Bayern Munich

Bayern Munich v Bayer Leverkusen

29th August 2015

I allowed my excitement to be tempered by a little trepidation. Would it be all amazing football, weissbier and noise or a corporate hotbed of sponsorship and prawn sandwiches?  Bayern are caricatured a little like the Empire in Star Wars – the best weapons, cold, powerful, ruthless.  A polarising team whose superiority is often ensured by converting the most promising young Jedi from their opponents (Gotze, Lewandowski) to the Dark Side.  Buy’em Munich, the team people love to hate.  Well I don’t hate them.  They are a brilliant team supported in the stadium and in the city by a football-daft public who passionately support their club.  And for all that Dortmund are depicted as the hipster, fashionable ‘second’ club – and they are a great club – Bayern are very much the team of the people in their city.

Getting to Munich

From Brussels, Munich isn’t just ‘um die ecke.’  In order to be able to go to as many games and stadiums as possible, I need to keep the cost down and the cheapest option – by quite some distance – was the overnight MegaBus (www.megabus.com).  I was quite pleased with my 56€ return fare despite the prospect of a thirteen hour coach journey.

The first leg of the journey left me thinking “people don’t know what they’re missing.  This is the way forward.” Only about 15 people on a lovely new bus.  Perfect.  The we reached Koln, where I’m guessing the Youth Hostels were quiet.  Within two minutes the bus was full. My ‘new friend’ was a student from Bosnia. He was about the height of professional basketball player and was carrying all of his worldly possessions in bags (which he had to have around him) and he was as sweaty as ….[insert favourite sweat simile here].  He was in the mood for a chat.  I disliked him and his oversized limbs even more when he told me he paid 1 Euro for the journey.  ‘You’re good to Munchen?  Oh good, me too’ he stuttered with joy.  Then, after hours of listening to him struggle to communicate, he said ‘goodnight,’ and fell asleep.  So I had to spend the journey next to a guy who took up most of my space, was smelly, wouldn’t shut up and to top it off, got his journey cheaper than me.  Needless to say, once he fell asleep, I couldn’t.

The bus then stopped in a car park in the outskirts of Stuttgart for an hour.  A ******* hour! Some of the kids up the back of the bus (Leverkusen fans, it turned out – they were on the return journey too) decided to have some noisy drinking game in the car park.  Had it stopped at services, I could’ve had a coffee.  Anyway, once they were back on the bus, a rendition of Barbie Girl started.  After this I think I slept from about 4:30 until 5:15, then I couldn’t get back to sleep.  Big Bosnia had no such problems.  Tired, thirsty, grumpy, hungry, sore, I arrived in Munich just before 7.00 and briskly made my way out of the Bus Station towards Marienplatz.

Getting tickets for Bayern is almost impossible so, unless your lucky enough to be offered one, check via the club directly (works more than you’d think) or you can become a member and get them via the club’s second hand ticket sale or, as a last resort, go through viagogo.

Munich 

I could go on and on about how beautiful and fabulous Munich is as a city based on this being my second time in the city.  It’s beautiful, in the way that Paris, Budapest or Prague are beautiful. Loads to see and do.  I decided, after a quick McDo for hot food and drink and clean toilets at 7am, to go for a stroll around the Viktualienmarkt then take the metro up to the old Olympic Village and see the stadium.  I simply bought a day ticket (inner city is fine) and headed 15 minutes north on the train which, despite having digital screens with the latest ‘Kicker’ story, seemed to have been preserved from the 1970s. Nevertheless, this being Germany, it worked.

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View from the Metro Station

The Olympic Stadium is a unique and perhaps evocative structure.  It reminded me of so many Bayern and Germany matches of yesteryear.  I wasn’t even born when the Olympics were held here mind you.  I arrived just before 9am, when it opened.  3€ to get in which, for a geek like me, was well worth it.  I must admit that I had never remembered the seats being a sickly lime green but, that notwithstanding, this inanimate object seem soulful.  Am I getting carried away?  Behold, many photos.

Faded Glory
Faded Glory

 

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Olympic Pool Entrance
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‘Walking Pace’ is an interesting command outside a pool hanging from a roof
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View from North Entrance
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Ok, ‘third row from the front’ you say
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This just says ‘FUN’ to me.
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Safe standing in a defunct German stadium. Makes you think.
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Down for UEFA
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Who’s that down there Helmut?
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Look, there’s the rest of Michael Mols’ knee!
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Back seat casual!

After that wonderful little visit, I took the metro back to GiselaStrasse and walked down towards the Hofbrauhaus (thanks to a recommendation via Twitter), with a little detour into the Englischer Garten.  I was hot (26°C by 10.30am) and thirsty so the Brauhaus had just what I needed.  This biergarten was beautiful and filling up fast, mostly with people wearing FC Bayern strips.  While there are two teams in Munich, everyone was in red today.

Local delicacies
Local delicacies

I really enjoyed the beer but the pretzel must have contained about 100 times the recommended daily allowance for salt.  Afterwards, I went and ordered another beer out, in the sun at a nearby bar, forgetting to specify the volume.  This meant, by the time said beer was scooped, it was 6 hours before kick off and I’d had two litres of beer before lunch on virtually no sleep. I was in danger of becoming the drunkest man in Munchen since Rambo ‘when I played for Bayern Munchen’ McInally stoated around these parts.  I needed food.

My schoolboy German language skills involved the foods bratwurst, bockwurst and gartoffelen but little else.  I decided I that I wanted something traditional and rustic, yet cheap, to soak up the beer and revitalise my ailing body.  I decided to take a punt and ordered something that came with spuds and salad so I expected some uncouth lump of meat to gnaw through.  Instead, came this pickled mushroom terrine, served with mushrooms, salad and potatoes.  Not what I was expecting.  I should’ve got a burger king or a pizza. Nevertheless, I ate up my lunch like a good boy, had a coffee and made my way to the Arena.

The Allianz Arena

The stadium is easily reached by Metro line U6 towards Frottmaning, which is about 20 minutes from Marienplatz.  There is another 5 minutes or so to walk from the Metro to the perimeter of the arena.  I fattened up on a bratwurst and some coke to keep my energy levels up as I wasn’t convinced my terrine was a solid base.

The arena is a thing of beauty, especially from the oustide.  It is so sexily distinctive.  I have included a few strange shots from close up to try to improve perspective (it is never small, just sometimes far away).

Far away Dougal! From next to the metro
Far away Dougal! From next to the metro
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Denim shorts all round.
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More beer. Hmm, tempting!
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Surely beer causes fights at the football. Right? Wrong!
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Like a white tyre, or an embossed mattress protector
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3 hours before kick off
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The irrational feeling of ‘I hope this works’ as you scan your ticket
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They let us in, then told us to wait in the sun?

After trying to go in via the exit, I went through the turnstile with a crowd of people and then a steward asked us where we were going. Grumpy Wumpy made us stand outside before saying the German equivalent of ‘oh, what’s the use’ and let us go up to the bar/club shop.

The bar has a system of paying at a till then going to the bar with your receipt.  So I duly obliged, had my last real beer of the day (not a litre this time) and sat down next to a plug point and charged my phone whilst watching the Bundesliga Konferenz.  For anyone who is unfamiliar with this, instead of having Rambo McInally or Charlie Nicholas describing the goals on a Saturday afternoon, they show you them.  You start watching, for example, Koln v Hannover then, after a minute, some dude shouts “TOR auf Schalke” or whatever and they go straight to that game and show you the goal.  It’s sooo much better.  For all the money in the Premier League, you still get that medieval dross with Jeff Stelling or whoever rambling on.

After that, upon recommendation, I went into the Paulaner Fan Treff which is advertised as having “ESSEN, TRINKEN, PARTYHITS” – what’s not to like?  Inside is like a massive beer hall with bars at either end and a couple of currywurst stalls.  You charge an electronic card with credit and off you go.  I was ready to burst at his point and head a stinking headache, so I had an alcohol-free weissbier which was surprisingly good.  I watched the games unfold in here with well over 1000 others until about 5:45.  It is head and shoudlers above anything else I have seen offered elsewhere for the everyday, non-corporate fan.  Well done.

Paulaner Fan Treff
Paulaner Fan Treff

I had a highly caffeinated soft drink that doesn’t come from Austria as well before taking my seat, hoping that the combination of stimulant and football would keep me awake.

After the climb up the stairs to the third tier, the view was close to perfect.  The only thing that spoils its looks for me is the colour of the seats.  Splitting hairs I know, and I know that as the stadium is shared (although not for long if 1860 find their own place) but the grey is just dull.  It also seems that everyone smokes at their seat.  I was downwind of two cigarette smokers and Fidel Castro.

 

Unlike some other clubs I’ve visited, perhaps due to the location, I didn’t feel that people knew their neighbour.  Not just because nobody spoke to me – I wouldn’t speak to me either.  And yet, two tiers down, the fans were giving it laldy.  Was so pleased to see a proper standing area in this modern area although I do feel that, given its size, a similar arrangement behind the other goals would be optimal.

Similarly to other German clubs, the fans are well kitted out in club colours and ready for the clash.  Most of the fans took their seats about 15 minutes before kick off.  I found the balladesque anthems (especially the one in English) to be a bit slow (not comparable to Die Elf vom Niederrhein at Borussia).  They tried an anthem in English at Anderlecht and the fans snubbed it – it was too obvious and dreamt up by marketing, not a fan.  I love the trap-door tunnel – they remind me somehow of Gazzetta Italia on Channel 4 from when I was growing up.

The bit when they announce the team was like they were running through the top 20 singles – I quite enjoyed that.  I had feared that the atmosphere might be a little flat and that the stadium would be full of consumers, but Bayern fans are as authentic as the next clubs’.  And I’d best most of them do live in and around Munich.

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Trap Door Tunnel 🙂
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If they do this exercise….
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Michael Flatley taking the Leverkusen warmup
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Arturo is not happy at Douglas Costa’s pink boots
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Spot the away fans – they are there
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GeSheldon Cooper presents ‘Fun with Flags’
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Arrrrr
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Effzeh Bayern – Deutscher Meister
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C’mon, line up boys
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Exactly what formation is that, Pep?
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Far away Dougal
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Roxanne, you don’t have to …

The Match

Aww, Bayern Munich.  Everything else just seems irrelevant when you can play like they did today.  This was meant to be a really tough game.  Bayer Leverkusen just beat Lazio 3-0 during the week and are deservedly in the Champions League and should make it again this year.  They didn’t play badly either.  On another day, Hakan Calhanoglu’s free kick would’ve found its way past not-Neuer, Bellerabi would’ve beaten three players then not found Alaba ready and waiting.  Leverkusen did have the odd chance.  But Bayern’s attack is just so multi-faceted.

Wendell and Hilbert at full back must have wished they had stayed at home.  They were roasted all day long by Costa and Robben.  It was amazing to watch.  Often I watch Robben and think ‘I know exactly what he’s going to do’ but he still does it.  His control is so good.  That said he can be frustrating too.  Lewandowski made the ‘right’ runs nearly all day but Robben virtually never passed to him.  He went nuts towards the end and was clearly frustrated, despite being 3-0 up.

Bayern were supposed to be fragile and vulnerable today.  Their one fit centre back was on the bench, leaving a back 4 of three full backs and Xabi Alonso.  However, it is hard to hurt a team who always have the ball.  While Bayern no longer play the tiki-taka style, their ball retention is phenomenal.  Vidal and Thiago kept finding Costa and Robben and then panic ensued in the unconvincing Leverkusen defence.  I’m never convinced by big ‘Papa’ in the Leverkusen defence but he may have been their best defender today.

The quality of the football was so good and Costa then pulled off a rainbow flick out of nothing.  It was that kind of day and Bayern remained awesome.  While Muller’s opener from Douglas Costa’s cross was the only goal in open play, and they fought like schoolboys to take the penalty – I couldn’t believe Robben and Vidal were arguing over taking the penalty when Muller scored the one before and was on a hat-trick – the game was a complete spectacle.

While Dortmund have started the season exceptionally well, I can’t see them having much joy against Bayern playing this well.  Anyway, in other news, the toilets up in 319 aren’t the biggest and both Borussia Park and Signal Iduna accommodate more spaciously in that way.  However, you might say that doesn’t matter when you can look as sexy as this stadium does lit up like a hooker’s handbag.  Bright, brash and beautiful.

Leaving the stadium proved very straightforward.  While there are droves heading back to the metro, the parking and the bus park, I left on full time, walked, took a few photos and got straight onto the next metro.  Yes, it was a little hot and cramped but it’s only 20 minutes or so back to Marienplatz so you can’t complain.  However, Bayern do have their own ‘Subway Loyal’ – whole legions of fans leaving after 83 minutes to ‘avoid the crowd’ ending up creating a crowd of their own.  I’ve always disliked people leaving before the end and think it’s crazy, even if your team are 3 up.

 

From the centre, I strolled back to the bus station to look forward to another sleepless night cramped up next to a stranger for most of the way in sweaty jeans and underwear.  But it was worth it for every second spent in Munich, both in the city and at the Allianz Arena.  The Leverkusen fans were subdued on the bus back after the previous nights excesses: they weren’t dispirited but they were well beaten.

Rot
Rot
stadium filtered
stadium filtered
tyre fire
tyre fire
filter 1
filter 1
bye bye
bye bye
hooker red
hooker red
changing colour
changing colour
red and blue
red and blue

Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  *****
  • Stadium character: *****
  • Stadium atmosphere:  ****
  • Hospitality: *****
  • Ease of access: ****
  • Things to do around the stadium: *****
  • Overall: *****
 

Champions League Draw

Here we go again.  For the past few years, the excitement of seeing who Anderlecht would draw in the Champions League blinded me, or perhaps simply numbed the pain, of the frustratingly long draw process and how it could easily 15 minutes of compelling TV instead of hours of soul sapping corporate nonsense.  The great and the greedy appropriately congregate in Monaco, home of the obscenely rich, for their annual corporate milking of sponsors and TV.  Who pays for the TV?  Oh yeah, the common fan.

Hour upon hour of needless UEFA propaganda.  Pan to Ronaldo. Interview an ex player about his experiences. Pan to pretty lady beside Silvio Berlusconi.  Talk to some plonker from Gazprom or Heineken about their sponsorship.  Pan to Ronaldo.  Zoom in on the goldfish bowls of needlessly well-sealed spheres containing a team. But which team?  Let’s speculate and analyse combinations.  Pan to Ronaldo.  Watch Peter Schmeichel fumble some inanimate object, like a cue card, and the puppet next to him makes a joke about an uncharacteristic drop.  Guffaws all round.  Still, not a ball drawn.

Then a pretty lady – nobody can accuse UEFA of gender stereotypes – explains how the process works.  At this point every punter in Europe is screaming ‘GET ON WITH IT’ at the TV.  Then some former great footballer with a degenerative illness is wheeled out to perform parts of the draw, standing there lamenting the pointless glitz.  He just wants to go home and have a cup of tea in his armchair. Pan to Platini.  Pan to Ronaldo.  Show footage of the elderly ex-player in his prime and make some ‘pat him on the head’ insincere comment.  Pan to Ronaldo laughing.

Then cue the theme music: “lasagna” as my mother-in-law thought they were operatically lauding.  Watch the elderly ex-player – let’s call him Billy McNeill – struggle to open the plastic sphere of destiny before the compere helps him.  Then they pull out all of the first seeds.  “Ooh, Barcelona are in group C.  I wonder what that could mean?”  Then the hero of yesteryear is sent backstage to be replaced by Pavel Nedved or Fernando Hierro or the like – it won’t be Zidane; he doesn’t really meet the brief.

As the teams are drawn, anodyne pre-researched stats are trotted out about the previous exploits, the camera focuses on the representative of that club, and pans to Ronaldo.  Teams to be patronised this year will include Gent and Malmo, although in the latter case, they’ll probably talk about Zlatan more than the current crop.  Somebody identifies the big names in Pot 3 and Pot 4 and works out which will be the “Group of Death” before the studio ‘experts’ later proclaim “it’s group D – D for Death” or something similarly crap.

Then once, all the teams are drawn, surely everybody switches off and says ‘well there’s two hours of my life I wont get back.” You then say “OK, so we’ve drawn Arsenal, Dortmund and Galatasaray – that’s OK, I’ll look forward to Dortmund.”  You then watch the news program on the other channel which tells you who is in which group and then scream at the newsreader saying “I KNOW, I’VE JUST SAT THROUGH 2 HOURS OF THIS PISH” even though it’s not his or her fault.

Will I watch it this year?  What do you think?

 

Predictable Belgium

“Paradoxically, the root cause of Belgium’s predictability is also often heralded as one of the main ingredients of its success – the 4-3-3 system”

Belgium’s gradual rise as a force in International Football culminated with the country peaking at a FIFA ranking of 2. Not bad for a country with a population of ten million and teammates who don’t all speak the same language.  It’s no accident that the ascension to this lofty position has coincided with a ‘Golden Generation’ of players.  Marc Wilmots is spoiled for choice in many positions.  And yet, for all the talent on show, Belgium have become boring.

Wales showed the way in how to defend against Belgium in both qualifying matches.  It was relatively straightforward.  They simply defended deep, flooded the middle and hit on the break with the one thing Belgium couldn’t cope with: pace.

Belgium XI
Wilmots First Choice Belgium XI

Looking at Belgium’s back line, it’s not the quickest.  A dearth of talent at full back has led to centre backs playing there (usually Vertonghen and Alderweireld).  This not only leaves the team susceptible to pacy counter attacks but also limits the attacking options due to their reluctance to overlap.  I still think Kompany is one of the best defenders around and is a fabulous leader but even he isn’t as quick as he once was.  Jason Denayer is one for the future in this position but is too inexperienced at the top level to be relied upon at the moment.

The central midfield also lacks pace.  Nainggolan has shone in recent outings for Belgium meaning that he will deservedly anchor the midfield.  Then there’s Witsel, who plays a controlled, if a little one-paced passing game very well.  However, he offers very little as a goal threat.  Other previous regulars like Dembele and Defour have fallen out of favour due to poor club form.  Tielemans will play central midfield soon enough and is perhaps more direct than Witsel but, again, he remains untested internationally.  That leaves big Fellaini.  Wilmots simply can’t leave him out because Belgium look so much more dangerous when he plays and he is a goal threat. His second touch is usually a tackle and his tackling is clumsy but, as much as Wilmots would probably idealogically like to omit Fellaini and play Hazard or De Bruyne more centrally, he just can’t.

Which leads on to another issue.  De Bruyne likes to cut inside from the wing into central positions.  Hazard likes to cut inside into central positions.  All of Belgium’s creativity comes from these two cutting inside.  Which basically means, if you can stop them cutting in then you stop Belgium.  Chris Coleman worked this out.  They very seldom take on a full back and send a cross over which, when you have either Benteke or Lukaku up front, is what would hurt defences.  It would be a very bold move for Wilmots to leave either of them out if fully fit but perhaps that’s what he must do.

Belgium go through the same pattern of play time and time again. They control possession, Witsel passes sideways, someone passes to De Bruyne or Hazard and then the wait for one of them to conjure something up, which they often struggle to do because they are outnumbered.  Vertonghen and Alderweireld are not great at joining the attack but it is usually when one of them does that something happens because they give the playmakers options although their crossing – especially Alderweireld’s – isn’t the best.

Paradoxically, the root cause of Belgium’s predictability is also often heralded as one of the main ingredients of its success – the 4-3-3 system that is used and coached in Belgian youth football and is embraced almost unilaterally at club level under Belgian FA guidelines.  All kids are growing up playing in this way and many believe it has helped global development of young players in Belgium and, looking at the players who have come through in recent years, it is hard to dispute that.

However, the Red Devils are not a youth team. Wilmots needs to integrate some tactical flexibility in his lineups and keep teams guessing.  He has plenty options.  Origi, Mertens, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, or Chadli are all players who could be integrated into a different formation and all possess pace.  Wilmots needs to do something different otherwise the match against Bosnia will finish 0-0 unless a goal comes from a set piece.

It could be argued that, given the team’s excellent ranking, they must be doing something right.  However, in order to evolve into a team that looks like being a genuine contender for major tournaments, Wilmots needs to help the team evolve.  The World Cup showed that predictability is a major handicap.  Everybody knew how Spain would play and look what happened whereas nobody was ever sure how Germany or the Netherlands would line up.  Belgium had three narrow wins in an easy group, needed extra time against the USA and were impotent and lacklustre against Argentina.  Belgium must dare to better themselves and that means leaving the comfort zone of 4-3-3.

 

Dennis Praet and RSCA

I have woken up today to read speculation regarding Dennis Praet leaving Anderlecht for Wolfsburg.  While a lot of idle speculation has been bandied around, this would be the perfect move for all parties.

Why is it good for Anderlecht?

Ever since Praet started to establish himself as a regular in the RSCA starting eleven, the same question is asked: where should he play? Recent abberations in tactics and formations notwithstanding, he doesn’t have the skill set to fit in with the way the team plays.  That’s not to say I don’t think he’s a good player – he is a player with talent but Anderlecht don’t know what to do with him.  Ten million euros would cover the shortfall from missing out on the Champions League.

Praet has no real pace and seldom dribbles past people (excluding him as a winger), is not a great finisher, often chooses the wrong option (both excluding him as a genuine number 10) and has no physical presence (possibly excluding him from playing central midfield).  Yet he has been tried in all of these positions at Anderlecht without ever looking like a good fit.

Recently, Head Coach Hasi has (yes, ‘Hasi has’ as opposed to ‘Hasi hasn’t’) been playing a ridiculous narrow diamond formation with Praet at the attacking tip.  This formation has been brought about to accommodate Praet as he is a more talented player than the wingers RSCA have available.  However, in doing so, Hasi has nullified the effectiveness of others within the team.  In other words, he has compromised the balance of the team to accommodate one of his ‘stars.’  That would be excusable if the said star was performing well but he hasn’t even been average.

Why is it good for Dennis Praet?

Dennis Praet has allegedly stated publicly that he wants to leave the club.  Never a good way of endearing yourself to the loyal fans, especially through spells of poor form. The problem for him is that, based on recent form, who would want him?  During last season’s playoffs and at the start of this season, he played at number 10 with little success.  In the game last week at Oostende, nothing he tried came off (although, to be fair, he wasn’t the only one).

Moving to a club who are not the biggest club in the country (respectfully Wolfsburg, you’re not) will allow Praet to develop in more anonymity.  He looks like he is playing with the weight of the world on his shoulders.  Every missed pass, overhit cross and shanked shot seems to add to his misery.  He needs new surroundings, new teammates, a different system and a different coach.  Praet will learn from playing in a better league with more experienced and talented teammates and could flourish in a way he cannot at Anderlecht.

Even if things weren’t so gloomy for Praet at Anderlecht right now, the problem for me is that he has a coach who clearly values him but is unsure what to do with him.  If Praet can develop a little more physically (remember he has only recently turned 21) then he could be a very good central midfielder.  However, at Anderlecht, he’ll not get a game there.  Not this season anyway.  Not while Youri Tielemans is still there.  To put it simply, Tielemans is one of the most sought after midfielders in world football (football365.com rated him as the number 1 breakthrough start in Europe).  He needs a ball winner (i.e. Defour or Dendoncker) alongside him to allow him to be most effective.  So Praet can only play on the wing or at 10 where he is less effective and cannot develop as a genuine midfielder.

Why is it Good for Wolfsburg?

 There has been an awful lot of criticism of Dennis Praet given that he is the current holder of the Soulier d’Or (Belgium’s Golden Boot Player of the Year award).  Some might argue with some justification – like that guignol Stephane Pauwels – that others deserved it more.  However, during a two month spell, Praet played with confidence, scored goals and was dangerous.  That player of vision, subtle craft and passing range must still exist.

At Wolfsburg, the new coach can put his arm around him, tell him how much he values him, play him alongside an enforcer like Luis Gustavo and watch him grow.  I really don’t see him as a genuine replacement for De Bruyne as I don’t think he has the skill set for it. Somewhere, hidden amongst the angst and strain, a class footballer is waiting to burst out of Dennis Praet.

 

Borussia Monchengladbach v Mainz 05

Borussia Monchengladbach v Mainz 05

23rd August 2015

“They look after their fans here.  You feel that the club appreciates its symbiotic relationship with them and doesn’t merely milk them like consumers.”

“You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” is a funny saying.  Who or what is a gift horse?  Well, the gift horse is like the equine Santa Claus.  I don’t think it wears a red and white fluffy saddle nor is it a rotund and hirsute stallion or even more of an apologetic pony.  No, the gift horse today was a green, white and black foal and it brought the gift of a press pass into Borussia Park for the match against Mainz 05.  Thank you, gift horse.  Your support for this project is highly appreciated.  Perhaps it should be explained that Borussia are nicknamed the Foals.

Gift Horse, or Foal, with MC Borussia et al
Gift Horse, or Foal, with MC Borussia et al

Planning and Preparation

There was very little planning actually required for this match.  I printed confirmation of my offer of a ticket and parking as I wasn’t too sure how things would operate at the stadium.  Tickets can be bought from https://borussia-ticketing.de/Spieltage.aspx?spielserie=2015%2f16x  though.  The beauty of the Bundesliga, with respect to this at least, is that their central site is generally very useful and contains links to each clubs ticket sales.  A word to the wise though; the English language section of these club sites sometimes do not contain as much as the original German ones so if you are looking to buy tickets, the safest option is usually to go to the homepage in German and translate via Google Chrome.

Driving from Brussels to Monchengladbach takes about 1 hour and 40 minutes (yes, taking the car so no beer today) and is very straightforward.  My quintessentially English Sat Nav voice guided my Swedish car through the ‘less flat than you’d expect’ motorways of Belgium, the Netherlands and North-West Germany.  This meant that I would miss out on the delights of Busshelterplatz in downtown Monchengladbach but, given that next week’s travel to Bavaria will involve sampling the wares of the Artisan Brasseur (and no, that not what rustic ladies wear for chest support), that was something to be forgone for time and frugality.

Borussia Park
Borussia Park
Fancy a beverage?
Fancy a beverage?
Very nice. Do you have it in grey?
Very nice. Do you have it in grey?
Eingang Nord
Eingang Nord
I need another scarf
I need another scarf
Back of the queue
Back of the queue
Training grounds
Training grounds
Oi, Gunther, I can see the pub from 'ere
Oi, Gunther, I can see the pub from ‘ere

Borussia Park – Again

My instructions were to go to parking P1 and get my press accreditation.  I felt like less of a cowboy this time than I did in Stuttgart.  The boy at the booth wanted to see my car-parking pass and we had a circular discussion where I told him that I was to collect my pass at the car park.  To which he replied that he needed to see my pass.  Luckily, I had printed off an email from the club, which was in English, and he gave me an envelope from his booth.  I was about to go and park but he instructed me to open the envelope. Seemed bizarre, but then I saw that my parking space had been allocated in P3 which was just across the road.  The numbering system for this car park is quite special.  It starts at row 2 then goes up as you’d expect.  I had row 1 allocated to me.  So,after going the wrong way round a one-way system in the car park, I became unbaffled when I saw that row 1 was the spaces round the perimeter.  Bizarre, but eventually, more than satisfactory.

My ticket was a pass that needed a lanyard – I hadn’t foreseen this but luckily I had my work pass in the car so I attached it round my neck, with my camera, and sauntered over to the stadium feeling excited about the match.  I arrived at the stadium just after 15.30 for the 17.30 kick off but the place was buzzing.  Lots of people hanging around, meeting up for the first time at home this season, enjoying a beer and sausage in the sunshine.  A few were doing this while watching the Inglostadt v Dortmund game on the big TV outside the stadium.  Looking around reminded me just how much club merchandise people buy here and how decked out in team colours they are – it’s great to see.  And then, just as I was thinking that, I saw a queue for the club shop – not for tickets – but to go and and buy merchandise.  It must have been at least 50 metres long.

Access, all, well some, areas
Access, all, well some, areas

My ticket was for the West Stand so I walked round and bought a Bratwurst (almost obligatory) which satiated my hunger nicely.  I wasn’t really sure which entry to take.  I tried to go in with the regular fans (which I consider myself to be, it must be re-stated) but my pass wouldn’t fit in the barcode reader so the steward, who looked like he had been stirred from a daydream where he was planning his next murder, opened a gate and I slipped through.  I’m pretty sure, with hindsight, that I was actually meant to go through the swanky front doors and not the turnstiles.  I went directly to one of the many toilets down at the North-West Corner and did my business before splurging on an alcohol free beer.  I was pleased that this option existed as I seldom enjoy fizzy drink (yes, I know beer is fizzy) and it also made me feel like I was getting to have a beer at the game after all.

I walked up the stairs to an elevated and wide concourse offering a view over the training pitches and the adjacent hockey stadium(see photo above). This is a fantastic area to mill around inside the stadium before going to a seat or for meeting at half time.  Loads of space as well as food and toilet amenities.  They look after their fans here.  You feel that the club appreciates its symbiotic relationship with them and doesn’t merely milk them like consumers.

Walking along to section 22A, I was greeted by heavy doors, guarding the press seats it seemed.  My view was fantastic.  Seat with charging points – I should’ve brought my camera charger – and a stowaway desk like you find in lecture theatres (or you did in my day) as well as a flappy LAN cable for my absent laptop.  I think I appreciated the stadium more this time.  It felt like a 54000 capacity stadium and like a cauldron.  Not a poor seat or pillar in sight. I was excited.  I wouldn’t tire of coming here every other week. Monchengladbach has a large army base close to the stadium and the colour of the seats seems like an uneasy tribute to that.

Not a bad seat
Not a bad seat

I did my best to take notes and not talk to anybody.  I liked that there was an ice cream vendor selling ‘Fohleneis’ just to my left on this hot day.  It made me indulge in the reverie of a having a pie at Cappielow and trying to nibble a vent in the pastry casing so that the meaty lava inside didn’t erupt and blister the roof of your mouth.

Mainz had a small travelling support although, given that it was a later kick off on a Sunday, I could appreciate why.  Nonetheless, their loyal band of supporters did their best to be heard.  As the pre-match ritual was panning out, I remembered the love of Euro-Techno.  Should I, as a European, maybe not just call it techno?  In the run up to kick off, I noticed the brilliant PA and floodlighting system properly.  Is it wrong that I found it slightly exciting?

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What a great word for the officials – Schiedsrichter.

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There was a tension about the stadium as both of these teams were beaten the week before.  Borussia were thumped 4-0 by a rampant Dortmund whereas Mainz lost at home to newly-promoted Ingolstadt.  Borussia were favourites but you could sense the unease.  As the press area filled up, I was sure I saw a bat.  The flying type as opposed to cricket or baseball.  A bat at 17.20 in August.  I saw another shortly afterwards but it was too fast for me to follow it properly for a photo.

The Borussia warm-up seemed to involve all kinds if nonsense, including some line dancing akin to what you would see in under-12 discos.

The wind was picking up just before kick off. Would the storm predicted to arrive later that evening show up before it was forecast?  Turns out it didn’t, but the thunderous rendition of the Borussia song – which is a great tune – reminded me about why I was here again.  The flags on the Nordkurve were unfurled and we were charged and ready for the match.

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And yet, for all the raucousness, the moment of respect for a recently deceased German Football luminary was observed as dutifully as 90 minutes are at the Etihad.

The Match  

Borussia’s defence had been ripped a new one the week before in Dortmund.  What was uncertain was how much of that they could’ve prevented.  The line-up today reflected this and there were a few changes.

I was intrigued that Thorgan Hazard seemed to line up as a striker with Raffael.  They both seemed similar types of player in my head and I didn’t expect them to be particularly complementary.  Borussia dictated the tempo and Mainz were happy to let them do so. Diamonds may be the rock of Antwerp but come east and you’ll find the rock of Borussia is granite, well, Granit Xhaka.  He was their enforcer today and everything went through him.

BMG lineup
BMG lineup (Using SofaScore)
Mainz line-up
Mainz line-up (using SofaScore)
It appears, Sir, that you do give a toss
It appears, Sir, that you do give a toss
Mainz Huddle
Mainz Huddle
BMG Huddle
BMG Huddle

As time passed, Borussia’s formation evolved into a 2-4-4 when they had the ball.  Traore and Hermann were the players making things happen for Borussia.  Lars Stindl was too peripheral and doesn’t seem to have found his role in the team and Raffael kept coming too deep.  Mainz were defending resolutely on their left side as both Hermann and, after swapping wings, Traore continued to look dangerous down their opponents right flank.

The first half reminded me a little of when Pep’s Barça played Heynckes’ Bayern.  Borussia passed the ball around but couldn’t profit from possession whereas every time Mainz went upfield, they came close to scoring.  Jairo, Malli and Clemens were dangerous on the break and, in the first half, Mainz hit the post, the bar and then in the 41st minute, scored as Malli’s cross was turned in at the back post by Jairo.

Borussia’s central defence continued to look shaky for the entire match.  Their marauding full backs, especially Wendt, were often caught upfield leaving space behind for Mainz to exploit and stretching the defence.  I can see why they wanted Chancel Mbemba – he’s exactly the type of player they need.  Borussia then missed a glorious chance just before half time where Hazard shot wide when he was clean through on goal.  Hazard strikes me as a ‘nearly but not quite’ player.  While Borussia were creating chances, they missed having a forward in the box and neither Hazard nor Raffael is that type of player.  I could see that combination maybe working away from home if playing on the counter but when you dominate possession, a goalscorer is vital and Borussia left theirs on the bench.

It wasn’t long into the second half when Borussia  equalised.  Patrick Hermann, perhaps Borussia’s best player on the day, side stepped a challenge and spanked the ball across the keeper from the edge of the box.  Nicely done.  Both Raffael and Thorgan Hazard then spurned excellent chances through on goal but couldn’t find a way past Karius in the Mainz goal.

Mainz continued to focus on defending but looked like hurting Borussia every time they went up the field.  In the 79th minute, after a little head tennis, a deflected cross found Clemens at the back post.  Against the run of play but not undeserved.  Borussia threw on the subs and pressed for an equaliser but Mainz continued to look the more dangerous team and missed three fabulous chances in the last ten minutes to put the game beyond doubt.

1-0 Mainz
1-0 Mainz

Favre will be disappointed.  His team were wasteful where Mainz were clinical.  It shows how reliant their defence is on veteran Stranzl.  Borussia, however, will have better days.

On the way out I walked through a guarded door, where a man asked to see my pass, to access where I presumed were the press toilets.  It turns out I had wandered into the press zone and hospitality area.  My intrigue was being squashed by my sense of being in the wrong place and a pressing need to go to the toilet.  So, I want down the highly polished stairs, admiring the restaurants and artwork but knowing that, while that side of football has to exist, it’s not the domain of the genuine supporter.  Not seeing any toilets close by, and not wanting to wander somewhere I shouldn’t (very non-journalistic way of thinking – I’ll need to get over that) I found the front door surrounded by the Borussia Glamour Girls in their screaming green uniforms.  Once I found my way past the fog of overpriced scent, I scampered to the car park and proceeded to pee in the bushes next to my car.

It took about 30 minutes to drive the kilometre from the car park to the autobahn – no prisoners are taken here.  After pissing off most of the traffic with some lane hopping, I finally managed to put the foot down.  I was very grateful for four wheel drive and new tyres on my drive home through some of the heaviest rain I have ever seen.  Even the raging bull driving style of the Belgians was extinguished by the intensity of water and 50kmph was the driving speed from Genk to Leuven.  That said, I was home by 10 o’clock in time for a cheeky Chimay and some leftovers.

Nordkurve
Nordkurve

For me, Borussia Park is a fantastic place to watch football.  The team play the game properly, the fans are passionate and the club reciprocate by giving them everything they could want.  Plenty of noise, family friendly (which doesn’t mean dull) and, while the prawn sandwiches exist, they are discreet and can only be found by those taking a wrong turn looking for the toilets.

New Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  ****
  • Stadium character: ****
  • Stadium atmosphere:  ****1/2
  • Hospitality: *****
  • Ease of access: ****
  • Things to do around the stadium: **
  • Overall: ****1/2
 

RSCA and Anthony Vanden Borre

At a time when Anderlecht are playing the worst style of football I have seen in five years of following them, the coaching staff have decided to punish and demote a player for questioning their omniscience.

Anthony Vanden Borre has always been a controversial and sometimes divisive player.  He can be clumsy and defensively negligent. He also, however, is a player who plays with passion.  He cares.  He can make the difference in big matches and was excellent in the Champions League, particularly in combination with Najar.

I certainly don’t believe that any player is undroppable.  Vanden Borre started the season poorly and deserved to be dropped based on his form.  No complaints.  Whether that was down to his lifestyle, attitude in training, fasting, disagreements with the coaching team or just poor performances is irrelevant.

However, when one has lived the successes of a team, should they not volunteer suggestions to why it is currently failing?  Perhaps the smart-arse way it was put over has been Vanden Borre’s undoing. Nevertheless, Hasi et al really ought to see that the collectivity, leadership, fight and general competence of the team is nowhere near the level that it should be given the individuals available.  Sending a player to train with the kids for volunteering an opinion is a little militaristic and totalitarian.

Hasi’s insistence in playing a 4-4-2 with 4 central midfielders has been part of the problem.  I would add to that the new signings, Obradovic apart, all look unfit.  Only Gillet, about whom I have mixed feelings, looks genuinely match fit.  There is a malaise at Anderlecht but I genuinely doubt Vanden Borre’s centrality at the source of it.  He is an easy target given his troubles in the past.  He is also a little bit of a loose cannon or maverick on the pitch making his ‘volatility’ more plausible.  But why shouldn’t he be volatile when the coach hands a DVD to players when the coach was clearly tactically inept?

While I agree with Hermann Van Holsbeek’s assertion that ‘no player should be bigger than the club’, I would also make the point that there is a name for an institution where no decisions should be questioned: a dictatorship.  Surely given recent performances, the coaching staff should be discussing performances with senior players and seeking opinion as opposed to sending them to train with the youth team if they disagree with a point?

The players don’t play like they are happy with the Anderlecht system and unhappy players play poorly.  Take Dennis Praet. Everybody has had a pop at him recently and his performances have been poor.  But he looks like a player bereft of confidence and unsure of his role.  I can understand why he’d want to leave even though I agree his recent performances wouldn’t win him a move to White Star Bruxelles.

Anybody can make mistakes; players, coaches, journalists and even exalted board members.  However, wise people learn from their mistakes.  Einstein had a name for people who do the same thing repeatedly and expect different results.  Hasi should bear this in mind, otherwise he might end up out the door faster than the oft-maligned Vanden Borre.

 

RSC Anderlecht

RSC Anderlecht v KAA Gent

9th August 2015

Hasi is trying to accommodate all of his central midfielders in his new, narrow, computer game style formation.  However, a car with three wheels doesn’t need another exhaust pipe.

If you can imagine teaching a class of 25 students and your child is one of them.  You have to write an unbiased report, highlighting relevant strengths and areas for improvement.  You know their adorable idiosyncracies as well as their obvious flaws and cannot be blinded by emotion.   Reviewing Anderlecht v Gent at Stade Constant Vanden Stock was always going to be a tricky one.

Today was the first time that I had gone to an Anderlecht game on my own.  And in the unfamiliar environment of the South Stand upper tier.  Tickets for Anderlecht games can be tricky to get hold of. They can be purchased online for some games i.e. domestic games not against Standard or Brugge if you have a Belgian identity card( http://www.rsca.be/en/fans-ticketing/tickets-seasontickets).  There appears to be no other official way of getting your hands on a ticket other than emailing the ticket office.  For higher profile matches, such as Champions/Europa League games or Brugge/Standard, people without season tickets have to go to the ground with their ID card and buy over the counter.  It is a cumbersome process but is representative of Belgian “stamp and sign” bureaucracy.  For this game, I went to the ticket office, in person 6 days beforehand.  It’s about 45 minutes by tram and metro from my house.

Nevertheless, the club sell out most home matches and are unlikely to modernise before the relocation.  The stadium  itself has a capacity between 21000 and 28000 depending on your source, which is too small for a club like Anderlecht to progress with the supporter base that they have.

Getting There

The stadium is located in the commune of Anderlecht in Parc Astrid.  It is easy to reach by public transport by taking the Metro, line 5, to Saint Guidon/Sint Guido.  This takes around 15-20 minutes from the city centre.   Driving is a different challenge though.  Parking space is insufficient and the commune are charging ridiculously high rates on matchdays for parking in the spaces that do exist.  Some people park at nearby Westland Shopping Centre but this too has its limitations. A metro ticket is €2.10 for those without a Brussels ‘MOBIB’ card.

Brussels City Centre

As a visitor, Brussels is full of beauty and surprise juxtaposed with concrete post-WWII cuboids.  There is a lot to see and do but points of interest are best stumbled upon serendipitously.  The local government has decided to pedestrianise a street that is a bit of an eyesore in Boulevard Anspach.  There are loads of bars and cafés all over the place – St Gery and the Saint Catherine area is generally popular with the local hipsters.  Avoid those in and around the Grand Place (although this is worth seeing, especially around December) if you want something authentic.  Brussels is a city of contradictions and, while it may not be Paris, I love it.

Stade Constant Vanden Stock

Once you walk out of the Metro, you can either turn left then left again and into a square of restaurants, bars and cafés.  Alternatively, you can proceed down Rue de la Procession for about five minutes and around the stadium there are a plethora of bars and food vendors. My normal pre-match drink varies between either le Pavillon, la mi-temps and le but, with a Bratwurst from the Salmonella van.  Most people drink outside on the street – it is civilised and you can watch he world go by and the atmosphere build up.

 

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The beer (generally Jupiler) sold in these places is fine although I do suspect that anti-freeze is a key ingredient in December as it can be colder than cold.

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The stadium was completely rebuilt in 1983 and has had a few minor tweaks since then such as rail seats (safe standing) in the lower tier behind each goal.  There are two tiers all the way round with the best of the atmosphere to be found behind the goals in the North Stand (Mauves Army) and the South Stand (Purple Heart).  The standing places (if you can get one) are always reasonably priced. West and East Stand tickets can be pricey deterring the more hardcore element.

There is a small ‘stripe’ of corporate seats all the way round between tiers ans a bizarre corner of perspex and corrugated iron between the North and West stands.  The proximity to the pitch usually ensures a great atmosphere.  There are refreshment stalls both outside in the concourse and inside the stadium, although the choice in the stadium is very limited.  The toilets are always packed and, given their size, seems like a breezeblocked afterthought.  The beer is allegedly Jupiler and the quality is … variable.  2 euros for 25cl, 4 uros for 50cl and a euro deposit for the cup.  The club used to use toughened plastic glasses with pictures of the players on them but, sadly, these have been abandoned in favour of some generic catering company’s advert, meaning I always get my euro back now.

Anderlecht have been desperate to expand the stadium but the commune and some residents have complained about how large it would be meaning that the club’s income and growth is limited as long as they remain at Stade Constant Vanden Stock. Moving to the new stadium near Heysel (set to be ready for 2018) as prinicipal tenants is an opportunity that the club has to take.  It is a decision that will decimate the economy in Anderlecht though, especially those bars and cafés whose survival is dependent on the football custom.  Perhaps the commune will come to regret its shortsightedness.

The Match

There has been a buzz around Anderlecht with 4 signings in two weeks after the departures of Mbemba and Mitrovic to Newcastle. However, head coach Besnik Hasi didn’t start either Okaka or Ezekiel (Kara and Hassan not yet eligible) and persisted with the XI that won the first two games of the season.  Gent were last season’s surprise champions so it was a tasty encounter to look forward to.

It would be an over-simplification to say that Gent as a whole are better than the sum of their parts whereas Anderlecht are not performing as they could and should.  It does succintly describe where both clubs are at though.

Anderlecht started with intensity although they still lacked control and clarity of purpose.  An Idrissa Sylla headed goal after ten minutes relaxed the fans and, for the next ten to fifteen minutes, Anderlecht could have scored a couple more, with Youri Tielemans (who has been fantastic recently) missing an easy chance.  However, Gent improved as the half progressed, bringing out two amazing saves from Silvio Proto.  Anderlecht had to do something different to regain the ascendency as both Suarez and Praet looked unfit and were ineffective.  Both were a shadow of the player they can be.

Hasi is trying to accommodate all of his central midfielders in his new, narrow, computer game style formation.  However, a car with three wheels doesn’t need another exhaust pipe.  Sometimes individuals have to be sacrificed for the benefit and balance of the team.  Hein Vanhaezebrouck – the Gent coach – clearly saw this at half-time and brought on Simon, a winger, to stretch the Anderlecht defence.  His presence more than his performance created spaces in the Anderlecht defence and Depoitre’s goal was as deserved as it was accurate.  Both Suarez and Praet were substituted for Okaka and Ezekiel but this seemed like a desperate tactic and still the play was too narrow.  Anderlecht faded badly and, given the second half performance, will be glad of the point.

Besnik Hasi improved the team immeasurably 18 months ago when he replaced Van den Brom.  They played with purpose and a plan and they looked fit.  I do, however, have concerns about his tactical nous and wonder if he is the Tim Sherwood of the Belgian League.  He has been very public about his determination to persist with a formation that isn’t working.  Sylla has scored 3 goals in 3 games from crosses.  However, crosses are more effective with width and overlaps.  Defour, Tielemans and Gillet need to be less compact to give them space to play.

After the Match

All I can say is that I hope there is never a fire in this stadium.  It takes longer to get from the upper level to the exit than it does to walk from the stadium to the Metro station.  Stairways, like toilets, seem as though they were only considered at the last minute. Subsequent dispersal was, however, rather rapid.  I generally go for a small beer for the road after the match and catch the highlights on TV in one of the surrounding bars.  It beats waiting to get on the metro.  However, today the bars were quiet due to the disappointing conclusion to the match.

I’ll miss this stadium when it goes, but go it must.  I wonder if the commune of Anderlecht will charge customers of the German Supermarket that will replace Stade Constant Vanden Stock 10€ to park their cars? Thought not.

Overall Ratings: (out of 5)

  • Quality of match:  ***
  • Stadium character: ****
  • Stadium atmosphere:  *****
  • Hospitality: ***
  • Ease of access: ****
  • Things to do around the stadium: ****
  • Overall: ***1/2