In 2011, Borussia Mönchengladbach were staring at the abyss - the prospect of playing second division football. Almost exactly four years on, as the Bundesliga reaches its climax, the side, coached by Lucien Favre, is third, ending a 37-year wait to sit at European football’s top table.
The story of Gladbach’s steep trajectory perhaps shadows the steady, methodical rise of the club, who will contest Champions League football for the second time in four seasons. Max Eberl and Lucien Favre, the two chief protagonists, have collaborated on this project.
Lucien Favre AFP
In 2011 Borussia Mönchengladbach were stuck at the bottom of the Bundesliga when then 53-year-old Swiss coach Favre replaced the outgoing Michael Frontzeck. Amid rising discontent from the club’s members, Eberl’s decision to separate was cold and calculated as he looked to re-establish a positive reputation among supporters.
Favre, a former coach of Hertha Berlin, carried a short-term bounce, but by the time the Foals met arch-rivals Cologne, the Great Escape was already in motion. In an interview with German magazine SPIEGEL, Favre compared the construction of a football team to baking a cake: “If you take sugar instead of salt, then it doesn’t taste right.” and his tactical changes would set the team on the path towards a superb finish to the campaign.
First, the gutsy call to promote 18-year-old Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, now of Barcelona, to the starting eleven was rewarded -Ter Stegen kept four clean sheets in the last six games as part of a stingy defensive unit. Tony Jantschke, now captain, became first-choice right-back and Marco Reus was the pacey outlet on the wing.
Indeed, Reus’ surging run through the middle, controlling a touch-on from his team mate, before tucking past the keeper in Bochum was the moment of individual brilliance that kept Gladbach in the top-flight.
Champions League -
Gladbach blitz their way to fourth
A 1-0 win over Bayern Munich on the first weekend of the 2011-12 season, was a glimpse of what was to come for Gladbach in Favre’s first full season. The team and the strategy remained essentially untouched throughout with Reus’ move to a central attacking position the impetus for an exciting, collective brand of football on the counterattack.
With Mike Hanke’s endless running to create space, Reus’ speed-of-thought and technique, the speedy Patrick Herrmann on the wing, and the poise and craft of Juan Arango on the left, Favre found the ingredients for the sweetest of recipes. One common feature was Arango’s defence-splitting passes, prompting a fast break from the Foals who could rely on the omnipotent Reus to deliver the goods - the attacker hit 18 goals and assisted 12 in 32 games.
Gladbach went on to finish fourth in the Bundesliga, earning a shot at the Champions League and securing European qualification for the first time in 16 years.
But a Reus-sized hole was all too visible - the German completed a 10 million euro move to Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2012 - as Gladbach were knocked out at the first hurdle by Ukrainian powerhouses Dynamo Kyiv. Perhaps the investment in FC Twente’s Luuk de Jong, as a successor to Reus in attack, is the only blemish on an excellent recruitment record for Eberl.
An eighth and fifth-place finish followed in respective seasons as stability returned to Borussia-Park despite the loss of centre-back Dante, who joined Bayern Munich, Schalke-bound Neustadter and the aforementioned Reus.
De Jong’s time in Germany was over before it had begun amid a reshuffling of the pack that saw Max Kruse arrive from Freiburg on the back of his first international cap, Raffael come from Schalke and Christoph Kramer sign on-loan from Leverkusen.
Earning the Foals nickname once again
With Europe secured in 2013-14, Eberl’s most active period was the summer of 2014 with the arrival of Andre Hahn, Thorgan Hazard, Fabian Johnson, Yann Sommer and Ibrahima Traore deepening the options available to Favre.
It should be noted that the Swiss boss’ involvement in recruiting players is limited in his position, the talent-hunting being left to the sporting director, freeing up the head coach to tinker with his personnel to suit.
Gladbach’s march towards the Champions League and a third-place finish has been fascinating – it’s the club’s best run of form in three decades. The spirit of the Foals was alive and well at Borussia – ‘The Foals’ was an affectionate term for the 1970-generation of young Borussia players who dominated the Bundesliga and reached the heights of European football.
The deep-lying 4-4-2 has blossomed into something different, a platform for multiple formations depending on the opposition. Favre has set up with one main striker in Munich - winning 2-0 - and has at other times allowed the front-four to wreak havoc on Bundesliga defences with Herrmann’s second half of the season form impressive - eight goals, three assists in 17 games.
“Auf, Auf, Auf, in die Champions League,” was the cry as Gladbach wrapped up the spot in Europe’s top competition at Werder Bremen on Matchday 33. Automatic qualification ensures the Foals won’t need to go through the hazardous pre-rounds of the Champions League, but with one-or-two expected departures, the pressure will be on Eberl and Favre to come up with the goods in the summer.
And based on what has happened so far, you’d be silly not to back them to take the Foals successfully on to the next level.