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Are Schalke set for a season of transition?

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Jens Keller. Roberto Di Matteo. Horst Heldt. Kevin-Prince Boateng. Sidney Sam. Marco Höger. Timon Wellenreuther?! Schalke had a number of scapegoats for poor performances in 2014/15, a season in which they, one of Germany’s largest clubs, settled for a sixth-placed finish well behind the eventual Champions League qualifiers and even pipped to fifth by FC Augsburg, a club who’d never been anywhere near as high in their history.

It’s a sign of the times at the Veltins-Arena that this was hardly a surprise. Despite finishing inside the top four in each of the three previous seasons, Schalke have rarely impressed, scraping into the top few places largely thanks to the inconsistency of other sides and a few quality individuals; the likes of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Max Meyer and Julian Draxler among them. In 2014/15, this run of fortune fell apart as the club reached their nadir under Roberto Di Matteo; dour, negative football was the name of the game, and would probably have somewhat worked if it was played by John Terry, Frank Lampard, Juan Mata and Didier Drogba back in their pomp. Alas, it was played by a worryingly quality-devoid and mediocrity-filled, bloated squad, which eventually rendered Di Matteo’s attempts to play the 2012 Champions League final every weekend spectacularly unsuccessful.

As this became clear, the club hierarchy began to take measures. First, Boateng, Sam and Höger received suspensions, leaving them out of the final game of the season with Hamburg. After a toothless performance against Hamburg, who just about scraped survival as a result of their 2-0 win against die Königsblauen, Roberto Di Matteo was the next individual to have his fate decided as he was nudged – partly willingly, it seemed – off of the hotseat, in favour of the young, talented Paderborn manager Andre Breitenreiter.

Finally, it appears that the club began to look at a replacement for Horst Heldt, the sporting director who has one of the worst hiring records of any in the Bundesliga, with Ralf Rangnick, Huub Stevens, Jens Keller and now Di Matteo all arriving in and leaving Gelsenkirchen without making much of a positive impression since Heldt took up the position in 2010. According to Kicker, Schalke approached Max Eberl, the mastermind of Borussia Mönchengladbach’s rejuvenated squad in recent seasons, to take over the club’s reins, but Eberl opted to forego the new job and offer of a pay rise to continue his current project at Borussia-Park.

Heldt, it should be noted, still has a year remaining on his current contract and looks set to see it out, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that Schalke’s hierarchy are beginning to shift their focus towards the future, and in that sense this year is already shaping up to be one of transition, what with the new coach, prospect of a new manager in not-too-distant future, and, if Schalke are to compete among the best in the league again soon, a somewhat reshaped squad.

Thus far, Schalke have made a fair few changes to their squad, with more departures than arrival. Fortunately, this has been in the form of shifting deadwood; Chinedu Obasi and Tranquillo Barnetta have been released following unsuccessful stints at the club, while Christian Fuchs has joined Leicester City in the Premier League on a free. The young goalkeeper Timon Wellenreuther, who had been unfairly accused of costing Schalke their fourth place, has left the club on loan to Mallorca for a season, while another goalkeeper at the other end of his career, Christian Wetklo, has been relegated to the club’s second string, as Ralf Fährmann and Fabian Giefer challenge for the number one jersey, as has been expected to happen in recent years but has been limited by injury. Both are, though, seasoned Bundesliga goalkeepers who should, luck permitting, finally stay somewhat injury free – for Schalke’s sake you’d hope free enough to at least share the 34 Bundesliga games between them instead of any third and fourth string goalkeepers.

Those are the headline losses, but the club has also made some money off of the departure of Kyriakos Papadopoulos to Leverkusen (who spent the previous year with die Werkself anyway). Nobody will mourn the loss of Obasi, Barnetta, Fuchs and Papadopoulos, and their exits have made space for the club’s new recruits.

Matija Nastasic has made his loan switch from Manchester City permanent, which represents somewhat of a coup for the club despite his injury-riddled few years at the Etihad. Young, talented and with an experience of over 100 top level games, Nastasic should become a key part of a Schalke defence which, alongside Benedikt Höwedes, has proven international pedigree. Joining Nastasic in the defensive ranks is Junior Caicara from Bulgarian club Ludogorets. The Brazilian, who is now also a naturalised Bulgarian, will compete with Atsuto Uchida for the right back slot. On one hand it’s somewhat odd that Schalke have signed a 26 year old with no experience of playing either in a top European league or internationally, but Caicara impressed during Ludogorets’ Champions League matches in the last season and so has probably earned a move to a club like Schalke; an upgrade on Uchida will, however, have to be a nice bonus rather than a dead-cert.

Schalke appear to have done some astute business in making Matija Nastasic’s loan spell permanent.

That business is a defender who already played for Schalke last season and a full back who might not be much better than the current starter; joining that is former Fulham full back Sascha Riether who hardly tore up any trees in the Premier League, before moving back to Germany with SC Freiburg to barely feature and rack up another relegation on the CV. A cynic would say that Schalke have barely made a step forward in terms of the quality of their squad when weighing up the window to date.

While they’d probably be right, Schalke have however secured one exciting deal, with Johannes Geis moving from Mainz to Gelsenkirchen. An accomplished young midfielder whose range of passing, brilliant set pieces and long range shots have seen his playing style compared to that of a Quarterback in American Football, Geis is just the player that Schalke have needed in defensive midfield for the past few years, adding bite to the somewhat run-of-the-mill offerings of Roman Neustädter and Marco Höger. Should Leon Goretzka overcome his injury woes, Schalke could have a potential future German national team midfield pairing on their hands, with both players impressing and exciting in equal measure in their Bundesliga performances to date. Where Goretzka is still untapped potential, however, Geis joins as the real deal, joining the club having already pulled the strings for Mainz for two seasons.

Perhaps the main green shoots of potential improvement in the coming season rest upon two things; one unreliable and one generally reliable. Firstly, should the club’s fitness staff keep their charges away from serious, long term injuries, the club will clearly achieve much better things in the coming season if their two best goalkeepers are available to play every game, and important players such as Huntelaar, Draxler, Meyer, Goretzka and so on manage to play as many games as possible. This isn’t a given, however – the club have had a squad plagued by injury so much in recent years that it’s hard not to question what the physios are actually doing – and with the added burden of playing Thursday-Sunday at least during the first half of the season, thanks to their place in the Europa League, they’ll have a tougher job than usual to keep their players fit for as many games as possible.

Fortunately, the club can somewhat rely on a steady release of talent from their academy, thanks to having one of the best youth set-ups in the country. Neuer, Özil, Höwedes, Draxler and Meyer emerging from the academy in recent years is no coincidence; the youth department is probably the part of Schalke 04 which is actually fit for purpose. Leroy Sane, Marvin Friedrich and Felix Platte all broke through into the first team towards the end of last season, partly down to injury but also down to individual talent, and it would be surprising not to see at least Sane play a larger role next season. Max Meyer, who was actually in the same cohort of youngsters despite breaking through earlier, Julian Draxler, and centre back Kaan Ayhan are all recent graduates of the academy who have paved the way for Sane and co, but have the added bonus of still being young and having a great deal of room for improvement.

Julian Draxler needs to show his talent this year after an inconsistent couple of seasons

Draxler especially needs to prove his talent this season, having only shown brilliance in fits and spurts over the past couple of years. Ayhan was a bit part player last time around but could equally play his way into contention under Breitenreiter, given the talent he’s already shown in just over two years in the first team squad, and Meyer’s reputation almost speaks for itself, having taken over the mantle of Schalke’s bright young hope from Draxler already. With the Europa League being much more strenuous on a squad than the Champions League, the likes of Sane, Friedrich and Platte should all receive a fair amount of game time this year, whether in European competition or domestically, and this can only serve to help their development.

A year of transition, then, seems the most likely scenario for die Königsblauen, with Breitenreiter facing his first year of managing a large club, a squad still in transition and the added burden of the Europa League actually putting the club in a more difficult position than the one they were in a year ago. Still, the squad looks better than last season – Geis is clearly a huge upgrade on anything Schalke have had to offer in recent years, while the addition of Sane from the youth and improvement of the squad’s younger players will also bolster the club’s ambitions – and Breitenreiter joins the club having actually impressed in league competition at another club, unlike his predecessors Jens Keller or Roberto Di Matteo. Qualifying for the Europa League again would be a success, reaching the Champions League after a year away would be spectacularly brilliant, if not entirely out of reach – but one thing which is clear is that Schalke now have to look to the next few years, rather than plugging holes in the short term. Should they even manage to achieve that, they’ll be on their way to improving in the coming years.

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Conor is a lifelong fan of Swindon Town. He hosts Dreierpack Podcast, a podcast about the Bundesliga, and writes about Borussia Mönchengladbach for the Bundesliga Fanatic.

Borussia Dortmund

Three talking points as Tottenham secured top spot with a Champions League win over Borussia Dortmund

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Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham ensured that they progressed to the Champions League knock-out stages as Group H winners after coming from behind to see off Borussia Dortmund in Germany on Tuesday night.

Dortmund – who were reliant on Real Madrid dropping points at Cypriot minnows APOEL Nicosia in the evening’s other fixture to stand any chance of progressing to the last 16 – took the early advantage when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang finished smartly from Andriy Yarmolenko’s clever flick.

Mauricio Pochettino’s side nearly crafted an equaliser before the break, only for both Christian Eriksen and Eric Dier to be denied in the space of a few minutes after superb work by ‘keeper Roman Burki.

But it didn’t take long for the visitors to draw level in the second-half, with Harry Kane afforded too much space on the edge of the box as he arrowed an effort into the corner with his first real chance.

Son Heung-min’s effort 15 minutes from time, a fine curling finish after tenacious work from Dele Alli, then sealed the turnaround and condemned the hosts to a shock early Champions League exit.

Tottenham bounce back after derby disappointment

After Saturday’s harrowing and disappointing defeat to old foes Arsenal, manager Mauricio Pochettino summed up Tuesday’s performance perfectly by labelling it as the ‘perfect reaction’.

It is hard to disagree with the Argentinian either, with his side displaying far more grit, determination and character at the Westfalenstadion to forget about their Premier League defeat and come from behind to beat a strong Borussia Dortmund outfit, securing their surprise status as Group H winners.

It seemed like they were suffering a North London derby hangover of sorts when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fired the hosts in front on the half-hour mark, but Spurs dug deep and showed that they are aiming to do more than just make up the numbers in the Champions League this campaign.

All of a sudden they burst into life after the break, with Harry Kane and Dele Alli – who were both anonymous at the Gunners – getting involved more and causing problems for a tiring home defence.

It was the former who levelled things up when Kane’s neat low drive found the back of the net, signalling his sixth Champions League goal in five appearances this season, whilst Alli was influential in assisting both goals, seeing off two Dortmund defenders before laying off to Son Heung-min for his winner.

It wasn’t a match that needed to be won, considering Tottenham had already secured their safe passage into the knock-out stages, but the manner of victory will no doubt send out a message across Europe.

Dortmund’s decline ends in Champions League exit

Yet, whilst Tottenham will be buoyant and nervously await the draw for the last 16 next month, Borussia Dortmund will be reflecting on where things went wrong after a dismal European outing this season.

Despite having a number of world-class individuals in their ranks – Aubameyang, Shinji Kagawa, the young Christian Pulisic, Mario Gotze and the injured Marco Reus are all part of the squad at the disposal of manager Peter Bosz – it’s been a stuttering season both in Europe and domestically too.

Their inability to beat Cypriot minnows APOEL Nicosia across two matches all-but put an end to any aspirations of knock-out football, and it seems that the Europa League will now be their next destination.

Add this to their woeful Bundesliga form of late, losing four of their last five matches and drawing the other one to leave them nine points adrift of the top of the table, and warning signs are now flashing.

It’s all a stark contrast to 2013, the year that the German side fell narrowly short in the Champions League final, and it’s clear for all to see that something is fundamentally not right just four years on.

The fact that Aubameyang – who was left out of the Dortmund squad for their Bundesliga defeat at Stuttgart last week after being sanctioned by Bosz – barely celebrated a sublime goal tells its own story of the club’s affairs, and it seems that the head coach could be walking on a very fine tightrope.

Pochettino’s conundrum after Aurier impresses

One thing that was clear from Pochettino’s team selection on Tuesday, other than the clear fact that he was looking for a quick response to the Arsenal defeat by selecting a strong side, was that summer signing Serge Aurier seems to be the preferred right-back option for the Champions League this season.

The £24 million man may have garnered a reputation for being a bit erratic but, contrary to some of his rash moments this season, he played with an element of maturity and care on Tuesday evening.

He certainly warranted his selection at Dortmund, always offering an outlet on the right-wing and constantly finding himself with a wealth of space to run into behind their captain Marcel Schmelzer.

Aurier’s delivery was generally accurate too, forcing the Dortmund defence into last-ditch blocks inside their own area with Kane lurking, whilst he kept things compact alongside Davinson Sanchez at the back.

It would no doubt have hurt the Ivorian to have been omitted from the side for the mightily impressive win over Real Madrid after playing in Tottenham’s opening three European matches, but on Tuesday’s showing he’s laid down a marker for rival Kieran Trippier ahead of the knock-out stages.

Considering the question marks hanging over the head of boss Pochettino about whether Kyle Walker could be replaced it’s certainly not a bad dilemma to have, and a bit of healthy competition between two viable wide options could prove key for Tottenham as the season goes on.

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Borussia Dortmund

Analysing Tottenham striker Harry Kane’s two-goal heroics against Borussia Dortmund

Rob Meech

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Harry Kane

Much had been written about Harry Kane’s barren August, in which he failed to score. However, the drought is well and truly over now September has arrived. Since finding the net for England during the international break, the 24-year-old has rediscovered his scoring boots in spectacular fashion.

His brace against Borussia Dortmund in Tottenham Hotspur’s opening Champions League Group H clash was as impressive as it was timely, providing his side with the perfect start to their European adventure and banishing the Wembley Stadium hoodoo.

It’s no secret that Tottenham are heavily reliant on Kane (perhaps overly so) to be their chief attacking threat, but he rarely lets them down. Manager Mauricio Pochettino will be relieved that his star man is back to his best.

The England striker had a hand in all three of their goals against Dortmund, setting up Son Heung-min for the first before netting either side of half-time to ensure Spurs sent home their supporters happy.

Both goals underlined Kane’s natural ability as a finisher, which has earned him the Premier League’s Golden Boot trophy in the previous two seasons. His first was a carbon copy of Son’s, cutting in from the left and unleashing a rasping drive that beat Roman Burki at his near post.

Perhaps the Dortmund keeper’s positioning was questionable, but such was the power and pinpoint accuracy of Kane’s strike that it would have taken some stopping wherever he had been stationed.

Although Dortmund looked vulnerable at the back, their attacking prowess had caused Spurs problems all night and a 2-1 lead seemed precarious. So Kane’s second of the night was mightily important because it effectively killed off the game.

After being put through by Cristian Eriksen, Kane still had work to do to create enough space to get his shot away. Once again, the accuracy was such that it left Burki with little chance of preventing it from nestling in the back of the net.

Kane could have completed his hat-trick before he was substituted to a rapturous reception from the Wembley faithful, but the damage had been done. Everyone knows Kane likes to shoot from all areas of the pitch, but opponents seem powerless to stop him.

His two goals from four efforts – as well as an assist – represented an excellent night’s work for a man who has grown in stature to become one of the most prolific strikers in Europe. Kane will remain fundamental to Spurs’ hopes of honours this season, both domestically and in Europe.

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Borussia Dortmund

“The Wembley curse is over” – Three things learnt from Tottenham 3-1 Borussia Dortmund

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Harry Kane

Tottenham may face a tough Champions League group including Real Madrid and APOEL alongside Borussia Dortmund, but they could not have gotten off to a better start than with a 3-1 home victory over the Germans.

Son Heung-Min raced clear in the opening minutes to give Mauricio Pochettino’s side the lead, but that lead was quickly pegged back after Andriy Yarmolenko looped an effort over Hugo Lloris and into the corner of the net.

That sparked Harry Kane to life, shrugging off two challenges before firing the ball into the back of the net for a third goal inside 15 minutes. After that the game calmed down as Kane’s second goal midway through the second half put the tie to bed.

A late sending off for Jan Vertonghen, who saw a second yellow for a flailing arm, marred things slightly but Spurs still got off to a dream start at Wembley on Wednesday night.

Here are three things that The Boot Room learnt from the game…

The Wembley curse is over

The tag of a Wembley curse has dogged Tottenham at the start of this season, not helped by defeat to Chelsea and a draw with Burnley, but there is no more emphatic way to put an end to such concerns than by wiping the floor with a difficult Champions League opponent.

Tottenham got off to a dream start through Son Heung-Min and even after conceding an equaliser they reacted well to rapidly re-take the lead. Such a win will give a huge confidence boost and Spurs fans will hope that it will remove any Wembley hoodoo too.

Dortmund continue to disappoint

Gone are the days when Borussia Dortmund were a force to be reckoned with in Europe under Jurgen Klopp, but their performances at Europe’s most elite level have been underwhelming for some time. At Wembley, they once again failed to deceive.

For all their possession and time on the ball in the Tottenham half, they failed to create many clear cut chances, with even their goal coming courtesy of an inspired strike from distance. Defensively they were poor too, with Tottenham scything the back four apart on the counter attack. Mauricio Pochettino will be confident of qualifying from a tough group on the back of that display.

Fernando Llorente offers an entirely different option

He may only have got a few minutes, but right from the off it was clear that the Spaniard’s introduction for Harry Kane would give Tottenham a different dimension in attack. Spurs immediately went for a more direct style with Llorente giving a real focal point in attack.

It’s likely that Llorente will have to wait until the Carabao Cup clash with Barnsley next week for his first start in Tottenham colours, but such aerial presence and power could come in handy against sides like his former team Swansea, who his new club face this weekend.

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