Bundesliga MD 32 Preview: Bayern vs. Gladbach
The situation is clear: If Bayern win, they will be champions no matter what. But it may happen that their result will not even matter as their late Saturday game follows Leipzig’s earlier game at Dortmund. If Dortmund win, Bayern will already be champions before they kick a single ball on Saturday. If Dortmund draw, only a Bayern defeat will keep Leipzig in the title race with a theoretical, if highly unlikely chance to win the championship.
“We want to clinch the championship as quickly as possible,” Müller told to FC Bayern club media on Wednesday. In the two weeks without a game, he said, they had regained the hunger they would need for the remaining three games. However, as the Bayern attacker also added: “In the last few years, we have never had an easy time against Gladbach. They were always close games, and sometimes we even lost. So we know what to expect.”
And indeed: Gladbach have won three of the last five direct encounters, while Bayern have won only two. Also, Bayern’s home record against Gladbach is far from outstanding. Gladbach have won three and drawn two in their last 10 visits to the Allianz Arena. So is everything set for another close encounter?
The season has not been an easy one for Gladbach. Had the coaching team around Marco Rose still be celebrated for last season’s successes, they quickly reached their limits this season. Even well before Rose’s move to Dortmund was announced, Gladbach were struggling to find their best form. In the first half of the season, there was a series of six matches without a win in the midst of English weeks.
Then, after a brief phase of stabilization, the public drama surrounding the coach’s move to the other Borussia ensued. The 1-2 defeat against Cologne and the goalless draw at Wolfsburg came before the change was announced, but then followed seven defeats in a row. Nine games without a win eventually even led to discussions about a premature end to Rose’s time at Gladbach. But it did not come to that.
However, it is important to put things into perspective. Although Gladbach lost many games during that phase, they were not bad in every single one, and in some they even were the superior side. Max Eberl also kept backing the head coach and his team up because he knew that they had not lost the dressing room yet.
What Gladbach have definitely lost, however, is their playful ease during a game. Rose stands for a very dynamic, intense and active kind of football. To do this effectively, it is important that the players are prepared to do not only a lot of sprints, but a lot of smart sprints. The focus is always on putting the opponent under pressure in order to win the ball and move it upfield as quickly as possible.
And with the ball, too, the focus is on speed. Gladbach usually are more center-focused in possession than most other teams and during most phases of the game keep only one player in the wide positions on each side in order to be able to allow more of their players to take up positions in the half spaces and in the center. Their game is not so much about moving the ball around for a long time, but rather about constantly putting the opponent under stress when they do. The comparatively narrow positioning should help to transition straight into gegenpressing when the ball is lost. With only 9.68 crosses per game, Gladbach whips in the fifth fewest crosses in the league – which is further evidence that their game is not very wing-oriented.
Gladbach cover around 2,600 metres per game with forward passes in the Bundesliga (7th place), whereby “forward” here means everything that moves the ball forward even one meter. Again and again, they try to create pressure situations by passing between the opponent’s lines and force the opponent to make quick decisions and thus to make mistakes.
Last season, Gladbach succeeded well in bringing this intensity onto the pitch in almost every Bundesliga match. Compared to the current season, however, there are some differences that also reflect in the statistics: 1.66 expected Goals per 90 minutes is a drop of around 0.3. This can be explained not only by the fact that they have an average of one fewer shot per game than last season (13 instead of 14), but mainly by the fact that they get into good gegenpressing situations less frequently.
Last season, Gladbach had 41 pressure situations per game in the attacking third, 77.1 in the midfield and 49.6 in the defensive third – 5th, 10th and 13th place respectively. Now, they average only 32.8 in the attacking third, 64.1 in the midfield and 39.7 in the defensive third – 14th, 14th and 15th place respectively. The drop from 167.7 pressure situations per game (11th place) to 136.5 (17th place) is not unusual in the context of the Bundesliga as a whole. Only a few teams were able to maintain or even improve on their level of last season. But for Gladbach, the lack of intensity shows up more clearly in the results than for many of their rivals.
Fewer intensive runs, less pressure on the ball, fewer scoring opportunities as a result of high ball wins and thus more pressure faced – that is the season on season evolution of Gladbach’s game in a nutshell. Finding the causes is likely to be difficult. Like many other teams, Gladbach have had to cope with a very packed calendar. In the DFB-Pokal and the Champions League, they progressed further this year than they did last year in the DFB-Pokal and Europa League. On top of that, they could not always adequately deal with injuries because the squad did not always seem to have the necessary strength in depth.
In the last few weeks, however, Gladbach have bounced back impressively. From the last six games, they have won four, drawn one and lost one. Above all, they have stabilized their football, seem more determined in their forward play and regained their composure on the ball. During the long results drought, it sometimes seemed as if the team was completely unsettled. They played way too many uninspired long balls, had far too few phases of longer possession and played a pressing that quickly lost its effect when teams like Manchester City or Leipzig played around it and thus successively pushed Gladbach back. There is no question that Rose’s decision and the whole hubbub around it contributed to this. Nevertheless, even before this it had already been apparent that the team was not playing at its best. In this respect, the commotion only added to this. It added fuel to the fire.
The growing uncertainty of the players due to the many setbacks made finding the turnaround even more difficult for the coaching team. Before the duel with Bayern, Rose therefore made it clear that they would try to hurt the opponent in possession. That requires confidence and courage. The reverse fixture should be a lesson in this respect. Gladbach were far too passive for the opening 20-25 minutes and allowed Bayern to freely revel in their combinational play. Then they suddenly found a way into the game and had the courage to keep the ball and let the Bayern team do the running.
The past three duels between Rose and Bayern have shown that it is often nuances that can influence the course of the game. In the first victory, the coaching team changed the formation from a diamond to a different 4-4-2 variation in order to get a better grip on other angles of attack and the right-back Joshua Kimmich, who was bang in form at the time. There were also small tactical adjustments in the last encounter from which Gladbach could benefit in the final phase before the break.
Bayern must therefore be prepared for Gladbach to have several alternative match plans ready when they come to town. The focus will probably again be on taking Kimmich and his passing options out of the game as far as possible. In this respect, a 4-4-2 diamond would probably be a promising approach again, because it brings the necessary compactness in the center. But Gladbach have often played with a three-man or five-man backline recently. In Leipzig, for example, they used Lazaro as a wing-back in possession to strengthen the centre.
Whatever the Foals’ coaching team comes up with: A highly intense game is in store. Both teams thrive on their high work rate, their (gegen-)pressing and their intent to directly move the ball up top. The most important question is how close to their best form Gladbach can come. If they show the necessary composure in possession and are able to put pressure on the ball when pushing out, they are quite capable of continuing their recent positive trend. But if they remain too passive, the away trip to Munich threatens to be a painful one.
Certainly, the afternoon’s results will influence the top match in the early evening. If Leipzig drop points in Dortmund, Bayern will have as good as sealed the title. Perhaps the attitude on the pitch will be different then. In Gladbach, at least, there will be some hope that Bayern will be German champions before kick-off.