The German Football Weekly: Issue #11
How Manu Koné has risen to prominence amidst Florian Neuhaus' demise, & a brief preview of the top-of-the-table clash between FC Bayern & SC Freiburg
Before we get into today’s newsletter let’s talk a bit about my friend, the @EuroExpert_. Remember him, The guy who was one of the first to uncover the extraordinary talents of Moussa Niakhaté & Karim Adeyemi? Well he runs his own newsletter!
In “His European Games You Can Watch This Weekend”, Alex Barker does precisely as the title entails, previewing a handful of matches around the continent every Friday. From a floodlit Belgian thriller, to a tasty Sunday night classic in Ligue 1, Alex goes in-depth into why you should watch the matchup, and what are some of the key tactical themes, and players to look out for!
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A Tale of Two Fates in the Borussen's Midfield
How Manu Koné has risen to prominence amidst Florian Neuhaus' demise
We’re 11 Issues deep into this season’s German Football Newsletter, and I’ve yet to feature my club, Borussia Mönchengladbach. Adi Hütter, like most of the managers who entered the merry-go-round this summer, has found it far from easy in his transition to the Borussia-Park.
A staggering victory over Bayern and spoiling Marco Rose's return has earned him praise from the fanbase, but numerous injury problems, constant slip ups against inferior opposition, and a hammering in the Rheinland derby has created a scenario in which die Borussen have never truly come into a run of form.
Nevertheless, we are beginning to see Hütter's blueprint for success take fruition since the victory over BVB at the end of September. The Gladbach of recent weeks has played with considerably more forward intent than the final weeks of Rose's tenure, with Hütter demanding deep runs in possession, and implementing a far more aggressive press.
Though there are multiple factors ranging from a change in tactical setup, Breel Embolo's return from injury, and Hütter's transition to the 3-4-2-1, one of the biggest factors in Gladbach's ascent up the table has been a bold personnel decision: dropping Florian Neuhaus for Manu Koné.
Neuhaus, a 24-year old German international who has amassed over 100 Bundesliga starts in green & white, has been relegated to the bench under Hütter. After a summer in which he was called up to Jogi Löw’s Euro 2020 squad, and was linked to the likes of Liverpool, Bayern, and Real Madrid, Germany's slight midfield technician has now watched on from the sidelines as Gladbach have recovered their form without his intervention.
So, how has a player who less than 6 months ago was enchanting the Bundesliga with MOTM displays now featured a combined 70 minutes in Gladbach’s last 5 Bundesliga fixtures?
Well, the best place to start is in the WWK-Arena, a matchday 5 encounter against FC Augsburg, and the last time Flo Neuhaus was pictured in the starting XI.
Up to that point Gladbach had had a disappointing, but not dreadful, start to the season. A win in the cup and point against Bayern saw widespread optimism in the early weeks of August, however an injury crisis and two consecutive defeats saw fans sinking back into the depression residing over the club since Marco Rose announced his departure.
Augsburg then proved a tipping point, pushing the majority of the fanbase over the edge with a drab performance and a 1:0 defeat to match. Tepid and unimaginative was the best way to describe the 90 minutes, with Gladbach holding 72% of the possession, but failing to register a single shot on target.
Though Neuhaus was far from the only offender, his insistence on providing safety, rather than incision, meant Hütter was placed in a difficult position when assessing his options the following week.
(above) A clip which personified Neuhaus and Gladbach’s performance on MD5. Rather than drive into the space with conviction, Neuhaus moves away from goal and plays a loose ball to allow Augsburg to counter.
Ultimately Hütter went for four changes to the side which would face Borussia Dortmund the following weekend. The 4-2-3-1 was replaced with Hütter’s tried and trusted 3-4-2-1, whilst Manu Koné was given his debut in central midfield.
Koné, A French youth international who rose to prominence in Toulouse, was signed the previous January in a deal worth €9.00m. The central midfielder had played a key role in Le Téfécé’s impressive Ligue II campaign, but it was still an extremely bold decision to replace a player with more than 100 Bundesliga appearances for one who had just recovered from a knee injury and was yet to make his competitive debut.
Any signs of a lack of first team exposure weren’t to be seen though, with Koné taking the game by its horns and commanding the action from central midfield. In just 73 minutes on the pitch Koné completed 35 of 40 passes, made the most dribbles of any player, and won as many tackles as all 3 of Dortmund’s midfielders combined.
Alongside Denis Zakaria, Koné was forming a formidable physical duo, not just taking 3 points off of Rose's BVB, but also providing the backbone for a historic Pokal triumph over Bayern midweek.
So what is it about Manu Koné which has made him such an irreplaceable figure in Gladbach’s revival? Well, to understand that we must first learn a bit about the man in charge: Adi Hütter.
In just 3 seasons, Adi Hütter revolutionized the football being played at Eintracht Frankfurt, taking a side reliant on individual genius and defensive solidity to one which could play dazzling counter attacking football and make it all the way to a Europa League semi-final.
One of the key factors in Hütter’s success was the focus on carrying possession forward.
In Filip Kostic they had a wingback who was amongst the top 3 in the league for carries, but even the central players like Djibril Sow, and Daichi Kamada would be routinely asked to bridge opposition gaps with surging runs from a midfield. This enabled Frankfurt to soak up pressure against stronger opponents and break in transition, or force deep blocks into action as the ball carrier approached a shooting position.
Though Hütter has looked to develop his game plan around the new personnel at Gladbach, retaining this ground principle has been key in developing a promising midfield around Koné and Zakaria.
A typical clip highlighting the football Hütter instated during his tenure at Frankfurt. Evan N’Dicka wins possession deep in his own half. Rather than look for a simple option, he drives into the space available and is able to make it deep into the Schalke halve before coming under any opposition pressure. 2 passes later the ball is in the net.
With the 4th most dribbles (per 90) of any central midfielder in the Bundesliga, and a success rate of 90% (the third highest of any player with more than 8 dribbles), Koné is precisely the progressive midfielder sought after in Hütter's game model.
The Frenchman plays with a street-like freedom and youthful nonchalance. Koné is applying the creative injections which so often go lost in a German midfielder, molded in youth academies where tactical instruction has the tendency to beat creative instincts out of young players.
His best qualities undoubtedly come in possession, but Gladbach’s #17 has also shown a willingness and bite in his workrate against the ball. The Frenchman is leading the entire Borussia squad with 6.75 tackles + interceptions per 90, and is only bettered by 3 other midfielders in the entire Bundesliga.
So, whilst Neuhaus remains the most adept progressive passer in the Gladbach squad, in order for Hütter to apply his transitional style and quick attacking sequences he needs individuals like Koné and Zakaria to build the base of his midfield. The calm Neuhaus exudes in possession will remain important for Gladbach this season, but it’s the youthful flair and driven persistence of Koné which has gotten Die Fohlen out of their early season rut.
Has Manu Koné been the signing of the season? Or is another Bundesliga rookie taking your pick? Let me know on twitter using #BUNDESLETTER.
GAME OF THE WEEK:
Saturday 15:30 (CEST): FC Bayern v SC Freiburg
Though we are less than a third of the way through the season, Sport-Club Freiburg are quietly materializing as outside shouts to end the monopoly on the Champions League places.
Christian Streich’s side have been near impeccable this season, sitting third in the table, 3 points behind their upcoming rivals, and boasting the league’s best defense (7 goals conceded in 10 games). In fact, this modest club from the Black Forest are one of 4 teams still unbeaten across Europe's top five leagues - a list that includes such illustrious names as Liverpool, AC Milan, and Napoli.
Freiburg have risen to such prominent heights through a stellar defensive structure rather than devastating attacking football. Whilst Bayern have scored twice as many goals as Freiburg, Streich’s side have kept a league-high 4 cleansheets, and conceded less than half as many goals as both Borussia Dortmund (15) and Bayer Leverkusen (16).
This resolute defensive structure will be put to the test on Saturday though.
As we saw in Bayern’s 5:0 victory at the Bay-Arena 19 days ago, Der Rekordmeister has a tendency to turn it on against high-flying opponents. Nor are grand victories the exception this season, with Nagelsmann’s side scoring 3 or more goals in all 14 of their wins this season.
Thus, it will be at the back where Freiburg will look to exploit their opponent's weaknesses, seeking out a first ever victory at the Allianz-Arena in the club's 22nd attempt.
The 5:0 defeat to Gladbach could be written off as a 1 in a million ordeal, but even the two most recent 5:2 victories over Union Berlin and SL Benfica showed FCB’s defensive susceptibility against efficient opposition.
In total Bayern conceded 29 shots across their past 3 matches, an average of 9.6 shots per 90. In their previous 14 matches which included trips to Barcelona, Leipzig, Leverkusen, Gladbach, and Dortmund? 107 shots and an average of just 7.6 shots conceded per 90.
Perhaps it is Dayot Upamecano’s inexperience, or a slight dip in form from Manuel Neuer, but if Freiburg can retain their defensive record against this potent Bayern attack, then Streich’s side will have more than enough opportunities going forward to extend their unbeaten streak.
2. Bundesliga GOTW: Saturday 13:30 (CEST): Fortuna Düsseldorf v Hannover 96
3. Bundesliga GOTW: Saturday 14.00 (CEST): 1. FC Saarbrücken v 1. FC K’lautern