Gladbach: (4-2-3-1) Sommer; Bensebaini, Ginter, Elvedi, Lainer; Kramer, Neuhaus; Hofmann, Stindl, Thuram; Pléa
Union: (3-4-3) Luthe; Schlotterbeck, Knoche, Friedrich; Lenz, Andrich, Prömel, Trimmel; Bülter, Awoniyi, Becker
Borussia Mönchengladbach’s first Bundesliga home game offered a chance to kick-start the season after last week’s loss to Borussia Dortmund, but it ultimately ended in more disappointment. It was a quietly intriguing game, where Gladbach dominated possession and had some good chances, especially in the first half, but Union Berlin were always competitive, aggressive, and quick on the counter-attack. The breakthrough eventually came courtesy of a Marcus Thuram header from a corner in the 56th minute, but while coach Marco Rose switched to a back five to try and hold the lead, Gladbach themselves conceded from a corner with 12 minutes to go, and weren’t able to regain the initiative. Ramy Bensebaini stabbed over from six yards out in stoppage time, at which point it was totally clear it was not going to be Gladbach’s day.
By xG it was Gladbach 1.73 vs 0.7 Union, which supports the view that Gladbach could easily have won this game but also that their performance was not overwhelming. Having needed a corner to get in front, it was criminal how Union centre-back Nico Schlotterbeck was entirely unmarked to equalise with a looping header, and if Gladbach don’t tighten up defending set pieces like that, they can have no complaints about failing to win.
What we learned
Tikus and Lasso return
Perhaps “What we learned” should be renamed to “statements of the blindingly obvious” but anyway: Marcus Thuram and Alassane Pléa are good. Seriously good. And both looked very sharp as they started for the first time since missing the end of last season with injury. Pléa had a mazy dribble which would have been an early contender for goal of the season had goalie Andreas Luthe not managed to save the shot, with Luthe also denying a decent Pléa header in the first half. Thuram started on the right, unusually, but sometimes switched flanks and was causing Union all sorts of issues.
Thuram often plays on the left, cutting in on his right foot, but today’s tactic was an interesting variation. Thuram would shift inside from the right, obviously not operating as an inverted winger, but more as a support striker, tucking in to allow Lainer to overlap. That let Pléa himself make runs into the left channel, a position he likes to operate from. With Stindl still the 10, this movement increased Gladbach’s attacking options, shown here, in the build-up to Pléa’s dribble and shot mentioned above.
Thuram obviously also broke the deadlock with a header from a corner, reminding everyone of the aerial threat he poses too.
While it was disappointing that Gladbach blew the lead after both were substituted, leading some to question the wisdom of withdrawing the team’s two best attackers before the game was one, Rose knows that regaining match fitness is a process which can’t be rushed, and Gladbach cannot afford to lean to heavily on these players to risk further injury. However, Rose and fans alike will be hoping that they can play a full 90 minutes before long, because Gladbach are certainly much better with them both in the team.
Most fans, when asked about their dream, full-strength XI, have some combination of Hannes Wolf, Breel Embolo, Thuram and maybe Lars Stindl compromising an attacking midfield three in support of Pléa. As such, it might be with some surprise that with a reversion to 4-2-3-1, Wolf was dropped and Thuram played on the right, with Hofmann operating on the left. It seemed like Wolf could cut in from the right, with Thuram cutting in from the left, for a full throttle attack.
However, Hofmann does offer the team a nice balance, especially at this time in the season. He has his critics but with Thuram bidding to join Pléa upfront, he could hold a steady presence on the opposite flank, and not leave the team over-exposed. Rose probably knew that asking Thuram, Pléa and Wolf all to complete 90 minutes was a stretch, while Hofmann could be depended on to play the whole game, and can adapt to new positions when Rose changes system. Plus, he offers quality set piece delivery, demonstrated in the goal.
While Gladbach easily could have won this game, it’s not clear that they deserved to. And while the 3-0 loss to Dortmund exaggerated the difference between the sides, Augsburg’s win against BVB on Saturday suggests that Dortmund also have vulnerabilities that Gladbach failed to exploit. It’s all somewhat zapped the buzz around the Gladbach that there was heading into the season. It’s especially disappointing that players who had the whole pre-season to get ready are having slow starts. Florian Neuhaus is not replicating the form that got him a Germany call up, and it often seemed that Bensebaini’s radar was off, misplacing passes even as he had more licence to get forward from left-back and try to influence the game. And his last minute miss was, as was the catchphrase of the Fohlen TV commentator all afternoon, schade.
Gladbach relied on individual moments and set-pieces to create chances, not very typical for a Rose team, and Union Berlin deserve credit for taking the game to Gladbach where possible. They unsettled Neuhaus and Christoph Kramer in midfield and Awoniyi looked very sharp on the counter-attack. Union Berlin also hit the bar in the first half, and while Rose said that Gladbach did better at the start of the second half, his system switches seemed to confuse things as it went on. Oscar Wendt came on for Thuram and, while switching to a back three was okay in principle, as a left wing-back, he dropped very deep, almost forming a back five and inviting pressure when it was not necessary. And neither Matthias Ginter or Bensebaini picked up Schlotterbeck on the equalising goal, showing a real disorganisation in the basics of defence.
Rose spoke in pre-season about other teams knowing what Gladbach do, the system they play and being able to counteract it. That was possibly the problem in the first half here. But the flexibility that Rose has tried to introduce – in order to counteract any predictability in Gladbach’s style of play – has also left the Gladbach players sometimes looking unsure of their roles. That is understandable, with line-ups changing as important players are re-integrated into the team, and key men like Denis Zakaria still missing. But in the meantime, the veteran players such as Stindl and Kramer, plus young stars such as Bensebaini and Neuhaus, need to show the sharpness that a full preseason should have given them, and take some of the pressure off of those who are working their way back to match fitness.