Borussia Mönchengladbach, Gladbach or simply just BMG, whichever your naming preference there is one thing everyone can agree on – Die Fohlen had a superb 2014/15 season. In their 4th full season under manager Lucien Favre, the 57 year old Swiss lead the team to 3rd position in the Bundesliga – the side’s highest placed finish in 31 years. Despite falling to eventual champions Sevilla in the early knockout stages of the Europa League and a shock defeat in the DFB Pokal, (losing their Quarter Final on penalties to 3.Bundesliga champions Arminia Bielefeld) an impressive Bundesliga campaign that got stronger and stronger as the season wore on has all Gladbach fans smiling and excitement building heading into the upcoming 2015/16 season. But what exactly made BMG such a strong side?
A comparison to 3 years ago shows Lucien Favre sticking with a similar system that saw his only previous top 4 finish with Gladbach, in the 2011/12 season. The likes of Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Dante, Neustädter and the incredible Marco Reus may have left but with the development of Jantschke and Herrmann, the experience of Stranzl and Wendt and the superb job done by Sporting Director – Max Eberl in the transfer market, Gladbach have built not just a first eleven but a squad filled with a variation of talented, flexible players.
BMG typically line up with a modern take on the most famous formation in football – the 4-4-2. Although on paper Gladbach look to line up with the well known two banks of 4 behind 2 strikers, the tactical flexibility within the system as well as within the individuals has the team playing with an incredible fluidity that is usually hard to achieve within such a formation. A combination of impressive, fast, short passing as well as an incredible appreciation and understanding of the space all over the football pitch make BMG an extremely tough opponent for any opposition. Borussia Mönchengladbach were incredible throughout the season at controlling the pitch. With or without the ball, Gladbach very rarely looked out of position. Players know their specific roles in the system perfectly and worked very well together in an attempt to achieve their main focus points.
A deep defence and a top goalkeeper, who happens to be comfortable with the ball at his feet, working closely with two extremely impressive central midfielders allows the team to control the defensive third of the pitch and lay the foundation to move forward. Gladbach’s deep defence makes it near impossible for teams to create a multiple of clear cut chances against them; being forced to into crosses through deep and looking to pick up bits and pieces in and around the Gladbach box. The 2-0 victory at the Allianz Arena against eventual champions Bayern Munich was a masterclass in deep defending. Stranzl and Dominguez were able to keep tight together and look to defend only inside and on the edge of their own penalty area, Jantschke kept tight to Sranzl to cover for his lack of pace whilst Xhaka, Johnson and Raffael were always on hand to help Wendt smother Bayern’s right side. Herrmann’s high starting position on the opposite flank as well forced Bernat deep and lead to Gotze being forced to stay wide and eventually frozen out of the game.
The great thing about Lucien Favre however was his game management: when the game required great defensive knowhow he went with Stranzl, when he felt like he needed more going forward then Jantschke would play centrally with the impressive Julian Jorb coming in at right back. The depth in the Gladbach squad was evident all over the pitch but particularly in defence. Despite using several different combinations throughout the season, Gladbach always remained solid at the back, conceding just 26 Bundesliga goals, the 2nd best record in the league. Favre’s incredible game management was a huge key in Gladbach never being out of a game: only losing once by more than 1 goal in a competitive game all season, with that coming in the final game when down to 10 men against Augsburg.
Moving forward into the central third was where BMG were most decisive this season. Keeping a tight unit between the central midfielders and the forwards was a huge key to what made Gladbach so good. With often such a quick transition between defence and attack but also looking to keep the ball grounded. Wide players are rarely used until the final phase of the attack, instead Gladbach look to move the ball from the defence into the midfield and quickly onto the link man, usually Raffael. For BMG this is easier when counter attacking: their impressive defensive shape and positional discipline usually means when they turn the ball over deep in their own half they can move the ball on quickly to either Xhaka and Kramer in midfield. This also means more space for Raffael or another forward player to receive the ball in between the opposition’s defence and attack and create problems. When in control of the game they operate a different tactic: the centre backs split and allow one of the two central midfielders to drop in between, the picture here shows how Xhaka/Kramer keep a line during this tactic – this allows for the higher of the two to move in either direction and the deeper to pivot off that reference point after moving the ball on. This helps them refrain from being forced into going wide to create space in the middle.
The Xhaka/Kramer axis has been one of the most important combinations in European football this season and certainly a key point in the Gladbach system. Two different styles that complimented each other perfectly in the middle of midfield. Granit Xhaka, following the model of the modern deep lying playmaker: comfortable taking the ball under any circumstance and with a strong passing range, Xhaka is very adept at controlling the game. Xhaka’s also very strong in the air (as shown with a hugely important 90th minute derby winner vs Koln), never shy about putting his foot in and has a superb appreciation of space both offensively and defensively. Christoph Kramer is a bit more robust: a powerful player with incredible intelligence both on and off the ball. Kramer showed exactly why Joachim Löw started him in last Summer’s World Cup final with a sensational season displaying his impressive technical ability, exceptional mental attributes and great physical presence.
The pair showed a superb understanding throughout the season: forever keeping a solid line both horizontally (usually when without the ball) and vertically (when in possession deep as previously shown and when pressing high).
There is also a very impressive structure to their pressing; picking intelligent moments for one man (usually Kramer) to press high and central whilst the other stays deep. The pressing is usually quick and rarely leads to a turnover in possession, just a way to close the angles off to the opposition’s deepest midfielders until the forwards can close in.
A huge part of what made the Xhaka/Kramer combination successful was their use of the ball. Being able to recycle the ball with such accuracy and variation so consistently throughout a game is extremely important. Both players having great composure on the ball and showing great ability was key against all types of teams. Against quick, high pressing teams it meant they were not only able to just keep possession but also move the ball forward to a position where they could hit their opponents on the counter attack. Against deeper more rigid teams, Kramer and Xhaka were able to utilise the extra time they got on the ball. Whether it be using short, incisive passes to pull open the opposition and create space to play through them or using Xhaka’s super range of passing to take a more direct root (only 3 outfield players made more accurate long passes per game than Granit Xhaka in the 14/15 Bundesliga season). Whatever the opposition, making the right pass at the right time is always the key and both Xhaka and Kramer were able to make that pass more often than not.
Andre Hahn’s opening goal against Schalke in the video above shows how Kramer and Xhaka build a quick counter attack from deep using sharp, central passes. The video also shows Gladbach’s main tactic when it comes to the final third. Looking to move the ball, often quickly, through the middle into the link man (in this case it’s Kruse) and onto the wide player. Borussia Mönchengladbach scored many goals through wide positions this season; keeping wide players high and looking to move the ball from in to out when in attacking positions was a key for Gladbach this season. Favre would utilise a high front 4 in many games this season particularly when counter attacking, looking to use their pace and attacking instincts out wide in accordance with the intelligence and playmaking ability of his central players.
This allowed BMG to either force their opposition’s defence deep into their own box and create shooting opportunities often from between 12-20 yards from goal or, as in this case, get in behind the opponent’s full backs and either through one on one with the goalkeeper or look to pick out a teammate arriving at the far post. One of Gladbach’s trademarks this season was attacking with a 3-man line: whether it be the 2 forwards and a winger or an advanced full back (often Wendt) or advanced central midfielder. Lucien Favre would look to get a player in a position wide of the penalty area and create a situation where support players would arrive not only in numbers but with great synchronisation in order to increase the options and make them harder to defend against.
One of the great strengths of Gladbach’s attacking as well as defending this season, was their incredible variation and flexibility. If an opposition had set up to defend against the edge of the box 3-man set up then they could look to create a similar moment on the inside the penalty area by sliding a ball down the side of the opposition’s defence. Another option in variation was allowing certain players (especially Raffael) to pick the ball up deep and run straight at an opponent’s central defensive setup. This often lead to shots from range or an opportunity for one of the players in the team who liked to dribble (Herrmann, Traore, Raffael in particular) drive and commit players at pace, leading to an opportunity to outnumber opponents in their own defensive third.
Lucien Favre’s ability to adjust his tactics throughout the game was key at this end of the field too. Favre is very clever when it comes to altering his attacking setup to suit each scenario. Not just with important substitutions at key times but making the switch to a more direct style, looking to create set-piece opportunities late in games or reacting to the opposition looking to open the game up. The latter was extremely key as the season wore on: having a tight, compact style as BMG do is fine but defending so deep especially when leading can lead to Gladbach being penned in by strong attacks if not managed well. Favre was able to counteract this by pushing one of his forwards (usually Kruse) further up the pitch: having a forward constantly running in behind the opposition late on makes it difficult for them to push fully up the pitch at risk of being caught, it also gives his teammates an outlet when looking to release pressure. This tactic was perfectly utilised by Favre in the 2-0 win away at Bayern Munich: not only were BMG able to get to the end of the game without suffering any real moments of sustained heavy Bayern pressure, they were able to add a 2nd goal and, without the brilliant Neuer in the Bayern goal, could have got 3 or 4.
Credit has to be give to, not only Lucien Favre, but also to Sporting Director – Max Eberl. Together they have built an offence with depth and flexibility up top. Using combinations of players that compliment the system and each other has lead to an efficient attacking setup that did enough to propel the team to that impressive 3rd position. With Raffael, Kruse and Hrgota being the main striking options, Gladbach had several different types of wide players. Andre Hahn and Patrick Herrmann were used as wide forwards – Herrmann managing 16 goals in all competitions. Ibrahima Traore however was used as an impact winger: often coming off the bench, looking to stay wide to create space and using his expertise in dribbling with the ball to commit players when defences were tight. Thorgen Hazard was used as the utility forward – able to play on both flanks and up top, Hazard’s flexibility proved a big help to BMG and also saw him record 7 league assists despite only 7 of his 28 league appearances being starts. While Fabian Johnson was mainly used as a more defensive wide player on the left side, while not a huge key in the build up play, Johnson’s tactical discipline and understanding with Wendt proved key in big matches.
There are, as always, things for Favre and co to work on heading into next season. From a tactical standpoint they do struggle defending against extreme width and, although forcing teams to hit deep crosses has many advantages, Gladbach could work better at defending the 2nd ball in and around their own penalty area. In the first leg of their Europa League exit to Sevilla, the game turned into a real battle of wits between the 2 managers and Emery just came out on top; switching out Jose Antonio Reyes for right wing back Diogo, which pushed Aleix Vidal forward and really stretched BMG who had just turned to a 4-2-3-1 formation to match up Sevilla centrally. The move saw Sevilla, with the insurance of Kyrchowiak at holding midfield, able to employ essentially 4 out and out wingers for the last 20 minutes and win the match through a Diogo assist.
There is some work to be done in the transfer market too. With Max Kruse on his way to Wolfsburg and Christoph Kramer’s loan deal set to end with seemingly very little chance to get him back in a BMG shirt next season, Max Eberl and Lucien Favre will have to work closely with the club’s scouts to ensure they make the right additions to secure their top 4 place in next season’s Bundesliga. This will be especially important as they look to also be competitive in the Champions League and having a real go at winning the DFB Pokal. True to form however, Gladbach have already moved early and, on paper anyway, impressively in the Summer window. Securing a permanent deal for versatile attacking midfielder Thorgen Hazard and signing Hannover midfielder Lars Stindl for a reported €3m are singings that coincide perfectly with the club’s tactical flexibility and keep quality high throughout the squad. Possibly the singing that could really take them to the next level however is Josip Drmic; the club acted quickly to losing Max Kruse by sealing the deal for a forward who not only matches the system in terms of playing style and flexibility but could also prove to be the natural goalscorer that they so desperately need. The Swiss forward scored 17 Bundesliga goals for relegated Nurnberg in the 13/14 season and although his move to Leverkusen didn’t work out as planned, he was still able to score 6 league goals despite only 5 starts. There is still one big move to make however in my opinion, Christoph Kramer was so incredibly vital to the Gladbach system last season and it’s going to take an serious talent to come in and pick up where he left off. I’m a fan of Lars Stindl but would see him as a more utility midfielder, adding depth and extra quality to the squad, but not the man to replace Kramer.
Whoever comes in for Gladbach throughout the Summer, as long as they keep the man in charge and other key players such as Sommer, Xhaka and Herrmann, I believe they have more than enough to take on the challenge of an expected Dortmund renaissance under Tommy Tuchel, Schalke under new management and the possible breakout of Leverkusen and their top young stars. It’s going to be an extremely strong Bundesliga next season and with Champions League football heading to Borussia-Park, it could be a real season to remember for all Borussia Mönchengladbach fans.
Thanks for reading, as a reward, here’s Patrick Herrmann tearing through one of Europe’s top teams: