Buoyant and vibrant on their return to Europe the Foals haven’t set the stage alight this season by any stretch of imagination. Early exits from the DFB Pokal and the Champions League means last season’s high-flying and jaw dropping performances are faint traces in memory. The fans have experienced a rude awakening and a harsh welcoming to the real world this season. A rich and glorious history comes with its own share of expectations and Gladbach are feeling the pressure of the same.
Back in early January as Marco Reus signed a pre-contract agreement with Dortmund, the Gladbach fans and management were submitted into an uneasy acceptance of the obvious. Reus had grown into a huge fish, too big for the Gladbach pond. When Dante and Neustadter followed suite, Favre was left to rebuild a project that had started showing signs of a bright future. Transfer funds generated from the respective sales were immediately used to bring in replacements as Dominguez, Xhaka and De Jong joined BMG. The anxiety around Borussia Park cooled down but not for long as Gladbach went crashing out of the Champions League before even the group stages began and had to be content with Europa League action for the rest of season. The gaffer tweaked his tactics in order to suit the newly arrived players often opting for a more traditional looking 4-4-2 at times to find a best fit or a more distorted 4-2-3-1 depending on the shape of the opponents. This small change in system has automatically made the team more dependent on the wing play of Arango and Rupp/Hermann. The lack of specialized roles in midfield accompanied by the more spread out approach in attack means Gladbach can’t repeat the heroics of last season. So what exactly has this changed?
The fluidity in attack. The transition play has suffered and a lack of cohesion is clearly and understandably visible. Their Bundesliga season has been a topsy-turvy ride, beating an in-form Frankfurt side one weekend and getting hammered by Bremen in another. Despite a lack of change in the playing style and attacking system, Gladbach seem to lack the pace and swiftness on the counter. Last season was all about crisp short passing with excellent interchange and movement, none of which can be identified with the present team. The biggest issue is the lack of a stable and balanced midfield.
Neustadter was the heart of the midfield, breaking plays, tackling and initiating attacks thereby becoming an irreplaceable entity and so it has proved. Despite Xhaka fitting the exact same profile, Favre has continued to play Nordveidt in his position. The former Basel player hasn’t looked very comfortable playing higher up the pitch and his performances have at times been sluggish when played in a more attacking role behind the striker. This is one of the contributing factors in Favre often employing the flatter 4-4-2 formation in order to play to the Swiss international’s strengths. Despite this Xhaka has fallen short of Favre’s expectations and has found himself as a bit part player at the club, something which isn’t helping the cause of either the club or the player himself. Creativity from the rest of the midfield is way too restricted burdening the Swiss with a too much to do. Though the slower tempo is largely due to Xhaka’s inability to break play and quickly change defence to attack. Unless he ups his game in this regard, don’t expect him to be a regular starter.
In attack, the void left by Reus was always going to haunt BMG and Favre has done his best to find a solution in the transfer market. The big name signing in the summer, Luuk De Jong, has slowly and steadily settled in and will only grow in stature with more games under his belt, but the comparisons with Reus are unfair on the Dutch youngster who already has a couple of storming games for his new club in the league as well as in Europe. Reus’s mobility and versatility will be impossible for any striker to emulate, but playing as the main striker he has done well, showing good ball retention and involving players around him better with more game time. Having only scored 3 goals, it’s just a matter of time before the young Dutch international starts scoring for fun.
But this isn’t half the problem, as Hanke, one of last season’s key figures has been virtually frozen out this season and continues to grow frustrated having been pushed down the pecking order. De Camargo has been woeful and the Belgian being preferred over Hanke in some games defied logic. The return to fitness of Mlapa might give Gladbach the much required plan B. Lucien Favre might have to consider playing Hanke and de Jong together at some stage, especially with the former demanding more starts.
24 goals in 34 games last season, 20 goals in just 10 games this season. That’s how shockingly poor Gladbach have been at the back. Individual errors from Stranzl have cost the Foals time and time again. The lack of protection from midfield is the area that has been their biggest undoing. Xhaka and Nordveidt are often caught out of position leaving them susceptible to fast breaks. The absence of Brouwers for long periods accompanied by the curtailed movement of Jantschke have added to their woes. Even Ter Stegen‘s superhuman performances of last season are chucked out of the window considering his excessive exposure to opponent attackers. His injury hasn’t help either. The only positive all season has been the left flank. Arango has been an absolute gem to watch and has often carried the Foals on his own shoulders. The captain Daems has been impressive too and together with Arango make the left flank Gladbach’s best attacking outlet.
In a nutshell, losing your best defender, midfielder and attacker isn’t easy to cope with but with a more stable starting lineup and better cohesion, things can be turned around and who better to make that happen than the man who has been there and done that, in Lucien Favre. The Borussia Park faithful would be hoping the rise begins sooner rather than later. Europe isn’t out of reach and a top 6 finish in the league with an extended run in the Europa League will be surely considered a success. Just a transitional phase this, but whether it goes uphill or downhill post-transition is for Favre to figure out.