The Bundesliga once again looks likely to produce the most exciting title race in Europe, and once again an unfancied side has made the difference. It is many years since Borussia Mönchengladbach was a household name, although Liverpool fans have always remembered it fondly because of a certain match in Rome in 1977.
Gladbach were most people’s favourite German side back then because they matched the mighty Bayern to win three titles in a row (and a couple of UEFA Cups as well). Now after years of obscurity and financial problems, including two spells in the second division, the old underdogs are once again putting in a challenge.
On Friday, they put Bayern to the sword, winning 3-1 and completing a remarkable double over the favourites thanks to goals from two of their players of the season, Marco Reus and Patrick Hermann. Both youngsters are part of a dynamic young midfield that has transformed the side over the past 12 months under new coach Lucien Favre.
When Favre took over on St Valentine’s Day, Gladbach were bottom of the table and seemingly bound for their third relegation in 12 years. His young players have done him proud since then, notably Reus, their top scorer this season with 11, and 19-year-old goalkeeper Marc-André Ter Stegen.
Ter Stegen only made his first-team debut last April and largely thanks to him Gladbach have the best defensive record in the league, just 12 goals conceded in 18 games. As a shot stopper he’s second only to Germany’s number one Manuel Neuer, and as luck would have it a bad clearance by Neuer gave Gladbach an early lead on Friday.
Like Dortmund, Gladbach play with two holding players in midfield, “staying compact” as the tactical gurus put it, and breaking fast from midfield. The midfield makes the difference: Gladbach’s front men have scored just six between them, the midfield 19, although Reus is now playing more like a striker than a winger.
The 22-year-old is the jewel in Gladbach’s crown, already capped three times for Germany and seemingly another in the long line of brilliant attacking midfielders coming out of the Bundesliga youth teams.
Unfortunately for Gladbach, Reus is a Dortmund boy — his family live there, as does his girlfriend — and during the winter break they succeeded in luring him back for next season. Loyalty to his hometown club was not the only factor. Gladbach are not in a position to offer high wages, and although the €17.5 million they will receive is a handsome fee by Bundesliga standards they could struggle to replace him. Also on his way at the end of season is another young midfielder Roman Neustädter, who has come to the end of his contract.
Gladbach’s dream is to return to past glories. Fortunately they no longer have the burden of an outdated stadium, but they are not a fashionable club from a big city, unlike Bayern, Hamburg or the Ruhr giants, and so they miss out commercially.
Beyond their current group of talented youngsters it seems they have little to fall back on. Their experienced players are relative unknowns such as Belgian defender Filip Daems or Juan Arango, who is big in Venezuela, and had a good period with Mallorca in Spain, but is hardly a worldbeater.
Dortmund may provide an example to follow. On Sunday four of their goals in the 5-1 thrashing of Hamburg came from their Polish internationals Jakub Blaszczykowski and Robert Lewandowski.
None of their current players has cost a fortune and they too lost a star midfielder when Nuri Sahin departed for Real Madrid.
With a strong homegrown contingent, Gladbach ought to be able to integrate promising young East European players — Neven Subotic is another Dortmund success — who don’t command extravagant fees, or demand excessive wages. Their worry might be that a richer club could headhunt their manager. Voted coach of the year in both his own country Switzerland and in Germany, Lucien Favre took a very young Zurich team to the Swiss title in 2007. The turnaround at Gladbach suggests he may well be a target come summer.