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German Bundesliga

Are Schalke set for a season of transition?

The Boot Room

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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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Arsenal

Everton should prioritise landing Borussia Dortmund star Mario Gotze

Marco Silva should go all out to make this deal happen.

Jamie Watts

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Marco Silva is aiming to make a statement of intent in the market this summer, as Everton owner Farhad Moshiri targets a return to European football in the near future. And the club has now been linked with a sensational move for Borussia Dortmund maestro Mario Gotze, according to Sky Sports.

The 2014 World Cup Golden Boy has struggled to nail down a regular starting position, since returning to Dortmund from Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in 2016. And is struggling to get back to the form that saw him widely recognised as one of the finest play-makers in world football.

However, despite his modest return of two goals and seven assists in 32 appearances, he began showing glimpses of his best form for the Bundesliga giants, and if Marco Silva can bring the best out of him, he could instantly elevate Everton to higher levels next season.

Photo: Getty Images

Toffees fans bemoaned the pragmatic style of football under Sam Allardyce last term, having finished 19th for number of shots registered, shots on target and chances created in England’s top tier, highlighting the need for creative players this summer and Gotze certainly fits the bracket.

However, the player has garnered a reputation for being injury prone in recent years – having missed 13 games last season (tranfermarkt) – and the investment would be something of a risk for the Portuguese manager.

Photo: Getty Images

If Everton are to return to European football, Gotze is the calibre of player that needs to be targeted though, and he is certainly worth the risk. The 26-year-old was arguably the most influential player in Dortmund’s recent ascendancy, alongside Marco Reus, as the club won back-to-back Bundesliga titles and the DFB Cup in 2012 – ironically under the tenure of the now Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.

Gotze has two years remaining on his contract at the Westfalenstadion and will likely cost  a hefty price, having returned to Dortmund for around £22 million in his last move.

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Germany

World Cup One To Watch: Germany’s 22-year-old striker Timo Werner

The Germany international will be a player to keep an eye out for in Russia.

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Timo Werner
Photo: Getty Images

RB Leipzig striker Timo Werner is Germany’s first-choice striker going into the 2018 FIFA World Cup and one of the most coveted young forwards in Europe.

The 22-year-old has been tasked with the responsibility of leading the line for the tournament holders in Russia after netting 13 times and providing eight assists in 32 Bundesliga outings this season.

Should he approach the summer in the same manner as the rest of his career to date, he could really stamp his authority on the World Cup.

To see who else features in The Boot Room’s World Cup Ones to Watch series, click here.

Who is he?

After becoming the youngest player ever to feature for VfB Stuttgart’s first team, Werner completed a €10 million move to RB Leipzig on the back of the club’s maiden promotion to the Bundesliga.

In his debut season for the Saxony-based side, in which he scored an impressive 21 goals in 31 appearances, he would go on to become the youngest ever to reach 100 and 150 Bundesliga games.

While he was considered a talent at Stuttgart, his prowess has seen him reach new heights with his current club. Playing among a creative cast at Leipzig, featuring Liverpool-bound Naby Keita and Emil Forsberg among others, Werner has excelled.

After a runners-up finish last term, his goals this season have helped Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men to maintain their challenge for a second successive top-four finish in the Bundesliga, all the while hunting for glory in the Europa League.

(Photo by Robert Michael/Getty Images)

What is his international experience/record?

Werner has played for the German youth national teams throughout his career thus far, scoring 34 goals in 48 matches between Under-15 and Under-21 level.

At the age of 21, he would make his debut for Joachim Löw’s senior side, starting alongside Lukas Podolski in a 1-0 victory over England in Dortmund. He had little luck on that occasion, but he has since shown his ability to grow into the role.

Proving himself more than capable of reproducing his club form on the international stage, Werner collected the Golden Boot as the Germans followed their World Cup triumph with success at last summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup.

To date, the Leipzig youngster has accrued eight goals in 14 games for his country – a total that will surely increase with his involvement in Russia.

Why will he be a breakout World Cup star?

“If Timo Werner stays fit, I believe he will be the top scorer of the World Cup”, former Germany international Mario Basler said of the 22-year-old, back in 2017.

Die Mannschaft will go into the summer’s showpiece as favourites to retain their world crown and, with Werner leading the line, they will be a fearsome prospect for any opposition.

Despite his young years, the Leipzig forward already possesses a wealth of experience and has deservedly established himself as Germany’s first choice front-man.

Considering his record at club level, one just has to consider the damage he could do with the likes of Leroy Sane, Mesut Özil, Thomas Muller Toni Kroos in support.

A lethal finisher, Werner has developed into one of the greatest talents in his home country and will relish the prospect of leading Löw’s side to a second successive World Cup success.

Himself, a firm believer that Germany are favourites for the upcoming tournament, the Leipzig striker is sending all the right messages suggesting he is ready to hit the ground running.

(Photo by Miguel Medina/Getty Images)

What is his future after the World Cup?

While most ardent footballer advocates will instantly recognise his name, this summer could be moment Werner experiences a meteoric rise on the global stage.

Leipzig sporting director Ralf Rangnick has already expressed just how difficult it would be to replace a player like the 22-year-old, which means he would come at some price.

Werner has been heavily linked with moves to England or Spain, with Real Madrid, Manchester United and Liverpool among the teams reportedly interested in his services.

In an interview with FourFourTwo, earlier in March of this year, he explained that of the two aforementioned Premier League clubs, Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils would be his preferred choice.

Nonetheless, Werner remains adamant that a summer switch is not part of his plans and, with his current contract running through to 2020, his future seemingly lies with Leipzig.

To see who else features in The Boot Room’s World Cup Ones to Watch series, click here.

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Borussia Dortmund

A move to Borussia Dortmund would be ideal for exiled Simon Mignolet

The Belgian goalkeeper has fallen behind Lorius Karius in the Anfield pecking order.

Max Cohen

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Photo: Getty Images

Without a league appearance for Liverpool since New Year’s Day, Simon Mignolet has been completely frozen out at Anfield after inconsistent performances.

Recent reports in The Sun have linked the Belgian goalkeeper with a transfer to Borussia Dortmund, a move that would perfectly suit the 30-year-old in a bid to rejuvenate his career.

The former Liverpool number one has split time with Lorius Karius after the German joined the Reds in the summer of 2016, but seems to have been finally supplanted as the first choice goalkeeper this winter.

The tipping point perhaps came in Liverpool’s 3-3 draw with Arsenal in late December. Mignolet made a number of high-profile errors at the Emirates, most notably failing to deal with Granit Xhaka’s speculative long-range strike.

During his horror show against Arsenal, the Belgian earned an abysmal WhoScored rating of 4.88. He made just two Premier League appearances after that match before Karius took over between the sticks.

(Photo by Paul Ellis/Getty Images)

It now seems clear that the Belgian’s time at Anfield has come to an end after five years at the club.

With the Reds constantly linked with the continent’s top goalkeepers such as Alisson Becker, as reported earlier by the Mirror, Mignolet will find himself well down the pecking order at Liverpool.

A move to the Westfalenstadion would be a tremendous opportunity for Mignolet to ply his trade at one of the biggest clubs in Europe, with Champions League football and an adulating fan base on offer.

The 30-year-old still has many productive years left in his career, and can still provide some moments of world-class quality in goal.

A transfer to Borussia Dortmund would grant Mignolet first-team football and a chance to impress at the highest level of European football.

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