severely impacted by this injury. After winning their group in the fall of 2012, the Saxons were immediately eliminated in the knockout stage by Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala. Despite having other talent on the roster, it is undeniable that Stindl missing nearly half of the season put a halt to most of Hannover’s momentum.  Lars would make his return on April 12th, 2013, with a top six Bundesliga finish still in sight as well as a chance to qualify for their third consecutive appearance in the Europa League. Unfortunately, Hannover were only able to earn seven points in their final six matches and would finish a disappointing ninth place in the German top flight.

Hannover looked to make the 2013-14 season their best in the Bundesliga to date. The side needed only to focus on the league as they were not featured in Europe during this campaign, with of course, the occasional DFB-Pokal match sprinkled in. As the newly appointed captain of the squad, Stindl took it upon himself to ensure his side was successful. It was also a transitional year tactically for Lars as his primary position of right midfield was shifted to central midfield. By the end of the season though, he was featured as an attacking midfielder, scoring two goals in the final five matches of the season, tripling his goal total for the season to that point. This was a move made by newly appointed manager Tayfun Korkut, replacing Mirko Slomka who was sacked during the winter break.

Captain of Hannover 96

Despite a terrific start which saw Hannover in fourth place through match day seven, they were unable to sustain their momentum and eventually slipped to mid-table. The club had lost a number of contributors from the previous season, as is generally the case for a club like Hannover, too big for some, not big enough for others. For Stindl however, Hannover seemed the perfect fit. He certainly did not lack ambition. Stindl was simply of the mindset that Hannover was fully capable of breaking through and becoming a Bundesliga power.

For Lars, the 2014-15 season was a landmark campaign as it would prove to be his best season ever in a Hannover 96 shirt, despite missing the first ten league matches due to a knee injury. Through hard work and determination he hard-earned the Hannover captaincy and the trust of the managerial staff. Stindl would also reach double figures in league goals (10) for the first time in his professional career. Had he played the full lot of matches, the 96er could very well have contended for the Torjägerkanone (Golden Boot Award in the Bundesliga).

Hannover would again perform well during the Hinrunde, keeping a top five position all the way into match day thirteen, eventually occupying the eighth position in the league table going into the winter break. Stindl had made the permanent switch to attacking midfield on the heels of his successful run of form to close out the previous season. This seemed a natural fit for the player as he flourished in his new role within the Hannover attack, en route to leading the club in goals. Things quickly soured though as the Rückrunde got underway. Stindl’s individual performance was one of few positives for the club after the winter break, as the team proceeded to take a historic nose dive toward the bottom of the table. Hannover would not win a single league match from December 21st, 2014 (match day 17) until May 16th, 2015 (match day 33). The club dropped from eighth in the table down to seventeenth, an automatic relegation spot. The Saxons’ performance during the second half of the 2014-15 season is one of the worst in the Rückrunde in recent league history, only saving themselves from a drop to the 2. Bundesliga with consecutive desperation wins on the final two match days (six of Hannover’s thirteen total points in the Rückrunde came during the final eight days of the season).

The writing was on the wall. There was not much more Stindl could do for the club, who were in obvious trouble both on the pitch and in the front office. He had played every position that was asked of him and excelled at it. His progression at Hannover 96 was complete. Stindl had become a leader within the club, the best player in the squad, and the team captain. The fear of instability within the club was becoming a reality as a second managerial change was made in as many seasons as Tayfun Korkut was sacked and replaced by Michael Frontzeck on April 20th, 2015. Any supporter of the club knew that Frontzeck was not the long-term solution to Hannover’s woes. The players knew this as well. The time had come for Stindl to depart Hannover 96. It is quite frustrating when upper management causes the ship you helped build to sink. Stindl, still hungry for major success and eager to one day play for his country, left the 96ers behind in the summer of 2015 to play for Borussia Mönchengladbach, a club that had recently re-emerged as a German football power after a three decade-long hiatus.

Becoming a Star at Borussia Mönchengladbach and Selection to Die Mannschaft

In 2015-16 Stindl announced himself to the world. With ‘Gladbach, Stindl would at long last play on the biggest stage in all of club football, the UEFA Champions League. The Foals drew arguably the toughest group in the entire competition with reigning Europa League champions Sevilla, 2014-15 Champions League runners-up Juventus, and English powerhouse Manchester City. Mönchengladbach’s first appearance in the “Champions League” era of the European Cup would be a short one, finishing last in the group, one point off of third place. Lars Stindl though, was magnificent. He led the team in goals (3) and assists (2) in their six group stage matches.

Mönchengladbach’s league success would continue as they went on to finish fourth in the Bundesliga and qualify for their second consecutive appearance in the Champions League. Stindl had officially made the move to centre forward under manager André Schubert and continued his rise to becoming a top-tier Bundesliga player. He finished the 2015-16 season with the second-most goals for the Foals across all competitions (14) behind only Raffael (15). If the German sports media had not taken notice of  Stindl before, they certainly were now.

If 2015-16 was the coming out party for Stindl, then 2016-17 is when he kicked the door down. He was named as the team captain prior to the season and many predicted another top four finish for The Foals. Things however, do not always go according to the script as ‘Gladbach got off to a pedestrian start in the league and as a result, led to the sacking of manager André Schubert on December 21st, 2016. Replacing him was the polarizing Dieter Hecking. Say what you will about him, it was Hecking who moved Stindl to secondary striker and centre forward. This move produced immediate results and as it pertains to individual performance, Lars has never looked back. In the fifteen matches played under Schubert as primarily an attacking midfielder, Stindl managed a mere three goals. After Hecking assumed the managerial role with the Foals, Stindl would only play as either a centre forward or secondary striker. As a result, in the fifteen matches Stindl played within the Hecking system, he scored eight goals en route to leading the team in that category, both in the league (11), as well as across all competitions (18).

‘Gladbach again drew a tough group in the Champions League including FC Barcelona, Manchester City and Scottish giants Celtic Glasgow. Mönchengladbach would finish third in the group despite the squad’s best efforts, dropping into the round of 32 in the Europa League. It was in this round, a two-leg fixture against Fiorentina, where Stindl would garner international attention.

Borussia Mönchengladbach found themselves in a rather deep hole in the 2016-17 Europa League round of 32 fixture against Italian club Fiorentina. After the 29th minute of the second leg, The Foals found themselves down 0:3 on aggregate with 61 minutes to avoid elimination. That is when Stindl made his name known across the continent. Stindl scored his first goal right before half time with a successful 44th minute penalty kick. Shortly after play resumed, in the 47th minute, Stindl struck again. To complete his fantastic Europa League hat trick, Stindl added another for good measure in the 55th minute, drawing ‘Gladbach level in the fixture with 35 minutes to play. Mönchengladbach scored another goal only five minutes later (Andreas Christensen) to now go ahead on aggregate 4:3. In a span of only fourteen minutes, the Foals overcame a three goal deficit to take the lead over a shell-shocked Fiorentina side, on their way to the round of 16. For Stindl, it was the performance of a lifetime, and one that caught the eye German national team manager Joachim Löw.

Stindl lifting the Confed Cup trophy after Germany triumph

On June 6th, 2017, at almost 29 years of age, Stindl made his German national team debut, assisting a goal in a friendly draw against Denmark. Stindl has been selected to represent Germany for every match the team has played since. It was at the 2017 Confederations Cup however, where the strikerl likely stamped his ticket to the 2018 World Cup in Russia to help Germany defend their championship. Stindl played in four of Germany’s five matches and finished tied with teammates Timo Werner and Leon Goretzka as the top goal scorers of the tournament (3). Germany beat Chilé in the final to win their first Confederations Cup with Lars Stindl scoring the match-winner. Along with Goretzka, Stindl was awarded the competition’s silver boot award (second highest scoring player).

For  Stindl, the journey continues. He has risen through the ranks through improving his game, mastering countless positions, and playing for half a dozen different managers. Stindl was not born a superstar. He has worked his tail off just to be recognized. He did not come up through the youth ranks at Borussia Dortmund or FC Barcelona. Stindl was never going to be an 18-year-old phenom making his professional debut for Bayern München like a Bastian Schweinsteiger.  Stindl had a slow and steady progression season after season. Every fall as the players returned to the pitch for the start of a new campaign, Stindl always appeared to have improved since his last competitive match the previous spring. After a decade of countless injuries and setbacks, tactical changes within the squad, and not finding his ideal position until his late twenties, Stindl had finally arrived in the eyes of the football world as he lifted the 2017 Confederations Cup Trophy above his head. Vindication.

Where To Go From Here?

The Foals’ star story is far from over. He has only just arrived as a Bundesliga star and a valuable player for Die Nationalmannschaft. His 2017-18 season is off to another great start for Hecking’s side. The ultimate prize, a return trip to Russia, still lies ahead. Lars is the type of player you find yourself rooting for, without much explanation needed. You can see the “footballer” inside of him after watching him play for five minutes. At age 29, Stindl is only going to get one shot at winning the World Cup. For me personally, growing up in Germany and having had the pleasure of witnessing two world championships in my lifetime, there would be no greater last visual from the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow next summer than that of Stindl lifting one more trophy above his head.

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Christopher Smith

Christopher grew up in Amberg, Germany, but now resides in Charleston, South Carolina in the USA where he follows the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga on a weekly basis. He is an avid Borussia Dortmund fan, but enjoys all German football from top to bottom. His favorite players are "Super" Mario Götze and Christian Pulisic. You can follow him on twitter @crittysmith

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