Borussia Mönchengladbach scraped a 1-0 victory over a Mainz side who were much the better team for most of a game light on chances. However, with both Marco Reus and Marc-André ter Stegen picking up injuries, whether this proves to be a Pyrrhic Victory is another matter. The home side’s goal came after an early moment of brilliance and piece of link-up play between Marco Reus and Patrick Herrmann, and the three points means Lucien Favre’s side will spend the winter break four points above Werder Bremen in fourth spot, not to mention a mere four points behind league-leaders Bayern Munich. Mainz, who had coach Thomas Tuchel sent off in the second half, ultimately paid the price for their poor final ball, because in every other aspect of their play, the visitors were impressive. Tuchel’s side will now spend the winter break in 14th spot, just two points above the relegation zone.
Borussia Mönchengladbach (4-4-2, from right to left): ter Stegen; Tony Jantschke, Martin Stranzl, Dante, Filip Daems; Herrmann, Håvard Nordtveit, Roman Neustädter, Juan Arango; Reus, Mike Hanke
Mainz (4-3-1-2, from right to left): Christian Wetklo; Zdeněk Pospěch, Niko Bungert, Bo Svensson, Malik Fathi; Julian Baumgartlinger, Jan Kirchhoff, Eugen Polanski; Yunus Malli; Sami Allagui, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting
The visitors started the game by playing some highly risky keep-ball on the edge of Wetklo’s box. With Gladbach standing and pressing high, Mainz eventually shifted the ball upfield via a long punt, the idea being for Choupo-Moting to dart to the left flank to reach it and head on for Allagui. When Gladbach got a turn on the ball in the early stages, they also faced high pressing from their opponents. However, they eventually managed to find a chink and get the ball on the floor in the second-third/final-third area of the pitch. The hosts retained possession with confidence, swagger and ease – aided hugely by Mainz’s long-running problem of chasing the possession-bearer as a pack of headless chicken when the ball comes near to their goal. Thus, some first-time moves resulted in space for Reus when he got a touch, and with any semblance of shape long since lost in the visitor’s backline, the 22-year-old played a sumptuous ball through the D. Herrmann, reading his colleague’s intentions, had already started his diagonal run towards the penalty spot, reaching his target and the ball with the daydreaming Fathi nowhere to be seen. The 20-year-old Gladbach man needed time to let the ball run across his body, but still poked it beyond Wetklo to hand Favre’s side a 1-0 lead after just four minutes!
Six minutes later, Bungert very nearly headed in an equalizer – an outswinging corner from the right caught the home side’s zonal marking system too deep, allowing the Mainz centre-back to glance a header towards the back post. However, Herrmann showed the value of having a guard there by hooking the header to safety. For a several-minute spell thereafter, Gladbach played some cynical keep-ball between the defence, midfield and ter Stegen. Favre’s had no intention of breaking forward during this period, and in response, Mainz barely pressed – it was as if we were witnessing a mutually agreed break. When the visitors did get on the ball in the 16th minute, a paucity of invention was plain to see, and the best they could muster was a tame Kirchhoff daisy-cutter which trudged wide – a shot which was only really allowed to happen in the first place because Gladbach’s defence stood off the gangly midfielder.
Nevertheless, driven on by Kirchhoff (who was rapidly becoming a force bringing the ball upfield or winning it back), and growing into the game as an attacking force because of the increased movement – especially into the channels, making Malli the foremost central attacker most of the time – by the two nominal strikers, Mainz were the only side looking to come forward as we hit the 20-minute mark; Gladbach were still content to play solely on the break (an attitude that persevered for the rest of the first 45 minutes too), and just conserve their energy when Mainz were sat off in their banks. Tuchel’s full-backs were also coming forward more often at this stage, and his centre-backs were doing their bit to help the attack too, dribbling the ball into the Gladbach half when a pocket of space materialised ahead of them. However, with Reus and Hanke tirelessly mucking in, and the defence and midfield banks constantly holding a perfect shape, Mainz continued to find breaking their hosts down rather difficult.
Between the 20-minute and half-hour mark, very little happened. Both sides were working tirelessly out of possession, and the game was becoming increasingly bogged down in midfield. Even Favre switching Arango and Herrmann to give himself some inverted wingers had failed to open the match up, although Kirchhoff, who had been imperious for the first 30 minutes, so nearly equalized with 14 minutes left until the interval. Taking advantage of a mix-up on the edge of ter Stegen’s box, the Frankfurt-born 21-year-old whistled a right-footed missile just past the Gladbach ‘keeper’s post. Tuchel will have been pleased to see one of his young midfielders grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck in the way Kirchhoff was doing, although the side’s creative weapon, Malli, was flitting in and out of proceedings – the Germany U19 international showing some very nice touches and peeling into pockets of space and flicking a ball through to great effect every now and again, but these moments were too infrequent to ensure that ter Stegen had something resembling a workload. He wasn’t helped, though, by Mainz’s poor movement in the box; something compounded by the well-drilled and switched-on Gladbach defence, who barely gave Allagui and Choupo-Moting an inch in there.
Things had gone a bit flat as we neared the 40-minute mark, although credit to referee Peter Gagelmann, who let a lot of things go in order to keep the flow of the game, and showed himself willing to communicate with the players as often as he could to help keep a lid on things. Nevertheless, a nasty collision shortly before the break saw Svensson leave the pitch through injury. He was replaced by Marco Caligiuri, who went to the right-sided centre-midfield berth. Resultantly, Baumgartlinger went to the left-sided centre-midfield position, Polanski to the bottom of what was effectively a midfield diamond, and, inexplicably, Kirchhoff, the game’s best player in the first half, moved to centre-back. Yes, he can play there – but this wasn’t the time for him to play there, especially with Nikolče Noveski on the bench. The Macedonian might have been struggling for fitness coming into this game, but the winter break was just 50 minutes away at this point (DFB-Pokal tie in the week aside), and the Mainz centre-backs were hardly under much pressure.
Second half starting formations
Borussia Mönchengladbach (4-4-2, from right to left): ter Stegen; Jantschke, Stranzl, Dante, Daems; Herrmann, Nordtveit, Neustädter, Arango; Reus, Hanke
Mainz (4-3-1-2, from right to left): Wetklo; Pospěch, Bungert, Kirchhoff, Fathi; Caligiuri, Polanski, Baumgartlinger; Malli; Allagui, Choupo-Moting
Mainz were straight out of the blocks at the start of the new half, with Choupo-Moting putting a glorious chance on a plate for the ghosting Caligiuri. However, the midfielder’s first-time volley bounced over the bar. As if to epitomise just how much pressure the visitors were exerting at the end of the last half and start of the new one, Gladbach, the league’s cleanest side, picked up two yellow cards either side of the break – Nordtveit first, then Dante. However, it was someone associated with Mainz who lost their cool in the biggest fashion, Tuchel being sent to the stands just five minutes into the second half after protesting against a decision a little too vehemently.
With or without their coach on the sideline, Mainz were never going to stop gushing forward, and they really did have control of the game at this point, let alone a monopolisation on possession. But, the one thing they couldn’t control was putting the ball in the net, and, despite getting around and inside both Daems and Jantschke on a number of occasions, ter Stegen remained relatively untroubled as we reached the 55-minute mark. However, if the Gladbach ‘keeper was quiet, Wetklo might as well have been on another planet after picking the ball out of his net in the fourth minute. Arango – now back on the left – did manage to pull a neat ball back towards the penalty spot in the 56th minute, but, probably through sheer exhaustion after doing so much midfield work, neither Reus or Hanke was able to make a run into the box to get on the end of it and give the Mainz custodian something to do.
Bungert’s looping header in the 63rd minute from Malli’s right-footed free-kick forced ter Stegen into tipping the ball over for a corner, from which Herrmann broke down the right after his side cleared the danger. However, as the youngster’s sprint turned into a jog as he reached the final-third, eight Mainz players had already got back to stifle the hosts’ move. Those set-pieces that set the Gladbach counter in motion were Malli’s last contributions, as Nicolai Müller took his place. Yet, before the winger even had the chance to touch the ball, a Bungert mistake allowed Reus and Arango to home in on goal in a two-on-one situation. The former squared for the latter, who was foiled by Wetklo’s lightening-quick dart off his line. It was a rare mistake from the Mainz defence (the goal aside, of course), as keeping Gladbach’s attackers corked had proved less problematic for the team than making a decent final-ball.
In a bid to exploit an increasingly less formationally-disciplined visiting XI, Favre added more subtlety and energy to his forward line by bringing on Igor de Camargo in place of Hanke. Shortly afterwards, in the 72nd minute, Tuchel – who had sneaked into a seat behind the dugout to issue instructions to his deputies – made his final change, replacing Polanski with Anthony Ujah. The home side were starting to impose themselves on the game again by looking to force breaks rather than wait for them. To do this, they looked to make as many little one-two moves as they could, attempting to exploit the increasing number of gaps being left by Mainz, who were now in a 4-2-2-2 system. However, the away side’s centre-backs and full-backs continued to mark extremely tightly, cutting off most of Borussia Mönchengladbach’s runs or flick-on attempts in a flash.
Yet, as we reached the 80-minute mark, they were still spoiling all this impressive defensive work by failing to penetrate the Gladbach rearguard with a killer through-ball. Playing a midfielder behind the strikers hadn’t worked (Müller spent five minutes in the hole after coming on too), and adding more width to the side didn’t seem to have altered much either. If anything, going from four men in central-midfield-ish positions to two was the worst possible thing Tuchel could have done, as there was now at last space for Arango and Herrmann – who were standing inside quite often due to Favre keeping his two banks of four compact and narrow – to double up with Nordtveit and Neustädter and command the centre of the park numerically.
Reus, who had received treatment for an injury (partly sustained by the man himself after getting into trouble via poor control), was replaced by Raúl Bobadilla with six minutes left to play, Favre neglecting to put on a more defensive option. Nevertheless, his side held on quite comfortably in the final few minutes, although ter Stegen was anything but comfortable after Bungert elbowed him in the stomach. The young ‘keeper looked in excruciating pain; thrashing around on the floor for a while (which is unlike him), before staying on for the final few seconds. However, he waked off the pitch with a face that suggested he was in absolute agony; an image that soured a vital win for Gladbach and their European aspirations, albeit one they barely deserved. Both sides are in action in the DFB-Pokal in the week: Gladbach hosting Schalke, and Mainz going to Holstein Kiel.
The formations that finished the game
Borussia Mönchengladbach (4-4-2, from right to left): ter Stegen; Jantschke, Stranzl, Dante, Daems; Herrmann, Nordtveit, Neustädter, Arango; de Camargo, Bobadilla
Mainz (4-2-2-2, from right to left): Wetklo; Pospěch, Bungert, Kirchhoff, Fathi; Caligiuri, Baumgartlinger; Müller, Choupo-Moting; Allagui, Ujah