Schalke had to come from behind to earn a draw against a stubborn and lively Mainz. The visitors went ahead in the 15th minute through returnee Zidan and looked the better side for much of the first half. Huub Stevens made the necessary changes at half time after a disappointing first half performance and gradually got his side back into the game. Obasi leveled the score on the hour mark followed by an avalanche of pressure from Schalke but a defensively organized Mainz held out for an important point on the road. For Schalke it was two valuable points dropped in the tight title race, rivals Dortmund having won yesterday.
Line-ups and Tactics
Schalke welcomed back their captain Höwedes and the talismanic Raul, both replacing Metzelder and Uchida. Their return also marked a change in formation as Stevens lined up with a 4-4-2 that that in practice often resembled a midfield diamond instead of the usual 4-2-3-1, not wanting to leave out striker Marica after his impressive performance last week. He partnered Huntelaar up front with Raul supporting them. Draxler and Obasi tucked in behind him and Matip anchoring the midfield. Tuchel too made two changes. Kirchhoff and the returning Zidan replaced the absent Szalai and Müller. The Mainz manager kept his team’s shape in the search for his second away win of the season.
Mainz outshoot Schalke
Considering that Schalke are having one of their most productive ever seasons in terms of output it was surprising that Mainz outshot Schalke 11-3 in the first half, and on the road no less. Schalke failed to get a single shot on target in the first 45 minutes, both a result of resolute defending by Mainz and a dearth in the creativity department from the home side, something reminiscent of their first half against Köln last weekend.
Mainz came out the same way they did against Freiburg, in which they went up 3-0 after just 17 minutes, playing at an extremely high tempo and aggressively pushing forward. They were particularly forceful on the right side with Caligiuri and Zidan making it a particularly difficult afternoon for Fuchs. Zidan came close from a free kick on 14 minutes but barely missed the target. The opening goal would be created on the left however after Zabavnik beat his markers and floated in a cross to an unmarked Zidan who volleyed the ball into the bottom right corner. Fuchs failed to track Zidan’s run on the right and made it easy for the striker to net his 23rd goal in 42 matches for the club.
Not resting on their laurels, Mainz continued to push forward after the goal and were unlucky not to double or even triple their lead. Schalke were fazed and struggled to get a grip on the game. Höger and Fuchs were particularly poor with their distribution and gave many balls away (both had a combined 27 misplaced passes) while Obasi and Draxler contributed little defensively. The midfield diamond may have been a hindrance considering all the room Mainz had in wide areas. Mainz did well to add variety to their game, Choupo-Moting and Zidan interchanging in the front, Polanski and Kirchhoff winning challenges in midfield (35 in total) and Caligiuri and Soto supplying good balls into the channels (36 completed passes combined)
Stevens adjusts his tactics
After a forgettable first half, Stevens needed to tweak his tactic. He made two changes that would help Schalke get back into the match. Jurado and Farfan came on for Draxler and Marica, both contributed very little in the first half. Obasi was moved over to the left and Farfan returned out wide for the first time since his injury in November and Stevenes reverted back to the familiar 4-2-3-1. Schalke were still settling their first half jitters and Mainz had the first good chance of the half, Zidan again coming close from a free kick on the 50th minute. Now having legitimate width with Farfan and a more creative force in Jurado though, Schalke were slowly but surely beginning to look more composed.
The home side were now more direct in their approach, linked up better and forced Pospech and Zabavnik back thanks to Obasi and Farfan’s wide play. That also brought Fuchs into the game who largely spent the first half defending in his own half. Obasi’s move to the left would pay off at the hour mark after the Nigerian picked up the ball and beat Pospech before hammering the ball past Wetklo at the near post. After the goal and the congestion in the center of the pitch in the first half, Schalke concentrated their play more in wider areas and five minutes later Matip’s header from five meters nearly gave Schalke the lead after a great cross in from Höger. In fact, Schalke had 26 crosses in this match compared to Mainz. Farfan alone had more than all Mainz players combined, which begs the question, why Stevens even changed that tactic in the first place. Huntelaar and Farfan had two additional chances to win the game but were denied first by a Noveski block and poor aim.
Mainz remained dangerous on the break with Schalke committing players forward but there was no question about who was the better side in the second half. Fortunately for Mainz, their defense was up to the task and put up a formidable performance. Schalke are one of the best sides in the league in the air and Mainz matched them well in that area but Tuchel ultimatelylacked an answer to Steven’s tactical changes in the second half.
With the title race heating up and points becoming ever more valuable, dropping them could prove more and more consequential. Schalke’s five match unbeaten run was brought to an end against Mainz and considering their turnaround in the second half one can only imagine what the result could have been had Stevens started with that strategy. Next week Schalke’s task of breaking down a stubborn defense will be made even harder when they travel to the league’s best defense in Mönchengladbach.
Mainz can be content with the point considering they played a side that hasn’t lost in ten matches. Zidan made a great return to his old club and Kirchhoff was dominant in central midfield. Tuchel seems to be edging closer to finding the right balance between his high tempo pressing game and defensive stability.
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