TWO teams who underwent vastly contrasting summer transfer campaigns go head to head in the third round of the 2012/13 1. Bundesliga season this weekend. Whereas Borussia Mönchengladbach lost three of their best players, Nuremberg had a relatively quiet summer, keeping the squad pretty much intact. Both sides have made decent starts to the latest league season, with Gladbach beating Hoffenheim and drawing away at local rivals Fortuna Düsseldorf, and Nuremberg winning away at Hamburg before holding reigning champions Borussia Dortmund to a draw at home last weekend (a game in which Dieter Hecking’s side had more than enough chances to win).
An international break has seen the German top-flight campaign have a two-week break since then, but you imagine both Hecking and Gladbach coach Lucien Favre will have appreciated the time this has given them to work with their players on the training ground; particularly the latter, whose side had played two Champions League games, a DFB-Pokal tie and two 1. Bundesliga matches in the space of 14 days.
That said, Favre’s not had many of his players to work with over the last fortnight: eleven Gladbach players were called up for international duty, leaving just 13 outfield players and three goalkeepers at the training ground – a sign of just how important a club the North Rhine-Westphalian outfit have become again. After finishing in fourth place last season, a remarkable achievement given the resources at Favre’s disposal, the summer just gone was always going to be a time of change for the two-time UEFA Cup winners, with a place in the Champions League qualifying round booked. The departures of key centre-back Dante (Bayern Munich), centre-midfielder Roman Neustädter (Schalke) and talismanic attacker and the team’s main source of goals Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund) were already known about long before the season ended, meaning that Gladbach’s success wasn’t quite the paradigmatic Pyrrhic victory. While the players who have taken their places at the club – Álvaro Domínguez, a centre-back brought in from Atletico Madrid at considerable expense, Granit Xhaka, a much sought-after tricky young midfielder recruited for nearly £8million from Basle, and Peniel Mlapa, a versatile attacker purchased from Hoffenheim – will need time to show they can plug the quality gap, key players such as Juan Arango (a Venezuelan left-sided midfielder who is both lethal from a dead-ball situation and a key assist-provider for the team), Patrick Herrmann (a young, goal-scoring German midfielder who plays on the right) and Marc-André ter Stegen (a goalkeeper who could provide Manuel Neuer with competition for the Germany #1 jersey for years to come) have been retained.
Added to that, ancillary signings were also made by sporting director Max Eberl before the transfer window shut last Friday, with Favre needing a bigger squad ahead of an assault on both 1. Bundesliga and Europe. Luuk de Jong was the marquee acquisition, with Eberl allegedly beating English side Newcastle United to the young Dutchman’s signature. The 22-year-old Dutchman was bought from Eredivisie outfit FC Twente at a cost of nearly £11million, and is tasked with the daunting prospect of filling the Reus-sized goal hole (21 strikes in 37 league and cup games last season).
Helping him try and achieve that mission will be another new purchase, Branimir Hrgota – a 19-year-old right-winger signed from Swedish club Jönköping Södra. If there’s one criticism that can be made about Eberl’s recruitment policy, it is that the Gladbach new signings are all very young. As encapsulated by the team’s exit in the qualifying round of the Champions League at the hands of Ukrainian side Dynamo Kiev, Favre lacks the players capable of making Gladbach one of Europe’s elite teams (and by that, I mean one of the 32 teams who reach the Champions League group stages). However, you could counter-argue that inexperienced but tactically malleable players with bags of potential are just the sort of recruitments a sporting director had to make for a coach like Favre. The 54-year-old plays a very rigid and detailed style of football, focusing on minimising the amount of space left between his side’s three banks (4-4-2), and hitting sides on deadly counter-attacks. The likes of Xhaka and Hrgota, therefore, can be moulded in just the way Favre wants them to be, while making use of their abilities to expose teams on the break.
While the losses of Dante, Neustädter and Reus were inevitable, the club at least managed to ensure not many other players followed them. Defenders Bamba Anderson (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Tobias Levels (Düsseldorf) have been sold, but were out on loan anyway last season, while goalkeeper Logan Bailly (Oud-Heverlee Leuven) lost his place as Gladbach’s number-one a long time ago. Yuki Otsu (VVV-Venlo) just wasn’t quite good enough for the German top-flight, while promising young strikers Elias Kachunga (Hertha Berlin) and Mathew Leckie (FSV Frankfurt) have been sent out on loan to 2. Bundesliga clubs to show what they can do.
Asked on the club’s official website if he’s had time to draw breath since the closure of the transfer window, Eberl said: “The work’s already started again. We already have an idea of what needs changing in winter or summer, and what we’d like to change. We also have to prepare for contingencies, for example, if a player sustains a serious injury. That could mean bringing in another player, and so we’re very busy scouting.”
Favre actually ditched his favoured 4-4-2 for round two’s 0-0 draw at the Esprit Arena, opting instead to play 4-2-3-1, with exciting young German U19 midfielder Tolga Ciğerci playing in the hole behind de Jong. Whether the former Hertha BSC coach sticks with that system for this weekend’s home match remains to be seen, as during the 2-1 win over Hoffenheim at Borussia-Park, Mike Hanke started up front alongside de Jong. Another player who could play alongside de Jong is Igor de Camargo, who partnered the Dutchman in the 2-0 cup win over Alemannia Aachen, as well as the first-leg 3-1 loss in the Champions League to Dynamo Kiev. Exciting young Finnish right-winger Alexander Ring started and scored in that game, and he has been taking it in turns with Herrmann to play on that flank so far this campaign. Elsewhere, the first XI hasn’t been altered this season: Xhaka and Håvard Nordtveit – who spent a season at Nuremberg a few years ago – in centre-midfield, Arango on the left, Tony Jantschke and Filip Daems in the full-back positions, and Martin Stranzl and Dominguez at the back.
Nuremberg, meanwhile, had nine players on international duty over the course of the last two weeks: Hiroshi Kiyotake, Japan; Almog Cohen, Israel; Tomáš Pekhart, Czech Republic; Timmy Simons, Belgium; Róbert Mak, Slovakia U21; Marvin Plattenhardt and Philipp Klement, Germany U20; and Sebastian Polter and Alexander Esswein, Germany U21, albeit with the latter eventually pulling out due to a virus.
Like Favre, Hecking lost his talisman over the summer too, with goal-scoring attacking-midfielder Daniel Didavi returning to Stuttgart after an extremely effective loan spell. That, compounded by the fact Nuremberg did little business in the window, and got knocked out of the DFB-Pokal by a fourth-tier side a month ago, had many pundits tipping them as a candidate for relegation. But, although they boast the same number of points and goal difference as their opponents this weekend, Nuremberg have been far more impressive in 1. Bundesliga so far. Whereas Gladbach have looked ponderous and lethargic at times, Hecking’s side have been swashbuckling and brave. They would have scored a hatful against HSV were it not for René Adler’s heroics, and Mak – with his jinxy dribbling and penetration – and Kiyotake – with his deadly delivery – in particular caused BVB all sorts of problems a fortnight back, making Mats Hummels look like an amateur.
Polter (a substitute striker at Wolfsburg), attacking-midfielder Kiyotake (Cerezo Osaka) and Timo Gebhart (a winger brought in from Stuttgart) were Nuremberg’s most notable acquisitions of the summer, with Brazilian centre-back Marcos António also arriving at Nuremberg on a free transfer from Rapid Bucharest. Joining Didavi through the exit were Jens Hegeler (an on-loan attacking-midfielder who returned to Bayer Leverkusen), centre-back Philipp Wollscheid (who completed his £4.5million transfer to Leverkusen), and a host of fringe players such as Christian Eigler (Ingolstadt), Juri Judt (RB Leipzig), Dominic Maroh (Cologne), and Albert Bunjaku (Kaiserslautern). It’s estimated that on this front, Nuremberg made a profit of about £3.5million before the summer window closed last Friday.
So far in 1. Bundesliga, Hecking has played 4-2-3-1 in both games. Timmy Chandler and Javier Pinola – definitely a weak link – have started at full-back, Per Nilsson and Timm Klose at centre-back, Hanno Balitsch and Simons in centre-midfield, Mak, Esswein or Mike Frantz on the wings, and Kiyotake behind either Polter or Pekhart. Gebhart and António, however, haven’t started for their new club since the 3-2 cup defeat to Havelse. With other form-teams Hannover and Eintracht Frankfurt coming up in the next 12 days, it wouldn’t be a major surprise if Hecking changed a few players for this weekend’s game from the side that more than held their own against Dortmund. Although the 47-year-old – who played six games for Gladbach between 1983 and 1985 – doesn’t have the biggest squad, he could make or one two changes to his midfield without it having a deleterious effect.
In the two league fixtures played between these sides last season, each won their home game 1-0. Results have been fairly even between Gladbach and Nuremberg in recent years, although Nuremberg haven’t won at Borussia-Park since 2005. That day, the home team had Kasey Keller in goal and Oliver Neuville up front, although Daems was playing at left-back, as he still does to this day. Pinola, meanwhile, was also playing at left-back for Nuremberg in that game, and the away side’s winning goal came from long-serving Czech centre-back Marek Nikl (Mario Cantaluppi with the free-kick assist).
Hecking, who used his pre-match conference to praise Mak, is likely to be without Frantz (knee injury) and fellow attacker Adam Hloušek (convalescing after an operation) for the trip to Borussia-Park. Esswein, however, is expected to have recovered from his flu virus in time. As for Favre, ter Stegen, Nordtveit, Ring, Xhaka, Arango, de Jong and de Camargo only returned to the club on Wednesday after international action, but all are expected to feature against Nuremberg. Speaking ahead of the game, centre-back Roel Brouwers said: “It’s always a tough game against Nuremberg, as we noticed last year when we picked up a narrow 1-0 win. They are on very good form at the moment. I don’t think they’ll open up completely so it’ll be up to us to take the game to them. We can’t afford to give anything away at the back and in attack we have to create chances and take them. If we do, we have a good opportunity to take all three points.”
Borussia Mönchengladbach against Nuremberg kicks off at 2.30pm (UK time) on Saturday afternoon. It can be watched, live, on Bet365.com. The referee will be 32-year-old Christian Dingert.