To describe this season for fans and followers, and anyone with vested interests in the football club of Borussia Monchengladbach, one word suffices- misery.
Hoping to live up to what Lucien Favre had tried to set for them, a permanent place in German football’s top 4, Gladbach started off another campaign with a 2-1 win over potential top 4 rivals, Bayer Leverkusen, (who for their own troubles seem to also have fallen off the upper half of the Bundesliga, possibly permanently), but soon started off with their old woes- timid away from home, a leaky defence and a fatigue. Andre Schubert, the club’s new coach, had to depart; he lost his position after the end of ‘Winterpause’ as they were just 4 points off relegation.
This was unfortunate, but necessary, because Andre Schubert had become quite a character during his time in charge of Borussia. He had been met with much fanfare, and he guided the club to another top 4 finish, something nobody expected after the 5 losses in the opening 5 games– something which had led now club legend Lucien Favre to resign, interim coach Schubert did well enough to stay on as more than an interim manager.
Following six wins in six matches, sporting director Max Eberl was virtually forced to appoint him so after pressure from new captain Granit Xhaka, the team, the fans and part of the staff. Appointed as head coach, Schubert laboured on and withstanding difficulties on the way which are now obvious first signs of the bigger problem, he did what he was supposed to do. Despite concerns over his position over the summer, Borussia did not replace him, but finally had to at the end of the winter break with ex-Gladbach player Dieter Hecking.
The sad part is to credit the top 4 win and stabilizing what seemed to be a season fighting relegation to the man, would be a stretch. What Andre Schubert did to earn this was simply unleash the attacking beast which Lucien Favre tamed during his time as Gladbach. While it did reap instant rewards, die fohlenelf scoring 21 goals in his first six games, it was obvious those were unsustainable numbers.
Borussia Monchengladbach was just not creating enough of those chances. Soon enough, after the win over Bayern the league toppers, they were brought back to reality after a 5-0 thumping at the BayArena by Bayer Leverkusen. Thrown out of the Europe party they were hoping to become a mainstay of, by a 4-2 loss at the hands of Manchester City, there were questions raised at the camp. And 4 goals conceded at Bremen. Bummer.
All of this began to surface during the time Schubert decided to implement his own style. He shifted to a 3-4-2-1/ 5-4-2. The team retained Lucien Favre’s teachings of pressing; they won the ball back with vigour and attacked with ferocity. But with the discipline lost in defence and given a free form approach to attacking, it was obvious Borussia could score easily now. But what was once the second best defence in the league under Favre, turned to a leaky mess that was the worst outside relegation threatened teams.
Given, yes, it did enough to win them matches, but such an approach is not viable for future work: It stripped away the hard work of seasons, and meant dips in forms or injuries were catastrophic. The team was toothless away from home, and since they couldn’t defend, it meant practically giving away those matches. Matches away at Freiburg and Mainz which are usually taken as granted for any top 4 aspiring side, were lost.
The worst part was, this was known, and voluntarily ignored. Andre Schubert himself admitted, saying after the 3-1 loss on 11 April 2016, that “It does not matter how much we concede, just that we score more than the opponent”. You can praise Schubert, you can laud him for his management all you want, but you have to acknowledge that the man did not place enough value on tactics and the team.
The resurgence of Andre Hahn meant that their problems upfront didn’t last, and they went on to hang onto 4th place to keep a Champion’s League spot. But did this little other than paper over their self-inflicted wounds. Borussia had been so hungry to stay in their newfound glory at the top of the league of the world champions, the effect was in the long-term, detrimental.
Borussia Monchengladbach had lost discipline. The loss of Granit Xhaka to Arsenal left a void in midfield, one that won back balls and started attacks in Schubert’s first season in charge, but indeed one that was unable to be filled by his supposed replacement Christoph Kramer.
However, the appointment of Dieter Hecking inspires hope. He stopped the merry go-round that went around at Wolfsburg where no player’s place in the starting XI was certain (in the 2011/12 season a record number of 33 players made an appearance in the first team) and gave them shape and discipline; was the Bundesliga not a monopoly of Bayern Munich, or rather not overbearingly so, Kevin De Bruyne might have left to England with a league title in hand, or rather, not had to.
They created the most number of chances in Europe that season, and that too, unlike Schubert, without conceding a large number of shots. In his first game in charge at Wolfsburg, Hecking taught Wolfsburg how to fight back. In his first game in charge vs. Werder Bremen, what had shaped into one of the finest attacking units in football Werder Bremen had taken the lead three times before half time. Yet Hecking’s new evolved Wolfsburg came back each time, and added two in the second half to come back and win the game 5-3. You can see shades of this already in Borussia: they recently came back from 2 goals down to beat Bayer Leverkusen 3-2.
Hecking is a proper Westphalian (what has now become the efficient german stereotype). He was not the world’s most flamboyant character but preferred to get the job done in a slightly dour, no-nonsense manner. He’s a manager who provides stability. There was no more replacing players on a grand scale every 6 months at Wolfsburg, but instead, he created a side that reached the round of 16 in the Champion’s League. He has provided discipline and shape again to Borussia. They’re now conceding much fewer shots, have claimed three clean sheets in the last four matches, scored 5, and playing with vigour long gone.
They’re now only 7 points off a Europa League spot, which they would be best to try for, and 8 off a Champion’s League. With 16 matches and 48 points yet to play for, there’s certainly a chance, but given how packed the top is, with new entrants RB Leipzig, Hoffenheim, Eintracht Frankfurt and Hertha BSC instead of the usual suspects of Schalke, Wolfsburg, Bayer and Mainz. Best to be expected of Hecking is to keep the club in the upper half of the table and launch a renewed bid on the top in the successive season.
Yet, there is a chance to attain a Champion’s League position, since they are playing in the Europa League (Teams that finish third in the Champion’s League group stage enter the round of 16 directly in the Europa League). It could be the first significant silverware for Borussia in years, but unlike other managers, Hecking has not had the advantage of a transfer window to build his team as Borussia Monchengladbach dallied in bringing him on board.
What we can expect from Hecking is perhaps a more stable Borussia. More disciplined in defence, more constructive in attack. Also, it may be realized, Gladbach might have to lose its heart to gain some teeth to fight in the league of the world champions.
Hecking didn’t bat an eyelid buying Schurrle for 30 million, making him the third most expensive German footballer (which he might not be worthy of), and selling him off to Borussia Dortmund for a similar fee; buying De Bruyne for 22 million only to sell him at a price upwards of 50 million to replace him with centre backs Dante and attacker Draxler with no hesitation-(who, also, coincidentally was sold recently to PSG).
As Borussia Moenchengladbach struggles to keep hold of much loved Sporting Director Max Eberl to Bayern, they might lose players who have come to define them such as Dahoud, Stindl and Oscar Wendt to big money bids.However, if Andre Schubert’s stint has taught us anything that results at first can be deceptive.
What we are seeing in the opening matches could be all just the ‘new manager effect’. Hecking’s appointment could mean he combines defensive rigidity with the attacking play Borussia have made as their own style, unlocking the sturdiest defences. Or he could render them toothless, players chasing around the ball to lock it down, unable to combine in attack and confused in transitions due to having sacrificed energy to defence.
He has to, for the time being, still work with Schubert’s 3-4-2-1 formation with it’s own sets of limitations. It could be the start of something beautiful, yes, or we could be forced to think again.