Football is, at its essence, a team game. In spite of this, the concept of a ‘one-man team’ in football is still used by fans and pundits alike – often derisively – though rarely holds true. It is, as you’re probably aware, a concept used to describe clubs for which one player consistently proves the difference-maker. In recent times, the biggest and best examples of this are Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, Lionel Messi at FC Barcelona and Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal; and while obviously, labelling these clubs as “one-man teams” is a ludicrous statement, given the riches of talents in the squads aside from Ronaldo, Messi or Sanchez, the accusation holds firm.
The fact that football is a team game, though, and that a ‘one-man team’ isn’t a concept based in any version of reality we know, isn’t to deny that one player can often play a key role in deciding the direction of games, or in the most obvious cases, series of them. Alongside the previous examples – all attacking players – players in less flashy positions can also often make a clear difference to results. Morgan Schneiderlin, for example, is a defensive midfielder at Southampton, yet makes a direct improvement to his side’s results when in the team. Another interesting example this season has been Martin Stranzl at Borussia Mönchengladbach. The veteran defender has been troubled with a few injuries this season – missing out most recently on Friday night’s clash with fellow challengers for Europe, Schalke 04, thanks to a head injury – but has consistently proved the difference to his team when on the pitch. This has been typified even within the first week of the Rückrunde – the second half of the German season. Stranzl started in the first two games since the Winter Break, 1-0 wins against Stuttgart and then Freiburg, but, as mentioned missed out on the Schalke game, which ended up a 1-0 loss.
On its own, this isn’t worth looking at, but given the missed points the last time Stranzl was ruled out for any length of time, it looks like Stranzl’s importance to Mönchengladbach is getting increasingly obvious. But how?
The first, and most obvious show of the Austrian’s importance is by looking sheerly at the results. In thirteen games with Stranzl this season, Mönchengladbach have recorded 26 points – form which makes them one of the best teams in the league. With Stranzl on the pitch, Borussia have only lost once – to Dortmund – and even in that game, the solitary goal was more down to an individual error from midfielder Christoph Kramer, rather than a passage of play the defence should have broken up. Yet in spite of die Fohlen’s excellent form thus far this season, in the seven games without the Austrian, they’ve only managed a further seven points, managing just two victories and no clean sheets. That’s quite a marked difference in results with and without Stranzl – but doesn’t prove anything yet.
However, to back up Martin Stranzl’s importance to Mönchengladbach, the statistics show that he is one of the best tacklers in the league – with a 71% completion rate in attempted tackles this season – and more often than not, comes out the better in headed duels too – with a rate of 78% successful headed duels. His competitors for the centre back slots at the club – Tony Jantschke (Stranzl’s usual partner at the back), Alvaro Dominguez and Roel Brouwers lag behind somewhat in terms of successful challenges at somewhere just above the league average – in the mid-to-high fifties. While this shows that Mönchengladbach’s defence is more than capable regardless of the pairing of centre backs Lucien Favre picks – Brouwers, Dominguez, Stranzl and Jantschke have all statistically been very strong players this season – there is a clear difference between Stranzl and his peers, as he at least provides some greater stability at the back for Borussia.
Friday night’s game once again highlighted the need for this stability at the back; rarely tested by Di Matteo’s defensively set-up Schalke, Mönchengladbach pretty much looked comfortable throughout, but let their guard slip early on, gifting the goal which would mean defeat and a return to Niederrhein with no points in the bag. Raffael gave the ball away cheaply on the edge of the area – not something immediately avoidable with Stranzl in the team – but Borussia failed to react smartly or efficiently to the swift transition in Schalke’s play, as Kirchhoff swept the ball out wide to Boateng, who crossed in for Barnetta to tap the ball home easily at the near post. Nobody seemed to know who was marking who as Barnetta got half a yard on his defender – Roel Brouwers – to put the home side into the lead, but it’s the sort of sloppy goal which Mönchengladbach haven’t been conceding too much of this season; in large part down to the excellent defensive marshalling of Stranzl and, to a large extent, goalkeeper Yann Sommer.
The fact that this sort of goal is a rarity, though, is another sign of how key Stranzl and the rest of the defence are to this Borussia team. A goal haul of 27 since the start of the season is relatively average, and with a leakier defence would probably see Borussia occupying a position entrenched in mid-table. Mönchengladbach’s defence, however, has been incredibly mean – allowing just seventeen goals into their net in twenty games – and is the second best defensive total in the league, behind, obviously, Bayern München. Clearly, the defensive side to this Mönchengladbach side is a key element behind its success, and given that Stranzl is very much the key member of the defence, it’s no surprise that whether he plays or not has a direct effect on the result.
Stranzl will be 35 in the summer, and so you’d reasonably expect his quality of play to decrease somewhat over the coming seasons, but for now, the Austrian veteran is one of the Bundesliga’s unsung heroes in defence. It is imperative that in the meantime, Mönchengladbach try and find a replacement to their long-term main man at the back, but with no sign of a decline just yet, and a new contract signed in December of last year, it seems that Martin Stranzl will continue to be a player of very high importance for some time yet.
Article written by: @GladbachUK