In combination with their surprisingly awful start to the season under Lucien Favre, an extremely tough group stage draw meant that Borussia Mönchengladbach’s debut venture into the Champions League was, rather sadly, over before it ever really began. Their European adventure as a whole isn’t quite done yet though, and a convincing victory over Sevilla at Borussia-Park in matchday five has put them in pole position to qualify for the knockout round of the Europa League instead of their Spanish opponents.
The match started off in a very open, end-to-end manner, and although it wasn’t quite that frantic for the full 90 minutes those early stages demonstrated how key transitions would prove to be. Much of Gladbach’s success under Favre was built upon a superb defensive compactness and efficient counter-attacking, many elements of which were still displayed in this game, while Sevilla themselves are very good on the break and similarly adopted a good shape out of possession.
It was the home team who took control after that busy start, largely thanks to the high standard of ball retention which was displayed by Mahmoud Dahoud and Granit Xhaka in their two-man midfield. Xhaka was the deeper of the two in the build-up phase, with him dropping towards the centre-backs to enable an easy route out whenever Sevilla pressed slightly, and Dahoud was positioned a bit higher which allowed him to carry the ball forward and develop play further into more attacking areas.
Ahead of those two in Gladbach’s 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2 system were Lars Stindl and Raffael, neither of whom are conventional strikers. As a result of this there were rarely any penetrative runs behind Sevilla’s defence; instead, they played most of their football in front of the backline. They combined nicely, especially with each other and Dahoud, and found lots of pockets of space in the half-spaces, although the lack of threat behind meant lots of long range shots and no particularly clear opportunities for them early on.
Because of the control which was established in these phases, Oscar Wendt and Julian Korb regularly pushed up from the full-back positions to support the wingers on their respective sides – Fabian Johnson and Josip Drmić, who’s usually a striker but came on as an early sub after Ibrahima Traoré pulled his hamstring. This attacking support was something of a necessity in their attempts to stretch Sevilla, but it did contribute to making the team as a whole open on the counter-attack: which was where the Spanish side’s best opportunities came from.
The majority of the Spanish side’s breaks ended up going down the left, with the exciting Yevhen Konoplyanka being the main driving force and looking dynamic as ever. Kévin Gameiro also looked sharp and drifted around cleverly, often facilitating space for Konoplyanka, while Éver Banega took some time to grow into the game but got more involved in these attacks to add another threat for Gladbach to be wary of.
It was through this combination between Gameiro and Konoplyanka, in the 19th minute, which created their best chance of the half. A sloppy pass from Raffael saw the German side give the ball away cheaply in midfield, and with Dahoud and both full-backs pushed up (as well as Xhaka not being the most mobile midfielder) there was lots of space for them to expose. Konoplyanka was the one who intercepted the ball and he carried it a long way, then completed a one-two with Gameiro before Yann Sommer did well to save his effort from eight or so yards out.
When they were unable to counter-attack, though, Sevilla had little luck with breaking Gladbach's defensive shape down. The home side were very compact when they formed their two blocks of four and allowed Sevilla such little space between the lines – a large part of the reason why Banega in the number 10 role had such a small impact at the start. Michael Krohn-Dehli and Grzegorz Krychowiak in the double-pivot of their 4-2-3-1 similarly struggled in possession, with them unable to make any progressive, line-splitting passes from deep.
Another notable feature of Gladbach in defensive phases which contributed to this struggle was their pressing. They aren’t typically a side who do such a thing, or at least not to a high extent anyway, but here they had three or four players (Dahoud, Raffael and Stindl were the most involved) who fairly regularly took up very advanced positions when Sevilla were in the earliest phases of their build-up. This meant that their centre-backs and goalkeeper, Sergio Rico, often had to go long to try and bypass the press, resulting in a large number of cheap turnovers.
While Sevilla weren’t necessarily dominated in a pure percentage sense of possession, they were quite penned in as a result of this inability to successfully play out or retain the ball high up the pitch. It came back to cost them in the 29th minute, too, when Stindl scored the opener after a long spell of possession in the final third from Gladbach. It was a slightly fortunate goal, in the way that Xhaka’s mishit long range attempt (one of many efforts from outside the box by this point) turned into a perfectly-placed cross for Stindl, but overall it was a deserved 1-0 lead for the home side at this point.
The remaining 15 minutes of the half didn’t see anything of too much note created by either side, though there was a slight change in Gladbach's defensive performance, presumably due to them going a goal up, as their pressing reduced and their shape became a little deeper. They didn’t really become any less conservative in an attacking sense however and continued to push forward, with some nice interchanging continuing to occur in areas close to the danger zone.
Sevilla, meanwhile, managed to get a bit more room to establish their spells of possession because of this deeper shape. Again, they didn’t really have any shots through it other than a half-chance for their right-back, Coke, but a sustained period of pressure before half-time was a fairly decent note for them to go in on.
Things picked up even more for them at the start of the second-half when, just like in the first-half, the game became very open again. Gladbach went back to pressing too, but this time Sevilla managed to break past them more regularly – partly due to Banega getting more involved and dropping deep to support the centre-backs and central midfielders, and partly because they began to take up a wider shape in possession.
Unai Emery’s full-backs, Benoît Trémoulinas and Coke, were the ones who provided that width, with Konoplyanka and Vitolo now taking up narrower positions on the flanks in order to accommodate their runs forward from the back. This meant that when Banega dropped in, as well as when Krohn-Dehli and Krychowiak looked to play the ball forward, there were new passing lanes and areas which they could look to utilise.
Through this, the Spanish side managed to create a couple of decent shooting opportunities in quick succession – both heavily involving Konoplyanka. The first came after Banega played it to the right wing and found Vitolo, who then dribbled forward and pulled the ball back to the Ukrainian on the edge of the box: only for him to steer his effort just wide. The second, this time created by Konoplyanka, saw the winger play a lovely scoop pass over the defence for Gameiro to run onto and narrowly fire past the far post.
These changes to their play were obviously a big positive overall, especially given that Sevilla needed a goal to draw level, but it came at the cost of the more solid defensive shape which they had established for long parts of the first-half. Now, much like with Gladbach in those opening 45 minutes, they were open down the flanks in particular. And just two minutes after that Gameiro chance they were punished again.
Following Sommer kicking the ball forward into midfield, Raffael played the ball out to Drmić on the right and drifted over (as he’d been doing regularly) to help the Swiss striker and Korb provide something of an overload on that side behind Trémoulinas. The ball soon ended up with Korb just inside the box, and he swivelled before using his left foot to pick out Johnson on the far side of the box. Johnson took one touch on his left to set himself, and curled the ball into the far corner with his right on the second.
With Sevilla now needing two goals to get the draw which they required to keep themselves ahead of Gladbach in the group standings, the home side now had a perfect chance to utilise their counter-attacking prowess and kill the game off on the break. And they did so, eventually, although the last twenty minutes turned into a new level of frantic (which is presumably something which André Schubert wouldn’t have wanted) with both sides scoring two goals each
Raffael and Stindl, unsurprisingly given their good exploitation of space throughout, were at the core of Gladbach's attacking play for the rest of the match. Rico managed to make one very good save from Raffael after an excellent one-two between the pair, but he was helpless a few minutes later when Stindl set the Brazilian up again to slot home and make it 3-0.
Dahoud, who was a good contender for man of the match from midfield, was subbed off just after that for Marvin Schulz, another young midfielder – though it was Fernando Llorente, a Sevilla substitute who came on for Gameiro, who would have the next impact. Some excellent hold-up play saw the striker keep the ball under two challenges, before threading a pass through the Gladbach defence for Vitolo to run onto and delicately dink home.
Any very slim hopes of Sevilla getting back into the game were ended almost instantly by Stindl, who got his second of the game just a minute later with a driven shot from outside the box in the 82nd minute. They did at least get a second goal back in injury time however, this time through Banega; the Argentine coolly converting the penalty which Krychowiak won after a clumsy foul from Xhaka.
So it finished 4-2 to the German team: a fair result in the end with a scoreline which was indicative of a very fun game between two extremely interesting sides. Neither of them have a chance of going through in the Champions League sadly, but at least one of them will still be competing in Europe at the turn of the year. And after this match, it’s Gladbach who are in the driving seat for that.