The European footballing season has been littered with surprises this year, from the size of Liverpool’s lead over Manchester City, to Getafe’s unlikely Champions League push, to the fact that Lazio still might pip Juventus to the Serie A title. But perhaps the greatest surprise came when, in December, we saw Borussia Mönchengladbach sitting atop the Bundesliga table. They were eventually unable to keep pace with a Bayern Munich side who got their act together following the dismissal of Niko Kovac, but their early-season prowess allowed them to secure Champions League football next season for only the third time in their history. Achieving this having sold Thorgan Hazard in the summer, widely considered their best player and with no established superstars in their ranks may seem like a fluke, but it is anything but. The Foals have been growing in strength both on and off the pitch for several seasons now and have the potential to become a serious player in European football in the near future.
It’s difficult to know where to start with this Borussia Mönchengladbach side. There are stories wherever you look and a whole host of varying dimensions that make this team a force of nature. Perhaps the most logical beginning is this time last year. Gladbach had just been pipped to the final Champions League spot by Bayer Leverkusen on the last day of the season and Thorgan Hazard was on his way to the other Borussia – Dortmund.
Hazard had contributed to 21 goals that season, more than anyone else in the side. A season without such a prolific force would have caused a lot of teams to panic buy, splashing out on someone as overhyped as they were overpriced. Gladbach, however, took the £22.5 million from the sale of Hazard, as well as the £10.8 million for the sale of Michaël Cuisance to Bayern Munich, and reinvested in what would become the spine of one of the most exciting sides in Europe. Breel Embolo 23 from Schalke, Stefan Lainer from RB Salzburg, Ramy Bensebaini from Stade Rennais and Marcus Thuram from Guingamp were all brought in for a combined fee of £35.5 million, according to Transfermakrt.
Gladbach’s combined expenditure over the summer of 2019 was ultimately £1.2 million more than they made in transfers, but the results on the pitch more than made up for that shortfall. The four signings contributed to a combined total of 47 goals this season in goals and assists, making up 71% of Gladbach’s 66 Bundesliga goals.
Alassane Plea ???? Marcus Thuram
Meet @borussia_en's free-scoring French duo ????????
— Bundesliga English (@Bundesliga_EN) June 5, 2020
The man behind such shrewd reinvestment is the club’ sporting director and former centre-half, Max Eberl. Since he was appointed to the role, he has overseen consistently impressive transfer business, including the development and eventual sale of Jannick Vestergaard, Mahmoud Dahoud and Granit Xhaka for a combined value of £73.8 million in the last four years alone. The side’s departures have been matched with some excellent replacements, with the likes of Alassane Plea, Matthias Ginter and Christoph Kramer all arriving in the same four year period for less than £50 million. Such impressive business acumen has led to dramatic improvements on the pitch, with the Foals qualifying for European football six times in Eberl’s twelve years at the club.
Not only has Eburl brought in some of Europe’s most exciting young players – including convincing French legend Lilian Thuram that the club was the ideal environment for his son, Marcus – but he was also a key figure in bringing Marco Rose to the club. This time last year, the German coach was attracting interest across Europe after his exploits with RB Salzburg. In 2017 he succeeded Oscar Garcia as head coach of the senior team and announced himself on the European stage in the process. In his first season he not only won the Austrian championship but reached the semi-finals of the Europa League, beating the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Lazio on the way. His second season saw the retention of the league title as well as a quarter-final appearance in the Europa League, being knocked out of the competition by Napoli. What was most impressive about his two seasons with Salzburg, however, was the 100% home record he maintained with the side.
But despite the widespread interest in his services, it was Gladbach he eventually plumped for, seeing in the club the necessary business mechanisms to back up their aspirations. And this year the inclusion of Rose has seen Mönchengladbach achieve a new level of footballing excellence with The Athletic’s Raphael Honigstein named the Foals as “the most attractive side in Germany” back in October. “The random attacking game and soft defending of [previous coach] Dieter Hecking,” he wrote, “have been replaced by sharp patterns, high energy and a multidimensional approach blending the “work against the ball” school of Jurgen Klopp and Ralf Rangnick with stints of possession-based artistry.” High praise indeed and all the more impressive when you consider they have done this with nowhere near as many high-class players as Bayern, Dortmund or RB Leipzig.
Rose used a variety of formations this season, beginning the campaign pairing Plea and Thuram up top together in a 4-3-1-2, that later morphed into a 4-3-3, 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1. The prowess of the attacking duo may have helped shoot Gladbach up to the top of the table early on in the season, but it was the flexibility and work rate of the rest of the side that sustained their success. Goals came from all parts of the Gladbach side with Bensebaini chipping in with as many from left-back as Jonas Hofman in central midfield – 5. In fact, their versatility was so great that even with their main goalscorers, Thuram and Plea, ruled out for the final three games of the season, they won every match. Hofmann and Emobolo, as well as Lars Stindl and Patrick Herrmann, stepped up to the plate in their absence to help grant Gladbach the necessary victories against Wolfsburg, Paderborn and Hertha Berlin to secure Champions League football. Were Bayern and Leipzig to lose Lewandowski or Werner through injury at any point this season, I’m not sure as to whether they would have been able to make up for their absence as well as Mönchengladbach did this season.
But Gladbach’s goals would have all been for nothing were it not for an effective defence. The Foals only managed to net 66 times this season, the lowest by some distance by any of the top four sides, and so their resolute backline has arguably been the most effective defence in the Bundesliga. The fulcrum of their defence has been their goalkeeper, the experienced Yann Sommer. The Swiss international made the most saves in the Bundesliga this year, racking up an incredible 126. It’s a number that includes his incredible stop against Bayern Munich in Gladbach’s 2-1 win against the now champions. With the game at 0-0, a speculative shot from Joshua Kimmich manages to squirm through Sommer, who is then somehow able to clack the ball from back from the line with the tips of his fingers. Should he have waited even half a second more and it’s not absurd to suggest that the season could have turned out very different for the Foals.
All in all, Gladbach only conceded 40 goals this season, the third lowest in the division, and ended the campaign with the second best home form in the division – a record of 38 points that was only bettered by Bayern’s 41.
But their rise up the Bundesliga and the confirmation of their return to the top table of European football begs the question; what next for Borussia Mönchengladbach? Will this exciting side full of youthful vigour and measured experience be content as a development club that trains the future stars of Europe’s big boys, or are they planning to break into the prime enclosure itself?
One thing that we know for sure is that this season isn’t just a flash in the pan, the work Eberl has put into the club over the last 12 years is testament to that. What’s more, their investment in Rose’s backroom team shows Gladbach to be a club preparing for the next level by thinking outside the box.
Rose’s assistant manager, Rene Maric, for example, was not a former player nor does he have decades of experience working in football. In fact, he’s only 27. Instead, the psychology graduate got his break in football writing for the esteemed tactics blog, spielverlagerung.de, which caught the eye of football insiders and won him several consulting roles with some Premier League sides. After a chance encounter with Rose when he was managing Salzburg, the pair got chatting and Maric was then eventually asked to join the management team at Salzburg.
Bringing Maric to Gladbach with Rose was a gamble for the club hierarchy, but in doing so they brought to the club a fresh perspective. When asked by The Athletic whether his psychology degree helps him in his role, he replied,
“Every staff member needs to be a psychologist of sorts. You need to know how to make players better and know how to deal with them to keep their spirits up. But I wasn’t a professional. In some areas, I lack experience. I tend to step back, listen and watch Marco handle it…[But] you find that some players perceive similar situations very differently because they’re different characters or part of different generations. Some of the young players we have don’t get nervous ahead of matches at all. They’ve been used to that kind of pressure and travelling to the national teams and signing autographs and talking to the media from a really young age”
— Gladbach (@borussia_en) June 27, 2020
Having one of the best young minds in the game so high up on their payroll is indicative of Gladbach’s desire to be different in order to get ahead of their opponents. But their progress comes with a limitation that pretty much every club in Germany has to suffer – Bayern Munich.
The newly-crowned German champions have been dominant in German football in the last twenty years. Last month’s victory against Werder Bremen that clinched the title was their eighth in a row and 29th in total. Not since Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund side were at the peak of their powers in 2012 has there been another worthy challenger and the constant procession of superstar players through the Bayern ranks means their grip on power is showing no signs of loosening. Friday’s official announcement of the transfer of Leroy Sane on a five-year deal is indicative of the sort of talent Bayern consistently has in surplus, while their nearest rivals Dortmund have seemingly ceded much of their authority to become a development club themselves. The likes of Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland and Thorgan Hazard may be the stars of the side, but they are nowhere near the finish product.
Bayern’s performance this season is evidence of their seemingly unquestionable superiority in German football. By December 7th they were at their lowest ebb in recent memory. They were on their second manager of the season after parting ways with Kovac in early November, had just given away a 1-0 against Gladbach to lose 2-1 and were languishing in 7th in the Bundesliga. Since that loss, however, Bayern failed to lose a single game for the rest of the season, picking up an incredible 58 points from 60. That’s a record of 19 wins and 1 draw, the latter which came in a frustrating 0-0 draw with RB Leipzig in February. The only other comparable domination in one of Europe’s top leagues can be Juventus who themselves are aiming for their ninth consecutive Serie A title. But even they are facing a serious challenge in the league this season from Lazio and, with a resurgent Inter side packed with established superstars and serious financial backing, it would be impossible to say that it’s going to continue to be one-way traffic in Italy.
And this is the conundrum that Gladbach find themselves in. What sort of club can they even aspire to be in a league so monopolised by one club? Indeed, the influence of Bayern in Europe, let alone Germany, is so huge that their performances each season affect the fortunes of clubs right across Germany. A side can put in a respectable performance one season, but how can their star striker say no when Bayern come calling? A cursory glance at Dortmund’s post-2012 landscape should give you a clearer picture of the fears Gladbach are operating under. After consecutive title victories in 2011 and 2012, two of Dortmund’s key players – Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski – were sold to Bayern within two years of their triumphs. A lot of Gladbach’s key players are still within the first years of their contracts, but continued success next season could cause them to look around and see where the grass might be greener.
But I see in the Foals a serious challenge to put the cat amongst the pigeons and emulate their own olden period that saw them win five Bundesliga titles and two UEFA Cups between 1970 and 1979. The club’s investment in a management team alone shows that they are unafraid to think outside the box to get to the top. Progress will be slower than the meteoric rise of RB Leipzig and some of their top players are bound to have their heads turned when the more established top sides declare their interest. But at Borussia Mönchengladbach there is a real long term plan that puts as much faith in the future as the patience it takes to get there. 2019/2020 was no flash in the pan.