It was a difficult season last time out for Schalke, a club who suffered the loss of a manager (Huub Stevens, due to poor results) and a key player (Lewis Holtby, now of Tottenham Hotspur) while still trying to remain in contention for a European spot. After a dodgy start to the Rückrunde, including a loss to a team suffering one of the most historically awful Bundesliga seasons in Greuther Fürth, Jens Keller managed to guide the Gelsenkirchen club into fourth position, the Champions League best-placed qualifier spot, at the expense of SC Freiburg on a final day battle away at the Dreisamstadion.
While die Königsblauen struggled to hit top form at points in the season, European qualification in hand has left the club in a good situation. A squad full of young talent has been added to, and there’s every sign that with the ship beginning to steady under Jens Keller, Schalke could be a force to be reckoned with in the Bundesliga, and might even continue the excellent recent form of German sides in European competition.
Indeed, of the European candidates for the next season, Schalke have probably strengthened the most, with four excellent signings patching up areas of the squad that were found lacking in 2012/2013, and could even press Bayern and Dortmund hard at the top of the table.
The New Boys
Perhaps General Manager Horst Heldt’s most impressive, and at the very least most inspiring signing is that of 18 year old midfielder Leon Goretzka. At first glance, the signing of a teenager from a second division side might not look as impressive as dubbed, but Goretzka attracted the attention of most top German clubs and even clubs across Europe – Arsenal, Manchester United and Real Madrid were all touted destinations for one of Germany’s brightest footballing youngsters.
It should be mentioned that Schalke and VfL Bochum both battled particularly hard to have/keep Goretzka at their club for the next season, meaning the surrounding transfer saga turned ugly very quickly – perhaps showing how coveted Goretzka’s signature was for die Königsblauen.
During his first professional season at Bochum, Goretzka impressed on the field, leading many to claim that he’ll be ready to take up his place in a midfield already containing the likes of Julian Draxler, Jermaine Jones, Roman Neustädter and fellow new signing Christian Clemens. Indeed, Goretzka has played a key role in the pre-season preparations, and looks in a strong position to take up one of the three central berths.
Christian Clemens himself is another signing from a 2. Bundesliga club, this time 1. FC Köln. Clemens is another midfielder who lit up the second tier last year, becoming a key cog in a team who almost managed to gain promotion at the first time of asking following relegation the year before, and after a dreadful start in which the club collected a mere two points from six games.
Clemens mustered six goals and five assists from the left wing for die Geißböcke last season before an U21 Euro campaign in which he featured mostly as a substitute. While Clemens isn’t a talent on the level of Goretzka, Meyer or Draxler, he’ll certainly be an interesting player to watch this season.
Adam Szalai and Felipe Santana have also joined Schalke over the summer. In Szalai, Schalke have a proven Bundesliga goalscorer who has been effective for Mainz over the past few seasons. Additionally, Szalai offers a little something different to the likes of Huntelaar, boasting a better work rate which may win him favour with coach Jens Keller.
Santana’s transfer – a cheap one, at that, for a €1 Million fee – was a real surprise, having turned out for Schalke’s arch rivals Borussia Dortmund for the past few seasons. For those who paid attention to Dortmund’s run in Europe last season, the Brazilian defender should need no introduction; drawing added time and thus going out to Malaga, Santana bundled home a scruffy effort in dubious circumstances provoking wild scenes in Dortmund and presumably less happy ones in Gelsenkirchen.
However, in Santana Jens Keller will have a proven Bundesliga defender at his disposal, and from the Brazilian’s point of view, he should accrue more game time in the royal blue of Schalke.
The Key Men
Julian Draxler will be the difference between a good season and an excellent season for die Königsblauen. The teenager – at least, if you’re reading this before September – was absolutely inspired last season, and effectively dragged the team through their post-Winter slump.
Draxler was rewarded with a lucrative new five year contract, and a fleet of vans emblazoned with his image to parade around the Ruhrgebiet, but perhaps the greatest reward for what was really his breakthrough season from a future talent to a respected current talent was his inclusion in the German National Team, appearing in some qualifiers before opening his international account against the United States on the ill fated USA tour.
Aside from Draxler, Kyriakos Papadopoulos is another important man for Schalke. The Greek defender, who has attracted interest from Liverpool this summer, is one of the most important parts of the Schalke rearguard. At times in 2012/2013, his inspired play belied his tender years. At only 21, Papadopoulos has a lot to learn but is seemingly doing well in learning it; the youngster should be a stalwart of the Greek national side for years to come, and is contracted with Schalke until 2016.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar should also be mentioned among Schalke’s key men, having been so important at least a few years ago. Last season wasn’t up to the Dutchman’s usual standards, netting only ten times in the league, but his return from injury towards the end of the season provided the impetus for a late burst towards fourth, with a brace against Hamburg a point in case.
Schalke may suffer due to lack of a top-drawer goalkeeper; while between Timo Hildebrand, Lars Unnerstall and Ralf Fährmann the club have three good goalkeepers, none would slot into their European rivals’ teams from any perspective. This could have perhaps been something to look at over the summer, with, in particular, Fabian Giefer from Fortuna Düsseldorf a tantalising prospect. However, Schalke should be able to make do with what they have, a good defence and an excellent attacking unit.
Following their late season surge and a whole host of new signings, Schalke 04 look in a good position for the coming season; however, the verdict is still out on coach Jens Keller – even if he steadied the ship towards the end of last season – and the club will still be reliant on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar really hitting the heights in the goalscoring charts if they’re to climb further up the table than before. That said, the club could perhaps spice up the title race somewhat, and a finish somewhere between second and fourth should be achieveable.