Saturday 27th August 2016
Borussia Mönchengladbach v Bayer Leverkusen – Bundesliga
The first league match of the season is the most keenly anticipated moment of the year for many football fans. It is the singularity, the point at which everything is possible. The habitual grumbles of a few months ago fade into the distance to be replaced by excitement and intrigue and cold, hard realism is temporarily suspended. How will the new players (if your team has made any signings) complement the existing side? How will the team cope without their captain, seduced by the ‘new challenge’ of earning a telephone number salary in England?
If ever it was needed, this match embodied everything that’s great about the Bundesliga and reignited my love of live football. I was more intrigued than excited in advance of the match, expecting an interesting contrast of styles and formations and a few goals. Borussia Park is not a new venue for me, although I’d never been with my daughter in accompaniment, but I’ve never left thinking “that wasn’t worth the effort.” No review or write-up of the match was planned: this was simply meant to be a day out. All photographic credits go to my daughter. More pictures of the stadium and its environs can be found here.
Borussia have spruced up the area around the stadium to include a beer garden and more food and drink outlets, bringing it more in line with similarly sized grounds in Germany. This is especially welcome given the distance from central Monchengladbach to the stadium. It was a challenge for those guys who wear those denim gilets with all of the patches sewn on to keep them on with the temperatures soaring well above 30°C.
I had arrived around ninety minutes before the match, and pulled into parking P5, which I had learned from previous visits was a good compromise between distance from the motorway and the post-match march back to the car. Having been in parking P3 once before, when it had taken around an hour to get away from the stadium, I was wise to the traffic situation.
It takes around 10 minutes to stroll from the parking, past the hockey stadium, towards the Nordkurve area via a few sausage and beer stalls. A quick perusal of the club shop followed this, where we discovered that most household items can be branded and packaged as club merchandise. Sadly, the famous musical bottle openers playing ‘Die Elf vom Niederrhein’ were nowhere to be seen.
There is a cash machine around the West Stand, which is convenient as the food and drink trade seems very much a ‘cash only’ system. We decided to get a bratwurst and a drink once we were in the stadium so that we could take it to our seats in the shade. This turned out to be a schoolboy error. In the upper tier of the South-East corner of the stadium, there is one food and one drinks stall. Unsurprisingly on such a hot day, people were in need of liquid refreshments. The food area was almost empty, with staff loitering around, whereas the drinks bar had a queue of at least fifteen frustrating minutes length (queues should be measured in time, not length) from one hour before the game, throughout the game and shortly thereafter. Really somebody ought to have reassigned some of the food minions to assist the beverage buccaneers who were the personification of hot and bothered. They should consider investing in the ‘Beermaster’, which dispenses six beers at once (St Pauli Review).
So, alcohol-free Pils and cola in hand, we marched up to the oxygen-sparse seats in section 6A, above the travelling support (who were relentless in their rhythmic backing). It’s easy to forget just how good the atmosphere can be in Germany and a certain 12 year-old loved it.
When the teams were announced, I was left slightly perplexed by the Borussia selection whereas I could’ve named Leverkusen’s XI beforehand. Opinion will continue to remain divided on Andre Schubert when the bench looks stronger than the starting eleven. Add to that the omission of Hazard, who scored a hat-trick in midweek in a Champions League qualifier and a few furrowed brows were to be seen. However, as ever, if the team wins then the selection is always more justifiable.
Schubert seems to favour what I’m going to call the “3-5-2 pentagon” and, on paper, it doesn’t look like it should work. The midfield pentagon consisted of two defensive midfielders in Strobl and Kramer (who didn’t look particularly fit), two wide players in Traore and Wendt and Stindl as an attacking midfielder. Mo Dahoud hasn’t had much of a look in so far. Leverkusen look like they should play 4-2-3-1 but are shoehorning players into a 4-4-2, despite Chicarito’s injury-enforced absence.
The pre-match proceedings at Borussia are always entertaining and the scarf waving today actually had the desirable side-effect of circulating some cooler air around. The obligatory mascot – a foal – must have sweated his or her body weight into that furry suit in the relentless heat, which had led to people bringing towels to the game. This was new to me but the wisdom and foresight involved in taking this measure is undeniable.
The heat was always going to be a factor but both teams dealt with its oppressiveness fairly well. Leverkusen’s pressing high up the pitch left huge gaps in between Tah and Leno that looked ripe for exploitation with Leicester-style balls over the top. However, this isn’t really Borussia’s way although selecting Hahn to play centrally suggested that exploiting the high line with his pace was always an option.
Leverkusen strangled possession but there was a stodginess to their play. For all the pace of Bellarbi, Kampl and Volland, they couldn’t find the space to capitalise on it. Perhaps Schubert’s nous has been underestimated. For all that the home side had less of the ball, there was far more fluidity and pace about their attacks and these yielded the majority of the best chances throughout the match.
Leverkusen seemed to miss having a bona fide centre-forward like Kiessling (or even Drmic) to provide an outlet for their wingers. Volland disappointed and, with the plethora of wingers in the Leverkusen squad, he was clearly signed as a supporting striker.
I missed nearly fifteen minutes of the first half, taking my daughter to the toilet and getting us drinks. Yes, even during the match, the queues were enormous. People really do drink more when it’s hot! However, we were back in plenty of time to see Andre Hahn’s opener which, unsurprisingly, came about due to the Leverkusen high line. To be honest, it looked like he just put his head down and struck the ball and wasn’t concerned too much with placement. For Gladbach though, to go into half-time one up was a bonus given that they had spent most of the match in their own half. Döp Döp Döp…..
The second half became a feistier affair, with stray tackles flying in here and there and the “needle factor” ramped up. Gladbach and Leverkusen both had opportunities to score although the home team’s fluidity and movement remained superior. Leverkusen’s substitutes seemed to offer more of the same, with Mehmedi and Brandt unable to provide the required spark. Pohjanpalo was then thrown on for the injured Aranguiz, and two minutes later, after a frenetic scramble, the Finn equalised. It was not entirely undeserved.
With the scores level and the players tiring, surely now Schubert was going to bring on a fresh-legged attacker? The biggest surprise was that he waited another five minutes before removing the tenacious, but exhausted, Hahn for Thorgan Hazard. Within a minute, the Belgian had threaded through a perfectly weighted pass for Lars Stindl to dispatch beyond Leno. 2-1 Gladbach, the Ghostbusters Green stadium absolutely rocking. Noise levels reached a new high. Again, a through pass between the defence and keeper did Leverkusen.
Borussia then had chances to further extend their lead before suffocating the match, ensuring that they took all three points from a very tricky fixture. The quality of movement, touch and passing was, at times, outstanding. The atmosphere came and went in waves but even during its troughs, it remained miles better than anything I’ve experienced in other countries. I’ve missed the Bundesliga and a 12 year-old girl has discovered it. Good times.