Borussia Mönchengladbach is headed to Dortmund on Sunday to take on the other, bigger, more successful Borussia. But that dynamic could yet change, and soon, giving way to relationship where Gladbach becomes the next club to bring new attention to the Bundesliga.
The team they call the Foals has begun the new season with a 18-match unbeaten run across all competitions. Meanwhile, Jürgen Klopp’s beat-up crew is currently in the Bundesliga drop zone. Instead of being the an upstart ready to provide Der Klassiker’s balance, BVB looks like a team that could help extend Gladbach’s run.
But let’s not dwell on Dortmund’s dysfunction. Given its place near the top of the Bundesliga table, there are so many reasons to get excited about its opponents.
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First, and most obviously, there’s the name, a grand Germanic tongue-twister that’s a means of sabotage for English-speaking mouths. (And sounds pretty great when said correctly too.) There’s history, which will tell you Gladbach was a juggernaut in the 1970s, employing a lot of shaggy longhairs and kicking FC Bayern’s ass on the regular.
And then there’s the squad:
- Max Kruse, the camouflage Maserati-driving striker whose career had hit a dead-end until he became a fitness freak, and now he can’t stop scoring;
- Brazilian rope-a-dope specialist Raffael, who sometimes looks like he might fall asleep on the pitch only to crush opponents with a bursts of speed and lashing shots when they least expect them;
- Leverkusen loanee Christoph Kramer (aka, the guy who got knocked out in the World Cup final) – Germany’s next great central midfielder who was brazen enough to try pulling off three Zidane turns last month against Bayern;
- and captain Martin Stranzl, who prior to arriving at Gladbach was a pencil-necked geek with a butt part haircut but has transformed into a smoldering tattooed badass with one-on-one duel percentage stats that most central defenders only dream of.
(Did you notice I didn’t mention Fabian Johnson? Our Germamerican is fun, but he’s really not that crucial to the Foals.)
Fifty-seven years old, Lucien Favre is not a new name on the managerial scene. With Gladbach, however, he’s become on of the most talked about coaches outside of Europe’s top club. (Photo: ATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images)
But what’s most exciting about Gladbach is none of the above. Instead, the “can’t miss” part of Gladbach’s rise is its coach. Lucien Favre (right), the architect of the team’s highly watchable ping-pong counter attacking game, has become as renown as any member of his squad, thanks in part to a sideline demeanor more akin to a sorcerer’s insanity than a leader’s cool.
There he is, every weekend, pacing around the sideline like a panther in a tight suit; like weathered Guardiola, waiting for the right moment to cast his spell. And there he is, after every Gladbach goal, pumping his fists like a teenage Iron Maiden fan – the pan-Borussia embodiment of Klopp.
When you’re engaging in sorcery, you are in a trance. You’re detached, vacant. Your bug eyes sporadically dart around. You murmur to yourself, sometimes shout and wave your arms wildly in the direction of whatever the hell is marring your blueprint . And that’s when your craft is working. If an opposing force happens to upset your trance, you smite him, making sure he never, ever does it again. You act exactly like Lucien Favre does when he’s coaching soccer.
And the 57-year-old Swiss’ spells speak for themselves. When he took over Gladbach in 2011, the club looked destined for relegation. It had 16 points from 22 games, in which time it had allowed a neck-stabbing 56 goals. Without buying a single player (the transfer window had already shut), Favre coached the team to safety, earning 20 points from 12 matches of shut-down defending (just 9 goals allowed).
The escape act, as well as Favre’s subsequent success, has been huge for German soccer. It helped put to rest two dumb ideas – tropes that had persisted for far too long.
First, Favre exploded the myth that a team facing relegation needs a stiff, abrasive old washrag of a coach – someone who will shout the players into shape in training and tell them to “get stuck in” during games. A high-concept tactician was assumed to be a poor fit when you need immediate results. Favre proved otherwise.
Second, he killed the idea that the search for a new coach can be called completed by a trip to the “Retread Coaches” pile – a reach that undoubtedly finds whichever personally agreeable, fairly intelligent ex-player whose lack of creativity hasn’t kept him from the top of the pile. Coaches like Favre’s predecessor at Gladbach, Michael Frontzeck (or Michael Skibbe, or Thomas Doll, or Markus Babbel), used to get work in the Bundesliga. Not anymore. Now the Bundesliga thinks big: importing geniuses from abroad (Guardiola, Thomas Hjulmand of Mainz), or handing the reins to only the most promising home-grown tactics nerds (like Leverkusen’s Roger Schmidt, and Markus Gisdol of Hoffenheim). Favre helped end the era of the half-assed coach. Hallelujah.
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If that weren’t enough, Favre gets results through radical fair play. As a player, the Swiss was an elegant No. 10, but his career was derailed in 1985 when he suffered a nasty foul which left him with broken bones and torn ligaments. Just 27, Favre eventually recovered to play again, but the experience struck him as so unfair that he sued the player who had injured him (sweeper Gabet Chapuisat). He eventually won a 5,000 Swiss Franc judgment.
Now that he’s a coach, part of his basic philosophy is to rigorously discourage fouls. They’re a sign of poor positional play, Favre feels, not to mention bad sportsmanship. Last season, in a 1-0 win over Schalke, he almost got to see his fair play fantasy come to life. It was not until the 90th minute, when defender Roel Brouwers tugged on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s jersey, that Gladbach was whistled for its first foul. Since the Bundesliga began tracking totals in 1994, no team has ever fouled less in a match.
The only blot on Favre’s coaching record remains a weird one: The end of his first tenure in the Bundesliga at Hertha Berlin in the fall of 2009. Favre coached that perennially disappointing club to the verge of the Champions League the previous season, then opened the 2009-10 campaign with six losses from seven and was shown the door. He followed his dismissal with press conference in which he shared too many frank opinions about how the club should be run in the future.
That flame-out made his name mud across Europe for a year-and-a-half, a period in which one of the only coaching jobs he was considered for was D.C. United’s in the fall of 2010. The Major League Soccer club eventually hired Ben Olsen, and after a few iffy years, the club icon looks to have got the hang of it. (Olsen also spent a week this past off-season shadowing Favre at Gladbach – coincidence?)
Favre, meanwhile, had to wait a while longer to prove he was more than an oddball who gets vertigo at the top of the table (and badmouths his bosses once out the door). He’s proved all that and more at Gladbach. Right now, the team with the funny name is the most entertaining in the Bundesliga, not to mention a good bet to qualify for next season’s Champions League.