The Bundesliga may be regarded as the most competitive league in the world by some, but for many the long-standing dominance of Bayern Munich is used to refute that suggestion completely. Fifteen seasons have concluded in the German top-flight since the turn of the century, and nine of those seasons (60% of them) ended with the trophy going to the club based in Bavaria.
That record, perhaps, may not seem hugely overwhelming considering their status in and outside the country – to put it into perspective, Man Utd have won just 7% less of the Premier League titles in the same timeframe. The difference in the view of these two though is the perceived use of Bayern’s money to methodically weaken direct opponents, something which rarely happens amongst England’s top clubs, causing others to eventually suffer as a result of their short-term success whenever anyone does manage to get too close to them.
Though not entirely correct, as others managed to effectively collapse themselves (think Stuttgart after 2006/07 or Wolfsburg following their title win two years later), there is a strong element of truth behind it: as supported by Michael Ballack and Zé Roberto leaving Bayer Leverkusen for Munich in 2002 or Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski doing the same from Borussia Dortmund in more recent times. Except for Dortmund’s current run which started in 2010/11, no team (excluding Bayern of course) has finished in the top two for consecutive seasons since Bayer Leverkusen in 1998/99 and 1999/00.
With Jürgen Klopp’s side rather bizarrely struggling this campaign and sitting 17 points off the pace after just 11 games though, made even more confusing by the ease of which they have negotiated their Champions League group, Dortmund’s spell as the ‘best of the rest’ looks to be over. There is still time for recovery, and writing them off would be a little careless, but it appears to be someone else’s chance to try and challenge Bayern’s hegemony.
As it stands the team best positioned to do that is Wolfsburg: who also happen to be the most recent winner beyond Bayern and Dortmund in 2008/09. Their journey since then has been, well, an interesting one to say the least. Sitting just beyond them in 3rd though, with 20 points from 11 games, are a side who have similar aspirations and were league champions in the season before Wolfsburg… although they have a very different story to tell.
Borussia Mönchengladbach’s glory days came back in the 1970’s; in that time they won 5 league titles, 2 UEFA Cups, and finished as runners-up in the European Cup in 1976/77. The football was flowing and efficient, and they were just inches away from winning the iconic trophy which would have cemented their reputation as a great of that era. Move forward exactly 30 years later from that defeat against Liverpool in Rome however and it would have been the last thing on their mind – they’d just finished bottom of the league and were relegated to the second tier of German football.
They managed to bounce straight back from that disappointment, winning the 2. Bundesliga in the following season of 2007/08, and they haven’t been back there since. It was looking like they might at times, though, and none more so than in February 2011, when they were bottom of the league after 22 games with no home wins and 56 goals conceded, leaving them seven points off the relegation play-off place. It was looking pretty bleak for even the most optimistic of fans, and Michael Frontzeck was understandably relieved of his duties as manager at that point. And that was when everything changed.
In place of Frontzeck, Lucien Favre was hired. A softly spoken Swiss man, Favre was well regarded after achieving great success in his own country before reaching a highly unlikely 4th place finish with Hertha BSC in 2009. Doubts understandably remained when he was hired though, partly because his personality wasn’t perceived as one of a ‘fighter’, and also with that success in Berlin being ruined just a few months later in September of that year – six consecutive losses (albeit as a result of the loss of a number of key players) meant he soon got the sack there.
The reservations over Favre were proved oh so very wrong though, and Gladbach would go on to finish 16th that season, staying up after a play-off victory vs. Vfl Bochum. They conceded just 9 goals in the last 12 matches of the regular season, going from a rate of 2.55 per match under Frontzeck to 0.75 with Favre. A staggering improvement in such a short time, it’s one which is a great indicator of the solidity which he has introduced at the club ever since.
Favre’s favoured set-up at Gladbach was (and still is) a 4-4-2 based system with a patient style of possession football being employed. A general shape which offers a secure defensive foundation to build upon, it allows two compact lines of four to be formed quickly and spaces between them can be narrowed easily. Teaching creative players to operate effectively in and contribute to an organised structure – whilst maintaining their cutting edge – has proved a big strength of Favre’s, and that proved to suit the club perfectly in the desperate circumstances in which he was hired.
That defensive development would reap even further benefits the following year with them conceding just 24 goals, the second best record in the league. They shot up from 16th to 4th because of that, despite scoring just one more goal than the previous season, stunningly rising to qualify for the Champions League play-offs (though they went on to lose to Dynamo Kiev before the group stages). One of the many bright points of that season was the growth of Marco Reus, a great example of Favre’s ability to nurture talented players whilst sustaining a system, and he’s rightfully still given a lot of credit for Reus’ massive rise.
Reus was voted the Bundesliga Player of the Year amidst their success that season – becoming the first Gladbach player to receive the award since Uwe Rahn in 1987. He moved to Dortmund in that summer however after his release clause was activated, and with the defence also weakening (Dante departed in similar circumstances to Bayern and holding midfielder Roman Neustädter didn’t renew his contract) there were signs of the team beginning to fall apart. As we know, suffering after short-term success has become a familiar sight for smaller sides in Germany.
It was at that point which Favre faced a different challenge from building under the radar at the bottom; in fact he was tipped for a new challenge altogether with big sides rumoured to be interested in luring him away from Borussia-Park. He opted to stay though, extending his contract, and then instigated the process of putting together the pieces for his new rebuilt side. A more subdued but similarly impressive 8th place followed that season, his project coming together well, and then he led them up the table to 6th place in 2013/14. In this campaign, as their promising start is suggesting, it wouldn’t be at all surprising for that upward trajectory to continue.
The style being used holds a strong level of resemblance to the one before the rebuild even if the personnel do not. The solid backline provides an incredibly strong base, evidenced by them conceding just 6 goals in 11 league games so far, whilst Christoph Kramer (on loan from Bayer Leverkusen) and Granit Xhaka have developed a nice partnership in midfield together. The former is more of a defensive shield whilst Xhaka has greater mobility to help recycle the ball in more advanced areas, but both are very efficient in possession and that helps them to enforce their style upon a match.
On top of that, though, there’s an added dynamic to it compared to the side of a couple of years ago – Gladbach are now much more capable of alternating the tempo of a game at will and possess a great threat on the counter-attack too. André Hahn and Patrick Herrmann offer pace on the flanks and act as fine outlets from deep when breaking out from their compact shape, whilst Raffael and Max Kruse are both constant threats up top. The stability behind them in particular allows these four to play more openly and expressively, though (as Favre demands) not in sacrifice for their own duties in defensive phases or pressing.
It’s a style which is reminiscent of that great Gladbach side of the 1970s, one which inspired the club nickname of ‘The Foals’ as a result of the young age of the squad and the electric speed at which they played at. This side is just as befitting of a similar nickname.
What Favre has accomplished at Borussia-Park is, simply, sensational. To save them after being nigh-on certainties to go down was impressive enough, but to turn that side into consistent Champions League contenders so soon after? Now that’s worthy of enormous admiration. Especially when he’s had to cope with the vultures swooping in and attempting to pick apart progress as soon as it was made. If things continue as they are, a return to Europe’s premier competition is beckoning.
Not that they’ll be getting too carried away after 11 games themselves though: for they know all too well what can suddenly go wrong. Sitting 3rd at the half-way stage of the last campaign, a loss of form coupled with an injury crisis saw them drop vital points and miss out on the top four. Learning from that experience is vital, and especially when they’re contending with Europa League football this year too – but they really couldn’t be in safer hands than they are with the charismatic Swiss. The past has been bright, and it looks like the future under him could be even brighter.