Borussia Mönchengladbach have been the success story so far from this year’s Bundesliga. Yet this weekend Freiburg knew that a win would incredibly bring themselves level on points with them. That is not a sentence anyone expected three months ago, yet here we are.
Unfortunately for Christian Streich and Freiburg, this was not to be the case as Borussia dominated in a convincing 4-2 win, which frankly could well, and possibly should have, been a bigger deficit. Following this win, Borussia reign top of the Bundesliga, now six points ahead of Freiburg.
The home side lined up in a 4-1-4-1 with Denis Zakaria sitting behind Florian Neuhaus and László Bénes in the centre of midfield. Patrick Herrmann and Marcus Thuram played on either wing with Breel Embolo playing up front on his own.
Streich’s Freiburg lined up in a 3-4-3, with Jannik Haberer beginning as a centre-forward, however, in the second half Streich changed the formation to a 4-4-2 and Haberer dropped into right-midfield. Robin Koch was once more played in centre-midfield with Nico Schlotterbeck and Manuel Gulde joining Dominique Heintz in defence.
Mönchengladbach pressed high throughout the game and were successful in winning the ball back in higher areas. Over the course of the match, they made an excellent 28 recoveries in Freiburg’s half, 11 more than their opponent managed.
They worked in tandem with intensity for the majority of the game, with any backwards pass, or a short pass out from the keeper, a trigger to press Freiburg’s backline and put them under pressure. To Freiburg’s credit, they remained committed to looking to play out, but struggled with the organization and pace of Borussia’s press and frequently played the ball straight out into touch.
Marco Rose’s side came forward together and in the image above as Thuram presses the ball-carrier, Rami Bensebaini moves forward in support. However, throughout the central areas are protected, and Freiburg are forced to play down the line.
When Freiburg did attempt to play through the middle, Borussia condensed their shape and remained incredibly compact. They swarmed the ball in central areas and were quickly able to turn these recoveries into goalscoring opportunities.
It was their high press that sealed victory with their fourth goal, and Embolo’s second of the game coming from winning the ball back in a central area.
How Borussia used their width to break down Freiburg
Borussia’s ability on the wings has been well-documented as it was Thuram who was a constant problem for Freiburg, repeatedly isolating Gulde. Thuram had a frankly outstanding evening statistically. 80% of his shots were on target, with the only one missing the target hitting the upright. He completed five of his eight attempted dribbles, had eight touches in the box – more than any other player – and got on the scoresheet as well.
Borussia were ruthless in creating numerical overloads in wide areas to help progress the ball, with the image below showing five players operating within 20 yards of one another. They were frequently able to get the ball in advanced positions to either their wingers or full-backs, as they looked to get past Freiburg’s robust defensive shape.
Borussia had four times as many positional attacks from the left-side than they did the right. It was Thuram’s frequent success on the wings which allowed Borussia to start finding space in central areas. The image below highlights how successful Borussia’s attacks from both the left-side and centre were, in comparison with the right-side. Borussia were able to use their talented wingers and full-backs penetrate Freiburg in more central areas in a couple of ways.
Rose likes his full-backs and wingers to avoid playing in the same vertical lines as, other than creating space on the wings, it allows different passing lanes to be opened and as in the case below means his wingers are able to drop deep into the half-spaces, receive the ball under less pressure, and run at defenders.
The example below shows this happening from the opposite flank, with Stefan Lainer further wide than Hermann, Lainer creates space for Hermann to receive directly from Tony Jantschke. In doing so he is able to play a quick one-two around the corner with Embolo and be played into the space behind Schlotterbeck who has followed him into the deeper area.
Freiburg were cautious to allow themselves to be pulled wide too easily and remained committed to protecting the central areas. Although they consistently pressed high themselves, they worked hard to drop deep as a unit, and were Mönchengladbach to have possession in a more advanced area, they sat deep and played with 11 men behind the ball in a low block.
To progress the ball successfully, Borussia resulted to stretching the pitch wide, and this started with goalkeeper Yann Sommer. In the analysis below we can see Sommer in possession of the ball with his two centre-backs split wide, and his full-backs likewise. In between, we see their two staggered central-midfielders who are also an option for Sommer should his centre-backs split create enough space to play them in.
It was Borussia’s success in getting behind Freiburg from wide areas which forced Freiburg to begin to allow space in central areas. They were able to mix up the direction of the build-up play and look for quick balls inside into the now less crowded central area.
Freiburg’s stunted attack
Freiburg struggled to get behind Borussia’s defence throughout, with both of their goals coming from free-kicks that were won from the ill-discipline of Borussia’s defence.
However, for the majority of the game, it was a case of Borussia being difficult to break down and preventing Freiburg from finding any space centrally to play through. Much of what Freiburg did in the attacking third came from looking to cross, with 76% of their positional attacks coming from the flanks. They attempted 18 crosses, yet completed just five. What was interesting is that 13 of these crosses were high crosses, with just three low, whilst two were blocked. Low crosses are usually from a winger getting past a full-back and cutting the ball back and with only three low crosses attempted this supports the statement that they struggled to get behind Borussia’s defence.
They also weren’t successful at hitting dangerous areas with crosses, with not a single successful cross in an area particularly close to the centre of the second six-yard box.
Even were they to win a header from a high cross, they were from areas that, had the header been on target, were unlikely to cause Sommer too many problems.
From looking at the image below we are able to see that the spread of attacks per minute was pretty equal, but with the score finishing as it did, and with Borussia’s xG of 4.68 dwarfing Freiburg’s own 1.15, it shows a complete chasm in the difference in quality of attacks and chances created. Freiburg managed just a quarter of their shots on target, whereas the home side managed to hit the target with over half of theirs.
It was undoubtedly Freiburg’s failure to penetrate Borussia’s box that led to this difference. Freiburg were more than capable of working the ball into the final third, managing to do so 36 times, two more than Borussia. However, they only managed to pass the ball into the box seven times from 19 attempts, giving them a poor 37% completion from this type of pass.
In contrast, Borussia, had a 68% completion, a near-identical amount to their passes into the final third itself. It is clear from looking at these statistics, why Freiburg struggled to get good quality chances, despite having a near equal share of possession with the hosts.
Too often there were nice ideas from Freiburg but little conviction in carrying them out whether that was due to a lack of quality in the final third or not committing enough forward. For example, players sought to draw Borussia’s defenders out of position by moving into the half-spaces but there was no immediate reaction from players to support by penetrating the vacant spaces in the final third and thus many of their attacks felt blunt throughout.
In the above image, they do exactly this by creating space and playing into the half-space. However, once the forward is in possession, no one fills the area nor makes a run to support him, and their attack is thwarted easily.
At half-time, the score sat at 1-1 and with just 20 minutes left to go it was only 3-2 to the hosts. However, the scoreline in these moments in the game belied the dominance shown by Rose’s side.
Borussia were patient in their approach and created chance after chance. On top of their four goals, they managed to hit the woodwork, miss a penalty and have a goal disallowed upon review from VAR for the most marginal of offsides.
Freiburg have been a difficult side to break down this year. Despite this scoreline, they still have one of the best defences in the league and have picked up points against top sides this year so far with wins over Leipzig and Frankfurt, and draws with Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund. With such a stellar record this year, for Borussia Mönchengladbach to take all three points in such a fashion as they did sends a clear message to the rest of the league that Borussia are the team to beat this season.
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