Mainz: (4-2-3-1) Zentner; Brosinski, Niakhate, Killian, St. Juste; Kunde, Latza; Quaison, Boetius, Oztunzali; Mateta
Gladbach: (3-4-1-2) Sommer; Jantschke, Ginter, Elvedi; Wendt, Kramer, Reitz, Lainer; Stindl, Embolo, Herrmann
Seven games in 22 days, and this was meant to be the easy one. With squad freshness in mind, coach Marco Rose rung the changes for Borussia Mönchengladbach, making five changes from midweek and also switching system to play with a back three. But, as they say, there are no easy games at this level, and early hopes of easing to a straightforward win were dashed, when a Mateta double overturned Lars Stindl’s opener. Aside from debutant Rocco Reitz, who looked assured in central midfield, the Gladbach B team were not bringing their A game.
Rose did not wait long into the second half to start making changes, with the introduction of Alassane Pléa and Marcus Thuram heralding a return to 4-2-3-1 within ten minutes, and quickly followed by Jonas Hofmann and Florian Neuhaus, who came on in the 60th minute. Mainz did not make life easy, and with Zentner uncharacteristically in-form against the Foals and Niakhate making a spectacular goal-line clearance from an Embolo chance, it seemed like Gladbach were going to slump to another disappointing result in the Bundesliga. However, when Niakhate was adjudged to have blocked another goal-bound shot from Thuram with his arm, Hofmann took his chance to equalise from the spot, and he also got his fourth assist of the season with his corner for a Matthias Ginter header. Gladbach – used to conceding late goals from corners themselves this season – thus rescued all three points from the game to pick up their second win in five league games.
Changing your Mainz
Scrutiny of course will fall on Rose for the extent of the changes he made for this game. Gladbach’s slow start could easily be seen as proof that BMG don’t have the depth to compete on two fronts, and rotating the team in the league risks dropping vital points against beatable opposition. Gladbach got away with it this time, but the sad fact is that getting into the Champions League via a top-four finish must be a higher priority than the games Gladbach play in Europe once they’re there.
A more optimistic view is this: Gladbach both got all the points while giving their stars a rest, and though they all featured versus Mainz, playing just 30 minutes rather than playing 90 or even 60 could make all the difference against Real Madrid on Tuesday. Rose can’t expect the reserve players to be up to speed if he doesn’t trust them, and a slow start against Mainz doesn’t mean that the players who played won’t have benefited from the minutes in their legs.
Rotating personnel can be understood, then, but the switch in system could have been the cause of more problems. While a back three last time out against Inter could have helped Gladbach contain two centre forwards, against Mainz, it looked overly conservative. If wingbacks push up and the team dominates possession, an extra centre-back does not necessarily translate to a more defensive mindset, but when that centreback is someone like Tony Jantschke, rather than more of a ball-playing defender, then it looks cautious. Against weaker teams, Bensebaini could slot in as a ball-playing left centre-back, and help control things. But as it was, the system didn’t help Gladbach’s possession play, and also wasn’t very defensively secure, with the extra bodies looking disorganised as they were unable to stop Mateta bagging his brace. Maybe Rose has decided that Wendt is better as a LWB rather than a LB (though he played as a full-back against Wolfsburg) and therefore to give Bensebaini a rest it needed a system change. But with fewer bodies higher up the pitch, the back three seemed to invite pressure. Rose wants his players to be flexible, but maybe next time he rotates his starting XI, he will stick to the 4-2-3-1 that has brought some success thus far.
Bang to Reitz
Rocco Reitz was fantastic in the first half, bringing real composure in midfield and outplaying his more experienced colleagues. He routinely found Herrmann with his now trademarked lofted passes, one of which created a great chance that Herrmann hit the bar with. He has an eye for an interception and a good work rate, although his defensive awareness has room to improve and he wasn’t always in place to make tackles. But, if it was fair to be a bit cautious about how his good pre-season would translate into league football, this impressive debut suggested that he can certainly contribute at the highest level already.
Wolf: der zwölfte Mann
Speaking about people translating their pre-season form into the league, Hannes Wolf offers a cautionary tale. One of Gladbach’s better performers in pre-season, he started out of necessity against Dortmund, did not particularly impress, and has been on the outside looking in ever since. Here’s one reaction to his Wolfsburg performance:
… and despite all the changes, he did not get a look in until the 72nd minute versus Mainz, still remaining the twelfth man even of a B team. The back three system may not have suited him, but Rose could’ve found a way to start Wolf. The fact is that Rose would rather play Jantschke and change system, rather than start Wolf on the right of a 4-2-3-1.
It wasn’t just the Wolfsburg game too. Before today, Wolf had been on the pitch for 5 goals conceded in the league, despite playing just 107 minutes. His +/- of -4 (five goals conceded while he’s on the pitch, one scored) is the worst in the squad, per FBref.com. Obviously the teams recent tendency to concede late goals (a time where he is likely on as a sub) is a collective responsibility, but he’s also not been associated with improved attacking play too. This is a problem.
Wolf looked tidy enough here, drawing a yellow card for Latza, and – perhaps in structural terms more crucially – coming on when the team was 2-1 down, and being reliable enough to help the team to a 3-2 win. Of course, it wasn’t his contributions that were the telling ones, but even just being on the pitch for a time where the team scores twice and doesn’t concede could be a small step in the right direction for Wolf, and help him gain Rose’s trust.