They collected six points from an available nine during that packed Englische Woche of early Rückrunde action, but even so, there seems to be room for improvement for Lucien Favre’s Borussia Mönchengladbach. The Swiss tactician will celebrate his fourth anniversary with die Fohlen on Saturday – when his squad take on local rivals 1.FC Köln – but rather than reflecting on what has been a successful four years, Favre will be much more likely to be trying everything to help his team reach another European qualification.
Last Friday night – in that boring, narrow loss away in Gelsenkirchen (or a spectacle in defensive football, depending on how you look at it) – Favre’s side looked notably blunt in attack, and while their run in front of goal hasn’t exactly been barren in recent games, it’s been the next best thing. Single goal victories against VfB Stuttgart and SC Freiburg proved to be excellent results, but were heralded more in the efficiency of the Mönchengladbach side, scoring their best chances and defending stoutly, rather than through the sort of flair which saw them blow away the likes of Schalke, current form side Werder Bremen, Hoffenheim and Hannover with multiple goals and scintillating attacking performances.
So what’s happened in recent games that has made Mönchengladbach less prolific than they were before the Winterpause?
Firstly, die Fohlen’s start to the Rückrunde has been impacted by a combination of injury and travel, meaning that two of the club’s biggest attacking threats – Andre Hahn and Ibrahima Traore – haven’t been able to play big roles in the side this year thus far.
Hahn, signed from Augsburg in the summer, was instrumental in the early games of the season, and in spite of a slight drop in form going into Christmas, was still an important player for Favre’s team, being a consistent fixture in the starting eleven and also scoring key goals along the way. His 23 appearances for Borussia this season means Hahn only missed four games in the Hinrunde, and despite playing in a wide role, the former Offenbach winger still managed six goals – as well as five assists. His pace and strength – two important parts of his toolkit – also help Borussia execute the explosive counters for which they are often heralded by fans of the Bundesliga. Taking the Hinrunde game between Borussia and Bayern München as an example, Hahn was one of the outstanding performers in spite of Gladbach not managing to get on the scoresheet; his runs provided relief to the defence, and he menaced the Bayern defence whenever he got on the ball.
Being forced to play the slightly less speedy Fabian Johnson – a more defensive minded player, too – isn’t necessarily a problem, but did limit Favre somewhat in the style he could play in the opening games of the Rückrunde. Hahn should, however, feature again sometime soon, having returned to fitness from the Achilles injury which ruled him out of the earlier games.
In a similar sense, Ibrahima Traore has been a big miss for Borussia. Despite only really playing a bit-part at the club so far, starting just four games in the league so far for the club, Traore’s style has proved effective in the cup and Europe, as well as from the bench in the Bundesliga for Gladbach. A pacy, tricky winger, Traore again provides something different to his fellow wingers, and quite often troubles opposition defences. Even against Schalke last week – during a relatively flat attacking performance from his team – Traore provided the bright spark as a substitute, carving out Borussia’s only real clear-cut chance of the night thanks to good link-up play with Roel Brouwers. This was in spite of a lack of match training with his colleagues, having been at the African Cup of Nations with Guinea throughout January, meaning he missed out on the opening two games against Stuttgart and Freiburg. One feels that, given the chance to play against the Southern teams, he may have added some cutting edge to what was a fairly toothless Mönchengladbach attack at times.
However, the lack of availability of certain talented players isn’t the only reason for Mönchengladbach’s attacking bluntness over the past few weeks. A drop in the form of Raffael has been slightly problematic for Favre, whose other options in Raffael’s withdrawn attacking position are Max Kruse – better from a forward position – and Thorgan Hazard – whose inexperience is as visible as his very obvious talent.
Last season, Raffael was one of the revelations of the league. The Brazilian’s signing was relatively unheralded at the time, but shortly after linking up with Favre again – his former manager at both Zürich and Hertha – the noises from within the club, from coaching staff to players, were all positive. His debut season with die Fohlen was excellent – bagging fifteen goals and a further seven assists as an ever-present, and forging an excellent partnership with Max Kruse, too. While he had some off days, he was relatively consistent throughout, and at one point in the Rückrunde was one of the very few players actually making a positive account for himself, as the club endured a terrible start to 2014.
His season started well this year too, with an eye-catching performance against Schalke a high point during a strong run of form in the autumn months. However, while injury conspired to end his Hinrunde shortly before Christmas, the Brazilian could be accused of being relatively anonymous during the team’s poor run of form in November – as they lost to Dortmund, Frankfurt and Wolfsburg – and his performance against Schalke on Friday, his first start of the Rückrunde, continued in the vein of his pre-injury form. This is perhaps a slightly harsh criticism of a player who remains very important to how Borussia play, but it is undeniable that a fully fit and on form Raffael would add the cutting edge which the team were crying out for in the opening games of the year.
Kruse also endured a forgettable week, but it’d be tough to call the club’s top goalscorer into question, especially given his good form before the Winterpause. Having played 243 consecutive minutes in the space of 7 days, Kruse’s performances could perhaps be blamed on the tight Englische Woche schedule, but does ignore the fact that his performances in the first two games weren’t vintage Kruse, either. It also ignores the fact that Kruse does tend to add enough to the games he doesn’t score goals in to still be of use to his team; the former Freiburg man did still cover the ground necessary to create opportunities. Again, though, if Kruse returns to the sort of form which saw him begin his season with five goals in his first six games, Borussia’s attack will start to look as dangerous as it did in the earlier months of the season.
The other bright sign for Borussia’s attack comes in the sign of Swedish international Branimir Hrgota. The youngster, so prolific in European competition this season, has only scored one Bundesliga goal this season – a somewhat fortuitous effort against Bremen – but looked good in the pre-Rückrunde friendlies, as well as providing the assists for both goals scored by Borussia in the Bundesliga this year. Given his golden touch against the likes of Sarajevo and Limassol, and his previous scoring exploits in the Bundesliga, with that great hat-trick against Mainz back in 2013, it seems a matter of time – and importantly, playing time – until the Swede manages to hit a consistent run of goalscoring form. Favre has trusted Hrgota with more time on the pitch as the season has developed, and so hopefully (from a Gladbach perspective at least), Hrgota will begin to come good on some of his promise.
Equally, the man who profited from Hrgota’s pair of assists, Patrick Herrmann, looks like a player with all the confidence to become a so-called Leistungsträger for Mönchengladbach. Herrmann has risen well to the challenge that the signings of Hahn, Traore and Hazard (the latter as a loan) has provided. In spite of the reduced playing time, Herrmann is on track to enjoy his best season yet at the club, and is of course a large part of the reason why the club have started the Rückrunde well in terms of results.
And this, ultimately, is the crux of the debate: Borussia have been poor in front of goal recently, and ultimately could have improved their standing in the table had a few players been on sharper goalscoring form in the opening week of the Rückrunde, but die Fohlen’s excellent defence has put them in a strong position in the table and, in spite of the lack of chances over the past few games, in an ever-improving position, too. That there is an obvious area for improvement – and, as we’ve seen, that essentially translates into players coming back into form and staying fit – is also positive, as it shows that, despite the lofty position in the table, Borussia could continue to improve as the season goes on.
The challenge for Favre and his men begins on Saturday with the derby against 1.FC Köln; breaking down another of the league’s stronger defences will be a tough ask. If die Fohlen manage to do it, though, the sky is the limit for Favre’s young side, as we enter the fifth year of his stint at Borussia-Park.