Analyzing Marco Rose’s Monchengladbach: Discovery of yet another German Jewel!
Germany has managed to produce world class managers at regular intervals who then go on to dominate top-flight football and set the tactical trends for that era. While we were just beginning to feel a bit of a vacuum in the Bundesliga especially ever since the departure of Jurgen Klopp, Jupp Heycknes, Thomas Tuchel and many more over the years, the 2019–20 season has been revelation with the kind of coaches who have come to the fore. Despite Bayern’s late comeback into the title race and grabbing a significant lead over their rivals, the usual suspects have taken the fight to Bayern this year. One among them who has really caught global attention goes by the name Marco Rose, leading Borussia Monchengladbach from the front.
It has been a really special season for Die Borussen who currently stand at 56 points with 5 games still to go in the 2019–20 Bundesliga. Most football fans who haven’t followed Gladbach closely may not know that the current season could well be their best of the 2010–2020 decade. They may not win the Bundesliga title this year but there is no doubt that from being 23 points away from the 1st position and 21 points away from 2nd position last season, they are at a 4-point gap from becoming a Bundesliga runner-up this season.
This is what makes what Rose and his staff have done for Monchengladbach really special and he has put on an amazing show with a limited budget against top teams like Lucian Favre’s Dortmund, Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig and Peter Bosz’s Bayer Leverkusen.
Monchengladbach have adapted to a variety of systems during the 2019–20 campaign and they deserve special praise for this as they have managed to avoid being pigeon-holed into one single way of playing irrespective of the opponents. Rose has proven on multiple occasions that he studies his opponents thoroughly before deciding the details of his line-up.
As you can see in the picture above, Gladbach have utilized multiple formations in the Bundesliga. They started off the season with the 4–4–2 diamond which was actually a success as they were off to a flying start.
But Rose has deployed multiple formations including the back-three with Tony Jantschke or even Denis Zakaria joining Matthias Ginter and Nico Elvedi especially against the tougher opponents who played with high pressure and intensity like RB Leipzig, Bayern Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund. Since the second-half of the season, they have settled into a dynamic 4–2–3–1 which has certainly been a success especially in terms of attack as they seem to have unlocked the real potential of their attackers in this system.
Monchengladbach in Possession
Lets have a look at the major principles that Marco Rose’s men have in possession. It may sound simple and it definitely is much more than what can be put in words but let’s try and summarize what their focus is majorly on when they try to attack:
Using the 11th man, the Goalkeeper in Possession
A pretty common concept we have seen in modern football is using the goalkeeper while in possession to have an extra passing position but how well have Gladbach done it?
Yan Sommer has the 4th highest xG Build up across goalkeepers in the top five leagues. This is despite the fact that Gladbach enjoy just 51.5% of possession on an average in the Bundesliga. It is important to bring in the team’s possession here simply because the more a team has the ball, the more build-up they will make. The more build-up they make, the more chances for the goal-keeper to be part of such quality build-ups which will increase his xG Build-up number as well.
The only argument here can be the difference in number of games played by different goal-keepers owing to a variety of reasons like injuries, red card suspensions, benched by a quality back-up goal-keeper due to a rough patch of form, so on and so forth. For this purpose, let us analyse have a look at the xG Build-up per 90 instead of just the xG Build-up as it would average out the contribution towards build-up to a per match basis.
As you can see in the graphical representation, xG Build-up per 90 mins has been measured against the average possession maintained by their team in 2019–20 (league only). The graph has been divided into four quadrants to make your understanding of what does this comparison say about each goalkeeper and each team. The goalkeepers of the top five teams from Europe’s top-five leagues have been considered and this talks about how much a goal-keeper has been put to use by each team while they build attacks from one box to the other. So what are the possible interpretations from this graphic?
High Possession & High xG Build-up:
This includes pretty much all the top sides who want to dominate their opponents by keeping the ball and creating as many chances as they can. As you can see in the graphic above, some of the sides who fall under this quadrant are PSG, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Liverpool and Manchester City.
Low Possession & Low xG Build-up:
These are teams which don’t see a lot of the ball and hence there isn’t much to question as to why the goalkeepers aren’t contributing to their build-up play. 11 out of 25 teams (top-five teams from Europe’s top five leagues) fall under this quadrant.
High Possession & Low xG Build-up:
Again a unique set of teams who actually happen to dominate the ball but don’t seem to use their goal-keepers a lot while building up play from the back. Some teams which fall under this quadrant are Juventus, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund.
Low Possession & High xG Build-up:
This basically means that even when the team don’t necessarily have a lot of the ball, they make it a point to build-up play using the goal-keeper, who is part of most of their attacks build from the back. Only two goalkeepers from the top five teams of Europe’s top five leagues are part of this quadrant; Yann Sommer & Peter Gulacsi. Of course, it is true that an average possession% of 50–55 is not a team that doesn’t have the ball at all but it is also true that it is not a priority for them to keep the ball as much as possible as well. One possible reason for this could be the team’s willingness to invite pressure after winning possession in order to gain space in the final third. Again, this is no black and white rule and merely a possible inference that we can gather from the data set available to us.
To add to the evidence, Sommer also averages the 2nd highest number of touches per game amongst Bundesliga goalkeepers this season with 48 only behind Hradecky who is at 50. The Gladbach captain also stands 2nd in the most number of passes completed per game with 37, only behind Neuer who is at 39. Let us keep in mind that both Hradecky and Neuer belong to teams that tend to dominate the ball.
Numerical Superiority in First-third during Build-up
In their own half, we saw how much Gladbach use Sommer to play out from the back. Keeping the same in mind, the objective is to maintain more numbers than the opposition using the center-backs as well as the two central midfielders (which is mostly the case given they have been using 4–2–3–1 for majority of the season). A common movement you can observe in Gladbach’s build-up is how the two center-backs are joined by one of the central midfielders to create a back-three with the other central midfielder staying put in position. In other words, the 2–2 becomes 3–1 which helps in creating triangles and provides more passing options between the four players.
Matthias Ginter plays an absolutely crucial role for Gladbach while playing out from the back as the German International is currently one of the best ball-playing centre-backs in Bundesliga. Ginter stands 2nd only to David Alaba amongst centre-backs in the Bundesliga in terms of progressive distance via passes (the yards travelled by the ball towards the goal via passes) with 463 yards per game. Even in terms of progressive distance via carries, Ginter is the 3rd highest amongst all centre-backs in the Bundesliga with 206 yards per game, only behind David Alaba and Dayot Upamecano.
Central Overloading in the Final-third by the Attackers
To progress the ball from the middle-third into the final third, Rose’s men use both central and wide routes, depending on the match situation. To go central, they either play it directly to one of the four attackers: Left winger, Right winger, Number 10 or the striker, after which there is a quick combination play between them. This is made possible as one of the central midfielders drops deep to join the center-backs. Hence there is space in the central areas for the attackers to drop and receive the ball. They are also comfortable using the width provided by the full-backs who push up into space provided by the wingers who usually stay narrow. The players who are on the wings, (usually Thuram on the left and Hermann on the right) stay in the half-spaces between the opponent centre-back and full-back rather than on the touchline.
As the four attackers remain narrow and central, they tend to dominate the lion’s share of scoring as well as creating goals. Between Marcus Thuram, Alassane Plea, Patrick Herrmann, Lars Stindl and Breel Embolo, there are 38 goals and 30 assists with each of them having more than 5 goals each. Despite Thuram and Plea being the clear standouts for Gladbach, there isn’t necessarily dependence on any individual to get the goals and they remain to be one of the very teams in Europe who have 6 different players with 5 goals or more.
Rotational Movement between the Front-three
As you can see in the images above, the goals scored by the wide attackers Thuram and Herrmann are actually poacher-like goals scoring from around the 6-yard box after waiting for the chance in the penalty area. This is made possible owing to the selfless rotational movement shown by them in the final-third and it is also the reason why the goal-scoring or assisting is taken care of almost equally by different players. It is true that the four players start with fixed positions; Thuram on the left, Plea as the striker, Herrmann on the right and Embolo behind the three. However, when the ball is being progressed into the final-third with quick combinations, there is also swapping of positions with each other, making it difficult for the opponents to man-mark. This is the reason why no one individual player is always put through on goal and loaded with the responsibility of scoring.
These movements are made possible owing to the front-three’s football IQ combining with their understanding of each other in terms of when to move and where to move. Alasanne Plea is one of the very few players in Europe to have tallied double-figures in both goals and assists with 10 of each and a majority of these assists have been as a result of rotational movement.
Here is an example:
Now that we saw the major principles that Gladbach have on the attack, let us see an example of a goal that was scored showcasing all of those in their build-up:
You can see all of the principles in attack we spoke about being put to use in the clip showing the goal scored against Koln:
a) Central-Midfielder joins the two center-backs to form a back-three and plays the ball to the other central midfielder who is in position.
b) As the central midfielder in position receives the ball, Marcus Thuram maintains his narrow position and drops deeper to pull out opponent full-back.
c) Gladbach’s left-back Oscar Wendt pushes up and receives the ball and plays it into the box, where all attackers arrive.
d) Herrmann makes a striker-like run from right wing and into the box but he realizes the lack of space and plays it to Embolo, who rounds it off.
Monchengladbach in Defense:
Marco Rose’s side maintain a standard 4–4–1–1 defensive shape which is compact and more or less deeper into their own half. It is not one of those sides which will press high right from the get-go and force the opponent into taking risks and in turn winning possession back. Gladbach are comfortable without the ball and they can maintain their shape and wait for the right moment before they start pressing. They are a patient side who have pressing cues based on which their intensity in press increases.
For example, one noticeable pressing cue is how they leave the opponent’s full-backs/ wing-backs free to receive the ball from the opponent’s center-backs. Once the opponent full-back/wing-back receives the ball from the center-back and opens himself to push forward, Gladbach’s own full-back/winger charges forward to press him with the entire team shifting towards the ball side. It is simply because pressing becomes easier when you do it in the wide areas as the touchline acts as an additional defender, not allowing the attacker any space on one side.
The only disadvantage that Gladbach may have been facing with this method of defending is their lack of width in transitions. As Rose’s men press aggressively on the wide areas, the far side full-back tucks in to keep the defensive shape narrow and there are times when the back-four looks a little too narrow for their liking. It is certainly a risk if the opponent manages to overcome the press as they would just need one switch of play to quickly attack down the other wing which will be relatively free as Gladbach’s narrow shape helps them dominate the ball-side by keeping more numbers while the far side could be left to be exploited. This has happened on numerous times during the game in transitioning situations wherein Gladbach were caught off-guard and it is critical that Die Borussen keep note of it to ensure it is dealt with properly.
Here are a couple of examples from the game against Bayern and BVB which might give you a better idea of what a defense too narrow has to deal with when the opponent switches the ball to the other side:
Change in Pressing intensity
As we had seen earlier, Rose has deployed a variety of formations throughout the season which changed often depending on what kind of opponent they were up against. However, along with the formations there has also been a constant fluctuation in the amount of pressing that Gladbach choose to do.
As you can see in the graph, Monchengladbach’s PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Action) has been significantly unstable through the Bundesliga campaign this year. When we divide the 29 games into four phases of seven games each and analyze the PPDA during each of the phases, you can see a clear spike and dip from one phase to another. As you may be knowing already, lower the PPDA means higher pressing by them and hence this means that, Gladbach started off the season with a high-pressing approach, mellowed down, again went back to high-pressing and have mellowed down yet again. It is not necessarily always a conscious move and it depends on others factors like the kind of opponents you face in different periods of the season. For example, if Gladbach chose to sit back against two teams who fell in between Gameweek 8–14, then the average PPDA for that phase would take a hit. However, one inference that is safe to make from this graphic and all of the other aspects we came across is that Marco Rose believes in tactical flexibility and approaching the game as per the requirement instead of having a rigid plan ‘A’ which he won’t deviate from.
As the German Tactician is making heads turn in Europe, tempting offers are bound to come his way but there is no doubt that if he chooses to stay with Die Borussen, a proper Bundesliga title contender could be in the offing for the years to come!