Schalke’s first two Bundesliga matches didn’t quite work out as last season’s runners up would have wanted. Their already painful 2-1 defeat at the hands of Hamburg in the opening game was followed by an even more embarrassing 2-1 home loss to Hannover 96, a team that just escaped relegation in the 2009/2010 campaign. One thing is for sure after these two disappointments: Manager Felix Magath has a lot of work to do.
Before discussing the current problems, let’s take a look at the style and system that made Schalke surprisingly come oh so close to gaining top domestic honours for the first time in more than 50 years:
The “Königsblauen” (“Royal Blues”) usually won their games (with a few exceptions like the home win against Gladbach, or at Leverkusen) by one single pattern:
1) A goal after a set piece in the first 20 minutes, usually scored by Kuranyi or one of the center-backs
2) After the goal, stand tough defensively (15 clean sheets last year)
3) Score an insurance marker on a counter attack, usually in the last 20 minutes.
So, why can’t Schalke just keep on playing that successful style?
There are number of reasons:
In fact, none of the three concepts above would work this time out.
You can figure out why by taking a look at the key departures: Marcelo Bordon, Heiko Westermann, Rafinha, Carlos Zambrano and Kevin Kuranyi have left the club.
That means three of the four players of last seasons best defence (Westermann LB, Bordon CB, Rafinha RB, 31 goals against) and the leading goal scorer (Kuranyi, 18 goals) have left the club. They were replaced by:
1) Center-back: Christoph Metzelder, who barely played 10 games in his 3 years with Real Madrid and isn’t too popular with the fans because of his history with Dortmund, Schalke’s old enemy.
2) Right-back: Atsuto Uchida, young, talented rightback, but not ready for the Bundesliga by a long shot. There’s also Tim Hoogland, who is a solid player, but he is yet to return from an injury
3) Left-back: No one really. Magath tried Joel Matip (natural position:holding midfielder) and Hao Jumin (natural position: winger) from the squad, and then signed Sergio Escudero from Real Murcia (same problem as Uchida). Now 34-year old Hans Sarpei came from Leverkusen, who is a solid, experienced, but by no means outstanding player. Still, he should help his young fellow defenders, after Metzelder failed to do so. Remember, up-and-coming Benedikt Höwedes is only 23 as well.
This new defence not only causes more goals conceded, but also is less of a threat at set pieces.
Westermann was a very dangerous defender, and also Bordon is more of a scoring threat than Metzelder, with both headers and his hard shot at long range free kicks.
The most devastating loss of course is Kuranyi, who scored 8 goals with headers or after free kicks or corners last season.
Now, we still have a great set-piece prodigy in Rakitic, but only one player who regularly scores: Benedikt Höwedes (5 goals). Schalke has scored two goals after set pieces in their two matches, but these goals were scored by Farfan and Jones, players who probably won’t be able to convert on a regular basis.
Besides, the effectiveness was not good enough, as Schalke had 15 corners and a similar number of free kicks against Hannover, but only managed four headers on goal from it.
Also the strength at counter attacks has completely disappeared. Of course, you can’t counter attack when you don’t have the lead ( or at least a solid defence), but also this is due to different players on key positions.
One the one hand of course, Kuranyi is gone, so a target man is lacking, who can hold the ball for a few seconds until the other players join him. The replacement for the Kuranyi style is Edu, who is also big and physical, but just doesn’t have the skill of Kuranyi when it comes to holding the ball and the goal scoring ability.
Jefferson Farfan is now moved to the attacking midfield, which gives him more defensive responsibility and keeps him from joining the rush a lot of the times. Farfan is replaced by Raul, who without a doubt is still a great finisher, but at 33, lacks Farfan’s speed.
These all things lead to one question only:
Why the hell did Magath allow all these players to leave?
Well, first of all, Magath wanted to get rid of that old “ugly” style of play. He thinks that a team which tries to compete for the title and plays in the Champions League should be able to outplay opponents instead of outworking them.
For that, he needed new players at the offensive, namely a replacement for Kuranyi ( who simply left because his contract was over and he could make a ton of money in Russia), and a playmaker.
Now Schalke has about 250 million euros of debts ( with the stadium), so Magath needed to generate fees to be able to afford new players. That’s why he sold Rafinha and Westermann for about € 8m each. Moreover, I’m sure he hated to see Bordon leave, but the club had no choice but to let him go due to his big credits for the club (and of course, the move reduced the wage-bill).
Magath had already signed Christoph Metzelder then, who surely has the abilities to be a top notch CB in the league, but hasn’t played many games in his last three years with Real Madrid. The problem was that Magath relied so heavily on him that he allowed talented (and already Bundesliga-proven) Carlos Zambrano to join St. Pauli on loan. Now we know that was a mistake, as Metzelder has been horrible so far and newly acquired Kyriakos Papadopoulos surely is a good prospect, but seems unready to play a big role in the Bundesliga.
If Magath wants to play nice football, why didn’t Schalke score more goals?
That’s an easy one: because they just don’t have good enough players.
Their attacking midfielders and strikers in the Hannover game were: Raul, Edu, Farfan, and Baumjohann.
We need to divide them into two groups:
1) Baumjohann and Edu. These players just don’t have the quality to take opposing defences apart. Baumjohann always seemed to be a top quality talent, but in fact he has only had half a good year in Gladbach. Then he signed with Bayern Munich, were he never had a hope to break the starting lineup. After just half a year, Schalke took a chance at him cheaply, but he never managed to bring up the glimpses of brilliance he sometimes shows consistently.
Edu was also a cheap player, but in the important matches he just can’t perform like he does in pre-season fixtures.
2) Raul, Farfan: These are really good players, but don’t perform well at the moment because of a number of reasons, e.g. the lacking quality of their team-mates and because there’s just no one to feed them balls, which especially Raul desperately needs. Besides, Farfan is more of a winger than a play-maker
Magath wanted to sign new players all summer long, but Gillaume Hoarau (Paris SG wanted a ridiculous amount of money for him) and Zvejdan Misimovic (Despite the Diego signing, Wolfsburg only wanted a deal which would have sent Farfan to Wolfsburg, which neither Schalke nor Farfan himself wanted) couldn’t be signed.
But: Hard against the deadline, Magath finally got the job done. Both Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (AC Milan, Kuranyi-replacement) and José Manuel Jurado (Atletico Madrid, playmaker) were signed for a combined € 27m. Also, Ciprian Deac, another offensive midfielder from Romania was signed. Let’s see if he can get into the starting XI.
So will Schalke be able to bounce back and have success in Bundesliga and Champions league?
I my opinion, the “Knappen” will get better over the course of the season from various reasons:
1) Improving back-four: Metzelder was a disappointment so far, but he should be able to get nearer to his full potential and at least be a solid asset. Höwedes is already a top notch CB, who could be just about to debut in the national team. And finally, Sarpei and Hoogland should solve the biggest defensive problems on the wing.
2) Schalke’s strength: Not everything is bad, even at the moment. Manuel Neuer is arguably the best goalkeeper in the league, and one of the best in all of Europe. He is a real “Schalker”, who used to watch every single Schalke game in the “Nordkurve” as a boy and now is the new captain.
The defensive midfield duo is also one of the best in the league: Jermaine Jones, soon-to-be US international, is a very aggressive, but defensively outstanding player, takes the defensive load of Ivan Rakitic, who is more of an offensive-minded player and plays an important role in the build up of the game.
He has really developed into a very good bot-to-box player since he was moved into a more central role midway through last season. The young Croatian is the connecting piece between the defenders and forwards, which makes him the key player. Jones and Rakitic are similar to Bayern’s duo Schweinsteiger- van Bommel.
3) Quality signings: should be a perfect fit with Raul, as he is a big, physical player, who creates space for Raul and also has a great goal scoring touch. Jurado should finally bring some creativity to the Schalke midfield, something S04 hasn’t seen for years.
These new players definitely help, but any new signing needs time to get used to the Bundesliga, so it may take a few games for Schalke to get going. Until then, they are probably out of the title race, but my be able to challenge Lyon and Benefica for top spot in Champions League group B.