Schalke finished off the Hinrunde in style and with their biggest win of the campaign against an uninspired Werder Bremen who continue to struggle against the league’s top clubs. The win brings Schalke level on points with rivals Dortmund and keeps them just three points behind league leaders Bayern.
It was Huub Steven’s biggest win as Schalke coach as well as the club’s biggest ever win against Bremen, pointing to the progress the team has made this season. The star of the show though was Raul who netted his third Bundesliga hattrick and proved again how important he is to his team.
Literally and figuratively, Raul is the focal point of both Schalke’s tactical structure and on field performance. As time progressed and with Huntelaar finding his form, Raul has taken on more of a playmaking role than that of goalscorer. As a result, pressure was taken off him to score and the team was given more breathing room to perform collectively. No longer the team’s primary source of goals, Raul is free to create and utilize his intelligence and movement to optimize his side’s performance. The results have been telling, Schalke have had one of the best Hinrunde performances in club history and only Bayern have scored more goals than them this season.
Stevens, and Rangnick before him, play Raul behind Huntelaar in a free role. Two ball winners, Jones and Holtby, are used behind him with a set of interchangeable wing forwards who play closer to the middle than the touchline. Whether intentional or simply the result of the personnel available, this provides Raul with a plethora of options as the team’s de facto playmaker. Raul has been involved in 65 goal scoring chances for Schalke this season and directly involved in 15 goals in their 17 matches so far, 4 more than he did at this stage last season. The Spaniard is also the most efficient passing striker in the league, completing 82% of his 578 passes this season, an unusually high rate for a striker. Then again, Raul is so much more.
Raul vs. Bremen
The freedom of Stevens system and Raul’s intelligence and efficacy in its execution was very much behind Schalke’s dominant performance and win over Bremen. As Schalke’s playmaker, Raul was behind nearly every positive move made by the hosts and took some 40 minutes to score his second hattrick against Bremen. The first of those goals was a classic example of poaching. Huntelaar took a shot from the edge of the box after a corner kick, forcing a reflex save from Wiese. Raul was positioned perfectly to pounce on the rebound and put Schalke ahead. Four minutes later Raul’s ingenuity was on full display. Fuchs chipped a ball over Bremen’s defense and instead of chasing the ball after his first touch Raul let it run to Huntelaar and positioned himself away from Wiese who came out to challenge. All Huntelaar had to do was lay the ball back to Raul for a simple tap in.
It was a move that looked simple on first glance but several intelligent decisions were made to execute it. First, Raul lost his marker and got behind Bremen’s defense without playing into the offside trap. Second, many strikers would have chased the ball and tried to shoot from an acute angle or even round the goalkeeper. He saw Huntelaar coming from the left and let the ball play to him while pulling away from the onrushing Wiese. Raul again used his head on the third goal, literally and figuratively, a goal he started and finished. He picked up the ball by the halfway line and saw Fuchs open out on the left. After passing the ball to the Austrian, Raul made a dashing run into the box and met Fuchs’s cross with a precise flying header from 11 meters out, rounding off a perfect hattrick.
Raul also created several chances for his teammates, one of which came before the break when he laid the ball off to Pukki whose shot was barely tipped away by Wiese. Schalke’s #7 created more chances than all Bremen players combined, had 82 touches on the ball and completed a match high 62 passes. At the age of 34, Raul still ran more than any attacker on the pitch (10.99 km) and made more runs than anyone bar Höger and Ignjovsky. The attention prior to the match might have been on two of the league’s top goalscorers in Huntelaar and Pizarro but it was Raul who stole the show. Apart from his goals, Raul was the heartbeat of the team and kept the flow of the game going while keeping his side inspired for all 90 minutes. Perhaps it is fitting then that with this hattrick, Raul equalled Fernando Torres’s record of most hattricks scored outside of Spain. Anything else would be unjust.
Image courtesy of bundesliga.de
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