Schalke host Bayern Munich on Saturday in what will be the biggest test of the Bundesliga campaign thus far for the two contestants.
The visitors have won nearly every game of the young campaign thus far but have had their share of struggles against the tougher opponents they've faced. The Bavarians lost the DFB-Superpokal 4-2 to Dortmund in late July and trailed twice against Chelsea before eventually winning a penalty shootout that saw them claim the UEFA Super Cup. Having had more time to settle and find their form, Bayern will see the Schalke game as a good chance to reevaluate their quality in a very difficult match.
Schalke had a miserable start to the campaign, failing to record a win in their first three Bundesliga matches and nearly being knocked out of the Champions League by Greek side PAOK. But more recently, there have been some positive signs from the Gelsenkirchen club: S04 have won back-to-back Bundesliga fixtures and on Wednesday beat Steaua 3-0 in their Champions League opener.
But Schalke face an enormous task as they take on Bayern. Still, it's matches like these in which heroes are made, and S04 have a young and talented squad with many capable youngsters who will be eager to make an impression. Individual contribution aside, the game may well be decided by tactical concerns.
Bayern's system by now is rather well-established. Pep Guardiola prefers a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Bastian Schweinsteiger as the sole holding midfielder and Mario Mandzukic as the target man in attack. Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben will start on the wings, and given that Thiago Alcantara is injured and Mario Goetze recently sustained an ankle knock, in all likelihood Toni Kroos and Thomas Mueller will be used in the interior advanced midfield positions.
The Bavarians have a way of imposing their style of play and will use a possession-based system that emphasizes pressing in the attacking area. Guardiola's 4-1-4-1 initially had many of his players confused as to what role they should play, but since the international break Bayern seem to have integrated his system more than before: They look more dangerous going forward.
Bayern's attack now more than ever relies upon extraordinary wing play, with Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben the driving forces out wide. The two are respectively supported by world-class attacking full-backs in the form of David Alaba and Philipp Lahm.
Toni Kroos is an outstanding player in central areas, but thus far, the majority of the creative impetus has fallen upon Ribery and Robben, with the 23-year-old and fellow central attacking midfielder Thomas Mueller taking a back seat. Kroos provides support in the middle, while Mueller plays a reactionary role, moving into the space the wingers leave and slipping into the box when possible.
For all the preseason talk of Bayern using a false nine, natural striker Mario Mandzukic remains not only the first choice at the tip of attack but also a key part of an offense that often plays crosses into the box.
Play on the wings will be of greatest importance to Bayern's game plan on Saturday as they try to pick apart a Schalke team that will be very strong in the centre of the park. Jermaine Jones, Marco Hoeger and Kevin-Prince Boateng are all very athletic players who are quick and can tackle hard.
Bayern will need to stretch Schalke's central midfield core, quickly passing the ball across the whole breadth of the pitch to create openings. If the hosts over-commit to the wings, there will be space in the center. Otherwise, Ribery and Robben will favor their odds in dribbling situations and in the worst scenario, Bayern can resort to crossing towards Mandzukic.
Despite boasting Germany internationals in defense in the form of Dennis Aogo and captain Benedikt Hoewedes, Schalke's defense is rather poor, and dropping deep will not exactly suit their style. But they will not win the possession game against a superior Bayern midfield, and, if they manage to frustrate their opponents, the Koenigsblauen will be able to use their one great advantage: a blistering counterattack.
Bayern will only have Schweinsteiger protecting the back four, and if he is not helped, Schalke's attacking midfield trio could run rampant. Boateng, Julian Draxler, and Jefferson Farfan are all lethal in open space and all have the speed and explosiveness to leave the Bayern vice-captain in their wake.
The toughest task for Schalke will be to absorb pressure and, after winning the ball, to quickly find the outlet man and transition play from defense to the attacking half. The key to this end will be for Draxler and Farfan to find space behind the Bayern full-backs, who typically drift forward, and for Boateng, Jones and/or Hoeger to deliver them the ball. A double-pivot midfield would normally be able to cover the fullbacks as they advance, but Schweinsteiger cannot cover the whole width of the pitch, and there surely will be the opportunity for Schalke to spread the ball wide to stretch the Bayern defense.
Schalke vs. Bayern promises to be anything but a tactical mystery; both sides will be well aware of the task at hand and the details of what must happen in order to claim three points. The victor will be decided in the details of what promises to be a thrilling match.