Borussia Mönchengladbach turned in an awful performance to suffer a second defeat in the space of four days, although Hoffenheim were worthy winners. From the first minute, Lucien Favre’s side showed signs of fatigue from their penalty shootout exit – to Bayern Munich – at the semi-final stage of the German Cup, and were lazy in their passing and movement for the majority of the match thereafter. Markus Babbel’s side, on the other hand, looked sharp and hungry throughout, and didn’t lose belief despite falling behind – very undeservedly – in the first half. Gladbach’s performance did improve in the second half – primarily because they put everything they had into sitting in their own half. But, Hoffenheim kept coming and coming, and struck twice in the final quarter of the match to take all three points. Favre’s side never looked like equalizing thereafter, and will now have to spend the next few days mentally and physically getting over their worst week of the 2011/12 season. The mood on the Hoffenheim bus, meanwhile, will be jubilant, as this win means they are now six points above the final relegation spot, which is currently occupied by Hamburg.
Borussia Mönchengladbach (4-4-2, from right to left): Marc-André ter Stegen; Tony Jantschke, Roel Brouwers, Dante, Filip Daems; Patrick Herrmann, Thorben Marx, Roman Neustädter, Juan Arango; Igor de Camargo, Marco Reus
Hoffenheim (4-4-1-1, from right to left): Tom Starke; Andreas Beck, Isaac Vorsah, Marvin Compper, Fabian Johnson; Boris Vukčević, Daniel Williams, Tobias Weis, Sebastian Rudy; Sejad Salihović; Ryan Babel
Gladbach got the game under way, but some hard Hoffenheim pressing instantly resulted in a turnover of possession. They could do nothing with the ball either, however, and back possession went to the home side, who were knocking it about at a walking pace in the first-third of the pitch, unable to go any further with their guests continuing to press high and fast. Things soon opened up, however, as Gladbach looked to attack speedily down the wings, with Hoffe looking to get in behind the hosts’ defence via some of Rudy’s long-range scooped through-balls. Things then hotted up even more in the sixth minute, courtesy of Williams getting his body in the way of the mid-sprint Daems. The Belgian took real exception to the American’s act; first squaring up to the Hoffenheim midfielder, then sticking his forehead onto Williams’ for at least ten seconds, before finally shoving him away as the referee bundled over. The man in the middle eventually made the pair shake hands, but Daems did his best to avoid it.
Unfortunately, it only took a minute or two for the game to revert back to what had gone before – Gladbach aimlessly passing the ball and casually around at the back, and Hoffe standing high and compact in three banks, with one of the four primary attackers always pressing fast and thoroughly. It was ultimately 4-4-2 against 4-4-2, and each side was cancelling the other out: thus, neither box, let alone goalkeeper, had seen much of the ball as we went past the ten-minute mark, although Hoffe definitely looked more creative and lively in the midfield when they got on the ball, and Johnson – in particular – and Beck always got up the pitch as quickly as was possible when Hoffe had possession.
As we reached the quarter-hour mark, Hoffenheim were definitely on top, with Gladbach continuing to look lifeless. Whenever the home side did go forward, the movement was non-existent, and the passing lazy and obvious. Babbel’s side, however, were energetic, positionally fluid (the infield-veering Rudy and floating support-striker Salihović in particular), still making great use of the flanks, and had a roaming, hard-to-mark forward leading the line in Babel. The away side won a series of corners, but as an offside flag in the 18th minute encapsulated, attacking their hosts as quickly as they could was the only way to get in behind them, because delaying the release of the ball into the opposition’s half in a bid to get the likes of Reus and de Camargo nearer ter Stegen’s goal than Starke’s goal meant that Gladbach could form their seemingly impenetrable 4-4-2 shape, force the long and hopeful through-ball, and then step up in hasty tandem to render the runner – in this case Salihović – offside.
Despite Hoffe’s growing control, as we went beyond the 20-minute mark, neither Starke nor ter Stegen had actually been forced into making a save. The reason for the home side’s lack of goalmouth action continued to be due to the reasons stated above, but as for Hoffenheim, they increasingly found their path to goal blocked by Favre’s side committing tactical fouls (one of which resulted in Marx collecting a yellow card). Although this gave them a number of decently-located set-pieces, Salihović’s delivery had been poor. One couldn’t help but feel at this stage that if Gladbach play this badly in the opening 20 minutes of a game in next season’s Champions League against a Barcelona or Real Madrid, they’d already be several goals behind.
But then, in the 26th minute, six Borussia Mönchengladbach players enacted several triangle-passing moves, feeding de Camargo in the box. The Belgian’s attempt on goal was blocked, and the corner – taken by Reus – subsequently wasted, yet the move gave the quiet Borussia-Park crowd a lift. On the pitch, the final-third action briefly sparked Gladbach into life – in the three minutes after that chance, they got the ball into or towards the box far more quickly, for instance. However, the hosts’ passing continued to be lazy, the movement poor, and the visitors’ defending solid and determined. Thus, Starke continued to remain starved of action.
Yet, as every football fan knows, it can be a cruel game. And Hoffenheim’s heartache began when Gladbach had their first real chance of the match: Dante punting the ball upfield with Hoffenheim’s shape not yet fully formed, Arango knocking the Brazilian’s pass to Reus, who then returned the ball to the Venezuelan. Arango then scooped a through-ball over the Hoffe defence to Reus, who showed poor composure in volleying wide. But, barely thirty seconds later, another long ball from the defence saw de Camargo – who had dropped deep to get involved, as he had continued to do more often as the game wore on – this time knock a through-ball over the high-standing and badly-shaped visiting defence. This time, Herrmann (who had swapped flanks with Arango), coming through the left-hand side of the box, got on the end of the ball, and squared to Reus. The Borussia Dortmund-bound winger made no mistake this time, wrong-footing the oncoming Starke and putting the ball in the bottom left-hand corner for 1-0!
It was all Gladbach for the remainder of the first half, although they only had one chance to show for their short spell of dominance, with Herrmann showing little imagination or finesse on an opening he wasted by heading into the side-netting. Hoffe continued to press high and hard, but the Gladbach defence – like the rest of the team – now had a bit more zip to their passing, and swagger to their game. Thus, Hoffenheim went in 1-0 down at the break, and with Augsburg drawing and Freiburg and Hertha Berlin both winning in their respective matches (all of which were also 45 minutes in), Babbel’s side would come out for the second half just three points clear of the relegation zone.
The formations that started the second half
Borussia Mönchengladbach (4-4-2, from right to left): ter Stegen; Jantschke, Brouwers, Dante, Daems; Herrmann, Marx, Neustädter, Arango; de Camargo, Reus
Hoffenheim (4-4-2, from right to left): Starke; Beck, Vorsah, Compper, Johnson; Vukčević, Williams, Weis, Rudy; Salihović; Babel
Neither coach made personnel changes for the second half, although Arango was now back on the left flank (and Herrmann the right) for Gladbach, and Salihović was playing alongside Babel rather than behind the Dutchman. Tactically, Hoffenheim re-started the match with a more direct style – making plenty of long punts upfield from the back, for example, the majority of which were easy for the gangly Dante to deal with considering he was up against a diminutive Eastern European playmaker-cum-striker. Favre’s side, meanwhile, started the new half with more hunger, and their high and hard pressing and tight shape kept Hoffe frustrated in the opening five minutes.
The visitors continued to dominate possession as we approached the hour mark, although this presumably was what Favre wanted, as the Swiss coach had the perfect players to land a sucker punch – or two – on the break. In a bid to splice Gladbach’s rigid, corridor-suffocating formation, Beck was now looking to instigate passing moves as an auxiliary right-sided centre midfielder (Vukčević stayed glued to the chalk, keeping the visitors’ width). However, Gladbach were too disciplined to be drawn into anything too gung-ho tackling or shape-breaking wise, and so ter Stegen remained untroubled. Whenever they did get a chance to have a turn in possession, the home side made intelligent and opponent energy-sapping use of the ball, while making sure they didn’t flood forward in numbers. Realising he had to do something, Babbel introduced Brazilian attacking midfielder Roberto Firmino, bringing him on for Williams. This resulted in several players swapping positions, as Firmino replaced Salihović as the left-sided striker, the Bosnian replaced Rudy on the left of midfield, and the German joined Weis in centre-midfield (the latter veering right, Rudy left).
Chances for the home side were few and far between during the match’s third quarter, with de Camargo merely nearly getting on the end of several through-balls. But, à la half one, Starke and ter Stegen were twiddling their thumbs. Babbel – after seeing Mike Hanke come on for de Camargo – again turned to his bench in a bid to give the latter goalkeeper stuff to do, bringing on young centre-forward Sven Schipplock for Babel (Srđan Lakić wasn’t quite fit enough to make the squad, and the only other attacking option left for Babbel to deploy was Peniel Mlapa, who tends to play on the wing). However, it was a Hoffenheim player already on the pitch who soon after had two great chances in the space of two minutes. First, Vukčević forced ter Stegen into a save, and then, barely 120 seconds later, the German-Croat showed very intelligent movement to find space in a crowded box that allowed him to get on the end of a pull-back. Alas, the 22-year-old’s composure deserted him at a crucial moment, and he volleyed wide.
Babbel’s head wasn’t in his hands for very long, though. In the 75th minute, Beck played a pass to Schipplock, who, first-time, cleverly fed Salihović. On the edge of the box, the Bosnian couldn’t work room to get a shot off. So, he passed backwards to Firmino, who was being shielded by Neustädter. However, the former Mainz midfielder let the Brazilian wriggle under him far too easily, and Firmino then danced his way past another Gladbach player to the left-hand side of the box, before unleashing a shot. The ball deflected off Brouwers, catching ter Stegen out, and therefore bounced softly into the net for 1-1!
A yellow card for Firmino for removing his shirt and the replacing of Herrmann with Oscar Wendt later, it was 2-1 to the away side! Neustädter conceded a corner, Salihović whipped it in, and basically standing underneath ter Stegen, Vukčević took advantage of no player in white bothering to clear the ball to head in Hoffenheim’s second!
Both coaches subsequently made their final substitution: Jannik Vestergaard replacing Vorsah for Hoffenheim, and Matthew Leckie replacing the yellow-carded and defensively-minded Marx for Borussia Mönchengladbach (who changed to a 4-1-3-2 system). Babbel’s side were looking comfortable, though, and the burly but energetic Schipplock was leading the line with the kind of experience and discipline that belied his tender age. It was all a bit frantic at the other end, although Daems nearly scored one of those tee-yourself-up volleys from 30-yards out that anyone who has ever played the game dreams about scoring. Starke athletically parried the Belgian’s top-corner-bound effort, however, and all that we had time for thereafter was the chance to see Wendt picking up a yellow card for a pathetic and dangerous foot-left-in-despite-the-fact-the-ball-has-gone tackle. Gladbach stay in third for the time being, but if Schalke can defeat Bayer Leverkusen at the Veltins-Arena later on today, Favre’s side will drop to fourth. Hoffenheim host the Royal Blues next weekend, while Borussia Mönchengladbach go to Hannover.
The formations that finished the match
Borussia Mönchengladbach (4-1-3-2, from right to left): ter Stegen; Jantschke, Brouwers, Dante, Daems; Neustädter; Wendt, Reus, Arango; Hanke, Leckie
Hoffenheim (4-4-2, from right to left): Starke; Beck, Vestergaard, Compper, Johnson; Vukčević, Weis, Rudy, Salihović; Schipplock, Firmino