If the UEFA Champions League play-off round was expected to be a formality, then it certainly wasn’t at the Stade de Suisse in Bern. Borussia Mönchengladbach’s 3-1 win over BSC Young Boys carried the hallmarks of a typical away win for a vastly-superior team against an industrious, bright opponent, backed by a raucous home support.
Andre Schubert’s side dominated this first leg encounter for long periods and his 3-4-3 setup looked surprisingly well-tuned at this stage of season preparations. But when Miralem Sulejmani equalised 11 minutes into the second period, the momentum swung in favour of the Swiss side. A normally compact, positionally sound defensive unit looked flushed under pressure with Yann Sommer’s goal peppered with shots and crosses from all angles.
As the home team pushed forward in search of a second, the Foals waited patiently for the opportunity to strike. There certainly wasn’t some kind of artistry behind it either – substitute Andre Hahn wasn’t penalised for offside and he poked the ball into the net from close range. Two minutes later, Raffael’s ambitious volley across goal caught the heel of Alain Rochat and nestled in the corner.
Qualifying for the Champions League, the riches and prestige that accompanies a place at the elite table of European football, is justification that Gladbach are on the right path. Max Eberl, the club’s sporting director, has managed his most testing time in office at Borussia-Park with a cool-headed assurance.
Now a previous chapter in the club’s history, Lucien Favre’s sudden departure after five league games into last season narrowed the spotlight on Eberl. He braved the media and was transparent about the inquest. Schubert, then the U23 coach, was promoted to the top job – a surprise considering his modest career to date.
The 45-year-old, reserved and without the idiosyncrasies of Favre, settled immediately. Gladbach went on to remain unbeaten for 10 games – a phase that included a 3-1 win over FC Bayern Munchen – but there were extreme peaks and troughs in form. Away from home, the Foals failed to keep a clean sheet until the final game of the season at Darmstadt. But wisdom procures that the season is a marathon – not a sprint – and Gladbach were primed to finish in fourth place.
The critics were justified in their takedown of Borussia: there was no recognizable number nine striker and the back-line was prone to a defensive calamity without many of their seasoned campaigners.
Schubert has rolled out his changes across the duration of the season. First was the introduction of Mahmoud Dahoud, the precocious Syrian-born 18-year-old playmaker. He added verve and spark to the midfield, while Fabian Johnson’s form exploded towards the end of the first half of the season. Nico Elvedi has progressed from youth team player to first-team centre-back, while Oscar Wendt has finally added consistency to his game.
The back-three that Schubert deploys, a collective chain which shifts across the field depending on the position of the ball, is now prevalent. Andreas Christensen marshaled from the middle in Bern, but he was flat-footed for the home team’s goal. Jannik Vestergaard, who came off the bench, should bolster Gladbach’s aerial presence. Alvaro Dominguez is one of Schubert’s favourites because of his versatility and polished passing.
However, the key to the balance of Gladbach’s 3-4-3 formation are the two ‘six’ positions. Christoph Kramer has returned to the club from Bayer Leverkusen and commanded the highest-ever transfer fee in Borussia’s history. Kramer’s spindly strides around the field complement the defensive presence of Tobias Strobl who joined from Hoffenheim on a free transfer. Where Dahoud slots in remains to be seen and whether it ticks is unclear.
Although the first back into competitive football, Schubert’s side is avoiding a lot of the discourse this close season. Gladbach’s standing in the Bundesliga last term was reflective of their overall strength in German football, but with Schalke and Leverkusen strengthening, the Foals will need a step up in consistency this campaign.