ESPN's lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae writes about an uncertain January for Borussia Monchengladbach. For years the model club on the squad-building front, are "the Foals" cantering away from what they're good at?
It was reasonable to wonder if Borussia Monchengladbach's Jan. 7 victory away to Bayern Munich might represent a much-needed Wellenbrecher (wave breaker), to use the German language's word of 2021. A relentless wave of defeats and sub-par performances had engulfed Gladbach, from a heavy 4-1 loss against Rheinderby rivals FC Cologne, to a 6-0 home trouncing by SC Freiburg. One point from five games to end the calendar year left the men from the Niederrhein region too close to the relegation zone for comfort.
Plaudits were forthcoming after the momentum-shifting win at the Allianz Arena, but remember, Gladbach always seem to reserve their best for the Rekordmeister. Indeed, they sent Bayern packing from the DFB-Pokal in October after a 5-0 hammering. Such triumphs over the best are never a guarantee of future returns for the Fohlenelf.
As I eagerly awaited the team sheets ahead of commentating for the DFL world feed on Gladbach's intriguing all-western home game against a talented but out of form Bayer Leverkusen last Saturday, one thing jumped out at me. Why was Matthias Ginter not in the starting XI? For a moment, as always in the current climate, I pondered whether Omicron was the cause but then saw Ginter's name on the list of substitutes. A quick fact check on my official statistics database confirmed that Ginter had never before been a Gladbach substitute in the league. What was going on?
That new signing from Union Berlin, Marvin Friedrich, was handed a full debut didn't come as a surprise. He had faced Leverkusen in a 2-2 draw with his former club the week before and is a hardened Bundesliga competitor and, I believe, an enrichment to the Gladbach squad.
But to leave out ''Matze'' Ginter seemed a radical step. Granted, we know his contract is up and he's leaving at the latest in the summer, yet football decision makers live in the here and now and it seemed strange to freeze out such a seasoned and able performer.
The game itself was lively and ended in a 2-1 win for Leverkusen, which in truth should have been more emphatic. Gladbach's Yann Sommer became the first keeper since 2014 to save two penalties in the same Bundesliga match. Our expected goals showed Leverkusen ought to have had more than six.
The news conference was going to be more even more interesting than usual. The excellent and always-on-the-ball Sport1 chief reporter Patrick Berger got straight in with a question to Gladbach coach Adi Hutter, asking what exactly Ginter had done wrong and how he wanted to frame the discussion from now on in the event that the Germany international remains with the club after the closing of the January transfer window.
Hutter acknowledged that Ginter had played well against Bayern but then referenced the defensive mishaps from before Christmas (17 goals allowed in four games) and said, "We made a decision to invest in the future and therefore played Marvin Friedrich in place of Matthias Ginter."
Friedrich didn't have the greatest of beginnings to his career in Monchengladbach, giving away one of the two spot kicks, although perhaps unluckily. Galling for Hutter was not just the concession of two penalties by his team but the fact that both Leverkusen goals stemmed from set plays. As the coach said, "That can't happen. On both occasions we didn't defend well."
Meanwhile, a defender with 67 caps for Germany looked on from the sidelines for 90 minutes.
Ginter and Denis Zakaria have been widely discussed this season with their contracts expiring this summer. For a long time, sporting chief Max Eberl expressed hope that the pair might be persuaded to stay on in the Niederrhein. Recently, though, he had to concede that neither would extend their deals.
Eberl is, for me, perhaps the best Bundesliga sporting director of his generation. He and his colleagues have made Gladbach competitive at the top end of the table when the financial realities don't necessarily speak for such a scenario. Eberl is of the belief that, "We always need fantasy and creative solutions to compete with those who are economically better off."
To be fair, Eberl and scouting director Steffen Korell appear to have hit the mark by signing United States defender and rising star Joe Scally from New York City FC, Luca Netz from Hertha Berlin and Kouadio Kone from Toulouse. All three youngsters, while not the finished product, already look as though they belong in the Bundesliga.
But with the more established Ginter and Zakaria, the poker game has apparently been lost. Unless something happens in the next few days, both will leave for no transfer fee.
Injuries have hampered Zakaria for some time, making transfer conditions more difficult. Gladbach would entertain offers for Ginter if they were to get a reasonable transfer fee, but Eberl said on Tuesday that there's nothing at the moment that can be described as realistic.
Eberl, who recently addressed the often-taboo subject of more outside investment as something that might have to be considered by the club, now faces pressure to do what he has demonstrably excelled at down the years, namely pull a few more rabbits out of the hat.
Gladbach's main problem is that too many players this season have performed below expectations. Certainly not the irrepressible Sommer, but just about everyone else.
Stefan Lainer has missed almost the entire campaign so far due to a broken ankle, and primary catalyst Jonas Hofmann is working his way back from a minor knee procedure. Florian Neuhaus finally is upping his game again after a move from a sitting position to a role higher up. Alassane Plea and Marcus Thuram have been huge disappointments, with the latter yet to register a goal or an assist. Christoph Kramer was on the outside looking in for a big chunk of the campaign and now is under the weather.
Hutter said in the build-up to the Wednesday Pokal tie in Hannover that Ginter's omission on Saturday didn't mean it was permanent and insisted it's not an either/or situation between him and newcomer Friedrich. ''We haven't ruled out the idea that the two of them can play together.'' And indeed they did at the Niedersachsenstadion, both playing the full 90 minutes in a lopsided 3-0 defeat.
Gladbach, throughout much of the past decade, have been substantially more than the sum of their individual parts. This season, self-inflicted wounds are threatening to trip up the Fohlenelf.