This past Thursday, last year Bundesliga’s fourth place side Borussia Mönchengladbach received their Champions League group stage fate. Seeded in Pot 4, Gladbach were the last team in Group B to be drawn. There, they were joined by Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk.
This marked the end of Gladbach’s brief Champions League drought, last qualifying for this stage of the competition under Andre Schubert in the 2016/17 season. Gladbach’s resurgence last season under new head coach Marco Rose and the consistent words of sporting director Max Eberl reiterate this is precisely where the club’s ambitions lay. Gladbach aims to be a club consistently in the Bundesliga top four and transform themselves into a regular Champions League participant. In order for the club to continue their progress, however, this season Eberl and Rose need to place those long-term ambitions over their short-term aspirations. Gladbach should maintain playing their strongest starting eleven in the Bundesliga and play a rotated side in the Champions League.
This is undoubtedly against the intuition of all supporters, players and staff who want to challenge for a place in the knockout stages or at worse qualify for the Europa League via a third-place finish in the group. Every club wants to show what got them to this continental stage, seeing themselves as an underdog waiting to be this year’s Ajax or Atalanta. This is often the same urge that most clubs who have not been in the Champions League recently face. Gladbach should resist this urge. Meanwhile re-emphasize and commit to their long-term club goals. The simple reason is they do not have the squad depth to compete on all fronts should not risk missing out on the Champions League next season
The task of jumping from a Europa League/Champions League “yo-yo” team to a Champions League regular is arguably one of the most difficult tasks for modern clubs that are not extremely well financed. The major factor is the lack of squad depth for clubs. Each season across Europe’s top five leagues, supporters watch as club’s domestic league performance decline as a result of their midweek match workload. This leads to these “yo-yo” clubs coming and going from the Champions League’s group stages each year. RB Leipzig is the latest German side to break this barrier, showing off their squad depth by going far into the Champions League knockout stages and finishing third in the Bundesliga. This is, of course, without a doubt thanks to massive financial investment by the Red Bull corporation.
Gladbach’s Europa League campaign last season demonstrated they were not ready to handle the extra workload. They failed to get out of a group with Roma, İstanbul Başakşehir and Wolfsberger. They notably lost 0-4 at home against Wolfsberger, a match in which their unrotated starting eleven with no legs under them were dominated. Their last group stage match saw a last-minute goal result in a defeat at home against Istanbul Basaksehir. This was followed by a disappointing performance in the league three days later against Wolfsburg. The Bundesliga match their half-rotated side was not up for the task against a well-coached Wolfsburg starting eleven.
Although their Europa League campaign did not affect Bundesliga matches in the beginning, as the matches piled up, tired Gladbach legs also saw a 0-2 defeated against Union Berlin. It was clear the squad depth was not there to be fully rotated and competing on both fronts. Since then, Gladbach have lost three squad players, Raffael, Fabian Johnson and Tobias Strobl who combined for 950 minutes while adding only two players, loanees Hannes Wolf and Valentino Lazaro. Gladbach may have a few more youth players available and those who returned from loan such as Michael Lang, Jordan Beyer, Andreas Poulsen, and Rocco Reitz but the quality of their depth has not improved from last season.
One may argue though that the squad is more cohesive and have the experience of last season to better handle the load this season. But, if we look at the first two matches of the Bundesliga season already were Rose had to final solutions with injuries to Breel Embolo, Marcus Thuram, Alassane Plea and Lazaro, the team’s quality was not good enough to challenge Borussia Dortmund or win against Union Berlin, never mind challenge for a Bundesliga top four spot while trying to snatch a top two spot in the Champions League group stage.
The Champions League campaign should be an excellent opportunity for the likes of Ibrahima Traore, Louis Beyer, Mamadou Doucouré and perhaps a few other upcoming youth players training with the first team some meaningful minutes. It does not entirely have to be a complete B squad lining up against Real Madrid, however, there should be a clear starting eleven in the Champions League matches that did not play a full physically exhausting 90 minutes in the prior weekend Bundesliga match. This will allow Rose’s side to focus on maintaining their Bundesliga top four spot guaranteeing Champions League football next season. This will not only provide a consistent cash flow but become a marketable point for potential transfers that Borussia Mönchengladbach can be and are a Champions League side.
By Daniel McDermott.