Borussia Mönchengladbach have been drawn in Group B, and will play Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk and Internazionale in the Champions League Group Stage. This will be hard. Below is an initial assessment of each of the teams that Gladbach will face.
This team needs no introduction, especially in a Champions League setting. They have not started the La Liga season in a particularly convincing fashion, but that hasn’t stopped them winning three Champions League titles in a row before, so it shouldn’t worry them much heading into this campaign. After starting the season with a 0-0 draw against Real Sociedad, coach Zinedine Zidane has played Luka Jovic alongside Karim Benzema up front, formatting the midfield into a diamond, with Isco or Martin Ødegaard as a 10 behind them. It was with Isco in this role that Real Madrid last won a Champions League title in 2018, though the shape might need to change again if Jovic’s rumoured loan move to the Premier League comes off. Zidane might continue to tinker with things up top in order to try and get more goals in the team – Real scored just 70 goals last season as they won La Liga, compared to 94 when they finished only third in Ronaldo’s last season in 2018. Last year Benzema and penalty taker Sergio Ramos combined for 32 of those 70 goals, emphasising the need for secondary scoring. But with Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro in midfield, they of course have a formidable base to work from, and just know how to get it done in this competition.
Underestimate Shakhtar at your peril. The Ukrainian Premier League side are easily counted out by those who follow the Europe’s so-called big five leagues, but the fact that they were seeded in the second pot in this draw, above Europa League finalists Inter, demonstrates their consistent European performances and pedigree, all the more impressive for the fact that they have played “away” from home in Donbass for the last six years, due to the war in east Ukraine.
They held Manchester City to a draw in the away game last season, but their failure to beat Dinamo Zagreb or to hold back a resurgent Atalanta saw them finish third in their group – a very creditable performance that saw them qualify for the Europa League. They saw off Benfica and Wolfsburg before beating Basel 4-1, but then were crushed by Inter themselves 5-0 in the semi-final. So the Champions League rematch will have a particular spice to it.
Tactically, Junior Moraes leads the line with Marlos and Taison attacking from the flanks, while 20-year-old Marcos Antonio provides dynamism in the midfield alongside veterans Alan Patrick and Taras Stepanenko. The goalie is a question mark, with 36-year-old Andriy Pyatov and 19-year-old Anatoliy Trubin at opposite ends of their careers.
Gladbach have never played Shakhtar in official competition and this will be tough.
Antonio Conte’s Inter are either the challengers-elect to Juventus’ Serie A domination, or have been chronically let down by the many millions spent on the team’s construction, depending on what mood the manager is in. Conte may not always come over as the most contented but his team knows how to have fun (in a way that he maybe doesn’t), scoring 9 goals in their first two Serie A games. Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez constitute one of the finest strike partnerships anywhere in world football, and have hit the ground running this season too.
Conte’s set up is a familiar 3-5-2, sometimes with a central midfielder in a more advanced position. Christian Eriksen didn’t quite click into the system after signing from Tottenham in January, but they have made a deal for Alexis Sanchez permanent after last year’s loan, and both players offer the potential for a quality Plan B if Conte needs to change things. Arturo Vidal, a player Conte knows very well from his Juventus days, might fit his system – and prototype of an ideal midfielder – more smoothly. Having a Champions League winner in Ivan Perisic to re-integrate into the squad is a nice issue to have too.
Inter and Gladbach have met once before in the European Cup, in 1971. And what a meeting it was. A 7-1 first leg victory for Die Fohlen was annulled after Inter’s Roberto Boninsegna was hit by a Coca-Cola can. Inter won their home leg 4-2, and the replayed match in Mönchengladbach finished 0-0, with Inter heading through en route to the final. Read all about the Partita Della Lattina here.
“That day we played the game of our lives. No one would have stopped us. We would have beaten Inter, even if there had been no can and Boninsegna had remained on the field.”
Günter Netzer told Corriere della Sera in 2002.
Gladbach will hope to channel the spirit of Hennes Weisweiler’s foals, because it will take some very good performances to get out of the group, or achieve Europa League qualification.
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.
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.
Borussia Mönchengladbach coach Marco Rose sprung a tactical surprise in the Bundesliga opener, eschewing the 4-2-3-1 formation that had been the staple of post-lockdown Gladbach last season to match up Borussia Dortmund’s notional 3-4-3. However, Lucien Favre system, and the interpretation of the formation, helped create overloads for Dortmund where there were meant to be individual match-ups, and created the edge for his team when it came to creating chances.
While Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland and Gio Reyna stole the show in terms of goals and assists, let’s focus on a more unusual attacking outlet – Dortmund’s right-sided centre-back Emre Can. Gladbach had more than enough possession, but struggled to outnumber Dortmund in a way that created chances. Dortmund were able to craft opportunities from both deep and from the byline through Can getting forward. The use of centre-backs to create attacking overloads is more than a little reminiscent of Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United, and Dortmund had a player in Can, obviously a converted midfielder, who could deliver the goods.
While the likes of Haaland and Sancho are unique, generational talents, the likes of which Gladbach simply do not have, Gladbach can take inspiration from Can’s performance and tactical role. They also possess a player (who played centre-back this game) in Ramy Bensebaini, who liked Can, can step into the play and create quality chances with his crossing and passing. Bensebaini only really got going in an attacking sense when Oscar Wendt was subbed and Bensebaini reverted to a conventional left-back. If Rose wants to play with a three at the back more this season, he would be well-advised to look at what Dortmund did, and find a way to utilise Bensebaini’s attacking potential even when he plays at centre-back.
In the match-up of the systems, Jonas Hofmann was the left sided attacker who might’ve been expected to close Can down, as Wendt at LWB was pre-occupied by marking Dortmund’s RWB Thomas Meunier. Hofmann did not always do his job defensively, but before laying on a critique, let’s examine a scenario where he implemented the press he was asked, recovered the ball, but which also shows why he wasn’t always picking up Can.
In this example early in the first-half, Gladbach’s press has been triggered, but Dortmund’s defence attempts to play out from the back anyway, and is very nearly successful. The pass to Witsel looks like it’s on, but Hofmann’s job is to cover than central passing lane.
His work rate is such that, combined with Lars Stindl and Hannes Wolf who have forced the passer to rush, he is able to successfully make the challenge at this stage, and launch a counter-attack high up the pitch.
This passage partly explains why Hofmann isn’t in the position to pick Can up in the examples that follow. While the press works well here, Can is not even on the screen in the above exchange, showing that the Gladbach set-up gave him a certain amount of space.
Here’s a clearer example of the freedom that Can had. Again, you can see that Hofmann, circled, is sitting on Witsel as Dortmund look to construct the a move from deep. Can is in oceans of space on Dortmund’s right wing, and is clearly looking for the ball.
A couple of passes later, the ball in on its way out to Can, and Hofmann, again circled, is still narrow, with Meunier (off-screen) sticking wide and Wendt (right-most player, half off-screen) dropping right off.
Can drives forward, and Hofmann realises that he is the man who will have to close Can down. He can’t get close enough, and Can provides the cross for a Sancho header which was one of Dortmund’s clearest chances (other than the goals).
Hofmann’s work rate was good in the above example, and it was the tactical requirement to sit in on Witsel which was the factor that caught him out. But sometimes, he was in position to pick up Can, but showed a lack of awareness, or even laziness.
Here, in a second-half example, Wendt is standing up to Thomas Meunier, who has the ball, and Hofmann and Can are circled.
In this situation, Hofmann is clearly Can’s man, but whether he is just not expecting what comes next, or whether he’s caught flat-footed, he loses him, and Can is free at the byline to centre dangerously.
Can has, of course, not made your typical centre-back run. But his ability to get free, and provide the extra man when Gladbach were trying to match-up against Dortmund, hurt Rose’s men time and again.
Can was not able to do it all on his own, of course, and a couple of examples in the 34th minute demonstrate how other players could get involved to create overloads and pull Gladbach players out of position.
Here, the ball is played to Can, and, credit to Hofmann, he sees the danger…
…and closes in quickly, forcing Can to misplace the pass but winning a Dortmund throw-in.
From the throw-in, Dortmund are patient, and Sancho (circled) shows his game intelligence and increasing maturity as he drops deeper, not an element of his game that’s often highlighted. In matching Dortmund’s 3-4-3, Gladbach only had two central midfielders, so when Dortmund’s wide forwards Sancho and Reyna dropped deep, they were hard to pick up.
Hofmann, 23, is once again pulled narrower, perhaps sensing that Sancho’s presence is creating an overload in a central area. However, this means that, when Can comes into picture, there is oceans of space ahead of him on the right once again.
In the end Stindl is closest to Can when he crosses. Hofmann is caught in no man’s land and Wendt is focussed on Meunier once more. The ball into the box is not cleared and, after some ricochets, it results in the breakthrough for Dortmund as Reyna opens the scoring.
Dortmund’s other goals were a dubious penalty and a counter-attack that was supremely well-executed, but much less likely to happen if Gladbach are not chasing the game. In the first half, where the game was finely balanced, Can’s attacking contribution made the marginal difference between the two sides that separated them at the break. Rose should learn from this, both from a defensive stand-point, to make sure other teams don’t do to Gladbach what Can did, but also looking to learn if it’s a tactic Gladbach could use themselves going forward. In Bensebaini, there have a player of the perfect profile to do so.
As explained in our preview, this game was not only a marquee game to start the season, but also a hugely consequential one for both of the Bundesliga’s two Borussia teams. The game was not the feast of attacking football that some might have expected, but the game had a real intensity as well as some heated moments, especially in the first half, until Dortmund pulled away in the second.
Dortmund’s press caused some hairy moments in the opening minutes for Yann Sommer and his defence, but Gladbach grew into the game themselves, firstly getting their own press going and increasingly dominating possession. A clever chipped through ball from Hannes Wolf sent Jonas Hofmann through on goal, and Roman Bürki had to improvise both for the initial save and to claw the ball away on a second effort.
After such a tight first half, it was galling for Gladbach that they fell behind to a well taken but very avoidable Gio Reyna goal. Nico Elvedi first failed to clear the ball, kicking it straight to youngster Jude Bellingham, and then was unable to stop the shot as Reyna slotted it through his legs, leaving Sommer stranded. The composure of the two 17 year olds – Bellingham making his Bundesliga debut – put to bed any notion that Dortmund’s ever increasing youth (and therefore immaturity) was going to be any sort of a problem.
The second half didn’t start much better, and a low-percentage challenge from Ramy Bensebaini on Gio Reyna resulted in a penalty. There was minimal, if any, contact on Reyna, so it was frustrating that having not been seen as a penalty initially, it was given on review. But Bensebaini did not get the ball, and left himself vulnerable by going to ground.
In the 57th minute Marcus Thuram and Alassane Pléa both came on, for Wolf and Lars Stindl. Shortly after Stevie Lainer set Thuram in behind, and drew a tackle from Hummels which also didn’t get the ball and certainly got the man, though VAR didn’t see fit to recommend a review of this one. Patrick Herrmann replaced Oscar Wendt in the 68th minute, prompting a switch to four at the back. Dortmund sat back, and Gladbach were able to put balls into the box, but both Pléa and Herrmann struck awkward volleys tamely into the ground from tricky positions. Bensebaini was freed to be adventurous on the left from full-back, and one wonders whether Wendt will lose his place – not so much for what he did, but because Bensebaini offers so much from full-back.
Dortmund seemed happy to sit back and break, and they did exactly that, with Jadon Sancho bursting forward from a Gladbach corner. Counter-attacks can very easily peter out, or, as Heung-Min Son showed last weekend, a wrong decision can turn a good chance into a low-percentage one. Sancho made all the right decisions, while running at tremendous pace, slipping in Haaland for a goal which, in the end, looked a formality.
“Except the three goals and a header, did Dortmund have a chance?” Obviously when a team scores three goals, they have made enough chances to win, but there is some truth in this reaction. Certainly, the scoreline was harsh on Gladbach, who maybe didn’t create the clearest chances in open play but could’ve had a penalty themselves. It’s a disappointing start to the season, but with a weakened starting line-up and Thuram and Pléa looking lively off the bench, coach Marco Rose should not be too downhearted, even if his team missed out on the chance of a statement result.
The start of the Bundesliga season has arrived. Strangely, Bayern Munich fancy their chances against Schalke, so opted not to delay the start of their season after their Champions League exploits. But while Borussia Dortmund vs Borussia Mönchengladbach may no longer be the curtain raiser for the season as a whole, it certainly looks like the stand-out game of the league’s first round of games, as well as one of the defining games of the season for Gladbach fans.
First game focus
The Bundesliga certainly has secured a mouth-watering match-up for the first game of the season. How Gladbach fare against sides like Dortmund will determine their aspirations for the season, and whether they can consider themselves mere Champions League hopefuls, or serious contenders to mix it up at the top of the table. For Dortmund too, a lot rides on the game in terms of their own aspirations for a title.
This game will tell us a even more about Gladbach though, because they come into it in such adverse circumstances. Just look at the injury list, as outlined by coach Marco Rose in the pre-match press conference:
It’s never ideal to play a potentially season-defining game right at the start of the season, but one of the upsides would usually be that at least the injuries and suspensions are yet to pile up. But Rose has had no such luck, with players lost to injury at the end of last season like Zakaria, Pléa and Thuram yet to fully return and the additional losses of Embolo and Lazaro on international duty and in pre-season respectively. They also face an incredibly settled Dortmund squad, who, like Gladbach, have kept their team together, also adding young English talent Jude Bellingham. Dortmund have a couple of injury question-marks, but no where near as many as Gladbach, and, in the unlikely event that Jadon Sancho is to leave this transfer window, it certainly won’t be before Saturday’s game, presenting another headache for Rose.
We have highlighted the depth in the Gladbach squad as one of their strengths, and it will be tested straight away. Rose can certainly field a strong team, even if not a full strength team. With an optimistic spin on the circumstances, the adversity facing Gladbach takes the pressure off. They can have a shot to nothing in this game, with the possibility for the perfect start of the season against a fierce rival if all goes well, but also the knowledge that, should the result disappoint, key players returning in the coming weeks will give reason to hope for improvement in the coming weeks.
We have noted on the blog that Rose has experimented with the team’s shape, often switching between a back 4 and back 3 in pre-season matches to get players comfortable playing different systems. The DFB-Pokal thrashing of Oberneuland saw Rose go for a 4-2-3-1, and he might be have been wishing to give the players a run-out in the shape he expects to face Dortmund, to increase their chemistry and match fitness, even against lower league opposition. That would see Patrick Herrmann lead the line, Lars Stindl play as a 10, and Hannes Wolf and Jonas Hofmann on the wings.
But there is no certainty he will stick with that shape. Obviously the cup tie was no proper rehearsal for the Dortmund game, and BVB last year played a system with a 3 man defence, which Rose may seek to match. That would give Dortmund coach Lucien Favre an unexpected challenge and might also help Rose make the most of his limited personnel.
One tactical caveat on this, though. Rose has largely used a 3-4-1-2 in pre-season when not played a back four. If we use the Marco Bielsa “spare defender” philosophy, where a team always want one more centre back than central attacker you are facing, then matching Favre’s 3-4-3 with this formation could backfire. Gladbach’s two central strikers could be marked by the BVB centre backs, with the spare man able to handle the number 10, while Rose’s own central defenders would be occupying one man, likely Erling Haaland, and be vulnerable to raids from out wide thanks to Sancho and friends. A lot would come down to whether Gladbach’s wing-backs could pin back Dortmund’s wingbacks – a hard job if they are also containing Sancho and the other winger. For this reason, Rose might consider a 3-4-3 for his own team, to help reinforce the wings and match up Favre’s line-up completely.
It would be remiss not to mention Favre specifically, as the man who last led Gladbach into a Champions League spot and enjoyed a successful spell at the club between 2011-2015. His reign ended, as many coaching reigns tend to end, with a disastrous run of form, and 5 straight losses to start the 2015-16 season abruptly curtailed his Gladbach career before he could even finish the Champions League group stage that he had qualified them for. With Gladbach back at the top table of European football, opening the season with a match against Favre’s side feels like a nice touch for the sentimentalists. Even if there are doubts over his fit at Dortmund, and even if he had an ignominious end at Gladbach, Die Fohlen fans still have a lot of reasons to be grateful to him.Maybe a poor display from Dortmund in their season opener would provide the Gladbach faithful with one more.
Along with the young players looking to establish a first-team role, sporting director Max Eberl brought in two new players to refresh the squad. With COVID-19 reducing revenues, an always prudent Gladbach was never going to spend big this summer, and the deals for Hannes Wolf and Valentino Lazaro reflect Eberl’s outlook: direct replacements for outgoing players on loan, who will represent good value if they work out and are made permanent, but are low risk if they flop. Both have histories at coach Marco Rose’s old club Red Bull Salzburg, and could prove savvy pieces of business
With iconic Gladbach attacker Raffael leaving at the end of last season, Eberl wasted no time in getting Wolf in from RB Leipzig. Like the Brazilian, he can operate in a second striker role, but Wolf is more versatile, and can cut in from the right flank on his left foot. He had a really excellent pre-season, scoring twice, showing creativity in build-up play and good chemistry with fellow RB Salzburg old-boy Stevie Lainer on the right.
Will he play?
While pre-season form doesn’t count for much, it should set Wolf in good stead for a debut against Borussia Dortmund on Saturday. Patrick Herrmann played up front in the last pre-season match and the first round of the cup, and although Alassane Pléa and Marcus Thuram set to be involved against Dortmund, they might not be ready to start. That leaves Wolf with the right-wing berth to lose, although that of course will depend on the system Rose chooses to deploy.
Lazaro’s arrival came with a lot of hype, reflecting his already storied career as the youngest ever Austrian Bundesliga player, with the 24-year old already enjoying spells in the Premier League, Serie A and German Bundesliga. Well not quite enjoying, as injuries and COVID-19 disrupted his season last year, split between Inter and Newcastle United, but linking up again with Rose seemed like to good an opportunity to miss for him to get his career back on track.
One key strength is his versatility: He has played out wide, as a winger, wing-back or a full-back, although Gladbach also believe he can play as a 6 or an 8. There is a fulsome discussion about the stats of his best position here. Lainer and Ramy Bensebaini have the full-back positions spoken for, but aside from that, he could be deployed most other places on the pitch.
Will he play?
Lazaro’s pre-season was sadly the opposite of Wolf’s. Arriving later in August, he then suffered a bad calf injury in his first pre-season game, a sad echo of the start of his Inter career. There were some conflicting reports about how long he’d be out: Rose said it would be 6-8 weeks, but Lazaro has said he expects to be back sooner.
If we’re looking for silver linings, then the extra time to bed in could be a blessing. Being thrown straight into a game against Dortmund when it is unclear what his best role is could’ve gone badly for him. Now, hopefully he can be eased into action with some appearances from the bench, build up his fitness slowly and be in peak form during the busy middle of the season, rather than rushing for a season debut he might not have been ready for.
Borussia Mönchengladbach have the benefit of a settled squad, as discussed in the first instalment of our season countdown series, with plenty of youth in their core already. But while most players will be familiar to the Gladbach faithful, there stand to be a few slightly less well-known faces who are in contention for squad places this season. Let’s look at the younger players that are looking to make the jump to the first team squad.
Louis Jordan Beyer
Jordan Beyer is a defender who can play on the right or in the centre of defence. Pretty quick and good on the ball, he is a reliable tackler who can also pass. The ambiguity over his best position mainly stems from the fact he isn’t great in the air for a centre-back, but doesn’t offer too much creativity going forward as a full-back.
Football Slices stats compiled from just 720 minutes of first team action in 2018/19 come with a warning about small sample size, but also sum up those traits pretty well:
Beyer spent the second half of last season on loan at Hamburg, in a move which seems to have worked out well for all parties. Beyer was a regular when he moved in January, although Josha Vagnoman recovered from his fractured foot during the COVID-19 suspension, limiting Beyer’s playing time thereafter.
In pre-season, he looked solid enough against lower-league opposition, although it is a hard format for a defender to really shine in. Misplaced passes, such as against SC Verl, stand out, and any threat to Gladbach’s goal is seen as a costly aberration. The fact is that Gladbach didn’t concede any goals while he was playing in pre-season, and he had already been subbed when Greuther Fürth scored twice against a Matthias Ginter-led Gladbach backline, so Beyer has not done too much wrong at all.
Perhaps not a popular comparison for the Gladbach faithful, but when you’re looking at a defender who can play centre-back and right-back, whose strength lies in versatility but will face questions about where his actual best position really is: Beyer’s profile has more than a passing resemblance to Bayern Munich’s Benjamin Pavard. If he develops to win a World Cup playing right-back, as Pavard did, Gladbach fans will be happy in all sorts of ways.
I did not expect to be writing about Rocco Reitz as the 18 year old midfielder to watch in the year ahead, and, especially after Famana Quizera’s wonder goal in the first game of pre-season, it looked as though the Portuguese youngster would steal the show. However, as pre-season went on, it became clear that it was Reitz who was one of the common denominators in Gladbach’s improved second-half showings, and that, rather than being carried by senior colleagues, he was excelling regardless of who he was paired with. A aggressive, deep-lying midfielder, suited to playing in a double pivot, his excellent range of passing was on full display as he contributed fine assists for goals by Lainer and Patrick Herrmann. He is still so young that there is plenty of room for his game – and height – to grow, and at 165cm, one hopes he will be able to bulk out a little.
Will he play?
Gladbach are not short of defensive midfielders, and with Denis Zakaria to come back from injury and newly capped Florian Neuhaus on top of his game, it is likely that World Cup winner Christoph Kramer will have to settle for a place on the bench, let alone an untested 18-year-old. Coach Marco Rose is very happy with the impression Reitz has made in pre-season, but perhaps that is best seen as an unexpected bonus at an early stage in his development, rather than a reason to put undue pressure on him.
With his passing range, an aggressive attitude to go with a diminutive stature, and a close buzzcut, on the pitch he looks more than a little like Marco Verratti. Verratti’s aggression can hinder his team as much as it helps it, however, and so hopefully Rose can help Reitz channel his aggression in the right sort of way as he develops.
Another unexpected entry, but as another person who made the cut to nab a spot on the bench for the cup game, it looks like Torben Müsel might get at least half a chance to make an impression in what could be the 21-year-old’s last season at Borussia-Park.
Müsel is in a similar situation to Reitz in that, with a fully fit squad, he doesn’t figure to feature much, but with some injuries, he could be involved. Along with Lang, Eberl effectively counted out Keanan Bennetts and Julio Villalba, saying they would struggle for opportunities. He did not include Müsel in that, showing that in the crowd of young forwards looking to make an impression, he is not at the back of the pack.
Müsel’s situation differs from Reitz in two respects, one good for him, one bad. To start with the bad news, if Müsel doesn’t make an impression this year, he will likely leave, with his contract up at the end of the season, while the young Reitz has time on his side. On the plus side, it is easier to get a run out in attack than it is in the heart of midfield, and with Rose able to carry on making five subs a game for the new season, that could work in Müsel’s favour.
Harry Kane. No, not the England captain, World Cup Golden Boot winning Harry Kane, but the one who got to his early twenties at a bit of a crossroads, a central attacker who liked to drop deep but had the stature to play further forward, who was struggling for first-team minutes. For that Harry Kane, his career could’ve gone in one of a number of ways. Müsel most likely will not replicate Kane’s achievements, but the England striker does show that you don’t need the world at your feet as a teenager in order to have a very successful career in football.
With many first team regulars off on international duty, it was a good time for the veterans and youngsters to step up and deliver arguably the best display of the the pre-season in its last game, and certainly the most well-rounded 90 minutes. Goalie Tobias Sippel certainly had to work for his clean sheet, but all-in-all, it was a morale boosting win against Black and Yellow opposition ahead of an eagerly anticipated Bundesliga opener in two weeks time. Lars Stindl, Ramy Bensebaini from the spot, Torben Müsel and Patrick Herrmann got the goals.
With a whole XI absent either through international call-ups or injury, the team which made light work of VVV Venlo likely won’t resemble the side that will open the season in the DFB-Pokal next weekend, let alone the one which will play Borussia Dortmund in the league. But it was a good opportunity to see which squad players might be able to contribute, and try out some new tactical ideas.
Lars Stindl and Patrick Herrmann led the attack in this game, with Christoph Kramer starting in central midfield. As noted in our season preview, it’s a bit doubtful whether any three of these veterans would get into a full strength 11, but all three are clearly hugely valuable squad players who will be called on extensively in this unique challenging season, with domestic and continental fixtures crammed in to a shortened calendar.
It is a very healthy that the transition from the Stindl/Herrmann/Kramer generation is more or less assured. Compare that to clubs all over Europe, whose core is ageing but can’t sign quality, younger back-ups, as such players want to be playing each week. A team where the veterans are backing up the youth seems a more sustainable way to develop a squad. But it doesn’t mean the veterans don’t have an invaluable role to play.
The man known as Flaco gets a lot of flack for his finishing, and it felt somehow typical that in a game where he missed presentable one-on-one chances, Patrick Herrmann scored a world class strike on the run which commentators compared to Marco Van Basten. His finishing needs to be more consistent to be a striker in a 4-4-2, the role he played here, but his lively run to win the penalty suggests he still has the spark to play regularly at right-wing, especially while Valentino Lazaro is out injured.
With Marcus Thuram and Alassane Pléa also not featuring yet in pre-season, there should be more than enough opportunity for Stindl and Herrmann to get game time at the start of this season.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Torben Müsel will be keen to show that he could also stake a claim for some of those attacking spots vacated by injury. He is young, but not that young, and at 21, you sense it is now or never for Müsel, especially with a contract expiring in 2021. He has had, on balance, a good pre-season, with impressive displays since game one vs SC Verl. In the great Gladbach tradition of central attackers who are comfortable dropping deeper, he played as a 10 here in the second half, behind Stindl and Herrmann. Getting the goal will have done him a lot of good, and perhaps he will be even more pleased that it was a header. He seems like a good blend as a profile of attacker that should fit coach Marco Rose’s system well, with extra assets, such as his height, that give him a different dimension.
Hopefully he gets opportunities, and takes them, this season. He seems to be ahead of Julio Villalba in Rose’s thinking, and this season, with its crammed schedule and already extensive injury list, gives him that chance to make an impression. It would seem unlikely that sporting director Max Eberl will try and shift him before his contract is up. But there is no real shame if he still cannot break into the Gladbach side when everyone is fit. Some fans seem keen to write him off completely, but even if his contract is not renewed, there is every chance he will make it as a Bundesliga player. It might not be at Gladbach, and it might be best for all parties if he moves on at the end of the year, but he’s made a good go of getting into Rose’s thoughts in pre-season and he deserves credit for that.
Rose used the absence of key players to try out personnel in different positions. Bensebaini played the first half in central midfield, and looked brilliant. He sprayed a ball to Oscar Wendt to square for Stindl’s opener, and Stindl wasted a good position from the other side after a similarly incisive Bensebaini ball. He is a player who must be getting close to being the first name on the team sheet, and that he can play left-back, centre-back and now seemingly centre midfield only increases his value.
The first half was a 4-4-2, and the second seemed to be broadly a 3-4-1-2, although Stindl dropped deeper as the half went on and sometimes it looked more like a 3-4-2-1. Kramer still played alongside Bensebaini, as both dropped from midfield to defence for the second half. Rocco Reitz picked up another assist, providing the lovely ball for the Herrmann volley. He has been a revelation of the pre-season, and at 18 has plenty of time to grow in to a top footballer. On this form, he might not need much time at all.
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.
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.
A tough game against energetic, physical opposition. Definitely a disappointing result, but probably a helpful competitive test as the season draws nearer. Failing to score over 120 minutes of football against a second tier team has to be a bit of a concern though.
What We Learned
Is this turning into an eternal game?
The 300 fans allowed in to watch the game certainly got their money’s worth, with two 60 minute halves for the football starved fans to feast on. If only what had been served up had been appetising. One might have hoped that such a long game could end BMG’s scoring drought in first halves, but it didn’t quite click. The flat 4-4-2, with Stindl and Embolo both up, helped Gladbach’s pressing game, but the strike partnership didn’t catch fire. Stindl started dropping deeper when the system switched a a back five 35 minutes in, but the attacking fluency was still lacking, and the team were possibly guilty of overplaying the ball a little when they got into promising positions. The longer halves were better for fitness and gave more time to examine different tactics, but in switching system halfway through the first half there was ironically less time to settle into one style of play.
The second half started brighter, with Rocco Reitz continuing his strong pre-season form, launching attacks from deep, and Hannes Wolf getting into dangerous positions. Keanan Bennetts looked bright up front too in a 4-2-3-1. But Greuther Fürth scored a lovely goal well – the first BMG have conceded in pre-season – and Gladbach struggled to get back into it, with the strange dynamic of still having a whole 45 minutes to equalise perhaps giving less of a sense of urgency than there would’ve been in a 90 minute game. Julian Green took his second goal superbly with just over 15 minutes to go, and suddenly the game was gone. Toiling in the first half has been a feature of the pre-season, but it was frankly a concern to see the second-half 11, with many of the components that have excelled in the other games, look so open while generating increasingly fewer chances the other end. As a whole, the game felt like one long slog, but blaming the format for the result feels misplaced. Kleeblatt were also able to change their team at half time, unlike earlier pre-season opponents, but the strength and depth of Gladbach’s squad means surely they should have done a bit better, the usual caveats about pre-season football not meaning a whole lot aside.
It was hard to assess Valentino Lazaro’s game, as he was subbed earlier than expected in the first half with an injury. The game as a whole was much more intense than previous games, and sometimes quite bad-tempered. In terms of building up to a return of competitive football, that’s probably helpful. But with Marcus Thuram, Denis Zakaria, and Alassane Plea yet to return to the pitch from their injuries, coach Marco Rose will be hoping that Lazaro’s injury lay-off isn’t too long, given that he was signed in part to provide depth to start with. With the transfer window open for a while yet, it will be interesting to see whether sporting director Max Eberl reassesses his view that Gladbach’s transfer business is more or less done if the injuries start to pile up. It’s worth noting, though that Nico Elvedi, who was taken off against Paderborn with an injury, was back for this game, so sometimes players aren’t risked even if they pick up the smallest of knocks.