It is perhaps the season of the Borussia, because while the Dortmund variety leads the charge, they don’t need to look too far back down the Bundesliga table to see their namesakes from Mönchengladbach.
Not since they finished third under current Dortmund coach Favre in 2014/15 and Andre Schubert took them to fourth the following season have the Foals looked in such thoroughbred form.
Two ninth-placed finishes in the last two campaigns with Dieter Hecking in charge suggested the club’s wait-and-see policy over offering their boss a contract extension beyond the 2018/19 campaign was warranted. Right now though, they must be loving what they’re seeing and will surely want more.
Watch: Mönchengladbach glad to be back in Munich
So where have the ‘other’ Borussia got it right too this season?
You could partly sum it up in two words, the first of them being ‘Alassane’. The arrival of the French forward from Nice in the summer looked a decent buy with Plea a consistent if not spectacular performer in Ligue 1 and — at 25 — ripe for a first experience abroad.
The result has surely exceeded everyone’s expectations. Five goals, including an eye-catching, game-defining strike in the win at Bayern Munich on Matchday 7, have come in his first seven matches. “He has what it takes to become Gladbach’s outstanding goalscorer,” reckons Thorgan Hazard, who has seen the Frenchman take on the weighty goalscoring burden that has been his in recent campaigns.
The Foals, though, are anything but a one-trick pony.
While Plea’s goals have been fundamental in Gladbach easing into third place in the early running, his versatility and willingness to sacrifice personal glory for the team is another. “I am a forward who always wants to play with others,” he explained, and proved it when he was shifted to the left flank to make way for Lars Stindl’s surprise return at Bayern.
The move was a Hecking masterstroke as Plea, who had toiled without complaint in the sizeable shadow of Mario Balotelli in the previous two seasons at Nice, again showed an admirable work ethic in linking up with left-back Oscar Wendt to tag-team Arjen Robben as well as managing to find time to do his day job in the Bayern final third.
“He’s not only a good goalscorer, but he really works hard for the team,” explained Gladbach’s Switzerland international midfielder Denis Zakaria. “His defensive contribution in Munich was excellent. Every time we lost the ball, he sprinted back to win it back as quickly as possible.
That selflessness runs throughout the side, and allows Hecking to employ a 4-3-3 formation that has, barring the Matchday 4 defeat at Hertha Berlin, proven a desperately tough nut to crack. Just ask Niko Kovac. “Gladbach did really well,” said the dejected Bayern boss. “It wasn’t easy for us to come through the midfield.”
While Matthias Ginter has been a success in slotting into the centre-back role vacated by Jannik Vestergaard, and Yann Sommer has been solidity personified, the midfield has been just as important — and maybe even more so — than the contribution of Plea, Hazard & Co. further up the pitch.
With the team on the front foot, the two number eights — namely Jonas Hofmann and summer arrival Florian Neuhaus — have had a lot of work to do in helping out either Tobias Strobl or Christoph Kramer, the defensive midfielder in front of the back four. And they have done their jobs quite brilliantly.
Both have been metronomically industrious, linking defence with attack, and weighing in with three assists each in addition to Hofmann’s strike in the opening day win over Leverkusen that set the tone for the team’s flying start.
“You can interpret it more defensively,” explained Hecking of his 4-3-3 system. “But we decided to go for the attacking variation, because we have the players who can get forward from the number eight position. Like that, we have one more attacker on the pitch.”
Only the two teams above them in the league table, Dortmund and RB Leipzig, have scored more goals, while the attack-minded tweak Hecking has made has not come at a major cost at the back with just five teams shipping fewer goals.
“It’s our discipline that distinguishes us this year. We don’t want to leave anything to chance,” said Zakaria, whose analysis is borne out by the aftermath of the Bayern win. With Oktoberfest in full swing to the south of Munich, a short hop across the Bavarian city would surely have been the ideal way to celebrate taking a major scalp.
The following day, Stindl did post a picture of himself and some lederhosen-clad teammates toasting the three points at the world-famous beer festival. What the Germany international striker did not mention was that that morning they had all been to training. In Mönchengladbach. And then taken a plane back to Munich.
Talent plus the right attitude can take teams a long way, and given they have strength in depth following the arrival of the likes of Michael Lang last summer and the happy emergence of youngsters like Jordan Beyer, Hecking’s only real problem looks like being a luxury one: where on Earth will he fit Raffael in when the Brazilian shakes off the calf injury that has bedevilled his start to the season?
“We have a good group with great potential. The squad has strength in depth and we undoubtedly have the qualities to qualify for Europe next season,” said Plea. “We play good football and everyone enjoys themselves. Our coach has a lot of experience. The battle for the European places will be tight, but we have a chance, especially as not playing in Europe this season could be favourable for us.”
If you and your teammates keep going like this Alassane, it’s a battle you have a very good chance of winning.