Mönchengladbach Rediscovers its Wings

We all love a good underdog story. Dipankar Saha recounts one that is unfurling right before our eyes – the story of a club that flirts with relegation but has now become a contender for Bundesliga

Jawirschwören Stein und Bein,

auf die Elf vom Niederrhein,

Borussiaunser Dream-Team,

denn Du bistunser Verein!

{Yes we swear to the stone and bone, Eleven of the Lower Rhine, Borussia our dream team, for you are our club}

The glorious game is said to be full of uncertainties. There is always some surprise in store for you and that’s the beauty of the game. The rise and fall of a great club and then the rise again are most poignant. It is a story of a team which fights for relegation battle till the last day of the season and eventually, saves its face, via relegation play-off only to become one of the strongest contenders for the title, the very next season, without any significant change in the squad.

Borussia Mönchengladbach is the sixthbiggest club in Germany in terms of membership and has a rich history but most of the richness was spread over the 1960’s and 70’s. Apart from winning the German championship fivetimes in that period they also won the UEFA Cup twice, German Cup thrice and German Super Cup once. But since then, it has been an everlasting trough. The Die Fohlen, who used to fight neck-to-neck with Bayern Munich in that era, slowly took the backseat after the 70’s decade. The last time they won anything was the German Cup in 1995, over Wolfsburg.

The decline in performance of the 80’s was significant and financial difficulties forced them to sell many of their better players which kicked off the major downfall in their performance. Year 1999 was the worst and they got relegated to Bundesliga2 that season. They brought in managers of the ilk of Dick Advocaat and Jupp Heynckes but to no avail.  Eventually they got relegated again in 2006/07 season. The dismal show continued and last year 2010-11 season they once again found themselves fighting for their existence.

In the current millennium, they have been relegated once (though they rebounded back up the next year), the best position they have ever managed in the 18-team Bundesliga is tenthin 2005-06 with 42 points, which was also their joint highest points tally (also 02-03 season when they were twelfth). They only staved off the relegation in the 2010-11 season, though after a relegation playoff. A club which used to be a giant threedecades back went virtually into coma in the last decade.

Although the 2010-11 season ultimately ended with a relegation play-off, Mönchengladbach had started it brightly.They crashed  heavyweight  Bayer Leverkusen 6-3 at the start of the season which gave an impression that a different Gladbach is probably there in Bundesliga this time round. However, things started slipping downwards quickly and their horrible defensive show brought them only 10 points after the first half of the season. With the team in the last spot of the league with only 16 points after twenty-tworounds, the management brought in a little known Swiss manager, Lucien Favre, who was without a job for twoyears and whose greatest footballing accomplishment was that he had scored a goal on his debut for the Swiss against the Dutch, who were also handing debuts to twoyoung players by the name of Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. Favre, who took over on 14th Feb 2011, rose up as a true valentine to Gladbach.

Favre though turned the season around grabbing 26 points from the second half of the league. The club thus moved up from last to 16th and earned a relegation play-off which they won against Bochum. Favre had saved the club’s position and kept it alive to fight another season. He didn’t work as a hard taskmaster which is common for a manager in a club under red eye of relegation. Rather his appointment in the club brought fresh air in the dressing room and players started talking more freely, which started reflecting their on-field performance.

Gladbach had a quiet summer transfer in 2011 and nobody did pay any attention to a club which somehow saved relegation last season. Their opening match of this season was against record German champions and fourtimes Champions League winner, Bayern Munich. Everybody was expecting a breezing start for the Bavarians. However, Bayern was shot down by Favre’s team 0-1 at Bayern’s own den. It was probably a signal to the other teams in Bundesliga that this year Gladbach is going to be something special. However, one match wonder doesn’t prove anything (last year’s win of 6-3 against Leverkusen was proof of that) and football fraternity thought probably this is just another accident and Gladbach will struggle as usual and return to their usual poor way.

Needless to say, it didn’t happen like that and people started getting surprised by each Gladbach match. After the fifthround,Gladbach was thirdin the table with 10 points. They kept stunning everyone and after the fifteenthround they were still in thirdspot with 30 points, just a point behind the first place. By the time this article is being written, they are comfortably sitting at thirdplace in the table after twenty-fiverounds with 48 points, 8 points behind league leaders Dortmund with tenmatches to spare. A championship bid may be fantastic, but with four Champions League slots available, Gladbach would surely play in next season’s Champions League, unless their season implodes spectacularly. They have collected 29 points from thirteenmatches at home and 19 points from twelveaway matches. Through the course of the season, they not only have beaten the weaker sides but thumped the biggies too. They have done a double against Bayern Munich, beaten Schalke convincingly 3-0 at home and thrashed Werder Bremen 5-0 away.

Gladbach have carried this form in the domestic cup competition too. They have qualified for the semi-finals where they meet Bayern Munich in thirdweek of March. Having done the double in the league over the German super power, Lucien Favre’s team can certainly dream about knocking Bayern Munich out of the competition.

So how can these dramatic turnarounds be explained? What’s the secret behind it? Well, the credit must always go to the players first as they have to perform on the pitch. But it is almost the same set of players who were pathetic last season. A deeper look and you will find it’s the coach, Lucien Favre who is the main man behind this. He is the man who brought unprecedented upswing in the performance from the same set of players. He established the proven fact once again that football is a game where quality of the coach really matters. Probably Jurgen Klopp of Dortmund can be compared with him, as per coaches’ contribution is concerned in Bundesliga, in recent years, or he might have even outshone Klopp to some extent. Since his arrival,Gladbach has conceded a total of 22 goals and only 14 goals so far this season which is best defensive record in Bundesliga for the ongoing season. Never in a match Gladbach has conceded more than twogoals and we all know if a team stops conceding goals then the probability of losing the match reduces and that’s the first thing Favre has done.

Marc-Andre TerStegen,Gladbach’s 19-year old goalkeeper has been outstanding under the bar and the kind of maturity he has shown belies his age. He is being considered as the best goalkeeping talent in Germany and probably a successor tocurrent national team goalkeeper, Manuel Neuar.

The backline has been in superb form as they have conceded the lowest numberof goals so far in the league. Widely manned by captain FilipDaems(Belgium), DanteBonfim da Costa (Brazil), Martin Stranzl (Austria) andRoelBrouwers(Holland),it forms a multinational defence line. But they provide just the right amount of solidity which has allowed Ter Stegen to have a record 12 clean sheets. The twoholding medios,HavardNordtveit andRoman Neustädter have been rock solid and these two guys are probably the unsung heroes of Gladbach’s excellent defensive record.

On the attacking front, Marco Reus has been having a breakout season. Often considered the best player of Bundesliga this season, he is almost toying with opponent defence and has thirteengoals in 23 starts. Reus though has already signed a deal with champions Dortmund and would join them in the end of the season this year. But Mönchengladbach may have another rising star in Patrick Herrmann, who is providing Reus great support from the right wing. Hermann has sixgoals in 19 appearances. Veteran Venezuelan wing wizard Juan Arango too has complemented Hermann and Reus, controlling the left wing. His nineassists are only second to Franc Ribery’stwelveafter the 25th round.

So can the other clubs take any lessons from the Gladbach story, which is still unfolding? Probably, yes. Find the right coach, give him time and responsibilities and he will bring the best out of the players. This has been the story at Dortmund under Jurgen Klopp and the same story is getting repeated at Gladbach.

Whether Gladbach will ultimately become Bundesligachampions or not, after 1977, or reach the Champions League for the first time in their history or whether they can win the prestigious DFB Cup after 17 years, only time will tell. But it can surely be said they will fight neck-to-neck with Dortmund, Bayern and Schalke till the last round of the season. But what’s in the future? Is this just a one year show or can they perform like this consistently? Is their golden era truly back? They are not a rich club. Already the jewel in their crown, Marco Reus has signed a deal with Dortmund. Will more such exodus follow?These are questions that the Borussiafaithfuls are wondering.

But for the time being, they are being taken on a ride by Favre’s merry men and the fans are singing. Let the miracle continue.

About Dipankar Saha