Last season, Bundesliga duo Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund shocked European football as they reached the Champions League final. It was a momentous occasion for the German top flight as, for the first time in its history, it could claim to have Europe's top two clubs.
Although the Bundesliga has made great strides, it still is lacking the strength in depth of the English Premier League. But that could soon change as more German clubs emerge as European powers. In the coming years, don't be surprised if Schalke cement themselves as one of Europe's top clubs.
Looking through Schalke's squad, there is heaps of quality. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is a 40-goal-per-season striker when fit, and Adam Szalai provides such quality as cover that he could start at most Bundesliga clubs.
In attacking midfield, Julian Draxler is a phenomenon who, at 19, still has a ton of potential waiting to be tapped. With Kevin-Prince Boateng and Jefferson Farfan rounding off the attacking positions, Schalke have a terrifyingly quick trio in support of the striker and a combination of several attributes. As depth, super-talent Max Meyer appears destined for stardom and, based on his use this season thus far, already has a role to play.
In defensive midfield, Roman Neustaedter is a full Germany international, while Marco Hoeger and Jermaine Jones offer different qualities. And 18-year-old Leon Goretzka is arguably the crown jewel of Germany's academy stars born in 1995.
Defense is a concern for Schalke, who have hemorrhaged goals this season. But there is genuine individual talent in their ranks. Dennis Aogo and Benedikt Hoewedes are full Germany internationals, while Atsuto Uchida and Joel Matip have loads of experience in spite of their limited years. For depth, the likes of Felipe Santana, Sead Kolasinac and Christian Fuchs are all players who could start for nearly any Bundesliga club.
One of the biggest barriers to any rising club's aspirations is keeping its star players, but Schalke have done well to keep talent in recent years and are well-positioned for the future. Huntelaar was a target of Arsenal and Liverpool before penning a contract extension last December. Similarly, Farfan was said to be close to joining Inter a year before but later signed a new deal with S04.
Draxler now is Schalke's biggest star, but even he turned down Real Madrid and Manchester City earlier this summer. And although it seems to be only a matter of time before the youngster takes the next step in his career, his club will reap a huge reward in the form of his €45 million buyout clause.
Assuming he eventually leaves, Draxler will be sorely missed. But Schalke are nonetheless well-prepared to replace him. Die Knappen boast Germany's best youth academy, having produced Mesut Ozil and Manuel Neuer along with current Schalke stars Draxler, Hoewedes, Matip.
Meyer appears to be the next great attacking midfielder; following Ozil and Draxler, he has a phenomenal pedigree. And if and when the 17-year-old leaves, Donis Avdijaj—who scored an incredible 54 goals and gave 16 assists in 45 matches for club and country last season—is set to follow.
Finances these days are just as important as sporting structure, and. in this area too, Schalke are well positioned. The Gelsenkirchen side struggled with debt for many years, but appear to have turned the corner since their liabilities reached €155 million in 2011 thanks to more consistent play in the Champions League. So long as they continue to qualify for Europe's elite club competition, the Koenigsblauen can expect their debt to further shrink.
In terms of revenue, Schalke were 14th in Europe with a €174.5 million turnover according to the 2013 Deloitte Football Money League. This data lags a year, however, and is based on the last time S04 failed to qualify for the Champions League. In the next report, it's entirely possible that they may break into the top 10.
Schalke's impressive revenue has allowed the club to accrue significant debt without alarm bells ringing and gives them the ability to offer favorable deals to key players—clubs like Leverkusen, despite having great sporting structure, could only dream of such financial capabilities.
Part of Huntelaar's decision to stay was a reported €8 million-per-year offer from Schalke that scared off other would-be suitors. Improved wages have led to more favorable contractual details such as Draxler's steep buyout clause. In this regard, S04 have done better than Dortmund, who have paid the price for a modest wage bill with the departures of Nuri Sahin, Shinji Kagawa and Mario Goetze.
Critically, Schalke have phenomenal fan support. They sell out nearly every home game at the 61,973-capacity Veltins-Arena, and that will not change anytime soon. They hail from the Ruhr area, a Mecca of sorts for German football: The same kind of support Dortmund receive on a regular basis is what Schalke can expect. Their outstanding fanbase makes an away match a daunting task for visiting teams and helps greatly with revenue.
For all their potential, Schalke are not currently where they need to be. To help with their debt and to convince players not to seek transfers to bigger clubs, they need to reach the Champions League quarterfinals on a fairly regular basis. And they need to continue to secure the long-term futures of their talents. Draxler's €45 million buy-out clause was a step in the right direction, but having previously sold Ozil to Bremen for just €5 million, S04's overall record leaves something to be desired.
The other glaring concern for Schalke is the issue of finding a long-term solution for the coaching role. Huub Stevens looked to be the right man last season, but a long run of losses left the board with little choice but to sack him. Since then, Schalke have been managed by Jens Keller, a young trainer with no previous professional experience. And Keller's naivety has shown at times.
One of the most important factors to Dortmund's emergence as a big club is the presence of Juergen Klopp at the helm. The trainer has consistently brought the best out of his players and created an invaluable ethos and club culture. Schalke need their own Klopp to lead them over the course of several seasons.
Thomas Tuchel has long been linked with Schalke, although Mainz have thus far been unwilling to sell their coach. With his contract set to expire in 2015, however, Tuchel could force a move to Schalke if die Knappen renew their interest next summer. It would be a huge coup for S04 and could make all the difference.
There may still be quite some distance to go, but Schalke are in good position for the future. The Gelsenkirchen side have an outstanding team right now and every reason to believe they will be just as strong in the years to come thanks to a phenomenal academy.
Their financial status continues to improve, especially as they have in recent years developed some stability in qualifying for the Champions League. Given a few years' time, Schalke may well follow in Dortmund's footsteps in being the next Bundesliga side to shake up Europe's status quo.