Mönchengladbach 14/15 Season Review: Foals become Thoroughbreds
It almost goes without saying that fans of Borussia Mönchengladbach are in dreamland. The past twelve months have been a near-constant source of good news on the pitch; a number of top players joined the club in the summer, slotting into a squad with the potential to achieve great things, and headed up by the magnificent duo of Max Eberl and Lucien Favre, who by now have to be considered the most effective sporting director/coach duo in the Bundesliga. A sixth place finish in 2013/14 was a wonderful achievement, both on its own and when put in perspective of the previous 15 or so years, in which the club had struggled in the Bundesliga, at times slipping down to the second tier, and at the start of the season a continuation of Borussia’s recent progress was perhaps the main expectation.
In our season preview, TBR earmarked die Fohlen for a European finish, with a decent shot at reaching the Champions League places for only the second time since 1978. Additionally, a good cup run and a berth in the Europa League was predicted for the club. To what extent have those goals been achieved?
As with last year, Borussia fell victim to a side who’d go on to get promoted from the 3. Liga; last time it was Darmstadt (who are incidentally now a Bundesliga club) and this year the club crashed out to Bielefeld. Fortunately this season it wasn’t in the first round, and wins over Homburg (not Hamburg!), Eintracht Frankfurt and Kickers Offenbach gave realistic hope of a place in the showpiece final come the end of May. Losing to Bielefeld in the Quarters ended that ambition, but the cup run was nonetheless pleasing, and hopefully allows some room for improvement in future seasons – with the cup being Borussia’s potentially most realistic shot at silverware.
Overall, while it was disappointing for Borussia to crash out to Bielefeld, but equally the club reached the stage you’d expect them to, avoiding three potential banana skins away from home on the way. Hopefully the experiences of this season’s cup run will stand the team in good stead for the future.
A 10-2 aggregate victory over Sarajevo – including a 7-0 rout at home – set the tone for the rest of Borussia’s involvement in the Europa League during 2014, as the club eased through a group containing Villarreal, Zürich and Apollon Limassol in first place. While the Europa League arguably hindered the team in terms of progress in the league – their first win in the game after a Europa League match only came in their tenth and final attempt, at struggling Paderborn – taking part in the competition was arguably one of the many highlights of the season, with several memorable European nights at Borussia-Park and a great turn-out from fans of the club in all five away games.
Borussia eventually found themselves casualties of a strong Sevilla side in the Round of 32 – the same stage they bowed out to Lazio in back in 2013 – but even the nature of the exit, a 3-2 loss at Borussia-Park following a 1-0 loss in Spain, was slightly heroic – with the players fighting tooth and nail for their status in the competition, and with the fans belting out a goosebump-inducing rendition of “Die Seele brennt” after Sevilla’s winner had sent the side virtually out.
It would have been great had the club ventured further into the Europa League, but in the end it turned out to be an adventure which probably ended later than most had expected, and the exit also allowed the club to push on in the Rückrunde, adding a little bit of consistency to their results having struggled to win after European games with just two full days to recover.
The league, however, is the bread and butter, and where seasons arguably come to be judged. Here, the club rarely put a foot wrong. A slightly slow start – with two draws against Stuttgart and Freiburg opening the season – soon made way for a period full of style as Borussia began to record rampant victories over the likes of Schalke, Hoffenheim and Paderborn.
To put it into perspective just how good the Borussia of late 2014 were, it took them until the end of November to be beaten. That, after 19 consecutive unbeaten matches in all competitions – the club’s strongest start to the season since the legendary team of the 1970s under Hennes Weisweiler – fed into a slightly blip, with three league losses on the bounce to Dortmund, Frankfurt and Wolfsburg – but even then, this tough patch was brief and, thanks to an excellent second half, pretty much forgotten come May.
Not conceding to Bayern over two games – in fact, quite deservedly beating the Champions in their own back yard in March – as well as drubbing Leverkusen and Dortmund at home, and a deserved last-minute win against Wolfsburg thanks to Max Kruse (who is incidentally headed there next season) will live long in the memory, while perhaps the season’s outstanding moment was Granit Xhaka’s last gasp headed winner against local rivals 1.FC Köln in the first derby at Borussia-Park since 2011/12. Having endured over 180 minutes of goalless football against the Billy Goats – as the away tie had ended in a 0-0 stalemate – it was a moment of great relief as well as incredible joy, but also showed the mental strength of a team who play from the first whistle to the last, a huge improvement on the side earlier in the season and in previous years.
This is probably the best way to summarise Borussia’s season, both in the Bundesliga and in all competitions. They’ve done everything we know they can do – defend resolutely, attack with flair, keep the ball when needed, and hit teams on the counter with aplomb. This team has several plans to break opposition down, as well as incredible depth in both defence and attack to cover for any missing players or players out of form. Most game plans executed by Favre’s men have paid off – evidenced in the results, reaching a Champions League berth with time to spare – and both Favre and Eberl have pieced together a squad with an excellent dynamic, a blend of experience and youth, solidity and flair. Despite ending on a sour note with the loss to Augsburg, it’s genuinely been quite an incredible season.
The bottom line is that Favre, Eberl and Borussia were aiming for another Europa League finish to continue the rapid development of the club in recent years, and have, thanks to the hard work and also the stumbling of positional rivals such as Schalke and Dortmund, find themselves ahead of schedule regards the club’s development into a top team. That is nothing but a huge success.
There are many candidates to choose Borussia’s player of the season from. A defence which, at times, looks impenetrable, is rivalled by one of the league’s most competent midfields and an attack which has torn apart many opponents throughout the season, while summer arrival Yann Sommer has probably been the Bundesliga’s outstanding shot stopper this year.
First, the honourable mentions. Martin Stranzl has commanded a mean defence and, during his time on the sidelines in the Hinrunde and at points in the early part of 2015, Borussia seemed to lack his presence on the field, collecting markedly fewer points without the Austrian than with him. Tony Jantschke has played a larger proportion of the season and can now be ranked among the league’s top defenders, having proven consistently for the past three to four seasons that he is a reliable Bundesliga player who should probably be viewed in contention for the German national team. Patrick Herrmann has continued his development and risen to the challenge of the additions of Andre Hahn, Fabian Johnson and Ibrahima Traore to the squad with an unbelievable season, scoring sixteen goals and assisting a further seven. It’s perhaps harsh to overlook a player with such obvious pedigree, but given the season Borussia have had, probably necessary.
Granit Xhaka, though, has probably been the most important player for Mönchengladbach throughout the season. It shows when he’s not on the pitch; the club look notably less dangerous going forward and much more porous going backwards, as his intelligent playmaking on the ball and combative nature off the ball aren’t matched by many in the league, let alone in Borussia’s squad.
With a passing success rate of 86% – around two thirds of which go forward, something also important to consider in comparison to players with higher ratios such as Philipp Lahm, whose 89% success rate is largely down to the fact he only sends the ball forward half the time – Xhaka looks to set Borussia on the front foot and largely succeeds in doing so; even when not on top of his game, his style is vital in allowing Borussia to boss the midfield battle by transitioning quickly, and this has been evident in the games which Xhaka has missed this year; Borussia have only won once in the league without him this season – albeit only in four attempts – while Favre’s men looked a lot worse on the pitch against Augsburg last Saturday after Xhaka was substituted off before half time, eventually surrendering a goal lead and losing to Augsburg.
With key goals and assists – notably, of course, that goal against Köln, but also screamers against Villarreal and Sarajevo, among others – it’s really hard to argue against Xhaka as player of the season for the club.
Borussia certainly had a good summer, welcoming Yann Sommer, Fabian Johnson, Andre Hahn, Ibrahima Traore and Thorgan Hazard to Borussia-Park. All have done well and have played important roles since arriving. Hahn carried the team forward in the opening weeks of the season and generally had an impressive Hinrunde, but injury and confidence hampered his chances in the Rückrunde and the former Augsburg man played more of a role from the bench after the winter break. Hazard stepped somewhat out of the shadow of his brother Eden, especially with important performances in the thick of Europa League action between October and February; a number of assists and a smattering of goals have whetted the appetite for hopefully a larger role next season now that he’s permanently signed from Chelsea. Traore has mostly figured from the bench but his goals against Hertha and Leverkusen towards the end of the season were key, while his vibrant style of play has livened up many a game.
Johnson has been a surprise in the sense that he has played in a different position to expected; Favre considers the American international a left midfielder rather than a right back, the position Johnson played his best football at Hoffenheim in and had an outstanding World Cup at, but the Swiss tactician has been proven right as Johnson has cemented a starting place in the side at left midfield since the end of February. Slightly more defensive an option than Herrmann who tends to start on the opposite flank, Johnson adds balance to the side and is almost the natural choice in that position now. Perhaps the only unsurprising thing about Johnson’s move is that it has been a success.
However, the best signing is clear. Yann Sommer had big gloves to fill when replacing Barcelona bound Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but he managed it with a strong first half of the season and the best Rückrunde a goalkeeper has ever had, conceding just ten goals since the break. With 26 goals conceded overall, fifteen league clean sheets and one of the best save-to-goal ratios in Europe (3.52 saves per goal), it’s safe to say that Sommer’s probably the best signing Max Eberl made in the summer, with such a big task for the Swiss goalkeeper.
Additionally, Sommer’s become Switzerland’s first choice goalkeeper – aided by the international retirement of Benaglio, but also an achievement given the competition in the outstanding Roman Bürki and clinical Marwin Hitz. If that’s him adapting to the Bundesliga, imagine what he’ll be like next season!
Does much more need to be said? Almost every aspect of 2014/2015 has gone excellently for Borussia Mönchengladbach, with big wins at almost every turn and pleasing developments, new contracts and a raft of new signings set to come in at the beginning of next season. We’ll find out if things can realistically get any better in the coming years, but for now, this is the vintage.