Schampagne Football and the return of the Zak

Two games in four days vs Shakhtar and Schalke, and Gladbach produced composed and efficient displays in both, scoring eight and conceding just one. When the schedule is tightly packed as it is this season, it makes a difference that both games were at Borussia-Park – saving a bit on travel and tiredness – and having stuttered so often in games at home, it was important to take advantage.

Gladbach had reason to fancy themselves in both games. Having beaten Shakhtar Donetsk 6-0 in Kyiv, they knew they had the measure of the Ukrainians, and they picked up where they left off, with a penalty from Lars Stindl, a regulation header from Nico Elvedi and a very nifty bicycle kick from Breel Embolo putting Gladbach out of reach before half-time.

Shakhtar themselves are a model of how far (enforced) squad rotation can take you in the age of COVID, and also its limits. They shocked the European football world with their win against Real in Madrid on the first Champions League matchday, which came when they were missing a team’s worth of players to COVID-19.

But in the two games against Gladbach, they were understandably off the pace, and second best. In the first game Gladbach overwhelmed them with their intensity with and without the ball, and it was more of the same on Wednesday. Donetsk’s threadbare squad had given what they had to give, and were still out of the game by half time.

This game contained a valuable lesson for squad management, in that it’s easier to rotate a squad – both between games and within games – from a position of strength. Coach Marco Rose could therefore give needed minutes to Denis Zakaria and Laszlo Benes – and even give Ibrahima Traore a run-out – with the game secure. There is decent squad depth to Gladbach, but some of the disappointing results, especially the home draws in the league, have come from either trying to rest first-teamers before the game is won, or failing to get a hold of the game with a second string line-up.

Gladbach have had no problems producing strong performances in the Champion’s League – it is in the Bundesliga where sluggishness creeps in. And against Schalke, it did take them a moment to grasp hold of the game. But the midfield double pivot of Zakaria and Florian Neuhaus asserted itself, and is surely one of the best midfield partnerships in the league. Zakaria’s challenge in midfield in the build-up to the first goal is what he is all about: making a decisive intervention and getting the team going in the right direction. And of course Neuhaus, with his uncanny ability to arrive at the edge of the box at the right time, was in position to squeeze in the rebound. Neuhaus also picked out the pass for the onrushing Oscar Wendt to slot home the second goal. At the start of the season no-one could have expected Wendt to start two games in a week, let alone score in both, though there was more than a hint of fortune about the free-kick which wormed his way in against Shakhtar. But with Ramy Bensebaini out, the Schalke goal was a clearer demonstration of what Wendt can still contribute to a Rose team – intelligent attacking runs and energy to get into the box and make things happen, from an offensive perspective.

An unfamiliar face playing in the other full-back role was less convincing. Valentino Lazaro has impressed in his first displays for Gladbach, but looked ropey at right-back, picking up a yellow a rash challenge in a dangerous area which Mark Uth nearly scored from. But again, Rose was able to rotate from a position of strength, replacing Lazaro with Stevie Lainer in the second half and Zakaria with Christoph Kramer. Kramer has had a good season but Zakaria’s return will help him to contribute in the way he can best: as a sub to see games out and a starter in relief of players who need a break, rather than as a player who has to play twice a week all season.

If Gladbach had taken anything less than 6 points from these two games, questions would have been asked. However, just because maximum points were expected, it doesn’t mean the coach and players shouldn’t get credit for delivering in such a convincing manner – especially when fans a quick to jump on supbar performances in the Bundesliga that have led to six points dropped at home so far this season. It feels like Zakaria in particular will make a huge difference in giving the team the stability to produce more consistently in Europe and domestically, and hopefully these two games were the ideal way to build up his fitness ahead of Tuesday’s key match-up against Inter.

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