Gladbach: Leaving Protectionism Behind
In: Christoph Kramer 15m (Leverkusen), Jannik Vestergaard 12.5m (Werder Bremen), Lászlo Bénes 2m (MSK Zilina), Tobias Strobl Free (Hoffenheim)
Out: Granit Xhaka, Håvard Nordveit
One Big Weakness?
Andre Schubert pushed the team out into the world with an interventionist style and cast aside Lucien Favre's possibly outdated, protectionist strategy of conceding 90% of the field to defend your own box. The results were mixed. Promising in one big way: opponents simply got around the Gladbach goal a lot less (17% reduction) despite the press not quite clicking yet (opponents still played backwards on average in own half, indicating a high degree of comfortability). There are winners and losers when you make decisions like this (even if we don't like to admit it) and it comes in the new weakness around the box.
Above 1=easier to pass against than league average on this chart.
Favre excelled at getting numerical advantages in both boxes, with ratios at Bayern levels of Gladbach players to opposition on both sides. Schubert's gamble is that pushing out defensively will eventually let Gladbach play less of a high-wire act where every shot needs to be heavily pressured and move to a model where Gladbach simply allows fewer shots.
A smaller weakness was their right side defense. 93 key passes came from that side, with just 62 from the left the most out of balance ratio in the league. Julian Korb, last years right back, has not been seen in the early going while Ibrahima Traoré slotted in at RWB for the UCL opener.
One Big Strength: The two guys up front allowed Gladbach to set up shop in their attacks and decimate xG models yet again, scoring 15 more goals than Caley's model predicted. Max Kruse left and after some jitters early on, Lars Stindl slid right in as Raffael's partner in crime in Gladbach's unique attack. Neither of the two generate a huge amount of shots (2.3 per 90) or key passes (1.9) but they work together beautifully in keeping possession in dangerous areas, allowing Gladbach to flood the zone and have the 2nd-best ratio of attackers to defenders in the box on shots in the league (Bayern slightly ahead). Of the most 50 common attacking passing combinations (30 shown below), only Stindl to Raffael and Raffael to Stindl were both in the 5 shortest on average, and the 5 closest to goal. Close together and close to the opposition a goal, a fantastic combo.
The interchangeability and unselfishness of the two led to some great results. Stindl generally played a bit behind Raffael, but would then move ahead of him after giving him the ball, leading to Raffael finding Stindl inside the box a good bit more.
Christoph Kramer: Replacing Granit Xhaka in the buildup will be Gladbach's biggest problem with the ball this season. Xhaka averaged 80 and 89 passes per game the last two seasons, way ahead of any other non-Bayern or Dortmund player. Xhaka was an extremely deep-lying player, basically functioning in between a ball-playing center back and a midfielder. His average pass started 61 yards from goal, the only other midfielder so deep-lying was Serey Die from Stuttgart (who I think was a fantastic deal for Basel and am surprised a larger team didn't move for him). This clear separation in midfield roles was apparent in his connection with Dahoud, 64% of completions from Xhaka to Dahoud were forward passes. Compare this to Weigl-Gündogan (44% forward), Kramer-Kampl (33%), and Alonso-Vidal (50%). Not sure such a staggered midfield is necessarily a bad thing but I'd expect Kramer to be further forward than Xhaka was in the buildup and for Dahoud/fullbacks to pick up some of the build-up slack instead of a 85 pass per game season from Kramer. Also I'd expect fewer suspensions. Going to leave the actual number of times Xhaka was suspended as an exercise to the reader but it felt like a good 12-15 times I'd watch Gladbach and within 5 minutes of kickoff you'd hear "Granit Xhaka out due to suspension".
Tony Jantschke: Last year was a disaster for him, as he struggled in the opening games and then went down with an injury. He is back now and looks to be an important part of what could be a back three for Gladbach. Xhaka leaving was the biggest story, but Håvard Nordveit will be a big loss also for his ability to kickstart an attack from the back. Jantschke and Nico Elvedi have both shown the passing ability that more classical defender Andreas Christensen and new signing Jannik Vestergaard might not have. Alvaro Dominguez's long-term, career-threatening back injury sadly looks like it will open up more minutes at CB, and especially if they go with 3, Jantschke might find himself back in the lineup as one of the wider CB's. He did in the first leg of the Champions League and he and Elvedi were the outlets and important (probably too important) in the buildup. Christensen-Janstche-Kramer was the main way to get the ball into midfield while Elvedi-Traoré advanced quickly down the right side.
Ibrahima Traoré-As seen above he's kind of been retrained as a wingback. I think he should have played more as a right-winger last year, will be interesting to see if he can handle right wing-back and make it his own.
Andre Hahn-Last year Gladbach spent big on Josip Drmic, a forward with awful on-the-ball skills, and it was a total disaster. Drmic was eventually loaned out and now it's hard to see him ever making a big impact. I say all that to say I sort of see Hahn as a similar player, with some important differences. Similar in that he's a pure shot-taker that doesn't interact at all with other attackers. Important differences are he actually gets shots (2.7 per 90 in-box shots compared with Drmic's career high of 2.1) and he's actually even worse than Drmic trying to pass. He's arguably the worst passer in the Bundesliga, his career 60% completion rate is paltry on a team that usually is well above 70% in the areas he is passing from. It's a risk to play him as he's so reliant on everyone else and can kill your attack when he has to help against good teams. Ideally would be used as a chasing a goal sub on a team like this because there are certainly shots there for taking if he's alongside Stindl-Raffael.
His awful passing can be seen here using passer rating, a stat that adjusts completion % for starting and ending position.
Good Season: Shot and deep completion count swings a little toward their side, high press is more disruptive and the Stindl-Raffael axis continues to tear apart opposition blocks as Gladbach hangs with Leverkusen and Dortmund for most of the season while finishing comfortably ahead of Schalke and Wolfsburg in the top 4.
Bad Season: The higher press is only sporadically effective, Xhaka and Nordveit's loss leave the team wobbly in build-up and midfield defense and expected goals finally wins out in year 5 as Gladbach sink to mid-table.