There’s an old joke in football folklore and it goes a little something like this; ‘Question: Who is the most unpopular Borussia Mönchengladbach fan? Answer: The one that goes, ‘Give me a B!” Now, there is a pivotal issue with this perceived ‘joke’, the denotation of unpopularity. Whereas once upon a time ‘Die Fohlen’ diehards chanting on the Borussia Park terraces may have considered the call for a B a nauseating trauma, the 2011/12 Bundesliga season has galvanised the supporters to the extent where they will be ecstatic hearing that brave, lone Gladbacher belt out a chorus of the chant next season, when the team will be one qualification round away from the glitz and glamour of the Champions League group stages. The past twelve months has seen the club transform their fortunes, from relegation battlers to top 4 candidates, and all with a relatively unchanged squad and a shoestring budget.
Of course, fans of ‘Die Fohlen’ (The Foals – club nickname), have not always been so trophy deprived in past eras to be totally overawed by last season’s achievements. The 1970′s saw impressive domestic dominance, winning the Bundesliga title five times between 1969 and 1977. Two UEFA Cups in 1975 and 1979 followed, as well as the bittersweet heartbreak of a European Cup final defeat in 1977 at the hands of Liverpool, nonetheless Gladbach were cemented as a force to be reckoned with across the continent. Well, at least for the decade anyway.
Looking beyond their 70′s glory and modern day followers have often become accustomed to mid table mediocrity, the dream of a good cup run from time to time, and even the odd relegation. The outlook on February 12th 2011 however was undoubtedly one of the bleakest in the club’s history in the top tier. A 3-1 capitulation at the hands of St.Pauli (who finished rock bottom in May) epitomised their hapless campaign up to that point. With only four victories by mid February and looking sure fire candidates for the Bundesliga 2, sporting director Max Eberl took drastic action, sacking manager Michael Frontzeck and bringing in Lucien Favre. Favre had experienced Bundesliga prosperity once before with Hertha Berlin, though little was expected of him beyond a respectable end to a disastrous season, and an attempt to rebuild a promising team to gain promotion back the following year.
With such little pressure on his shoulders however, Favre worked wonders, steering the relegation bound outfit to six wins and two draws from their final twelve matches, even eclipsing the eventual Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund 1-0 along the way.
Going into their relegation playoff with VfL Bochum as the form team and firm favourites, they won over two legs and achieved the incredible feat of surviving the drop, something few would have expected back in February. Favre had turned a sinking ship around and exceeded all expectations.
The 2011/12 season presented a new opportunity, a kind of rebirth, with his vision at the helm. The astonishing aspect of Favre’s vision however, was that he saw hardly any need for change.
In the summer of 2011, Mönchengladbach brought in six players to Borussia Park, costing a paltry sum of only €2 Million, the fourth lowest spending spree of the transfer period. What is even more bizarre is the fact that of the six new signings, five failed to start a single Bundesliga match all season, with a combined total of 32 appearances between them, 27 of which came from the substitute’s bench.
It’s testament to Lucien Favre’s confidence in his own ability that he showed devout faith in the band of players that united so well to avoid the drop the season prior, focusing all his efforts on retaining the core of the squad. Former Arsenal youth player Havard Nordtveit was given a more prominent role in central midfield, excelling as a defensive minded stalwart, and now shows immense promise for the future as a 21 year old.
Another young prospect, goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, sauntered up the Gladbach youth system and was installed as the number one by Favre, starting all 34 league games last season. His brave demeanour has been likened to that of his childhood hero Oliver Kahn, and at 20 years of age, he remains one of the most promising German goalkeepers of the current era, earning his first cap for Germany in late May.
One would find it difficult to omit Marco Reus and Juan Arango from the spotlight of success which they brought to Gladbach’s incredible 2011/12 season. Arango scored six goals from midfield and by the final day ranked second in the league’s assist charts, only one off Munich’s highly rated Franck Ribery. Under Favre’s guidance, Marco Reus has risen to become one of the hottest prospects in Europe let alone the Bundesliga. A total of 18 goals and 8 assists prove why, though the facts alone do not do justice to the behemoth of talent at his disposal. Combining pace with power, Reus exploits gaps in defences through his own sheer indefatigable determination, driving at players with justified confidence, and finishing them off with clinical precision. Five caps internationally, one goal and a priceless place on the Lufthansa flight to Poland and Ukraine has given the 22 year old his deserved rewards for a monumental 34 game season on his part.
One individual amongst them all deserves possibly the greatest accolade, Favre himself. The Swiss 54 year old drilled the team into a well organised unit that proved difficult to break down. His focus on conditioning and fitness, as well as moving the ball quickly and letting it do the work crafted a Bundesliga outfit which shipped a mere 24 goals, the second best in the division. Labelled ‘Borussia Barcelona’ by the German tabloids, they provided superb entertainment, with memorable victories such as a double over Bayern Munich involving an unthinkable opening day 0-1 scalp at the Allianz Arena, as well as a 3-0 master class at home to third place Schalke on February 11th, almost a year to the day of that embarrassing outing at St.Pauli.
Could this be the beginning of a new era for Gladbach, rivalling their past achievements of decades gone by? Unfortunately, probably not. With the season having only ended a few weeks ago, the club has already witnessed the departure of key players. Roman Neustädter has agreed terms with Schalke 04 after his contract ran up this summer, and Brazilian central defender Dante has joined Bayern Munich for €4.7 Million after 91 appearances spanning three seasons.
Inevitably the greatest loss to Favre’s squad is the presence of Marco Reus, who after a summer at Euro 2012 will join up with his new teammates at title holders Borussia Dortmund for €17.5 Million on a five year deal. Add to this the fixture congestion of a potential Champions League campaign, something other teams have failed to cope with previously, (Wolfsburg are only now just about getting over their Champions League hangover), and there is cause for some concern at Borussia Park.
For the time being however, Gladbach’s faithful followers must remain optimistic about the future. The tantalizing prospect of the Champions League group stages, their first European outing since 1996, will be embraced, along with the transfer funds received from the departures mentioned previously. Not only this, but a pivotal piece of the jigsaw remains at the centre of the club, Lucien Favre. His miracle man status built up during his brief tenure so far suggests he will rebuild a team fit for a flutter with Europe’s toughest opponents. Quite simply, only time will tell whether Mönchengladbach can sustain last season’s astoundingly high levels of performance, for now though, all that is left to say is, ‘Give me a B!’