No More Untouchables

Fabian Johnson has done it – against all odds.

Having a football weekend like the one that’s just passed is reassuring. Before it, everything was in order, plain and mundane; but by the end of Sunday, the list of clubs without a single scar this season has narrowed down to zero. Bayern, Chelsea, Man City and Napoli have all lost their matches against lower-rated opponents; Barcelona drew a game they could’ve just as well lost and Manchester United couldn’t score a goal past Payet-less, toothless West Ham. At least for two days, the usual balance of power at the absolute top has been undermined and the old, forsaken idea of ‘effort over money’ prevailed. Make no mistake about it: this state of affairs won’t last longer than a couple of days – but as long as it’s here, it’s about time to give credit to those who inspired the change.

Who would’ve thought the team that’ll land the mightiest blow of the week will be Borussia Mönchengladbach? Three months ago, that was beyond anyone’s imagination. The Foals have started this season like an absolute mess, losing six games out of seven in all competitions. 0-4 to Dortmund, 0-3 to HSV, 0-3 in Sevilla during the Champions League inauguration – the crisis was self-explanatory. In the late September, manager Lucien Favre resigned; the team had to play under a caretaker boss André Schubert. New commander-in-chief has ditched the possession-based tactics and benched the utterly dreadful new signing Josip Drmić in favor of Lars Stindl. That was enough: already in October, against Wolfsburg, changes have brought the result – and the team took it from there marvelously.

 

At the moment, Gladbach are undefeated in the last 13 matches, having scored 29 goals in them and conceded 11. Their main man, Raffael, who’s been completely inefficient at the start of the season, has scored 6 goals and contributes 4 assists in the last 10 matches. The critical, turning-point win over Wolfsburg (2-0) marked the explosion of form by the Guinean winger Ibrahima Traoré. He’d soon become a star performer in equally difficult, winning clashes with Hertha and Schalke – before an injury sustained against Sevilla in the Champions League has knocked him out. After that, BMG’s miraculous draw against rock-bottom Hoffenheim outfit signaled the upcoming trouble, as it was Bayern, who were looming around the corner. Foals were supposed to get through a slaughterhouse…

In reality, it wasn’t anything like that. Gladbach went through a purgatory, true, but the colossus they’ve just toppled wasn’t nearly as dangerous as in many previous Bundesliga matches. Pep Guardiola, faced with multiple injury concerns (David Alaba, Douglas Costa, Thiago Alcántara, Arjen Robben) has set his team up quite conservatively comparing to his usual experiments. 4-3-3 with Rafinha filling in for the left-back spot and Spanish-speaking Vidal-Alonso-Martínez trident in the middle was the most reasonable option. Costa’s spot has been taken by Kingsley Coman. The ex-Juventus youngster has much less pace than his Brazilian mate, but he’s also a player who can pass very well and create chances – he’s already provided 6 assists this season. Even if a drop of the quality was bound to happen, the hosts should’ve normally felt the wrath of the champs.

 

 

For a while, they did. Although Bayern needed 18 minutes to record their first accurate shot, they started to put a ton of pressure immediately afterwards. After his first, very easy save of Thomas Mueller’s shot, Yann Sommer had to put his body in front of charging rivals at least five more times before the storm would subside. Especially 25th minute was a stern test for the abilities of Swiss’ goalie. The way he parried Vidal’s attempt was class – Bayern conducted their entire move basing on one-touch passes and they still couldn’t score! Just as expected, Mueller and Coman looked dangerous down the wings. FCB flanks gave Foals so many problems that less than thirty minutes into the game, André Schubert was already giving additional, sideline instructions to his right-back, Julian Korb.

Nevertheless, Guardiola was visibly frustrated. The problem wasn’t the lack of pace of creativity upfront; the problem was that neither Alonso nor Martínez were providing the necessary passing pedigree from behind to shift the games’ tempo at will. Xabi, involved in the 180 minutes of play the week before, looked like a very tired, very old man. Only 40 passes made and 80% delivery accuracy wasn’t what his team demanded and he’s been eventually subbed off after 66 minutes. Through all this time, his teammates were uncharacteristically anxious to get the ball forward instead of waiting for the right moment to change into a fifth gear. That weird sense of urgency prompted them to feed wingers with passes and then, they were being held off quite easily, courtesy of a 5-4-1 tactics by Schubert.

The sluggish run of play continued in the second half. Stubborn with their faulty plan, Bayern kept trying to exploit Coman and Mueller long after BMG has found a way to neutralize them both. Eventually, one of the visitors’ attempts has plainly rebounded into their face. A long ball from Neuer to Mueller saw the latter fouling Håvard Nordtveit. While Mueller was chasing the referee to appeal the decision, Oscar Wendt received a pass down the left wing, dribbled skillfully, set up a good through ball to Fabian Johnson, who gave it back to the Swede. Already in the penalty area, Wendt back heeled it to Raffael, who – again! – has made a good return pass. By this point, Lahm and Benatia were dragged way too far down the right, noone bothered to track back and the only defender in place to actually do something (Boateng) actually moved away from the ball!

 

1-0 after a complete and utter fuck-up – that’s what it was. To make it all worse, Bayern have lost their composure by this point. Seconds after conceding, Boateng had to give up a corner. Minutes later, Korb and Dahoud almost got through thanks to yet another pretty, one-touch combination. Guardiola ordered Sebastian Rode to start warming up – but that wasn’t enough. The visitors badly needed to pass down the ground, quickly and shortly: not to overload the flanks, which were, by this point, completely flooded by BMG’s wing-backs and wide midfielders. But if a team cannot win the tackles, what to expect?

Mere 9 minutes after conceding, Bayern should’ve been 0-2 down. Again, lack of aggression down the left-hand side, Dahoud gets through unchallenged, lays it off to Raffael – exactly the way the Brazilian has set up Wendt! – and the ball eventually finds Stindl, who enters a one-on-one with Neuer. Now, although I don’t really rate this goalkeeper nearly as much as the media, I have to admit: his ability to survive hopeless situation like this one is unequaled. After an excellent run and a tackle-like slide, he’s managed to get his leg on Stindl’s shot – and that, combined with a little help from the crossbar, was enough to parry it.

Unfortunately for Neuer, his teammates were still asleep; still standing and watching the ball instead of acting. After a free-kick situation, they’ve cleared the ball and automatically ran forward in order to catch the opposition offside. Usually, it’s a good choice – but this time, Wendt used it to his own advantage. Instead of aiming directly at the offside players, he used on-side Nordtveit as a flick-on man, thus delaying the ruling by the officials. The only player to read the situation correctly – Benatia – did his best to close down the goalscorer, but it was already a lost cause anyway, as Stindl’s shot went right over Neuer’s hands into the back of the net. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back; down 0-2 and still unable to stir anything going forward with just 23 minutes to go, Bayern were going down in flames – fast.

Lars Stindl after scoring 2-0 goal. Going forward was a good idea.

However, not even a moment of madness could explain what happened in the 68th minute. Yet another ball over the top played into space to from Korb to Johnson – and the hell broke loose again. Where was Rode’s awareness?? One second, the lad had his opponents’ number; another second, and the American got away from him while FCB midfielder has turned into a spectator. Absolutely unacceptable. If this team really has an ambition to beat Barcelona to the Champions League title, they’d better start praying that someone else knocks off the Catalans – because if they keep dealing with pace the way they did on Saturday, Neymar alone is going to give them nasty nightmares.

Anyway, a lot of the credit goes to Gladbach for this one. They’ve proposed a brilliant solution to Pep’s idea of wingplay. When Bayern have completely neglected the usual pass-through-the-middle style and shifted the focus to the flanks, they mirrored that approach – except that, on a counterattack, it had much more devastating effect. In a 5-4-1 setup, Foals managed to have one, very wide, defensive player in front of the ball at all times, allowing their wingers and forwards to enter risky duels without the danger of getting completely exposed. In a match where Rafinha played out of position and Lahm had an oddly poor performance compared to his usual standards – that worked like a charm.

 

 

Speaking about the individuals, I think Granit Xhaka has proven why Bavarian executives have been rumoured to want him in their club. Instead of being the passing metronome he used to be, he sacrificed himself for the greater good of a team by dropping deep regularly and doing the grunt work. Alas, it wasn’t just about him. Wendt and Korb were the unsung heroes of this struggle, having won 3 tackles each and produced two decisive blows. Still, objectively speaking, Man of the Match award should go to Andreas Christensen, who’s won eight headers, four tackles and four interceptions. If the Chelsea loanee keeps playing like that in the future, there will be no need to bring John Stones to Stamford Bridge.

Although the visitors have managed to pull one goal back through Franck Ribery’s cameo contribution, this overall has been a big warning sign for them. Their ambition of getting ‘An Invincible Season’ is out of the window – but it’s not the main problem. Without Douglas Costa or Thiago, the team looks short of ideas and Arturo Vidal, as dedicated and hard-working as he is, doesn’t seem to be the player who could carry this team once all other options are exhausted. The sensational ex-Shakhtar winger is likely to miss three more matches – fortunately, the easy ones (Zagreb, Ingolstadt and Darmstadt). Thiago, who’s been sidelined for four weeks already, should make his comeback in one of those games.

And what’s there coming up for Gladbach? They will go to Manchester this week, to battle for a honorable UCL exit and for a Europa League spot. Then, another unpleasant fixture will follow – Leverkusen at BayArea. Their current league streak (8 wins and 5 draws in 13 straight matches) is already the best Bundesliga run in the history of the club. Before Bayern, their boss said that they’ll have to reach their absolute limit to stop the champions. He didn’t even mention beating them – and yet, it happened. Where are the limits for Fohlenelf, then? If their run continues, Dortmund (9 points clear at the moment) will find themselves a worthy rival for a runner-up spot. The reality is cruel: even after this loss, Die Roten are destined to win it all with 1/50 odds by most of the bookmakers…

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s