The Bundesliga is the first league amongst the big-five to restart since football’s unprecedented halt. With the German league aiming at finishing the 2019/20 season, many fans all over the globe are taking an added interest. And this gives us an opportunity to look back at the spell from Marc-André ter Stegen with Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Today, Ter Stegen’s name comes up in every discussion on the world’s best keepers. The German shot-stopper has come a long way in his career. From being branded as an error-prone flop to becoming a saviour on several occasions, Ter Stegen has seen a massive rise. There are many moments where he single-handedly kept Barça in the game. Making crucial saves, he now poses a deserving shot at being the German national team’s first-choice keeper ahead of Manuel Neuer. But now, let’s head back to his time in the Bundesliga.
Breaking into the first team
Ter Stegen graduated from Borussia Mönchengladbach’s academy. Playing at all levels for the German side, his name finally began showing up in the first team in 2010. In the 2010/11 season, he was frequently seen on the bench, while simultaneously starring for the reserve team.
As we all know, success comes to those who make the most of their opportunities. In football, breaking into the first-team as a goalkeeper is more challenging than one can imagine. Despite Ter Stegen producing excellent performances in the reserves, he was still behind in the pecking order. Belgian keeper Logan Bailly was Mönchengladbach’s first choice. However, things would turn in favour of the young German with Die Fohlen having a substandard season.
Ter Stegen, alongside former teammate at Borussia Mönchengladbach Marco Reus | Photo by Patrik Stollarz via Getty Images
After picking up just 16 points in 22 games, then coach Michael Frontzeck was replaced by Lucien Favre. Despite improving the results, it was the goalkeeper Logan Bailly who was inconsistent. Both Favre and the fans were aware of Ter Stegen’s progress in the reserves, and the coach soon lost patience with Bailly, giving the young German his break.
With several eyes on him, Ter Stegen knew that he had to impress, and he didn’t disappoint. The entire defence seemed to bolster a never-seen-before rigidity, with Marc-André between the sticks. He kept four clean sheets in the last five games. Through this run of game-time, he produced several world-class saves notably against the eventual champions Borrusia Dortmund, helping his side secure a famous 1–0 win.
The following season, Ter Stegen would become Mönchengladbach’s first-choice keeper. He was given the no. 1 shirt, with Bailly being loaned out. From there on, things only got better for the current Barça man. Growing in confidence, he also developed a command on goal. At times he would even vocally assert his authority over the defence to make sure they weren’t out of position. He developed a rich understanding with the fans and was soon branded as one of the club’s best players.
Ever since the 2012/13 season, there were rumours of a transfer to Barcelona. The Catalans side were evidently impressed by the German and were looking for a long-term replacement for Víctor Valdés. Notwithstanding, despite tabloids reporting that he signed a pre-agreement with the azulgranas in February 2013, he publicly denied it.
He would stay for one more season with 2013/14 turning out to be his final one at his boyhood club. It is in this season where he produced his best numbers statistically. He averaged around 4.1 saves per game. He was confident while facing opposing attackers 1v1, and made an average of 2.1 saves in the penalty area, and 1.8 saves outside the box. Being a fan-favourite, he had an emotional goodbye on the final home game of that season.
Departure and conclusion
He would join Barcelona in the summer of 2014 for a fee of €12 million. Despite not having the ideal start to his career in blaugrana colours, he managed to work hard and prove his worth. Injuries, individual errors, and inconsistency made him lose his starting position to Claudio Bravo. However, the German kept his head up and worked his way back to being the club’s first-choice keeper.
In 2016 Marc-André ter Stegen already faced his former Borussia Mönchengladbach with Barcelona | Photo by Odd Andersen / AFP via Getty Images
Today, Ter Stegen is a crucial part of the team. He has covered for the defence on multiple occasions, making unworldly saves to ensure the goal isn’t breached. At 28, despite not yet being Germany’s no.1, it is clear that eventually, Neuer will have to surrender his position.
A lot of Ter Stegen’s success amounts to his early days at Borussia Mönchengladbach, where he learned the importance of taking his opportunities. Judging by how things are going for him, there is no doubt that he will remain as Barcelona’s first-choice goalkeeper for years to come. If there is any position for the Catalans where they don’t have uncertainties, it’s the goalkeeper.
Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal
FC Barcelona kicked off their 2020-21 La Liga campaign at home against Villareal in style. They won by a margin of 4-0, marking a very auspicious and positive start to the Ronald Koeman era.
The shape of the team
The starting eleven was, somewhat expectedly, the same set of players that started against Elche in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Neto started in goal in the absence of Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto started in defence, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong started in a double pivot, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann started as nominal wingers, Philippe Coutinho started as the nominal 10, and Lionel Messi as the nominal 9. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution (minute 70):
As can be seen, Griezmann frequently dropped deep and moved in – and he can be forgiven for that, for he is not a natural right-winger; he is an SS. Messi dropped less deep as compared to the Elche game, but he still had the freedom to roam.
The left side of the team was highly effective. Jordi Alba was a constant menace down the flank and combined wonderfully with Fati. Frenkie and Coutinho lent their support down the left whenever possible. In stark contrast, the right side was not effective at all. Griezmann had the least passes and touches among the outfielders and didn’t combine effectively with Roberto at all. Going ahead, this might be a headache to solve.
Barcelona were devastatingly good in offence in the first half. They scored 4 unanswered goals, had an overall of 17 shots in the game, 9 of which were on target. Here is a small data table compiling some stats at a glance for the game:
Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game; as shown, Villareal never really got a sniff at Barca’s goal and couldn’t assert themselves at any stage of the game.
All of this could’ve been possibly very different, had Paco Alcacer decided to take a first time shot instead of chesting the ball down in the path of his Villareal teammate early in the game. That didn’t result in a shot, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Barcelona’s goals came in all varieties. The first goal was a wonderful long ball over the top from Clement Lenglet to Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Ansu Fati to smash in a great shot.
This was very much reminiscent of how Messi set up Alba for the goal against Elche.
The second goal came from a quick break. Lenglet released Coutinho from deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Coutinho carried the ball upfield quickly, catching Villareal out with a fast break. A simple layoff and Fati took care of the rest with a brilliant near-post finish past Sergio Asenjo.
The third goal came from a penalty, won again by Fati with a burst of speed into the box, and getting fouled. There was a nice bit of buildup to that:
And finally, there was also the return of the own goal – a pass from Messi to the onrushing Busquets – yes, you read that correct – in Villareal’s penalty box led to Pau Torres poking the ball into his own net past Asenjo.
While the tempo dropped a lot in the second half, there were still plenty of shots taken by Barcelona that required Asenjo to pull off some wonderful saves to keep the scoreline down to 4-0. Most notable was the save from Francisco Trincao’s shot late in the second half. On the other end, Neto came up with a calm display to keep Takefusa Kubo’s shot away.
As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the productive buildup happened from the left side. Lenglet made a wonderful pre-assist and was assured in his passing in general. Alba was a threat throughout, with his brilliant off-the-ball runs and cutbacks to Fati, Messi, and Coutinho. Fati was a threat with his direct running and taking on defenders. Coutinho and Frenkie provided good support too. Here is a look at all progressive passes by all the starting outfield players:
Next we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):
The half spaces and the left wing were very well utilized, and there were quite a few passes into the box from zone 14 as well.
Villareal didn’t breach the box as frequently as Barcelona did, thanks to some abysmal crossing by Pervis Estupinan. It was only after Kubo came on that they could get into the box with some regularity from the left. But by then, it was 4-0 late into the second half, and Barcelona had taken the foot of the gear completely.
Something that’s easily noticed in the plots above, and is a definite bit of concern, is Griezmann’s struggles with linkup play. He could not combine effectively with Roberto, and bulk of his passes were back to Busquets or Frenkie or Messi back into the midfield. If he is to continue playing as a winger down the right, he has to strengthen his combination play along the wing a lot more. Being able to take on defenders will be an additional bonus too. Right now, the right side is very limited as compared to the left. It remains to be seen if and when Sergino Dest can change the dynamic there upon arrival.
As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, the PPDA recorded by neither of the teams were particularly impressive. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive actions. From Wyscout, Barca recorded a PPDA of 15 while Villareal had a PPDA of 22. In other words, Barca allowed Villareal to pass around for 15 times on average before trying to win the ball back with some defensive action like tackles or interceptions. Compared to the European pressing elites like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, these numbers are pretty bad. It was evident during the game that Barcelona didn’t go all out trying to press. They picked and chose moments when to. Same goes for Villareal as well. They showed too much respect to Barca, and allowed them to build from the back very comfortably. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:
Its very clear how Barca didn’t try to high-press for bulk of the game, and how Villareal spent of lot time trying to defend against the threat of Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati.
For Barcelona, Gerard Pique was a rock, and so was Lenglet. Neither of them allowed a Villareal forward to run past them, and blocked and cleared all shots and crosses into the box. Pique in particular was called into action many times because Roberto was caught way up the field in transitions. Belying his age, he put forth a magnificent defensive performance in sweeping up everything that came up his way.
Busquets and Frenkie, while mostly assured in passing, had their nervy moments as well. Busquets was particularly awful in the first 20-25 minutes. He repeatedly misplaced his passes and that led to repeated transition attacks against Barcelona. In the same vein, Frenkie, who played really well for the first 70 minutes, lost the ball at least three times in the last 20 minutes. Each of the resulting attacks by Villareal were threatening, and required timely interventions by Lenglet and attentive goalkeeping by Neto to snuff out. Going ahead, this is going to be a concern. Both of them need to clean their games up quite a bit.
Ousmanne Dembele, Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao and Pedri had short cameos in the second half. All of them looked decent. Dembele kept it simple with his passing, and I for one am glad about it. He is returning from a long injury layoff and needs to take it slow and simple. There will be plenty of time to watch his explosive pace and dribbling once he has regained confidence and has stayed fit for a reasonable chunk of time. Pjanic seemed to have shaken off his rust and did pretty well to win the ball back on a couple of occasions, and was very clean with his passes. Pedri was his usual bumbling self. He helped out defensively, connected well with the wingers in passing, and was always a threat with his runs. Trincao looked impressive yet again, and could have scored his maiden goal for Barca but for a magnificent save by Asenjo. He meant business; trying to take on defenders, and trying to shoot whenever he found an opportunity.
There is no denying that Villareal was abjectly poor, especially in the first half (surprising given the players they managed to buy in the transfer window). They left behind lots of space that was ruthlessly exploited by Barcelona. Not all Spanish teams are going to give up similar amounts of space to Barca in the coming games. In fact, it’s probably best to assume that none will. In such tight games, it will be interestingly to see how this fluid 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann as a wide player manage to perform. I was personally happy with the game, and only look forward to more good performances from the team.