Borussia Mönchengladbach currently sit second in the Bundesliga table behind Borussia Dortmund, having made their best start to a season in 31 years.
1) A timely tactical switch
The Foals have galloped their way to 26 points in the first 12 games of the campaign, making headlines with impressive wins over Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke, Eintracht Frankfurt and of course Bayern Munich – at the Allianz Arena to boot.
"Sporting director Max Eberl and I have spoken with each other a lot and looked at what made our Rückrunde go so poorly," Hecking explained this summer, after Gladbach picked up just five wins in the second half of the 2017/18 season and slipped out of European contention. "We were both on the same page in terms of what we thought needed to be changed, now it's about translating that onto the training pitches and what we do every day."
2) Smart signings
Given time to untangle Gladbach's springtime woes, the former Nuremberg and Wolfsburg coach has done a fine job of turning things around, abandoning his traditional 4-4-2 for a more dynamic attacking 4-3-3 in 2018/19. In their new system, the Foals have improved at both ends of the pitch: they boast the Bundesliga's second-best attack with 30 goals, while they have only conceded 14, and kept four clean sheets.
Not unlike Dortmund with Jadon Sancho, Marco Reus and Paco Alcacer – or Frankfurt with Sebastien Haller, Ante Rebic and Luka Jovic – Gladbach have also been able to call on a magic attacking triangle in the shape of Jonas Hofmann, Thorgan Hazard and Alassane Plea. The fearsome trio have flourished under Hecking this term, racking up a whopping 21 goals and 11 assists. They haven't had to do it all themselves though – a total of 10 Foals have netted in the Bundesliga so far, with the team requiring six shots per goal.
Plea has of course been the standout addition to the Gladbach stable since his summer move from Nice, and the French forward's stellar performances recently earned him a first international call-up for the reigning world champions. The stats don't lie: Plea has scored 11 goals in 13 competitive outings for his new club, with eight of them coming in the Bundesliga. Throw in his three assists and the 25-year-old has been involved in a goal every 67 minutes in the league, showing he is equally happy as taker or maker.
"We're a great bunch and it's working for us at the moment," Plea told the Gladbach website after netting his first Bundesliga hat-trick in a 3-1 win at Werder Bremen. "I have nothing but praise for my teammates, they've taken to me so well and I really feel part of the team. I just want to help them out with my goals and bring success to this club."
Another central figure this season – in more ways than one – has been up-and-coming midfielder Florian Neuhaus, voted the club's Player of the Month by fans in August. The 21-year-old joined from boyhood club 1860 Munich in summer 2017, but spent last season cutting his teeth in Bundesliga 2, helping Fortuna Düsseldorf secure promotion back to the top flight. Since his return to Gladbach, the box-to-box midfielder has been transformed, and continues to go from strength to strength at both ends of the pitch. With six assists, he is level with Haller and Sancho's league-leading tally.
Switzerland right-back Michael Lang is also beginning to gel with his new teammates after an injury-hit start to the campaign. The 27-year-old came in from Basel this summer to swell Gladbach's Swiss contingent alongside Yann Sommer, Nico Elvedi, Denis Zakaria and Josip Drmic, and is already emerging as one of the squad's on-field lieutenants. He has started the last seven games, which resulted in five wins and three clean sheets for the Foals.
3) A strong spine
"We're obviously enjoying being so high up the table, and want to stay there for as long as possible," Lang enthused recently. "We've flourished as a result of really just thinking one game at a time. This attitude has got us a lot of points so far."
Lang isn't the only player who has been leading by example this season, with Gladbach boasting excellent core strength in their bid to be the Bundesliga's mightiest outfit. Sommer has long been one of Germany's safest pairs of hands, and the Switzerland No.1 has been typically consistent throughout the first third of the season, boasting a save ratio of 76 per cent that is second only to RB Leipzig's Peter Gulacsi.
In front of Sommer, Elvedi and Matthias Ginter form one of the league's most effective centre-back partnerships. At 24, Ginter finally appears to be shouldering the burden of his 2014 FIFA World Cup win with Germany – as an unused substitute – which seemed to weigh him down in his latter seasons with Dortmund. The Freiburg native, who played 90 minutes as Die Mannschaft eased past Russia during the November international break, has played every second in the Bundesliga this term and looks to be living up to his immense potential. He even popped up with a goal against Schalke on Matchday 3.
4) Strength in depth
Another surprise package this season has been Tobias Strobl, who has quietly imposed himself as Hecking's first-choice defensive midfielder ahead of Zakaria and another World Cup winner, Christoph Kramer. The 28-year-old, who joined from Hoffenheim in summer 2016, missed almost the whole of the 2017/18 campaign after a serious knee injury, but has returned with a bang, winning 55 per cent of his challenges, completing 90 per cent of his passes and providing the Foals with much-needed balance in their attacking setup.
While Plea has demonstrated his ice-cool instincts in front of goal and Hofmann has upped his game in midfield, Hazard has been reminding Europe that his older brother Eden isn't the only wing wizard in the family. Gladbach's chief creative force, the 25-year-old Belgian is becoming an invaluable asset for both club and country, and has already jinked his way to eight goals and five assists this season. Captain Lars Stindl is also back in action after a long-term ankle injury, and celebrated his return in style with a goal against Bayern in the 3-0 away win on Matchday 7.
"The rest of the league is finely balanced, with clubs making smart transfers, bringing in good coaches and having physically fit squads," Eberl explained in September. "This means that matches are decided by the smallest things. Throughout the season, we'll be focused purely on the match that lies ahead of us, which doesn't mean we're less ambitious. We understand that we must put in a top performance each week to have a successful season."
Watch: Gladbach produced a sensational performance to see off Bayern at the Allianz Arena
5) Full-blooded Foals
After failing to qualify for Europe and being thumped 5-0 by Leverkusen in the DFB Cup second round – the only real black spot in their season so far – Gladbach find themselves in a position to focus solely on the Bundesliga between now and May, a luxury not shared by title rivals Dortmund, Leipzig, Frankfurt and Bayern. And the Foals have a thoroughbred squad who look capable of securing a first league title since their glory days of the 1970s.
Even players who are not part of Hecking's first-choice starting XI have contributed to Gladbach's early-season success. Patrick Herrmann has made seven appearances, five off the bench, but has nevertheless grabbed two goals and two assists, while Zakaria, Tony Jantschke and Fabian Johnson have also played their part, with the USA winger on target against Leverkusen.
The Foals are also giving some of their highly rated youngsters a chance to shine. Youth product Jordan Beyer has started three games at right-back, becoming the 25th player from the FohlenStall (Foals' Stable) academy to make his Bundesliga debut since Gladbach moved to the Borussia-Park in 2004. Slovakia U21 midfielder Laszlo Benes has meanwhile impressed Hecking in recent friendly outings, and is expected to make his first Bundesliga appearance of the season in the coming weeks.
Gladbach's two league defeats this season came at the Olympiastadion, against an impressive Hertha Berlin side, and in Freiburg, where they have a poor recent record. On both occasions, though, Hecking's charges bounced back admirably: four days after their trip to the capital, they saw off fellow high-fliers Frankfurt 3-1, while they recovered from the Freiburg loss and their chastening DFB Cup exit by easing past local rivals Düsseldorf and vanquishing Hannover to make it six league wins from six on home soil.
"If someone had said to us this summer we would be in second place after the opening third of the season, I think everyone at the club would have taken that!" Hecking declared. "We are playing really well at the moment and will try to carry on this form as long as possible."
Not only are they playing well, Gladbach have made a habit of staying switched on for the full 90 minutes of their Bundesliga outings. Eight of their 30 goals have come in the opening half-hour, while they have only conceded twice in the final 15 minutes, which is the best record in the league. They also top the rankings for penalties won (five) and goals from set pieces (nine), while the team covers an average of almost 75 miles per game. No wonder the full-blooded Foals are proving such a nightmare for opposition defences!
The North Rhine-Westphalians clearly have the talent to battle for the Bundesliga title. The question now is whether they have the physical and mental capacities to get the better of favourites Bayern and Dortmund, who have a winning culture stamped in their DNA and know how to keep their heads when the air starts to thin out at the summit of the table.
"We have deserved every single one of our points so far," Eberl insisted. "We are deserving of second place and we want to try and stay near the top for as long as possible."
Maybe even through to 18 May 2019, when Gladbach host Dortmund in what could be an explosive season finale? Bundesliga leaders BVB and champions Bayern have been warned: there's a new title contender in town, and it's not easy to stop free-flowing Foals in full flight.