If you were to read that the team who allowed the second most shots per game against them in the Bundesliga actually went on to finish with the second lowest number of goals conceded, then you’d be forgiven for thinking that something was a little off. But that’s exactly what Borussia Mönchengladbach managed to do last season, and their brilliant defensive record – complemented by some clinical attacking play – pushed them into an outstanding, Champions League ensuring, 3rd place finish.
In fact of all the 98 teams in Europe’s top five leagues, only Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus conceded less than them (Monaco also conceded 26), though the end results are pretty much where the similarities between Gladbach and most good defensive units draw to a halt. Whilst the most logical thing to do when defending is to try and completely restrict your opponent’s chances in quantity, Lucien Favre’s side are an exception; why not just focus on lowering the quality instead?
So that’s exactly what they look to do, in a simple sense, and they massively reaped the benefits from such an approach in the 2014/15 season. Their 15.4 shots against per game average over the league campaign was huge (only six of the 98 had higher), but nobody took more attempts to score against (20.1). And nobody even came close to matching that either.
It’s what they did on the pitch to record such impressive figures which is more interesting than the numbers themselves though, and, like with all good defensive systems, the basic key to their success lies in the discipline and intelligence which is employed to maintain a great shape. Forming a compact and distinctive 4-4-2 without the ball, Gladbach are happy to concede space out wide (though they often laterally shift towards the side where possession is) in favour of blocking off the far more dangerous central zones of the pitch.
But there’s one other, even more crucial place where they cut out space too: and that’s behind them. Rather than pressing intensely and trying to end attacks higher up the pitch, a very stereotypically German approach (think Bayer Leverkusen or Borussia Dortmund), they do almost the exact opposite and form a low block with little closing down at all. That deep line is also one of the main reasons why they’ve caught opponents offside so few times, 1.8 per game, the lowest in the Bundesliga.
The only players who are really used to press regularly and block some of the passing lanes through the middle are the front two (which was made up of Max Kruse, who is now leaving to join Wolfsburg, and Raffael), but beyond that – and the efficiently performed rotational, covering movements between a midfielder and one of the strikers – the focus for the rest of the team is on maintaining their position in the distinct lines which they form. Pressing is a risk-orientated defensive strategy which can open up space for exploitation when done incorrectly, and just not doing it at all is how they almost guarantee control of the areas which they want to hold.
A tactic which has been used on occasion however, when opponents have focused or been forced to play down the wings, is instances of wide pressing traps. This is one of the times when Gladbach's heavy focus on lateral movement is employed, and the team (particularly the full-back, winger and striker on that side of the pitch) move over to try and overload the flank.
Due to the boundaries of the pitch, doing this out wide is much less risky than central pressing. It’s easier to limit space and, if it does go wrong, regain your original shape – which is why Favre’s team use this at times. Sometimes this works as a method to win the ball back, allowing them to keep the ball or counter quickly themselves instantly after the turnover, other times simply to force the other team to make what are pretty much useless backwards passes.
Otherwise though, their lack of interference with the opponent’s possession phases can be seen in the percentage of passes completed against them – 79.6%. That’s quite a lot higher than the league’s average pass completion of 74.6%, and demonstrates their willingness to let teams play with the ball in safe situations if they want to. Perhaps it’s a strategy which does invite a bit more pressure on themselves as a team, rather than potentially stopping attacks at their source, but the key is that it’s well managed pressure which is gifted practically under their own terms. And so, instead, it’s only in (and just outside of) the penalty box where they reach their true intensity and explode.
The movements of their players are again much more lateral than vertical at this point, and the large amount of players which they have behind the ball often allows them to significantly outnumber the opposition. This makes it easier to cover gaps and runs, through quick and intelligent shifts of position, preventing the opponent from having any time or space to execute their decisions in the attacking third.
As a result, any kind of progressive completion is much more difficult to pull off against them than almost any other team in these areas. That includes things like passes into the danger zone, cutbacks from wide areas and, of course, shots at goal. So whilst Gladbach may not make a high number of interceptions, the ones which they do make are of very high defensive value. In contrast they do make a ton of blocks though, both numerically and percentage-wise; they average 4.6 shots blocked per game, which equates to 29.9% of the shots they face – and as you can probably guess, those are both the highest in the league.
The location of shots taken against them is also noticeably affected by their deep block defensive methods, with 51% of efforts coming from outside the box. That compares to a league average of 42%, and when so many shots are either blocked or taken from distance (or both) it is hugely to Gladbach's advantage. And that’s without including the more unmeasurable things, like miscued shots when taken under pressure, as well as them having a brilliant goalkeeper in between the posts in Yann Sommer.
An outstanding shot stopper in particular, whilst also being very good at claiming crosses and aerial balls too, Sommer – who was voted as their fans’ player of the season – is a massive presence despite not being overly tall (6’0) for a player of his position. With his ability factored in as well, it’s of no surprise that this defensive method has worked wonders for them.
What they do lack a little as a team though, in central defensive areas at least, is pace. Their three most regular centre-backs Álvaro Domínguez, Tony Jantschke and Martin Stranzl (both Domínguez and Jantschke have also played quite regularly at left-back and right-back respectively in bigger games) are not especially quick, and neither is their excellent central midfielder Granit Xhaka, which can be a concern in such a fast-paced league if the opposition are able to isolate them. That may be a contributing factor in Favre’s decision to play a deeper line, although he does have a past history of such tactics anyway, but what it indisputably means is there’s a necessity to protect them in the case of quick transitions and counter-attacks.
So how do they do that? Well again, unlike how stereotypical German sides defend these situations, Gladbach do less counter-pressing – but it is more closing down than in their non-transitional phases of defending. What they do here is something of a split press, and they use their nearest players (typically their faster wide attackers, like André Hahn and Patrick Herrmann, or strikers) to press and slow the speed of the opposition’s attack. This creates a crucial bit of time for the rest of the team to get back into shape, nullifying the threat for a time and preventing any potential numerical disadvantages which may have otherwise occurred.
The pace of those attackers is also crucial in carrying out their transitions in the other way, from defence to attack, creating an important outlet from the deep shape which they create. Using a variety of methods like aggressive long balls, direct running and high percentage short but progressive passes, the rest of the team can break out and attack as a unit. This is a much more vertical manner than how they defend, but the similarity is that they do it together: as a team.
And that’s where all the focus is on this Gladbach side. Playing as such an effective unit, particularly when they don’t have the ball, has helped them to become one of Europe’s best defensive outfits. Their pretty unique approach has worked a treat, and it’ll be fascinating to see how they perform in their debut venture into the Champions League next season.