What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, Borussia Mönchengladbach were adrift at the bottom of the Bundesliga. After a 4-1 defeat to runaway leaders Borussia Dortmund, the old giants of German football headed into December with a mere 10 points on the board.
Although their situation was to get much worse before it got better, a look at this stage in the Ruhr district club’s season provides a telling reference point for their current successes. For exactly a year on, the battle of the Borussias place again this Saturday. Whereas last year it was top versus bottom, this year it’s first against second. Yes, Mönchengladbach have been so good this season that they currently sit one point ahead of Bayern Munich.
It took until mid-February last season, and a defeat at the Millerntor to St. Pauli, for the club to relieve their coach Michael Frontzeck of his duties, with confidence at the club at rock bottom. What followed was one of the most dramatic relegation escapes in Bundesliga history. Just as the Foals’ survival last year was one of the season’s biggest success stories (amongst a wealth of competition), they are the talk of the Bundesliga again this campaign, as their remarkable progress continues. Since Favre took over, Mönchengladbach have played 28 games and picked up 49 points. Within this nine month period, only Borussia Dortmund have a better record.
Mönchengladbach have not propelled themselves from one end of the table to the other through sweeping changes at the club. As pre-seasons go, the club’s preparations were fairly quiet. Moreover, in terms of personnel, Favre has largely the same group of players he inherited from the previous coach Frontzeck. But the Swiss has got the small things right, and it’s had a dramatic impact on the club’s fortunes.
First, he sorted out the defence. Two January signings, Havard Nordveidt and Martin Stranzl, have performed well under Favre, the former as a defender who is developing as a defensive midfielder, with the latter at the heart of the improving back-line. The coach tends to favour two deeper midfielders to protect the back four, and Roman Neustädter has also been in excellent form in that position this season.
Favre also took the decision early in his tenure to give rookie teenage goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen a stint between the posts. The gamble has paid off. Ter Stegen’s form has been a revelation and the 19-year old has immediately established himself as his club’s reliable No. 1 and one of the Bundesliga’s most promising talents. The improvement at the back has been nothing short of revelatory. From shipping 56 goals in their awful first 22 games of last season, under Favre’s 28-game tenure, just 18 goals have been conceded.
This season, Favre has established his side as a formidable attacking force. With two deeper midfielders, his team are set up perfectly to counter attack. The fluid interplay of the front four is a result both of their own fine form and Favre’s tactical flexibility in allowing them free rein up front. Marco Reus, Juan Arango and Patrick Herrmann have been switching positions and the effects have been devastating at times. The attack clicked perfectly in home matches against VfL Wolfsburg in August and, more recently, Werder Bremen, who have also made a strong start. Neither could cope, and were resoundingly beaten 4-1 and 5-0 respectively.
On the pitch, their source of inspiration, without question, is Marco Reus. Reus has been instrumental in his club’s fortunes. The hero of his club’s great escape last season, with goals in the club’s biggest matches, Reus has been in unstoppable form this season. His big-game performances have continued, and he has relished a change of role from that of a more traditional winger to a central or free role in Favre’s fluid system, where he has thrived. The 22 year-old is one of German football’s hottest properties.
Alongside Lucien Favre’s prominent if not sweeping changes at the Borussia Park has been another subtle yet telling difference – the dressing room atmosphere. The tale of Borussia Mönchengladbach’s 2011 lays bare what a difference in performance can be produced by largely the same squad, but with confidence, togetherness and organisation.
Last sesaon’s jailbreak gave all involved with the club a wave of momentum and confidence which they have brought into this season. It’s going right for them in other ways too. Added confidence has been injected by Juan Arango, who has continued his stellar form from the summer’s Copa America into this season.
Added to that, Mönchengladbach’s quiet but effective activity in the transfer market reflects the qualified and reasoned confidence at the club. With the club’s core retained, growing individually and collectively, Favre has been looking to insulate the walls rather than decorate the front room. After terrible luck with injuries last season, young, confident acquisitions, have added to the strength of the squad, albeit without becoming instant stars. The signings appear to fit in very well with the team. The players brought in are not likely to cause disruption due to status or ego, but are instead young, hungry and ambitious, adding perfectly to the dressing-room continuity, and covering well when needed. But that reflects the current philosophy of Mönchengladbach. Favre’s management of and changes to the club are being orchestrated with this stability and continuity always in mind, and the awareness of how quickly fortunes can change.
Borussia Mönchengladbach’s remarkable upturn, driven by their coach, is a testament to the subtle changes and the wonders of a positive and confident atmosphere. Regardless of whether they can beat the champions Dortmund this weekend, in what is a mouthwatering tie, there’s every chance European football’s best fairytale of 2011 can continue, certainly if they keep Reus, because of the successes of the small differences.