Kaiserslautern took a huge step to securing their Bundesliga place for next season at the expense of doomed-looking Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Both sides came into this game in precarious Bundesliga positions – the hosts placed bottom, but knowing a win would lift them up to 17th; while the visitors, level on points with three other sides, were only out of the drop zone on goal difference. Among the goalscorers when Lautern beat Gladbach 3-0 in October was Srđan Lakić, the Croatian striker who had a phenomenal opening half to the season, but a player who has failed to score since securing a summer transfer to Wolfsburg in January – a convenient dry patch some Kaiserslautern fans argue, with the Wolves in just as much relegation trouble as Lakić’s current employers. Lakić was on the bench for this one, Marco Kurz sticking with the side which beat Freiburg 2-1 last weekend. Gladbach coach Lucien Favre persisted with his own goal-shy striker Mo Idrissou, looking to maintain momentum after snatching a draw at Werder Bremen last weekend.
Gladbach instantly took hold of the ball, before exploiting Lautern’s willingness to sit off by releasing Filip Daems down the left to win a corner. With the centre congested, Adam Hloušek emphasised after the hosts had wasted the corner that this might have to be a battle of the wings – the left-footed on-loan Sparta Prague man first launching a dribble down the left, and Christian Tiffert then looking to pick him out in the next phase of play with a long-diagonal. Although neither side was deploying heavy pressing, space was at a premium as the formation banks stayed compact, allowing little need to run far to get in the face of the opposition player holding the ball and narrow his passing angles. Thus, short and sharp uses of the ball were required to make a breakthrough, and, albeit scruffily, it was Gladbach who were the first to settle consistently on this pattern.
The lack of space was proving particularly problematic for the targetmen too, who were instead forced to drop deeper and push wider, taking a backseat role. The referee’s whistle was having the time of its life, however – the lack of space and general nerves contributing to constant tactical fouls throughout the half. Responding to the lack of threat the visitors were posing on the break (they were slow when going, but mainly unwilling to even bother), Gladbach were growing in confidence, epitomised by the sight of both centre-backs dribbling the ball into or near the final-third. Kaiserslautern were sat off in a 4-4-1-1, but now sprint-pressing the ball in turns when it came within five metres of crossing the halfway line. Gladbach’s pressure nearly paid off, and they missed two chances in quick succession from set-pieces. But although Lautern occasionally caused the likes of Håvard Nordtveit to squander possession before attacks had even been set in motion, this new tendency to press the ball at pace was leaving gaps in their own formation, and players with the vision and intelligence of Marco Reus were able to use such corridors to peel into, receive the ball, and engineer chances.
Yet the breaking play via a foul tactics persisted, and with the delivery from both teams too erratic (Juan Arango and Tiffert in particular), the game looked destined already to end in a stalemate. As the half-hour mark approached, Gladbach were showing signs of frustration. They spent too long on the floor after fouls, were getting lazier and more direct with their passing from the back, and enacted less pressure off the ball, allowing Tiffert to spray passes out to the wingers or the increasingly more mobile Jan Morávek (gravitating towards the left to help exploit the space being abandoned by the centrally-drifting Reus). Sensing a bit of blood, the visitors began pressing even higher than they already were when Gladbach regained possession, forcing the home side back – but this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for Favre’s players, who needed to generate more space in the centre of the park to get their own attackers at the heart of proceedings again.
But no longer did this allow Gladbach to unearth more corridors, as the Lautern defence, seemingly now communicating more effectively with the midfield ahead of them, held their line well, and didn’t give the rival attacker on the ball a moment’s peace. Added to this, their own counter-attacks were now being launched with more haste – the only problem being the lack of presence in the box to finish such moves off.
To counter the right-sided problem, Favre altered his formation with ten first half minutes to play, going for a 4-4-2 (Reus up front, Michael Fink on the right of midfield). Although two bobbing men to watch made it more difficult for the Lautern back four to hold their positions as a unit, Gladbach lacked the kind of central playmaker needed to pick out the increased level of forward line movement. Not that the midfielders on show were helped by Idrissou’s one-dimensional style of play – the run from the space left behind Tiffert to the space left by Florian Dick was attempted every time, and thus became less spontaneous, and less panic-inducing. Goal threat-wise, it was Lautern who were twice mere inches away from taking the lead before half time – first Adam Nemec heading over from a Hloušek free kick (given away for a yellow card by a casual Dante), before the former crossed for Rodnei to go close.
There were no changes as the sides came out for the second half, which I believe was wrong from at least one of the managers. If I was Favre, I’d have abandoned Nordtveit, and opted for more presence further upfield in the centre of the pitch. Ultimately, they were crying out for a Michael Bradley-esque driving force: too bad they let him leave for Aston Villa’s bench in January. As for Kurz, I think he was right to stay as he was for the start of the second half, but it was clear that should his side’s lack of presence in the box continue, he needed to bring on Lakić. The fact that a draw did neither side any favours would undoubtedly have been on the minds of both managers at the break, nevertheless.
Trying to instigate increased pressure off the ball also seemed to be on the managers’ minds during the interval too, as both teams in their 4-4-2s started pressing in packs higher up the pitch instantly, actions which briefly threatened to open the game up. The pressing soon subsided, however, and both sides suddenly seemed determined to play exclusively on the break. Thus, it was back to the 4-2-3-1 for the hosts, and the quick passes down the left wing for the visitors.
And it was easy to see why Lautern wanted to play this way in the 57th minute, with Gladbach seemingly adjusting after Idrissou went off for Mike Hanke. Morávek was released behind Tony Jantschke, and squared for Nemec. The Slovakian international subsequently squared for Tiffert, who could only drag the ball agonisingly across goal. They’d turned the heat up, and moments after Nemec missed a sitter but won a corner, Tiffert’s right-footed inswinger from the left was punched into the net by Logan Bailly on the hour for 0-1! Bailly, who’d worked his way back into the first team after being demoted to third-choice ‘keeper at the club, looked as though he’d all but sealed his side’s relegation fate.
The move at last sparked Favre into tactical and formational life, as he hauled off the ineffective Fink, brought on Patrick Herrmann to give some natural and actual width in a 4-4-2, and pushed Reus up top permanently. Within seconds, the youngster had forced a neat save from Kevin Trapp. Kurz realised he too needed to influence the game from the front, replacing Nemec with Lakić in the 65th minute, seemingly trying to inject more menace, stealth, and fight into the final-third, along with keeping a fair share of Gladbach players pinned back. The away side’s full-backs also now had a greater role to play, sprinting heads-down towards the corner flag in front of them thanks to the space left by the kitchen sink-throwing home side. Rather than looking to hold the ball up, they constantly pummelled Bailly’s box with crosses, looking to hit him some more while it still hurt (compounded by the home fans sarcastically celebrating his every successful touch).
The home side were getting desperate, but Roman Neustädter was finally awake, lurking in the defence-midfield corridor of Lautern’s 4-1-4-1, increased involvement encapsulated by his newfound bite in the tackle, cute counter-attack launching passes, and box-to-box running. But he and his colleagues failed to bother Trapp, who had had little to do all evening. Gladbach lacked bite, invention and true presence in the final-third, despite occasional flashes of brilliance and incision from Daems and Reus. Alas, the chance to redeem themselves next weekend looks impossible too – no less than Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena.