After a disappointing eighth place finish last season, Borussia Monchengladbach fans would have been hopeful that Adi Hütter, who finished fifth with Frankfurt, could turn their fortunes around and secure Champions League football for Die Borussen once again. However, Hütter’s time in charge of Gladbach has instead been categorized by calamity and desperation, with the club now firmly in the bottom half of the table. Die Fohlen have been on a particularly torrid run as of late, losing four and drawing one from their last five matches in the Bundesliga. It’s a crises no longer worth ignoring, with the club currently 14th in the table, just two points off the relegation places. So with that, we take a tactical look at everything that’s gone wrong for Adi Hütter’s Monchengladbach halfway through the 2021-22 season.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-4-2-1
While Adi Hütter has shown flexibility in formation, he has primarily relied on what he knows best – the 3-4-2-1. The formation brought him much success with Frankfurt throughout his time in charge, and Gladbach have some sort of familiarity with the formation from previous managers like Marco Rose using it as a firm Plan B. The system has a few evident benefits in allowing Ginter and Bensebaini to showcase greater attacking quality and bring the ball out from the back, in addition to getting the best out of Denis Zakaria‘s ball-winning ability in central areas. But it massively limits the desired verticality in the team, with a trio of attacking talent combining rather than the quartet seen in a 4-2-3-1. Last season, we talked at length about how Arteta’s smart switch from a 3-4-2-1 to a 4-2-3-1 allowed the team massive benefits in transition, through the clear emphasis of the number ten as a key cog in both attack and defense. The 3-4-2-1 can create a 3-2-5 in attack when done well, as seen by Tuchel’s Chelsea. But Gladbach’s attacks often rely on counter-attacking and dribbling power, rather than long spells of possession and switching play. This means that by the time the wing-backs are able to join the attack, Gladbach have already lost the ball. They’re then forced to back-peddle into a defensive stance, where Die Fohlen can be caught in transition.Embed from Getty Images
This is particularly problematic in a 3-4-2-1 formation, which is supposed to emphasize things like width, crossing and switching play. Instead, Gladbach have the most vertical attack in the league (31% of attacks through central channels), and the lowest crossing numbers in the league (14 per game). They emphasize the dribbling and running power of select forwards to break free of the opposition in transition, without any other clear method of scoring goals. As we already alluded to, they’re not that effective in creating goals from their counter attacks, and at best are only able to draw fouls (Gladbach are the most fouled team in the league, at 13.6 fouls won per game). This then helps to create one of the most ineffective attacking structures in the league, where they can’t even recover upon losses of possession to properly defend the wide areas. This style of play would simply be better suited to something of a 3-1-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, which allows for greater numbers in central areas (see Nagelsmann’s Leipzig for example). The team could then emphasize centrality with the proper numbers in place, and accommodate for greater stability in transition.
The other main problem with the Austrian’s implementation of the 3-4-2-1? They simply don’t have wing-backs with enough experience (or quality) to properly challenge for a top four finish. American Joe Scally has done well in his first Bundesliga campaign, but it is after all, his first season in the Bundesliga, as an 18-year-old with zero professional experience in his home country (minus one stale substitute experience in 2020). On the other side, Hütter’s relied on another 18-year-old, German defender Luca Netz. This showcases a real stubbornness from the Austrian in persisting with a system that he likes, without having any players in arguably the most important position to that system. Think of the best 3-4-2-1 systems of all time, say Conte’s Chelsea for example, and the massive importance of the wing-backs. Monchengladbach have the importance, without the talent. This has helped to produce an unredeemable amount of goals conceded from attacks that start out wide, where their centre-backs struggle to properly challenge in the air due to their lack of imposing height and strength.
PLAN B – 4-2-3-1
With a lack of success in the side’s 3-4-2-1 formation, it’s no surprise that Hütter has continued his exploration of other possible formational fits. He’s used the 4-2-3-1 to almost the same amount this season, picking up from where Marco Rose left off last year. While the formation does more to prioritize Gladbach’s verticality and quick attacking transitions, it also limits them in the way they use the formation to press. Hütter’s men have more success pressing in a 3-4-3, due to the way it naturally shuts down wide areas. They can then adapt the shape to look more like a 3-4-1-2 (as seen successfully with Streich’s Freiburg), when wanting to stop an opposition number six from dictating the tempo. In the 4-2-3-1, Borussia Monchengladbach go against the grain of what would be expected of their shape. Arsenal for example press diligently in a 4-2-3-1, adopting various 4-4-2 and 4-4-1-1 shapes depending on the positioning of the ball and the key players needing to be stopped. Usually it’s an attacking midfielder stepping up to join the striker, as the wingers tuck in and angle the opposition out wide. Michael Carrick’s brief stint with United for example was characterized by smart angling of the opposition in a 4-4-2 press, whereby the wingers would allow passes to be played into fullbacks and then diligently ramp up their intensity to stop further penetration. Gladbach, quite horribly, leave their wide areas more exposed, with one of the wingers often joining the striker in pressing from the front against opposition centre-backs. This presents a lopsided 4-2-2-2 shape, where one opposition fullback can always be found. Gladbach’s fullbacks will then be forced to respond and quickly compensate, leaving another player in behind that they otherwise should be tracking. The culprit for this odd tactic appears to be a diligent ball-oriented press, whereby the player closest to the ball is always responsible for providing a burst of pressure. While a man to man press (e.g. Bielsa’s Leeds) has its own limitations, it simply would not allow for this kind of failure in team shape.
Further down the pitch, the 4-2-3-1 is also limited in its ability to cover for the lack of pace at the back. None of Gladbach’s defenders are particularly quick, nor strong in the air. They’re decent ball-playing centre-backs who help the team recycle possession, but other than Ginter, they don’t defend all that brilliantly. A third defender in the team affords a bit more wiggle room for a slow defense, particularly for a team so weak when it comes to winning 1v1 duels out wide. This makes Gladbach slow in defensive transitions of their own, where they often struggle to adapt to a rampaging unit of five players sprinting down their throats. Only Denis Zakaria has hit a top speed above 35 kilometres per hour this season, making him the only Gladbach man to be ranked within the top sixty-five fastest players in the league. So while Borussia Monchengladbach can come up with some pretty play in attack and pass the ball around nicely on occasion, they don’t have much defensive gusto and steel, lack the necessary experience out wide, and the necessary speed from the experience they actually have at the back. This has helped to form the third worst defense in the league, with 32 goals conceded in 17 matches.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Adi Hütter’s time in charge of Borussia Monchengbladbach has been characterized by instability and inefficiency, with the club failing to find their feet in either of their favoured formations this season. They’ve deployed a 3-4-2-1 without the tactics and personnel required of such a system, whilst failing to do any better in a 4-2-3-1 under an odd ball-oriented press that takes players out of position. For now, the Gladbach sporting directors have been incredibly patient, praying that the Austrian manager will turn their fortunes around soon. But should Gladbach lose their first set of fixtures after the Christmas break, it may be time for Adi Hütter to hang up his hat, and find a new club to manage in the Bundesliga.
So there it is! A tactical breakdown of what’s gone wrong for Adi Hütter’s Borussia Monchengladbach, after securing so much success with Eintracht Frankfurt. Be sure to check out more of our Bundesliga analyses, including our insights into the tactical lives of Marco Rose at Dortmund, and Julian Nagelsmann at Bayern Munich this season. Thanks for reading and see you soon.
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