After what many considered a disappointing first half of the season, Schalke finally seem to be turning the corner after going unbeaten in their last four league games and moving into a Champions League spot for the first time this season. More importantly, much-maligned and often-criticized coach Jens Keller might finally be able to silence his detractors, as things finally seem to be settling for The Royal Blues.
When Schalke’s under-17 coach Jens Keller took over the first team from Huub Stevens in December of 2012, it was met with its fair share of skepticism. Despite the team’s dip in form under Stevens, Keller’s inexperience at the senior level and his previous short-lived and failed stint in charge of Stuttgart did not leave much room for optimism.
The initial pessimism was only reinforced as the second half of the 2012/13 season played. Two days after his appointment, Schalke were knocked out of the German Cup by Mainz. In the league, Schalke’s performances deviated greatly and left Champions League qualification late, needing a last matchday win against Freiburg to lock it up. All the while, the team was playing far below potential and players were regularly letting their frustration known.
Keller was teetering on the edge, but in May of 2013 the club surprisingly offered him a two-year extension, a strong vote of confidence that was not necessarily shared by the Schalke supporters. Still, the signings of highly-rated young players like Leon Goretzka, Christian Clemens and seasoned stars like Adam Szalai and Kevin-Prince Boateng in the summer signaled the right intent that things would improve the following season.
Schalke started the season by winning their Champions League qualification playoff and even topped the group after the first two matchdays. However, things were not going as smooth domestically. Keller’s side had conceded 16 goals in their first seven games, their worst start in 26 years. The 4-0 loss to Bayern Munich on Matchday 6 was also their worst home loss in 32 years. On top of that, they were again eliminated in the Round of 16 in the Cup, by a team with one of the worst defensive records in the league, at home no less.
Their Champions League form also started to dwindle with back-to-back losses to Chelsea, the second of which included an infamous blunder by goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand. More than anything, the error became symbolic of what seemed to be another season that started promising but was ultimately derailed. Again, it took a Julian Draxler-inspired performance and win on the last matchday against Basel to get Schalke through, but it only increased the pressure on Keller to turn things around.
It should be said that Schalke have not been fortunate with injuries this season, but poor defensive organization and tactical frailties have characterized too many of their performances. The long-term absence of their primary goalscorer, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and recurring injuries to their other three key attackers, Draxler, Boateng and Szalai, have not helped. Too often this season Schalke have been caught on the counter-attack because they either deployed too many players in the opponents' half or were poorly positioned after turning over the ball.
Stability at Last
Despite the shaky first half of the season, Schalke began to gradually find their feet heading into and out of the winter break. Keller’s team have only lost one of their last nine Bundesliga matches. More importantly, their last two wins against Hamburg and Wolfsburg were two of their best performances so far this season. It was also the first time under Keller that Schalke have won four home matches in a row.
Huntelaar’s return to the lineup since the restart is no coincidence of course. The Dutch striker scored his 50th Bundesliga goal against Hamburg last week, moving into the top-five goalscorers in league history for the club. He gives the team a much-needed focal point in attack: An experienced finisher. In fact, when Huntelaar scores, Schalke rarely lose. Of the 38 league matches he has scored since joining, Schalke have lost only six times.
Draxler’s imminent return should also help. Oftentimes this season, Schalke struggled from a creative point of view. Compared to the teams above them, they created very few concrete goalscoring chances and were outshot by a majority of teams in the league. Towards the winter break, Schalke came to rely too much on 18-year-old Max Meyer, who only made his professional debut last year.
So while their Round of 16 draw against Real Madrid does not put them in the best position to advance further in the competition, it does leave them with room and time to focus on polishing their form and securing a European spot without any more drama. If the team continues to play like they did in the last two months, extending Keller’s contract could be viewed entirely different.