Monchengladbach & Schubert: A Perfect Match

On Monday nights, I am treated to the weekend’s Bundesliga action thanks to ITV and their excellent highlights show. 2014/15 saw the likes of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke, Mainz and surprise packages Augsburg entertain me on a weekly basis, but it was one team that truly captured my imagination – Borussia Monchengladbach. Lucien Favre’s side were strong, cohesive and determined, yet so talented, quick and skilful going forward. A delight to watch.

After finishing third in what was an excellent campaign, ‘Gladbach were widely tipped to build on their success under Favre. However, much to the surprise of those associated with Die Fohlen (The Foals), they got off to a horrendous start, losing each of their first five matches which lead to the resignation of their beloved Swiss manager. After a day which ‘shook the club to the core’ according to sporting director Max Eberl, Andre Schubert, manager of the U23 side was appointed as manager.

Schubert was seen as little more than a stop-gap. The front runner for the job seemed to be Guingamp’s Jocelyn Gourvennec, but there were even ambitious calls from the Borussia-Park faithful for club legend Jupp Heynckes and even the unemployed Jurgen Klopp, who was on sabbatical at the time to take over. But here we are in December and Gourvennec is still at Guingamp, Heynckes is enjoying his retirement on the golf courses of Dubai whilst Klopp embarks on a new challenge at Anfield, with who in charge of the club from North Rhine-Westphalia? Schubert.

This season, ‘Gladbach have played primarily with a 4-4-2 formation, but the 3-4-3 has also been used on occasion in Europe when a different style of play has been needed. Both formations suit the side’s willingness to attack down the wings, as well as allowing their quick counter attacking system to flourish.

bmg 1.png

In spite of their preference to play on the break, ‘Gladbach tend to dominate the ball in most matches, averaging 55% possession this season with an 82% passing accuracy which are both the fourth highest percentages in the league.

Nobody symbolises the change in ‘Gladbach’s fortunes more than Raffael. At the beginning of the season, the Brazilian looked lethargic and unable to find that spark which had enabled him to score 27 goals and assist nine times in the previous two Bundesliga campaigns. Schubert’s appointment has breathed new life into the 30 year-old, and he has now accrued eight goals and six assists in the league to this day.  

Not only is Raffael having a positive influence on the team, but the likes of Granit Xhaka, Lars Stindl, Ibrahima Traore and Fabian Johnson have all looked revitalised under their new boss.

Xhaka, one of the most exciting talents in the Bundesliga has matured immeasurably this season, controlling the middle of the park every game with his inch perfect passing and natural strength. The all action 23 year-old is sometimes guilty of letting his discipline slide with seven yellow and two red cards to his name already, but is undoubtedly the heartbeat of the side and is often a source of perseverance even when things aren’t quite going his or the teams way.

Stindl has also been a standout performer this season, coming in on a free transfer from Hannover 96 this summer. Having adapted his game slightly to play as one of the two up front, he is almost given a free role to drift wide, drop deep and even get on the end of crosses that fly into the box. With four goals and three assists, the German has proven to be a shrewd piece of business already. Not to mention the duo out on the wings, Traore and Johnson, who regularly trouble defenders with their pace and willingness to cut inside onto their stronger foot.

Schubert has also been keen to give the younger players an opportunity to impress, and the likes of Andreas Christensen (19), Julian Korb (23) and Mahmoud Dahoud (19) have done just that. Christensen, currently on loan from Chelsea, has impressed with his ability to play out from the back in addition to his willingness to put his body on the line on any occasion, while Korb encapsulates everything that a modern full back should be with his constant rampaging up and down the right hand side.

Without a doubt, Dahoud has been the most impressive youngster of them all, taking to first team football like a duck to water. His metronomic style keeps ‘Gladbach ticking along nicely, showing an eye for goal with his excellent long range shooting and even an eye for a pass with some clever through balls into the channels. His midfield partnership with Xhaka is well-balanced, allowing them both to excel in what they are good at – providing the wide men tuck in and support them when on the back foot as they can be prone to becoming outnumbered. A habit that Schubert has drilled into his players so well.

After winning his first three games as ‘Gladbach boss Andre Schubert said, “Football’s a simple game.” Well, the 44-year-old is certainly making it look that way, and after defeating Bayern Munich 3-1 last weekend, maybe it is simple after all? After taking the helm at Gladbach in a time of turmoil, in a time of tarnish, Schubert has turned the tide, and a Gladbach side that had looked out of ideas at the start of the season are back to their effervescent best again. 

OGC Nice: Ligue 1's Great Entertainers

After getting in at 3am following a few drinks with friends, I scoffed down a terribly put together ham and cheese sandwich and noticed that BT Sport were showing highlights of Nice vs. Lyon which was played just a few hours earlier. Oblivious to the result, I sat there and watched, mesmerised by the home team and the football they were playing. It was bloodie brilliant. They were bloodie brilliant. Ergo, that night was the inspiration for this piece.

Ligue 1 has been ridiculously topsy turvy thus far. PSG, the division heavyweights sit comfortably in first, but elsewhere results continue to shock and surprise on a regular basis as we approach Gameweek 17. Minnows Caen and Angers are flying high in second and third place respectively, whilst the likes of Lille, Bordeaux and Montpellier walk the tightest of ropes above the relegation zone.

As Caen manager Patrice Garande and Angers' Stephane Moulins receive deserved praise for the incredible jobs that they are doing, I will be putting Claude Puel’s Nice under the microscope as they look to maintain their status as one of Europe’s most captivating sides. But how does a team that defined mediocrity last season, end up with a tag like that and more importantly, challenging for the Champions League?

Claude Puel has been in charge of Nice since 2012 and it has been a reign of contrasts for the 54 year-old. After finishing fourth in his first season at the club, they then avoided relegation by two points only 12 months later, before steadying the ship to finish eleventh last time out. But after such varying experiences of both the highs and the lows, the Frenchman seems to have finally cracked it.

This season, Nice have played primarily with a 4-1-2-1-2 (4-4-2 diamond) formation, but the 3-5-2 has also been used on occasion to suit different types of game and opposition. Both of these formations suit their players and team ethos down to the ground, as they can play their favoured passing style with the former, but counter attack with the latter.

Nice tend to dominate the ball in most matches, averaging 56.4% possession this season with an 83.5% passing accuracy which are the fourth and third highest percentages in the league. Not only impressive with the ball, Puel’s men are also dangerous on the counter, able to break with considerable speed and incisive passing, scoring an impressive 17 goals away from home and finding the back of the net every 4.8 shots – the best rate in the whole of Europe.

Every successful team needs a key man, and in the rejuvenated Hatem Ben Arfa, Les Aiglons have just that. The former Newcastle man has been excellent for Nice this season with seven league goals and two assists, and often thrives on the responsibility that he is given in the final third. Now 28 years of age, he has matured, kept in good physical condition and added a consistency to his game that was severely lacking in the past. But in spite of this, he is still capable of producing those magical moments.

In addition to their key man, Nice are also blessed with experienced leaders at the back who provide the sturdy spine for the rest of the team to flourish. The 33-year-old club captain Mathieu Bodmer is a perfect example of this. He is the communicator and organiser of the defence, brave in the tackle and with a mentality that makes him the perfect right hand man for Puel. His impressive defensive partnership with the robust Romain Genevois has been one of the highlights of the season for the men from the south coast.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Nice have a selection of extremely talented youngsters at their disposal. Nice have always had a good academy, having brought through the likes of Hugo Lloris, Patrice Evra, Jordan Amavi and Timothee Kolodziejczak, but now Puel is ready to bring through the next generation of stars. Their energetic defensive midfielder Alexandre Mendy is 21, whilst pass master Vincent Koziello and Mouez Hassen are both only 20 years of age. The youngest of them all, Olivier Boscagli is 18 and is regarded to be one of the brightest French talents in the game.

What other factors may have led to their success? Intelligent recruitment. Working with a relatively low transfer budget, they signed Ivorian international Jean Michael Seri from Paços de Ferreira for a measly £700k, who has brought an unrivalled energy and enthusiasm to this exciting Nice midfield. Puel & Co also dipped into Ligue 2, signing Mickael Le Bihan and Maxime Le Marchand from Le Havre for a combined £1.5m.

Les Aiglons also brought in three loanees: Wallyson from Sporting, Ricardo Pereira from Porto and Valere Germain Monaco who have contributed to six goals and seven assists between them over the course of the season.

Nobody is backing Nice for Europe, or for their challenge to crack into the top four to last. But quietly, the ambitions of the owner, the manager, the squad and the fans are fusing to create something really special. Easy on the eye, with a sprinkle of magic here, with a helping of experience there, topped by the energy and fearlessness of youth, nobody knows what Puel and his men could achieve this season - but they’ve certainly started well.