Bundesliga MD 14 Preview: Gladbach against Bayern
Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and – naturally! – FC Bayern. These will have been the three teams mentioned most often in answer to the question of who would be most likely winning the league this season.
However, after 13 matchdays it is Gladbach who sit in first place. They are one point ahead of Leipzig, four points ahead of Bayern and five points ahead of Dortmund. A surprise? Only up to a point.
Even though Dieter Hecking’s time at Gladbach was by no means unsuccessful, Max Eberl took the initiative to make a courageous change in the coaching seat. With Marco Rose, René Marić and Alexander Zickler he managed to sign a trio whose achievements at RB Salzburg had moved them high up the list of favorites for next coach at many a club across Europe. It has not quite been half a year since their appointment and yet we may already call this decision a success. At the moment, Gladbach is one of the most exciting and entertaining sides in Europe.
Whoever has followed the career of René Marić in recent years and has read his texts and tweets will have noticed that he is a great advocate of Pep Guardiola. Wherever Marić went his teams started showing some of the signature elements of the great Catalan coach, adapted to the individual situation.
A clean positional play, a high press, a passing game based on short passes, but also some tactical elements such as a center-forward frequently moving into the half-spaces are evident at Gladbach. In possession, Gladbach prefer to move the ball forward diagonally, which is often difficult to defend. There is already an impressive harmony to the numerous little runs the players make. Together with head coach Marco Rose and the whole coaching staff, Marić has developed a kind of football that is not only attractive to watch but also quite successful.
So too in this situation after a throw-in. The play is switched across and suddenly Gladbach concentrate their efforts on the left. Freiburg pushes on, wants to exert pressure, but because of Gladbach’s well structured positional game and the technical skills of their players, they manage to free themselves. Because a lot of Freiburg’s players are drawn in, spaces appear between the lines, which Gladbach then extensively use to their advantage. Gladbach’s players always have all relevant areas of the pitch in view and manage to create plays like this one by clever runs (especially deep runs).
But Gladbach’s improvements go beyond just their possession game. A fast transition game both offensively and defensively as well as a well-organized work against the ball are two of the primary factors that make their game currently so successful. Gladbach succeed well in controlling the centre of the pitch and pushing the opponent out to the flanks, where they subsequently immediately create overloads. It is particularly striking to see how much quicker the whole teams’ on field decision making is compared to last season.
Gladbach’s players move very intelligently both individually and as a unit. Because they keep the distances short and always have many bodies close to the ball, they are usually well placed to resolve tight situations and initiate an aggressive and powerful gegenpressing if they lose the ball.
Gladbach’s pressing against Bayern could look something like this. Regardless of whether Rose opts for a classic midfield diamond (4-3-1-2) or for the 4-3-3 that he used against Freiburg in the last game, it seems most likely that his team will start with some sort of diamond-based formation.
One insight for Bayern from the game against Leverkusen is that they did not manage to properly support the full-backs, especially in the first half. This often lead to turnovers like that before the first goal for Leverkusen. Gladbach could consider the idea of taking out Bayern’s midfield in order to provoke similar situations as those against Leverkusen an option they would like to try themselves.
If Gladbach were to start in last week’s 4-3-3, one of the three attackers could drop off a bit to block the passing lanes to Bayern’s holding midfielder or to push him back between the two centre-backs. The guy to do this does not necessarily have to be Breel Embolo, but he often does not strictly keep his position anyway and likes to shift to the central playmaker space or the half spaces. Patrick Herrmann could sometimes be found behind the front line against Freiburg too. Gladbach is very flexible in this regard and their players tend to shuffle positions in attack frequently.
Without a doubt, one of the key players for Gladbach at the moment is Breel Embolo. He is very important for the team not only because of his opportunistic movements, but also because of his deep runs and especially because of his quality with his back to goal. He is a serviceable wall player as well as an accomplished striker in front of goal. He is also a very powerful player which helps Gladbach against the ball. Overall, with Marcus Thuram, Alassane Pléa, Lars Stindl, Herrmann and Embolo, Gladbach enjoys a luxurious abundance of choices in attack.
The three deeper midfielders and especially the two number eights in the diamond would be responsible for taking Bayern’s number eights out of the game in the scenario presented above. If they succeed in that as depicted in the graphics, a copycat of the first goal by Donovan Bailey would be conceivable. The most important man in Gladbach’s midfield, however, is Denis Zakaria, who is crucially involved in most of Gladbach’s attack plays and in offensive and defensive transition. It will be important for Bayern to take him out of the game if they are to have more control in midfield against Gladbach than they did against Leverkusen.
However, a diamond formation always carries the risk that the distances in the half-spaces to the back or to the front become too large and thus spaces appear for the opponent. This became clear both in the 4-3-3, where the center-forward forms the diamond with the three midfielders, and in the 4-3-1-2, which is the more conventional diamond formation. Nevertheless, the pressure that Gladbach is able unleash is enormous.
There are a number of possible solutions for Bayern. A greater involvement of Manuel Neuer to create a 4 vs. 3 overload in the center is just as conceivable as a general adaptation of the players’ positioning within their formation. Benjamin Pavard could take a deeper and more central position, while Alphonso Davies on the opposite side would push higher in combination with one of the number eights dropping off. A 3-2 constellation in build-up play could be a good answer to Gladbach’s approach, especially if they go for a midfield press in a diamond formation.
Regardless of what Gladbach’s formation against the ball ultimately looks like, it will be up to Bayern to keep them busy with a lot of movement. The course of the season so far has provided ample of evidence that Gladbach does not yet feel completely at home with their new playing style. They are still susceptible to occasional minor mistakes when put under pressure. Gladbach has the most expected goals against in the top five (20.0 [fbref.com]; 19.87 [understat.com]).
But they also have the most expected goals after Bayern (28.5 [fbref.com]; 32.93 [understat.com]). It will therefore be important for Bayern to take risks in possession and keep the game at a brisk pace. It will be crucial for them that they keep cool and do not allow any hectic rush to encroach on their game. Especially against Leverkusen, there were too many situations in which they were goaded by their opponents into playing a quick, risky vertical pass instead of choosing a calmer approach to move the ball up. Before both goals they conceded, Bayern wanted to force the issue and finally turned over the ball succumbing to unnecessary pressure.
For “Hansi” Flick it will therefore be important to strengthen his team’s composure in possession, but also the players’ intuition for when to speed up the game. Gladbach should be able to punish any mistake at least as hard as Leverkusen did. Thus, Thiago could feature in Flick’s plans again.
Bayern’s midfield was not a total failure against Leverkusen. On the contrary. They never turned the ball over and Goretzka stood out for his clever movements and a good passing game. However, a Thiago in top form is arguably the better player against a side that deploys an aggressive pressing. He is less prone to mistakes under pressure, can open up spaces for his teammates with his positive runs and gain his team ground by passing. His skills out of possession are also very strong, although Flick’s arguments for Goretzka and Thomas Müller are convincing. Together with Kimmich, Thiago might be the key piece in the coach’s puzzle to oppose Gladbach’s pressing and get even more stability into the game.
Whether Thiago would have done better against Leverkusen, however, remains a matter of conjecture. Because Bayern did a lot of things right. And if this game was already entertaining, the visit to Gladbach should be an even bigger blockbuster. At the weekend, two teams will meet that do not only want to be active, think offensively, and play on the front foot all the time, but are also able to steer their opponent’s game when they are not in possession.
But the meeting at the weekend will also be a meeting of two teams whose game is not flawless. On the one hand there is Gladbach, who after such a short time cannot possibly be where the coaching team wants them to be (which is impressive enough considering what they have achieved so far). On the other hand, there is Bayern, who after a complicated phase in autumn which ended with the sacking of their coach now also play a different kind of football than before. But they too have by no means reached their best level of performance yet.
Gladbach have not yet been able to win against a team from the top five, but the game will be the most accurate benchmark Bayern have had so far. In the Lower Rhine region, some people are already beginning to dream big. If their club wins against the record champions at the weekend, the number will grow. Bayern, in contrast, will want to make sure to nip such idle hopes in the bud. And this special circumstance alone promises a football feast for everyone.