After another year on the up as a club for Borussia Mönchengladbach, 2014/2015 will surely be a season of further consolidation as a club capable of consistently finishing in the Bundesliga’s European places. Last season was nothing short of excellent for Borussia and their fans, by now firm neutral favourites among viewers of the German top flight; thanks to a number of excellent years under current coach Lucien Favre, the Swiss tactician supremo, Mönchengladbach have quickly become a byword for top quality football on a reasonable budget. This is in no small part down to the steady running of the club by Sporting Director Max Eberl, whose transfer dealings last summer were completely vindicated – bringing in Kruse, Raffael and Kramer (the latter on a two year loan) for a combined €7.5m, as the trio went on to become poster-boys for the Niederrhein-based outfit and, with their sensational form throughout, at times even the league.
If Borussia manage to continue playing to their strengths, namely neat, short passing and a dangerous counter-attacking style, a deeper and more talented Mönchengladbach squad should bare all the ammunition required to fire Mönchengladbach into the latter rounds of the DFB-Pokal, with a good chance at progression in the Europa League and, crucially, be very competitive in the Bundesliga; it’s clear that the talent is there. One slight concern may be the increased load of matches; even with a mere 35 first team games last season – having lost in the Pokal first round to then-third tier Darmstadt – Borussia’s squad began to appear threadbare and tired by February, enduring a terrible start to the Rückrunde before ending their winless streak away to Dortmund in March. Considering that slight dip, combined with the added games that Europe will most likely present to Borussia (assuming they win their Europa League qualifier), which could feasibly mean playing around 45 games this time out – squad rotation and depth will be of the utmost importance for Favre’s men. It’s definitely possible that Favre and his men can avoid the mid-season dip in form while balancing Europe and the Bundesliga, but it’ll take the likes of fringe first team players such as Thorben Marx and Branimir Hrgota, as well as youngsters Mahmoud Dahoud, Marvin Schulz, Nico Brandenburger and Marlon Ritter – all recently promoted from Borussia II – proving themselves as worthy replacements on the big stage.
What Bundesliga followers will know is that, despite some commotion to the contrary at points last season, Mönchengladbach are a team who can match the best on their day – they did the double over Dortmund and Schalke in 2013/2014, and gave good games to Bayern, Leverkusen and their direct rivals in the European race, Wolfsburg. This was underpinned with a strong home record, staying unbeaten at Borussia-Park until January – which is something which should continue this season, too. The main point for improvement is the club’s away form – the Foals managed only 5 wins in 17 games on the road, most of those in November and December, while their home form would’ve easily been worthy of a Champions League spot. A lot of this seemed to stem from psychological factors; the young squad’s heads quite often dropped when falling behind away from home, whereas at Borussia-Park they clearly felt they had the backing to turn the game around – but despite the loss of experience, with Juan Arango’s move to Mexico and Filip Daems unlikely to feature heavily throughout the season, the squad seems mentally stronger this term, with a further year of top level football behind them.
2014/2015 is, then, a very important season for Borussia Mönchengladbach, with a chance to consolidate themselves as a club battle-ready for Europe. Qualifying for Europe again is surely the dream of Mönchengladbach fans: it wouldn’t be a disaster if this wasn’t achieved, but it would stint growth, which so far has been solid year-on-year since Favre took over. Some enjoyable cup runs would be well-received, too, but in this case, a lot depends heavily on the opponents the club will face in each prospective round, and so success can’t be merely judged on which round is reached.
The New Boys
Max Eberl has again been busy in the transfer market, with no fewer than five moves made so far. Further business has been hinted at – Borussia seem keen on adding a striker to their ranks, having allowed Luuk de Jong return to the Netherlands with PSV and Peniel Mlapa leave to Nürnberg on loan, but so far have made five excellent deals.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen is obviously now Barcelona’s custodian after quite a long and drawn out transfer saga, and so with the aging Christofer Heimeroth and not-quite ready Janis Blaswich left in the Borussia goalkeeping ranks, Eberl swooped early for a readymade replacement with FC Basel’s Yann Sommer, for a reported €7m. Sommer, a member of the Swiss national squad at this summer’s World Cup, has all the attributes to be a successful successor to ter Stegen, as he’s an excellent shot stopper with good leadership qualities – captaining Basel in a few games last season – and is, like his predecessor, comfortable with the ball at his feet. Sommer kept 11 clean sheets in 34 league appearances for Basel last year – but crucially has extensive European experience, which will benefit the squad as a whole, as well as showing just how much of a coup a goalkeeper of Sommer’s quality is for Borussia.
Joining Sommer as an early window signing is former FC Augsburg winger André Hahn. Having enjoyed his best professional season to date – his first full Bundesliga season, in fact, having joined Augsburg last January from Kickers Offenbach – André Hahn’s signature was supposedly coveted by clubs such as Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen. As it is, Hahn made the €2.25m switch to Borussia-Park (the fee incredibly low thanks to one of those pesky buyout clauses) in order to further his career while presumably being a first team starter. With Juan Arango leaving Borussia, there’s definitely space for Hahn to grow into the team, but Arango and Hahn’s styles are eons apart. While Hahn is technically a talented player, he’s at his best bombing down the wing and forcing men to commit; Arango was better at unlocking defences with pinpoint passes and set pieces.
Competing with Hahn (and seasoned Foal Patrick Herrmann) for a starting berth on the wing will be two further new signings, Ibrahima Traoré (who joined on a free from Stuttgart) and Thorgan Hazard, a loanee from Chelsea, and brother of Eden. Traoré is perhaps the lesser known of the four, but was one of very few VfB Stuttgart players to emerge with any real credit from last season, consolidating himself as a quality Bundesliga winger as a near-ever present for the Swabians. Traoré, like Hahn, is known for his electric pace, but the Guinea international has had an excellent pre-season in which he’s shown he’s a very adept finisher, and strong in the build-up, too. Any combination of Hahn, Traoré and Herrmann could be devastating on the break. Hazard, meanwhile, is somewhat of an unknown quantity having only played top level football at Zulte Waregem in Belgium so far, but is highly rated at Chelsea and has shown some neat touches in pre-season, including a neat finish against Stoke. Chelsea have incentivised Borussia playing Hazard often, and with that, combined with the load of games that the squad will have to mindfully manage, even if Hazard isn’t a guaranteed starter – which at this point, it’s difficult to say if he is or isn’t – Eden’s younger brother will get a fair chance to contribute and stake a claim.
The final piece of business worth mentioning is Fabian Johnson’s switch from 1899 Hoffenheim on a free. Johnson was arguably one of the outstanding performers of the World Cup, carrying a tactically naïve United States team into the Second Round and very nearly a Quarter Final berth with his sublime play both defensively as a full back and also moving forward on the counter. This style should allow him to slot in brilliantly into Borussia’s system; last season, Wendt and Korb were encouraged to get forward quite a lot. As Johnson can play full back on both flanks, it’ll be interesting to see where Favre opts to place the German-born wide man; it wasn’t until the Rückrunde of last season that Johnson firmly nailed down the position of right back at Hoffenheim, although he does consider it his primary position – until then, he’d been mainly a left back. This versatility bodes well for both him in terms of playing time and also the balance of the squad, meaning that Korb, Wendt and Daems should get a fair share of the action.
The Key Men
Borussia’s squad may be slightly more experienced than last season, but some of the more seasoned professionals will still need to make sure their voices are heard loud and clear, and importantly that they lead by example on the pitch. Two key players – who’ll pretty much start every game they’re both fit – are Martin Stranzl and Tony Jantschke. Stranzl quite often captains the team when club captain, Filip Daems, is not available, while Jantschke has also taken up the armband on occasion. The pair formed a brilliant defensive partnership together last time out, as Jantschke moved from the more familiar position of right back to the centre after an amalgamation of injury problems and suspensions riddled the Borussia back-line, and since then has hardly looked back. It has been said for years that Jantschke is a defensive all-rounder – indeed, he’s now played right back, left back, centre back and defensive midfielder for Borussia – but he proved it in style last year, with no let-off in standards when switching between positions. He’ll potentially be the key man at the back, as Stranzl ages and could potentially be ruled out for a while with injuries, as he was last year. That’s not to take away from the Austrian on the pitch, though – Borussia look much more stable with him at the back.
Raffael was the club’s top scorer last season, with fifteen goals, most of which were scored in an early Rückrunde burst, when half of the rest of the team weren’t performing. Raffael proved worth every penny of the €5m outlay that Mönchengladbach made last summer, adding nine assists to the mix in a formidable season. What’s striking is that Raffael is not purely a player important in the final third; it’s actually his surging dribbles from deep which typify his play with Borussia, and stretch the play going forward incredibly well. Not just that, but he can pick out a mean pass, which often leaves defences guessing as to where the ball will end up. This unpredictability helped Mönchengladbach unlock many a defence last season, rarely failing to score. Excitingly, Raffael was an ever present last year, and so should hopefully be able to deal with the throes of a marathon season, after a nice summer’s rest – even if he probably deserved a small spot of tournament football, too.
The second member of Borussia’s attacking line-up was statistically the best player in the Bundesliga last season, creating an insane amount of chances and finishing off quite a few, to boot. Max Kruse well and truly kicked on from a fine break out season at SC Freiburg the year before last, with twelve goals and the same number of assists; mid-season claims that Kruse was having a crisis – indeed, Sky Bundesliga took to calling him “Max Krise” (Max Crisis – it’s a pun on his name, geddit?) for a week or two – were completely unfounded, as Kruse still added a lot to all-round play and was getting into positions, but defences were getting the rub of the green against him, as was the case with many other players. Despite his hard work and honesty as a striker, Kruse was clearly riddled with frustration – probably caused by the misconceptions in the media – and when he finally ended his lengthy drought against Dortmund in March, he visibly “shook off” his demons while celebrating, before finishing the season in a manner no lazy pundit or short-sighted fan could complain about. Kruse will be an important member of the squad this year again – if he can continue to score and assist at his current rate, Borussia could be in for a free-scoring season, especially with the added firepower on the wings.
Another exciting and potentially fruitful season for Borussia Mönchengladbach is in the offing, with a potential run deep into the DFB-Pokal, a place in the Europa League group stages to play for and, of course, another European-place finish to aim for. It’s likely that Borussia will get all of these things – draw permitting – and this would allow them to strengthen further next summer. The club’s in an excellent place, and with one or two additions – a back-up striker to Kruse really wouldn’t go amiss – could quite possibly outstrip the likes of Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Schalke to a Champions League finish. Will that happen? Maybe – but it’s likely that Borussia will be playing Europa League at the very least come next season.