Borussia Mönchengladbach have earned a well deserved reputation over the last several years for a style of play that's very well-suited for the Bundesliga -- extremely passive yet well-organized defending with a specific emphasis on counter attacks. It's a strategy which relies on strong wing play and the acumen of both Max Kruse and Raffael up top to generate the best results. However, on Sunday, they went away to fellow top-four contenders Wolfsburg and were defeated 1-0, precisely because Wolfsburg didn't let them execute their default game plan.
Recognizing the strength of 'Gladbach, Wolfsburg head coach Dieter Hecking set up a strategy that functioned by ceding midfield space and playing aggressive defense on the wings. With both Wolfsburg fullbacks aggressively approaching Andre Hahn and Patrick Hermann, the wingers were unusually silent the entire match. In particular, Hahn only registered 36 touches in 70 minutes and was the first player withdrawn by Lucien Favre. Wolfsburg had the wings controlled, and this left BMG trying to force their way into this match through the center.
In that manner this match was the Christoph Kramer show, as the young German international combined endlessly with centerback Alvaro Dominguez to try and drive 'Gladbach forward. The two players combined for over 200 touches between them as they played a swirling and rotating passing game. Despite the dominance, one has to look almost the entire way down the 'Gladbach team sheet before seeing the first attacking player with any significant contribution. There was a clear disconnect between the defensive midfield of BMG and the attacking options. While pairing Kramer with the defensively stout, yet stodgy, Harvard Nordtveit -- rather than the much more technical Granit Xhaka -- probably did BMG no favors, the disconnect was at it's core a manifestation of the struggles 'Gladbach has with possession-based soccer.
Borussia Mönchengladbach are a side that hasn't shown the ability to take the step to using possession as a viable strategy. Like Dortmund of yesteryear, 'Gladbach's reliance on the counter attack hasn't come with a corresponding ability to beat weaker sides when they cede the field to their opponents. It took Dortmund several seasons before they were able to effectively incorporate possession soccer into their counter-first approach. However, once they did, they started being a dominant force in the Bundesliga and Europe.
Between Kramer, Xhaka and the rest of their young core, 'Gladbach has the technically proficient players to take the next step. But as their performance against Wolfsburg showed, they have some growing to do before they are ready to start knocking on the door to the Champions League party.