Expectations for Schalke were high heading into the 2013-14 campaign. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was fit following an injury-blighted season, and the club had added much-needed depth in the form of striker Adam Szalai, center-back Felipe Santana and Dennis Aogo, who filled needs at left-back and in defensive midfield.
Schalke also boasted the Bundesliga's best crop of young talents: Leon Goretzka was signed from Bochum, and academy graduates Max Meyer and Kaan Ayhan looked set to make an impact. A great burden was placed on the shoulders of Julian Draxler, who despite only turning 20 in late September had been appraised by Transfermarkt at €30 million, the same as Mario Gotze and Neymar at the same age.
However, just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong for Schalke in the fall. Three games without a win in the Bundesliga prompted them to sign Kevin-Prince Boateng, who later was found to be suffering from chronic knee problems that required regular trips to Munich for treatment.
Huntelaar was again injured, playing only the first two league matches of the campaign before the winter break. Aogo and Marco Hoger each suffered cruciate ligament damage and will be lucky to appear before season's end. Jefferson Farfan struggled for fitness, and overall, nearly every player with any expectations failed to live up to his billing.
Among the many failures was Draxler, who scored just once in the Bundesliga. Although the youngster dragged S04 past PAOK Salonika in their Champions League playoff and was a key player in his team's group stage wins against Steaua and Basel (twice), he looked a player aiming for personal glory ahead of helping his hometown club: Draxler only showed up when the international spotlight was on him, and even publicly criticized Schalke in an interview with Kicker (h/t to London Evening Standard).
All the while, Schalke were headed towards complete disaster. They finished the first round of the season in seventh place, with Monchengladbach and Wolfsburg in particular looking strong candidates to end the season with the Bundesliga's fourth Champions League spot. Failure to qualify for next season's edition of the elite European club tournament would be financially devastating to debt-riddled Schalke, who mortgaged their future on the signing of the €12 million Boateng.
Three games into the 2014 calendar year, things are looking much better for an in-form Schalke side that have a perfect record with seven goals scored and just one conceded. But it's not the currently injured Draxler who's carried them forward; the fit-again Farfan, who spent over a month on the sidelines in the fall, has instead played the role of leader and inspired his team on to three consecutive victories.
Farfan scored or assisted all three goals in Schalke's 2014 opener against Hamburg and opened the scoring against Hannover on Sunday. His and Huntelaar's return, coupled with good form from the super-talent Meyer, have pinned back opponents to the point that a lack of options in defensive midfield has not left Schalke vulnerable at the back.
Draxler, who according to The Mirror's John Cross only missed out on a January move to Arsenal because Arsene Wenger was unwilling to meet Schalke's €45 million valuation of him, might as well be gone by now: He hasn't been missed at all.
Where will Schalke finish in the Bundesliga?
Perhaps it was a mistake for Draxler to be burdened with such pressure at such a young age. The player was 19 when the season began and although the brightest talent, he was nonetheless only one of many stars in the Schalke team.
Still, the fact that he played well on the big stage but struggled in ordinary games suggests his problem was more related to attitude than aptitude. And the fact that Meyer, two years his junior, has recorded five times as many Bundesliga goals as Draxler does not bode well for the latter.
At 29 years of age, Farfan is a player who perhaps ought to be more relied upon than Draxler. But as Germany legend Gunter Netzer wrote in a recent column for Bild (h/t to Goal.com), Draxler is not ready to leave Schalke for a bigger club. If he can't contribute with any reasonable consistency at Schalke, he won't take the next step at Arsenal or elsewhere.
Instead, Draxler would be wise to take a page from Farfan's book. The former's stagnation in week-in, week-out play didn't hinder his ability to impress against Steaua and Basel, but he wasn't so sharp against Chelsea, a much better team. Form can't simply be switched on and off; Draxler will need to do much more if he is to succeed at a bigger club.
Should Draxler leave, Schalke may hardly be feel his loss. Their time with him on the sidelines has shown that they are fully capable of managing without him, as Farfan and others have come together as a team to find their form.