In the first of a series counting down to the beginning of the Bundesliga season on Sept 18, we examine why Borussia Mönchengladbach are set to be contenders once more
Ramy Bensebaini is poised. The stadium is silent, though the frozen faces of fans watch on, glued to their seats. Under conditions like these, every detail of what happens on the pitch is audible. The Algerian defender goes to strike the ball. A familiar thud echoes out. Bayern’s goalie Manuel Neuer has guessed the right way, leaping to his left. But even if you could not see it, in the quiet of the modern football stadium, the clink of a ball nestling in the back of the net is the universally understood sound of a goal being scored.
Half a second later, there is a roar of a crowd. It’s not a sound generated by a TV producer, vainly trying to recreate the atmosphere to satisfy a multi-million euro broadcast rights holder and its audience. The transfixed faces of those watching aren’t cardboard cutouts sold to raise money and morale ahead of the restart of an interrupted Bundesliga season. That is the sound, those are the faces, of 54,000 honest-to-God human beings exploding with emotion, the majority with joy, at the conversion of a penalty kick, and the sudden prospect of Borussia Mönchengladbach going 7 points clear of Bayern München at the top of the table, to be confirmed in a matter of seconds.
It feels like a lifetime ago. It was the last time Bayern Munich suffered defeat in any competition, and at the time Borussia Mönchengladbach looked set for a real title challenge. The world has changed in many ways since December 7, 2019, and football is of course a tiny part of it. Concern about a “pneumonia of unknown cause” in Wuhan, China, would not be expressed by the country’s World Health Organization Office until December 31, and it would not be named COVID-19 until February. Rewatching that sight – of fans in the Nordkurve cheering, crying, falling over each other with delight – will fill anyone looking back with at least three conflicting feelings: that highly contagious sense of joy, a nostalgia for a return to normality, and more than a twinge of anxiety about the COVID-insecurity of the whole situation.
But that world, where Bayern have slipped to seventh and are not obviously on course for their first treble since 2013, was only nine months ago. Hansi Flick’s side of course played well against Gladbach, and the turnaround was well-underway, evidenced by their near flawless form since. Others can consider the prospects for Bayern Munich themselves, and whether the behemoth can keep rolling when the Bundesliga season starts on Sept 18. Obviously Bayern’s form will have to suffer a big drop-off if there is going to be a title race this season. Here we will focus on the other side of that match, and the reasons to be optimistic that Gladbach are well placed for another top four finish, and – should a real title race emerge – will be able to prove that those scenes in the Borussia-Park last December are not as otherworldly as they now might seem.
1. Bayern’s bogey team?
Can we say Angstgegner? That might be stretching it, but for a team as imperious as Bayern Munich have been in recent years, an interesting stat sticks out which shows that the Bensebaini-inspired victory for Gladbach last December wasn’t an anomaly.
Since 2014, BMG have posted 5 wins, 2 draws and 4 losses in match-ups with the Bavarians in the Bundesliga. Compare that to 2 league wins for Borussia Dortmund against Bayern, even as Der Klassiker is meant to pit the two strongest teams in Germany together. While BMG of course have finished consistently behind Dortmund and thus have come up short over the course of the season, it does demonstrate that in one-off games, Mönchengladbach can be a match for anyone.
Although it is dangerous to put too much stock by historical stats when squads and players change each year, there is a valuable insight in this. It’s much easier to improve your positioning in the table by finding consistency against smaller teams than it is to suddenly become competitive against big teams when you have no record of such competitiveness previously. Psychologically tough as it is to play Bayern Munich, players will remember beating them 2-1 last season, and all the players who were involved are still at the club (except Raffael, who came on as an 85th minute sub). Such experiences, and the ability to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league, are valuable when it comes to becoming perennial Champions League qualifiers.
2. Squad Goals
Borussia Mönchengladbach have a good, deep, and battle-tested squad. Last season was instructive in this respect, as the team persevered through injuries to key players at key times and were able to achieve the goal of Champions League football. Losing holding midfielder Denis Zakaria before the COVID-19 break meant the team’s shape needed reformatting, and then Alassane Plea and Marcus Thuram, forwards who came back firing after the pause, missed the last few weeks of the campaign. The run-in wasn’t all plain sailing but Marco Rose’s men coped admirably. Captain Lars Stindl and Breel Embolo picked up the attacking slack, Florian Neuhaus was brilliant in midfield and three straight wins secured Champions League qualification. Plea and Thuram have demonstrated their abilities to attack from the flanks, and with Stindl and Embolo able to slot in as a second striker, that means the four attackers can be combined in a variety of ways to keep opponents guessing and fill in for any injuries. New signing Hannes Wolf can also play in different forward areas, while the versatile Valentino Lazaro joins the likes of Jonas Hofmann, Ibrahima Traore and Patrick Herrmann to give yet more options in attacking roles across the midfield and wings. Zakaria’s return will make a big difference defensively, but it’s good to know that the team can cope without him too.
There are also players returning from loan or from the youth system who could also make a step into the first team. Sporting Director Max Eberl told Kicker he expects defender Jordan Beyer to challenge for a first team spot after a loan to Hamburg last year, just as Laszlo Benes did when he came back from Holstein Kiel this time last year, while 18-year-olds Rocco Reitz and Famana Quizera have impressed in pre-season.
All in all, it’s arguable that Gladbach’s strongest 11 wouldn’t feature World Cup winner Christoph Kramer, or Confederations Cup winner (and sole goalscorer in the final) Stindl, which is pretty remarkable for a team which supposedly lacks superstars. The squad might not have a Kai Havertz or a Timo Werner, but it also doesn’t leave them reliant on an Havertz or a Werner, and means they don’t need to fret so much about departures, in the manner that Bayer Leverkusen and RB Leipzig are doing now, because Gladbach have coped with absentees before. Such departures have been made less likely in any case because of point number three…
3. Champions League and the European Factor
“Ich bleibe definitiv in Gladbach,” commanding centre-back Matthias Ginter told Kicker in early August, straightforwardly ending transfer speculation around him. Compare that to Bayer, who spent the month hoping to progress through the Europa League, knowing each game could be Havertz’s last, and also knowing it would take an improbable overall victory in the competition to give them any realistic hope of keeping him, before falling well short of that. Two Chelsea targets, to very different storylines, and one clear demonstration of the difference Champions League qualification can make.
While Ginter might not have the superstar quality of Havertz, that ease with which the club can shirk off even Premier League interest for its players should not be underestimated. Ginter’s defensive partner Nico Elvedi has also cited Champions League football as a reason why he has no plans to leave for England in comments to Bild. And Champions League qualification is, of course, a great attraction for new signings too. Leverkusen coach Peter Bosz has admitted he also expects to lose Kevin Volland in the coming weeks in addition to Havertz, meaning the fifth-placed team needs to invest heavily just to try and compensate for the goals that are leaving the team, without the attraction or the funds provided by the Champions League.
Gladbach’s underwhelming showing in the Europa League last season was an asterisk against their achievements, yet it is always hard to know how seriously a club like Gladbach should take the Europa League. On the one hand, being beaten 4-0 at home by the third best team in Austria while you’re trying to convince people you should be taken seriously as German title challengers is not a good look, and the Europa League should be treated as a legitimate route to continental success. On the other, securing UCL qualification through the league and not the Europa League paid off for BMG, who would not trade their August for Leverkusen’s (even if not every season is like 2019-2020 in format). So that push and pull of the Europa League is tough to grapple.
Not so with the Champions League. If the promise of Champions League football is a key cornerstone of the club’s attractiveness to players, then those players will take it seriously, even if the chances of success are slimmer. As discussed, the squad’s depth mean it should cope taking two fronts seriously, and, coupled with the extra resources provided by being in the UCL, mean that the positives of involvement in the competition vastly outweigh any distractions it could provide to the league.
Moreover, if they can become accustomed to Champions League football, playing at such a high standard could strengthen their domestic challenge. Though the calendar will be undoubtedly challenging and hectic, they do have the benefit of a proper summer break, while Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig joined Leverkusen in playing competitive European football in August (to varying degrees of success). Bayern and Leipzig’s long runs in the Champions League were partly credited to the longer break they had before the UCL’s conclusion in Lisbon, so it follows that those extra games could catch up with them at some point in the coming season, while Gladbach in turn benefit from their own opportunity to rest.
4. The coach and management
“He’s a perfect fit for us, both as a coach and as a human being,” Eberl said of his coach to Kicker in July. The sporting director could barely have been more effusive in his praise, though he admitted how difficult Rose might be to cling on to. But it feels good for Die Fohlen to have a coach with such unmitigated backing from those around him. His predecessors, Andre Schubert and Dieter Hecking, were brought in to fight fires, and were backed only so far as results merited it. While both were able to go on good runs, Rose’s appointment in May last year felt different. It felt strategic, it felt progressive. And ultimately, even if he is destined for the “top clubs”, as Eberl put it, his rising star and Gladbach’s are intertwined. So the risk of him leaving is outweighed by a promise: that he delivers in the meantime.
Rose’s relationship with Eberl is a fine example of the coach/sporting director model which perplexes so many people in Britain, who either treat the model with utmost suspicion or as the panacea which will cure all problems overnight. The situation at Gladbach was not built in a day. Eberl has crafted a squad which is deep, as discussed, and a coach is in place who suits an overall strategic vision for the club. Moreover, showing the symbiosis between playing staff and the coach, Eberl has tailored subsequent transfer dealings to Rose’s own style, with the signature of Stefan Lainer last summer and loans for Wolf and Lazaro this year each reuniting Rose with players from his Red Bull Salzburg days.
In a broader sense, the club is being managed impeccably at a time where football is understandably of secondary concern in broader society, given the unprecedented situation in which professional sports are taking place this year. Eberl spoke really well about the need to be prudent, and not take liberties in making a big splash in the transfer market, having months earlier asked players to take a pay cut to support the wages of non-playing staff. In a more normal context, a transfer window of two loan signings in could be considered a disappointment for a club that is meant to be going places. But given how much of the churn of the modern transfer market is replacing outgoing players, a transfer window where you can avoid major departures, make smart additions where needed and use the Champions League money to secure the broader future of the club in the midst of a global pandemic seems both a strategically smart and morally laudable way to approach things.