If it hadn't been for Storm Sabine, Florian Neuhaus would have already experienced a home derby against FC Cologne. But the storm in early February 2020 led to the match being rescheduled for mid-March, by which time he was suspended. Borussia Monchengladbach won 2-1 and outside Borussia Park, the fans sang their songs in the car park following yet another win in the fiery Rhine Derby.
While it was the first "Geisterspiel" ("ghost match") in German history, it was also the last Bundesliga match played before football came to a standstill just two days later due to COVID-19. Almost a year later, this weekend Gladbach host Cologne -- Watch LIVE in the U.S., Saturday Feb. 6, 12.30 p.m. ET, ESPN+ -- but again there will be no fans. Neuhaus misses their support, but the players have had to adapt.
"From a sporting perspective, there is no longer a big difference [between derbies and] normal games," Neuhaus tells ESPN.
It's not the only thing Neuhaus is adjusting to in 2021. Since the start of the pandemic, the 23-year-old has broken through as one of the Bundesliga's best young players, become a Germany international and received plenty of attention from football's biggest clubs, prompting some to wonder if he'll be the next to make a leap to Bayern Munich like so many before him.
In 2015, Joshua Kimmich made the big step to Munich after coming through VfB Stuttgart and RB Leipzig. In 2017, it was Niklas Sule's turn as he left TSG Hoffenheim and a year on, it was Leon Goretzka who made the inter-Bundesliga move, leaving Schalke 04 on a free transfer for the Allianz Arena. Now, it's Neuhaus in Die Roten's sights as one of Germany's best young players. Few turn down their advances, but Neuhaus is in no hurry to leave.
When Neuhaus, 23, plays in the No.6 slot for Gladbach, his role is to dictate the pace of Die Fohlen's prodigious attack. They are a dominant side, but they love to attack high and early, catch opponents off-guard in the transition play and strangle them with a high press if needed. Neuhaus is a perfect fit in that system as Gladbach, unbeaten so far in 2021, compete for a place in next year's Champions League -- they also have a last-16 clash with Manchester City on the horizon later in February.
Though Neuhaus has chipped in with five goals this season, there was one assist in the Champions League against Inter Milan that alerted the internet to his potential. It was 1-1 with six minutes when Neuhaus received the ball from Marcus Thuram deep inside his own half. He looked up and saw eight Inter players in front of him, and just five teammates in attacking positions.
"It's part of playing 'Tief-Klatsch', laying off the ball from a deep position," Neuhaus tells ESPN. "I saw Hoffi [Jonas Hofman] was about to make one of his famous deep runs [from the right of the pitch]. He just loves to do that from that position." Neuhaus pinged a beautiful, arrowed through-ball to Hofman 60 metres (190 feet) away.
"All I wanted to do is to play the ball into the space behind the lines," Neuhaus continues. Hofman picks it up and with his second touch makes it 2-1 to Gladbach. "It worked out perfectly," Neuhaus says, smiling. "But those they are the classic principles laid out by [Borussia Monchengladbach manager] Marco Rose. They are incredibly important for our game."
Though he is drawing comparisons with Real Madrid and Germany midfielder Toni Kroos for his passing vision and tempo, the younger Neuhaus wanted to emulate his playmaker heroes at Werder Bremen: Diego, Johan Micoud, Mesut Ozil and Kevin de Bruyne. Those players dictated Bremen's play with their vision and their passes. They were symbolic of Bremen's successful football when the Northerners still challenged for titles and, later, qualification for European football.
Neuhaus' uncle had nudged him in Bremen's direction even though he grew up in Bayern Munich country, buying him an Ailton jersey when he was seven. Growing up in the Bavarian town of Kaufering, an hour's drive away from Munich, the young Florian made his first steps in the local club VfL Kaufering, where his father coached him until aged 10. Then TSV 1860 Munich came calling. Four times a week, his father drove him to Munich, waited for him to train and then returned home, completing the 120km (75 miles) round trip.
"My world revolved around it," Neuhaus says. "It was an incredibly important building block of my life. It never felt like a duty driving to Munich. I was always just looking forward to driving to training, to be able to play football."
In his spare time back in Kaufering, he'd pick up a ball and play with his mates at the local ground or his brothers in the backyard where, sometimes, a ball would ruin his grandma's flowers. "She's forgiven us," Neuhaus says. "But it could still happen today when I am back home. I play in the garden with my brothers whenever I get the chance, and things might get destroyed."
He progressed through the ranks at TSV and in 2016, scored the goal of the month in the semi-final of the U-19 Bundesliga, beating Dortmund keeper Dominik Reimann from the half-way line to make it 2-1. Neuhaus had announced himself on the bigger stage, but was shown a second yellow for his celebration and sent off. He missed the reverse fixture and 1860 crashed out against a BVB side led by a young Christian Pulisic.
"You could very well say that this game opened my path into professional football," Neuhaus says. He progressed to the senior side in 2016-17 and started attracting attention from other clubs as he played in Bundesliga 2. He debuted for Germany's under-20 team that season, but TSV were relegated and with his contract up, bigger clubs came calling. He chose Borussia Monchengladbach. After a spell on loan, he was recalled at 21 years old to join the Gladbach first-team. And when manager Marco Rose arrived in 2019, Neuhaus was a perfect fit.
Rose had arrived from RB Salzburg and brought the Red Bull brand of "gegenpressing" football to west Germany: pressing, attacking high and not allowing the opponent to breathe. Neuhaus told Rose he wanted to be become a "more complete player" and Rose responded by playing him deeper than he was used to, shifting him to the No.6 spot.
"If you look back at the 18 months now [since Rose was appointed], I'd say that I achieved it [becoming a more complete player]," Neuhaus says. "His focus was on my defensive contribution, the way I go into direct duels. But not only that. The focus was on the fast transition play as well, where I made a step forward too.
"Our idea of football really serves me. There's a lot of what I imagine football to be. Sometimes, we are very dominant, we have possession. But it's also the transition play when the opponent is not in position. I am happy with my development."
Rose has been impressed by Neuhaus. "It's a very complex role he is playing," the Gladbach manager said in an interview with 11 Freunde. "Because he makes vital contributions to the playing rhythm in both directions. Against the ball and with the ball. 'Flo' performs at a good level, but there is still a lot more in him."
Those playing in a deep midfield role like Neuhaus are under constant threat in possession; opponents swarm them to win the ball in a high position. It's a skill to break that press with time for only one or two touches, but to do that, a player has to "pre-orient" (scan what's happening around him) while focusing on the ball and preparing his next move. It's something that comes naturally to Neuhaus.
"You can sense from which direction the opponent will be attacking from behind the back, and you then go into the other direction," Neuhaus says. "You can't really train it. You either have that hunch and feel or not. You must know when it makes sense to create numerical advantage through a one-on-one situation and when it makes sense to pass the ball back to maintain possession. In general: It's so important to create numerical advantage in modern football. I try to do that from my position."
Those who work with him on a daily basis, say that's it's "a little short of spooky" how he can always find a pass, and the team is delighted with his progress.
The game that really stood out was his performance against Bayern in early-January. In the 19th minute, Bayern's Alphonso Davies tried to flick the ball to Robert Lewandowski in Gladbach's penalty area and Neuhaus stopped it with his hand; it was an awkward sort of movement, but Lewandowski converted the penalty and Bayern soon added a second goal from Goretzka. Despite the errors, Gladbach stuck to their gameplan and executed it perfectly, scoring twice before half-time.
Both times Hofmann was twice set up by Lars Stindl, who sits next to Neuhaus in the dressing room. Neuhaus frequently picks Stindl's brains on the decision-making side of the game, but it was Neuhaus who would end up the match-winner with his wonderfully struck 49th minute goal guiding Gladbach home with a 3-2 win.
"I would not allow myself to get stuck with this handball," he says. "I looked ahead and wanted to make the game mine, get the best out of the situation. That goal, I believe, was the reward I got."
Whether he's still at Gladbach by the end of the Championships remains to be seen. This January he's been linked with a summer move to Bayern, Real Madrid, Tottenham as well as Borussia Dortmund, where his current coach Rose currently is in pole position to take over next term. However, given Dortmund's financial and sporting situation, the Schwarzgelben are currently not considering trying to trigger the reported €40 million release clause, sources have told ESPN.
"Those rumours... they are not an issue right now," Neuhaus says. "I feel well here at Borussia Monchengladbach. We have big goals. And that's why it's just not an issue and it's not affecting me at all. I am delighted to be here. I want to be successful here." Sources have told ESPN that there will be no rushed decision over his future and staying at Gladbach is a realistic option. In his third season now, he has long become a key player for the club.
With Gladbach in a good position in three competitions, Neuhaus is chasing silverware. The league looks like it'll be heading to Bayern Munich, but the DFB-Pokal is wide-open. Bayern are already out after their shock defeat at Kiel and Gladbach are building in confidence having beaten Bayern, RB Leipzig and Dortmund at their Gladbach Park home. Then there's the Champions League, where Manchester City lie in wait. It's all new for Neuhaus, but he's not rushing things, nor will he shy away from the challenge.
"Those are special games," he says. "We have shown in the Bayern game that we do not need to hide from the big teams."