Bundesliga MD 15 Preview: Gladbach vs. Bayern
Or, to put it differently, Bayern have only won three out of the last 14 away games after 90 minutes. As a result, Borussia Mönchengladbach over recent years has gained a reputation of a bogey team for Bayern. But how did this come about?
The progress of Borussia Mönchengladbach over the last one and a half decades is closely connected with the name of Max Eberl. Eberl had been youth coordinator at Gladbach since 2005 and played an instrumental part in the search for a new head coach in 2008. From then on his importance at and for the club has grown steadily, as has Gladbach’s success on the field. Today, after a long period of a rather bland existence on the margins of sporting relevance the club is back to being one of the best – and best run – clubs in the country.
Admittedly, the club’s ascent did not follow a straight upward trajectory, but who would question these days that Eberl has achieved great things? An important element of his success at Gladbach is his eye for players and coaches that fit in seamlessly with the concept of football he has established at the club and continuously refined over the years.
In doing so, he often takes innovative and courageous measures – because he has to. Gladbach are still in the process of establishing themselves as a consistent member of the top six. Since 2012, they have always finished at least ninth, even making the top 5 five times.
It was for instance very courageous by Eberl to hire a coaching team in Marco Rose, René Marić and Alexander Zickler who had been very successful in Salzburg but whose eventual success at Gladbach was by no means guaranteed. At first, Eberl’s decision was questioned, especially since previous coach Dieter Hecking had finished his final season at Gladbach in fifth place after two ninth-place finishes in the years before. So far, however, it is not only the results that vindicate the sporting director’s bold move.
Rose, Marić and Zickler have revitalized and modernized Gladbach’s football. They stand for verticality, high pace and a strong offensive. As Hansi Flick put it so aptly at the pre-match press conference:
[Gladbach’s] performances against top-class opposition in the Champions League group stage were impressive. That’s their game, they play with great courage going forward and have pace and good automatisms in the final third. They make the spaces very tight for their opponents. So I see a good development. I really like the way they play football.Hansi Flick at the press conference before the Gladbach game
Tight spaces, courage going forward, tempo and good automatisms in the final third – this by and large reads like a perfect summary of what it has taken to hurt Bayern of late – and Gladbach has all of this in spades. The match will therefore be a real litmus test for the Bayern team. How effective was their short Christmas break really?
But Gladbach also had some problems of their own before the turn of the year. In December, they managed only one victory in all competitions – in the cup against fourth division SV Elversberg. Defeats against Inter Milan (2-3), Real Madrid (0-2) and Hoffenheim (1-2) were joined by draws against Freiburg (2-2), Hertha (1-1) and Frankfurt (3-3).
So Gladbach can be beaten. And yet they embody everything that should cause Bayern trouble at the moment. Hansi Flick already got a taste of this in 2019 when his team lost 2-1 at the last moment.
Back then, Gladbach started with a midfield diamond. A shape that, according to Marić, in that game was totally dismantled and rendered ineffective by the movements of Thomas Müller, Thiago and especially right-back Joshua Kimmich. Bayern were the dominating team in the game, even taking the lead shortly after the break.
But then Gladbach made a crucial change. They switched from the diamond to a wider 4-2-3-1 as a result of which they got Bayern under control. Whether their second goal for the 2-1 win was ultimately deserved is an academic question, but the prior equaliser certainly was.
Why bring up the memories of this unpleasant evening for Bayern here? Because they could become relevant for today’s match for two reasons.
First, there is the diamond that failed for Gladbach in the 2019 match due to a well-prepared Bayern team. Kimmich in particular was a key factor in that. Against Mainz last weekend, he just in time demonstrated once again that he is a close to perfect anti-diamond player at right-back because he intuitively knows how to exploit the open spaces intrinsic to that system.
So will Gladbach forgo the diamond this time? Perhaps. But perhaps Rose, Marić and Zickler also listened in carefully to Flick’s press conference and took note of his statement that he intended to start Kimmich in the center – a perhaps ill-advised level of transparency on the part of the treble winning coach.
At any rate, Gladbach’s coaching team will certainly have taken note of the first half against Mainz. Moreover, they will have seen that Bayern have struggled against such varied opponents as Union Berlin, Werder Bremen and RB Leipzig, all of whom have in common that they made the center of midfield extremely tight for Bayern. Although this left spaces for the full-backs to surge forward from time to time, they were unable to use them effectively, leaving their offensive players in the center starved of service all too often.
So should Gladbach try going with a midfield diamond again? At least that way they could put pressure on Kimmich, who will most likely start in the holding position in defensive midfield. That he received close to zero support in the match against Mainz was due to a weak Corentin Tolisso. With Leon Goretzka at his side, however, Bayern would definitely have opportunities to beat Gladbach’s pressing – regardless of whether the foals start with a diamond, in a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 shape.
There is, however, a second relevant aspect from the 2-1 defeat in 2019 worth considering: Gladbach are capable of making in-game adjustments. Bayern need more than the one recipe for winning because the opposing coaching team is constantly able to affect the course of the game through making clever little adjustments.
If you are inclined to be critical of Flick, you could chalk that up as one of his weak points. In the 2019 contest his team did not find any answers to Gladbach’s adjustments, and even during the extremely successful period in the summer of 2020 there were games when his influence from the sidelines was absent or minimal.
However, the coach made a tactically quite astute change during the half-time break in the match against Mainz, which initiated the second half turnaround of the game. The game against Gladbach will be one with many different phases. Consequently, Bayern will need different answers for different situations – and a good day of their full-backs.
Flick is still looking for a solution particularly out right. Pavard? Out of form. Süle? Defensively stable, invisible going forward. Sarr? Has still not really arrived at Bayern and is a hot button topic with almost everyone – except Flick. Nevertheless, his appearance is a long shot.
Kimmich at right-back would be the optimal solution to stretch Gladbach’s center and move the ball diagonally into the space in between the lines from a wide position. Especially with his strong positional play and awareness of suddenly occuring spaces he could cause Gladbach a lot of headaches. However, in that case there would be no one in the center to provide relief. Unfortunately, Flick does not have a second Kimmich in the squad. And so he will once again be forced to make a compromise. A compromise that could very well have a substantial bearing on the outcome of the game.