Schalke can look back at the Hinrunde with great satisfaction. They are up there in what you would currently classify as the “title race”, won their Europa League group decisively and have had one of the better first halves of the season in decades. After a coaching transition weeks into the new season, the addition of several new players and participation in multiple competitions, one would not be hard pressed to believe they would struggle but the Gelsenkirchen club have exceeded all expectations and set pretty high standards for themselves in the Rückrunde. If their performances so far are any indication however they may very well pull it off.
Schalke’s Hinrunde found them with an 11-5-1 record, a 65 percent win rate, unseen since the 2007-2008 season when Schalke finished third in the table. The season before, 2006-2007, Schalke had a 59 percent win rate at the half and finished second in the table. (Compare that to last season when they had a 29 percent win rate at the half and finished in 14th place).
Most of this season’s success has been attributed to Huub Stevens’ moving Raul into a more open position, able to create opportunities as well as finish them off. And Schalke’s numbers in the first half from Raul and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar are quite pleasing: Schalke is second in the league in goals with 38 (Bayern has 43, Dortmund, 35); however, in goals conceded, the club is way ahead of the other four at the top of the table with 22 (Bayern only 10, Gladbach 11 and Dortmund 12). Huntelaar is the first Schalke player in the history of the Bundesliga to have scored 15 goals after 17 games. (@OptaFranz), and he is only one goal behind current league leader Mario Gomez. No one has scored more goals than Raul from inside the 6-yard box. (@OptaFranz).
And, at least after the high of the 5-0 Bremen win, both Huntelaar and Raul seem quite happy with the Royal Blues. However, transfer rumors abound, connecting Huntelaar with both Manchester United and Arsenal. And Raul’s contract is coming up for renewal this summer, and it is hard to know if the once debt-ridden Schalke will be able to afford keeping the striker. Speaking of transfers and contracts, it appears the club has not and will not seek to keep Jefferson Farfan on board. While the club initially offered the Peruvian an offer, it has since rescinded despite Farfan saying he ‘would die’ for the team. Time will tell.
As for consistency, many fans were frustrated with the team’s 3-1 lackluster loss to Gladbach in German Cup playoff action at the end of 2011, but it should probably have been predicted following the club’s 5-1 dismantling of Bremen the week before. We should know Schalke’s bipolar mood swings by now. No doubt much of that inconsistency can be chalked up to youth. The young guns at Schalke — Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Lewis Holtby, Teemu Pukki and Julian Draxler — are names that can, no doubt, be in the record books for the club over the next few years, but consistent ball control and strategy will no doubt need to come with experience.
Announcers in the Bremen game called Pukki’s name as much as Raul’s, but unfortunately those shouts were followed by near-miss after near-miss by the young Finn. No headed-in goal in the Bundesliga’s first half was more beautiful than Papadopoulos’ own goal in the Hannover game. However, Pukki scored a brace in that game, and Papadopoulos’ defense is at times inspiring. If the team can continue a winning season, and if Horst Heldt can resist the desire to switch players in and out like pawns, and if larger, richer clubs don’t swoop in to steal them, the young guns will have the opportunity to grow and Schalke could see a return to glory days. Those are big ‘ifs.’
Finally, the goalkeeper question. Schalke entered this season without standard-bearer Manuel Neuer and with an untried keeper in Ralf Fährmann. Much like the team, Fahrmann seemed to suffer from some inconsistency — making amazing saves to take man of the match in one of his first appearances with the team, to some cringe-worthy mishaps. Then Fährmann suffered a torn ACL, and Lars Unnerstall got his ticket to the big game. Unnerstall has made good on that opportunity and appears settled as the team’s keeper. But what will become of Fährmann once he is recovered? And what to make of the somewhat bizarre signing of Timo Hildebrand?
Schalke fans seem torn on the goalkeeper question. When asked who they would prefer — a healthy Fährmann, Unnerstall or Hildebrand, the fans were torn between the first two. Hildebrand appears to have made very little impression on most Schalke fans, despite a nice save in his one appearance for Schalke, against Maccabi Haifa in Europa League play. Most of the fans (contacted through Twitter) who responded seemed quite content with Unnerstall.
“I think Unnerstall,” said Wolfgang Bassermann. “I can’t see any reason to take him out.” SchalkerJung agreed, saying the decision was not easy but “Unnerstall should play if he makes no big mistakes.”
Arne1904 agreed: “At the moment, I would prefer Unnerstall.” Carlito1904 says Unnerstall should get the benefit of the doubt. “They all have their qualities, I think. At the moment, I would prefer Unnerstall because he (did) a good job as we needed him.”
A couple of others, though, would let Fährmann back in, if he were well. “I would say a healthy Fahrmann,” said bubliya. “But if he isn’t up to scratch, put Lars in. The more experience he gets the better.” Supportersclub said, ‘I think that there’s actually no need for a change. But normally I’d prefer a healthy, confident (probably his biggest problem) Fährmann.”
Heinz Geldermann agreed, ‘Ralf is more complete than Lars, I think, because he is a little older. He is quicker at bringing the ball back in the game.” However, he added about Unnerstal, “He will be a very good goalkeeper.”
“Next season will be interesting,” Geldermann added. “One keeper will leave next winter, because both are good for a No. 1. I think Ralf will be our keeper for the next years.”
While most fans would no doubt hope that Schalke would focus solely on wining the league, Horst Heldt’s reflection on the season so far seems to be focused on European play as well. ” We are out of the cup so we will need to be successful elsewhere. Our aim is to reach Bucharest and to consolidate our position in the Bundesliga,” he says on schalke04.com.
Schalke 04 returns to Bundesliga action on Saturday, Jan. 21, playing host to Stuttgart. A 3-0 loss to Stuttgart started Schalke’s first half of the season. Fans will be looking for the Die Knappen to start the second half on a much better note.
In related club news, former Schalke favorite Gerald Asamoah may soon be playing in the United States. The German international told the GhanaWeb website of a move to MLS but did not reveal which team he would be playing for. Now there’s a transfer rumor I don’t mind reading.
So, we’ve had our look back at the Hinrunde, but now it is time for Schalke 04 to look forward. And this fan thinks the club should settle on these three New Year’s Resolutions: 1) keep our form from the first half; 2) improve on consistency, and 3) settle on a goalkeeper.