Are Schalke set for a season of transition?
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.
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.
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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