What has gone wrong at Borussia Mönchengladbach?
Despite their latest 2-0 victory over surprise package Eintracht Frankfurt, there is no denying that the season so far has been a disappointment for Gladbach fans. The disappointment of losing their best players in the summer was confounded by the prospect, and eventual failure to, participate in the Champions League and an underwhelming start to the season. With the Foals currently sitting 10th in the league and being closer to relegation than another European spot the feeling of joy that permeated Gladbach fans last year has undoubtedly diminished at Borussia Park.
Not many teams can recover well or quickly after losing their best defender, midfielder and attacking player. All of this happened to Gladbach this summer, with Dante going to Bayern München for 4.7m€, despite having a contract with die Fohlen until 2014, Roman Neustädter heading to Schalke on a free and, most notably, Marco Reus returning to Dortmund for a 17.1m€.
With over 22m€ in the transfer kitty and the prospect of Champions League football, Gladbach manager Lucien Favre and sportdirector Max Eberl had to go to work to find replacements for these departures and also find players that were appropriate for a Champions League campaign. Their first big signing was Granit Xhaka from FC Basel for a staggering 10m€. Xhaka enjoyed a successful campaign for FC Basel last year in the Champions League, reaching the knockout rounds before eventually being knocked out by FC Bayern. However, Xhaka was one of the key figures for that team and rumours of a transfer to the Bundesliga emerged, with Gladbach finally taking the biscuit. To replace Dante, Álvaro Domínguez came from Atlético Madrid for 11m€. Again, a young player with European experience coming from a technically better league should fill in Dante’s boots perfectly. And lastly, to replace Marco Reus, Eberl and Favre chose FC Twente’s Luuk de Jong, arriving at Borussia Park for 12m€, a record transfer for Mönchengladbach. De Jong scored 25 goals in 32 Eredivise games last season, second in the league to Wolfsburg summer signing Bas Dost.
With these three new players and a Champions League qualifying tie against Dynamo Kiev, spirits were high at Borussia Park, but this soon changed. Despite going one goal up inside the first 15 minutes against the Ukrainian giants in the first leg at home through Juan Arango, things quickly turned sour as Dynamo scored two quick goals that were topped off by a de Jong own goal ten minutes from the end. 1-3 seemed like a huge mountain to climb. In the return leg, Gladbach almost completed the miracle going two up with 10 minutes to go, but a late goal by Dynamo had no response from Favre’s men and all of a sudden they were out. This was a huge hit for the club morally and financially, since 33m€ of investment plus higher wages might not be paid off quite as easily with Europa League prize money.
Tactically nothing changed, with Favre maintaining the 4-2-3-1 he trained with over the summer and the new arrivals slotting into the spots left empty by the departed stars. Something, though, was not clicking and Gladbach didn’t have the fluidity that we so often saw last season. Xhaka seemed sluggish in midfield and de Jong didn’t look a threat up front like Reus used to. The explosiveness on the break was gone, errors in defense were beginning to become commonplace and their passing was no longer crisp and quick. Despite Gladbach’s opening Bundesliga win against Hoffenheim, they went another 5 Bundesliga games and 2 Europa League games without a win, ending the run with the aforementioned victory against Frankfurt. Most notably, heavy defeats against Dortmund (5-0) and Fenerbahçe at home in the Europa League (2-4) accompanied by disappointing results such as a goalless draw at AEL Limassol in Europe and a home defeat against Nürnberg (2-3), found Gladbach wanting.
No doubt much of the reason for Gladbach’s downturn in performance lie in the nature of the changes this summer. As mentioned before, losing the spine of one’s team isn’t something one can just recover from in a few weeks. Players take time to adapt, especially to a new league. Domínguez, sidelined during much of the preseason, was always a vocal player at Atlético and not speaking the language will definitely be a part that will weaken his game and cause defensive instability. Gladbach conceded 24 goals in the league last season in 34 games, averaging 0.7 goals against per game, a huge part of their success. This year, they have already conceded half of that amount in only 7 games in the Bundesliga, an average of 1.7.
Added to the goals conceded in the Dynamo games (4) and the 4 that Fenerbahçe scored the other week, their defence is suddenly not so stable. Martin Stranzl has been poor this season as well and with Roel Brouwers also not having continuity in the side, it’s easy to see why this defence is so unstable.
In midfield, Havard Nordtveit has taken over the reins that were to be inherited by Xhaka. Roman Neustädter last year brought stability and clean defensive play (only 2 yellow cards in 33 games) that made life easier for the defence and allowed the team to recover the ball quickly and hit the opposition on the counter. This year, Xhaka hasn’t really been the player everyone was expecting. With 4 yellow cards already, the Swiss international seems to struggle with the transition of defence to attack and vice versa, leaving him caught out of position or being caught in possession way too often, with his bookings coming regularly on the hour mark also conditioning his play in the late stages of the game. His inability to cut the other team’s possession and quickly create an attack is a huge difference from last year and what has made Gladbach a much slower team. Also, Favre has experimented this year in midfield, bringing in Alexander Ring, Tolga Cigerci and Lukas Rupp, thus altering the lineups and not allowing for a team that’s already struggling to gel together. Patrick Herrmann was also expected to step up his game this season but doesn’t seem to have that edge, being substituted on all but three of the ten games he’s played this season.
Up front, Marco Reus’ absence has been a huge handicap. However, it’s not just that but also the absence of Mike Hanke in the regular starting XI. Effectively, de Jong’s characteristics are nothing like Reus’, with the striker preferring a ball to feet rather than in space approach and has not caused the defences as much panic as the current Dortmund player used to. This added to the fact that he’s only scored three goals in ten games in all competitions (2 in Bundesliga, 1 in Europa League) has started to make his price tag a bit heavy on his shoulders. Whether it’s just an adaptation period he’s going through or not, de Jong needs to start coming up with the goods if he doesn’t want that pressure to get worse. In his quest to find a replacement for Reus’ creativity and dynamism, Favre has tried several players behind De Jong including Xhaka, Rupp and Cigerci, none of them quite fitting the mold.
A contributing factor to that pressure is the unhappiness of fellow striker Mike Hanke. Hanke was a key factor last year, adding 8 goals in 29 starts, while providing muscle up front and excellent aerial skills bringing other players into play. With the Dutchman’s arrival this season, Hanke has seen his chances limited, starting only 3 Bundesliga games and scoring just once, on the opening day. He has also voiced this unhappiness in the press and has hinted at a move if his chances to start in the future don’t improve, chances that he believes he deserves after de Jong’s poor form so far.
How this situation might resolve itself for Gladbach is a bit of a mystery since last week’s win against high-flying Eintracht leaves room for hope and improvement. However, it’s clear that they need to be more dynamic in possession and Xhaka will need to be the man to bring that dynamism and speed in the transitions if this is to happen. As mentioned, he has also been tried in a role behind the striker but that leaves the holding midfielders behind with little creation and the ball struggles to find its way forward. With 10 games to go until the Winterpause, die Fohlen’s new players will have more time to adapt but 5 months should definitely be enough and the line must be drawn there.
Defense is another issue. With Domínguez still learning how the Bundesliga works, Stranzl has been the chosen man to partner him in most games and his form hasn’t been the greatest. Prone to lapses in concentration, Gladbach are suffering in that department and Tony Jantschke hasn’t been seen bursting up the wing as often as last season due to having to cover at the back. Conceding an average of a goal a game more than last season is definitely something that Favre will have to look into since ter Stegen is left helpless on many occasions. However, with so much money already having been spent, one wonders how much is left, if any at all, and whether another new player is a solution. Common sense says that the solution has to come from within. Might it be the time to give Niklas Dams a chance? The 22 year-old German defender, though, has never played in a Bundesliga match but has been with the Foals for almost ten years.
Perhaps it’s time that Favre stops giving chances to players who are clearly not performing. De Camargo has clearly not offered much this season coming off the bench and yet he is preferred to Hanke. Despite de Jong’s price tag, Favre should revert to what worked for him last season and try to follow the same pattern of play instead of changing the whole approach, something which might have been necessary with the new players in the team. Hanke deserves his chance and has proven to be much more of a handful in games, always appearing in attack and not going AWOL as often as the current striker does. Also, Peniel Mlapa is returning from his pre-season injury and has already featured on the bench a couple of times and had a run out against Fenerbahçe. He could provide something different up front with his height and powerful physique, although an abundance of goals shouldn’t be expected from him (14 in 101 appearances), though he could perhaps do well as a target man who could bring other players into play. In any case, something has to change because this is clearly not working.
Right now, most Gladbach fans would take a Europa League spot at the end of the season even if aspirations were higher going into the new campaign. With the money spent at the club on wages and transfers, European football has to be a target even if it seems far off at the moment. Suffice to say, there is no shortage of pressure on Favre to turn things around. The time limit will definitely be the Winterpause and if Gladbach can experience a revival by then, starting with last week’s win, then the pressure might come off the players and allow them to play more freely and comfortably. However, if they find themselves in this position come December, it could be a very long season since their Europa League form doesn’t inspire much confidence for success either. If one lesson can be learned from this, it is that new players do not necessarily solve outgoing problems. Whether Eberl and Favre agree with this remains to be seen in the coming months.
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