When Lucien Favre resigned as the Borussia Mönchengladbach manager back in September, things were looking pretty dire for the club from the outside. They’d had a magnificent season the year before under the Swiss manager, finishing third in the Bundesliga and qualifying for the Champions League as a result, but five consecutive defeats in their opening five league matches meant that their hopes of getting into Europe’s elite competition again for 2016/17 were already in severe jeopardy.
In reality, albeit perhaps with a dose of hindsight, things probably weren’t quite as bad as they first appeared to be. Max Kruse and Christoph Kramer (whose two-year loan from Bayer Leverkusen had expired) were the only important players that Gladbach lost in the previous transfer window, and their sporting director, Max Eberl, said that the club still held a lot of faith in Favre when he left them. The results may not have been there for his successor, but the foundations that Favre had built at Borussia-Park certainly were.
Part of those was his replacement André Schubert, in fact. Brought in as the under-23 coach of the club in the summer, Schubert was made the interim coach of the first-team upon Favre’s departure before becoming the manager on a permanent basis soon afterwards. Though he initially denounced any intention of taking the full-time role, that quickly changed as he helped to turn things around – and now Gladbach have secured Champions League qualification for the second consecutive year. So his impact this far has certainly proved to be a successful one. And yet, despite that, Schubert still hasn’t been the most influential breakout figure of the season that Favre left behind him.
Instead, that accolade, even if there’s obviously no genuine award for this, goes to Mahmoud Dahoud. The Syrian-born but German youth international made his first league start in Favre’s final game in charge, and since then has quickly become one of Gladbach’s most important players; appearing in 32 of their 34 Bundesliga matches this season. 27 of those were starts, while four of the times he started on the bench came in the first four league games. He also started all but one of their group stage matches in Europe’s elite continental competition. It takes a special talent for a young player to make such a significant impact in his first season of first-team football – and that’s exactly what Dahoud is.
The 20-year-old has spent almost all of the season partnering the similarly gifted Granit Xhaka in the centre of midfield, usually as part of a 4-4-2 but also in different variations of a three at the back system (sometimes 3-4-1-2, sometimes 3-4-3). Successfully utilising a two-man midfield is tough with the wrong balance of players, due to the enhanced risk of leaving gaps or being outnumbered by a midfield three, though Dahoud’s extremely well-rounded skillset has contributed to that not becoming an issue for Schubert.
That’s one of the big things that sets Dahoud apart from a lot of other young players in his role. You wouldn’t have him as your deepest, most defensive midfielder, but otherwise his abilities are such that you’d feel comfortable with him in any role in the middle of the pitch. His contribution without the ball is impressive, both in volume of actions and in a qualitative sense, while on it he’s even more superb, encouraging link-up play and making things happen in all different phases.
His main strength from the defensive side of things is that he knows when to adjust his position – and when to hold it – in relation to the whole team’s dynamics at the time. He reacts well when opponents switch their direction of attack, playing his part in Gladbach’s excellent ball-orientation, and is also very mobile which in turn allows him to cover ground quickly. That’s an asset best seen in pressing situations, where he can rapidly push forward and rush the opponent as soon as they receive the ball. Though he’s perhaps prone to positional mistakes when playing in a more zone-orientated pressing system, it’s not really a notable issue in his game.
The intelligent way in which he moves without the ball is also matched by how much distance he makes up; his 12.4km covered per 90 minutes is actually the second-highest of all players in the Bundesliga during this season. His figures for tackles (3.1) and interceptions (2.4), likewise by per 90, are similarly quite impressive. They’re numbers that are enhanced a bit by the fact that Dahoud very rarely completed a full game for Gladbach, only finishing four of the 27 games that he started, however even accounting for that they still help to show his activity in defensive phases.
It’s in possession where his best qualities lie though. Although, well, maybe that’s not strictly accurate. Because it’s what he shows in the split seconds *before* getting the ball that really helps to reinforce his ability. Playing constantly on the half-turn, Dahoud’s body shape when receiving is excellent – giving him real fluidity between the stages of controlling the ball and then either driving forward into space or passing to a teammate. Where others might need an extra moment to adjust to gaining possession, Dahoud regularly saves crucial time by being so smooth in these parts of the game.
In the Bundesliga, a league full of teams who press a lot and then excel in attacking transitions, that simple yet brilliant skill is particularly useful. And alongside his balance, speed, first touch and surprisingly good body strength for a player who’s just 5’9, as a result he’s very resistant to pressure. That means it’s easy for Gladbach fans to stay calm when he’s dropping deep into tight areas to help the team with building play from the back, while also feeling confident that he’ll be able to exploit space at the other end of the pitch when he does venture forward into more advanced areas.
As the more forward-thinking player in his partnership with Xhaka, his involvement in the latter zones is comparatively greater than it is in the deeper ones (even if he does still do a lot in build-up play). That’s shown by Xhaka’s considerably higher figure of 88.0 passes per 90 in the league, compared to Dahoud’s 55.9, the young talent’s focus being more orientated around moving the ball from the middle third into the final one. His variety of ways of achieving this, ranging from progressive vertical passes to close dribbling with the ball at his feet, is notably impressive. And even though he may not be Gladbach’s main midfield controller, he’s always demanding the ball and looking to keep it moving anyway.
What the German youth international has achieved from an end product side of things in the final third this season is good too. Dahoud’s five goals and eight assists in 2084 league minutes are pretty impressive for a player operating in that central midfield role of his. In terms of his direct goal contribution per 90, then, that’s one every 160.3 minutes. His assist figures are perhaps slightly disproportionate in comparison to how many chances he creates, a reasonably average 1.3 key passes per 90, although his overall creation figures are bound to increase as his development continues. Especially given his already admirable ability to find gaps and weight a pass. If he were to operate in a consistently higher role then they probably would go up, too.
Having him as a number 10 would likely detract from the rest of his game for now though, in the sense that his role in defensive phases and build-up play would be limited a little, so currently the trade-off of having him higher up the field may not be worth it. Especially if, from a Gladbach perspective, Xhaka ends up leaving the club this summer as he's expected to – both of them have regularly been linked with transfers away, saying that. But it’d be a pretty big surprise to see Dahoud leave just yet.
If Xhaka does depart then, assuming Dahoud stays, the potential adaption of his role at Gladbach is bound to be interesting. He’s shown himself to be more than capable of taking over from the Swiss international as the main controller of the midfield, while keeping him in the same box-to-box sort of role would also be a very feasible course of action. Or maybe, depending on transfers, Schubert would move to a midfield trio and play him in a higher starting position. Whichever happens, he’s one of the obvious players to shape the team around.
Keeping him at Borussia-Park for a long period of time beyond next season is surely going to be a big challenge for The Foals however. Dahoud was one of the Bundesliga’s best performers this year, and he’s undoubtedly right up there with the top young midfield talents in the world right now. If Gladbach manage to convince him to stick around then that’s great news for one of Germany’s most historic clubs, but if not then whoever eventually wins the race to sign him will have a hell of a player on their hands.