Following their comeback in the Champions League against Arsenal, Schalke came back again in the league on Saturday, this time to get the maximum points against an in form Bremen. National Team newcomer Roman Neustädter canceled out Aaron Hunt’s first half goal before substitute Julian Draxler got the matchwinner. The win keeps Schalke hot on Bayern’s trail and firmly in second place. After trailing for an hour and arguably being outplayed Schalke showed again why they are one of the teams to beat by getting back into a match when it looked least likely while Bremen were left wondering how a performance that started so dominant ultimately left them empty handed in the end.
Lineups and Tactics
Schalke have not been at their best following midweek European matches this season and considering Bremen’s recent upturn in form this was always going to be a tough match. Coach Huub Stevens also had to deal with injuries to Höger and Uchida so Höwedes deputized at right back again with Papadopoulos partnering Matip in the middle. Bremen coach Thomas Schaaf also shuffled things around in his defense, starting Lukimya instead of the injured Prödl. The rest remained the same from last week’s win against Mainz. Both sides emphasize quick transitions through their wide players so the proposition of how Bremen’s flexible midfield four would match up with Schalke’s industrious men in the middle was interesting to say the least.
Because of Bremen’s usual offensive orientation their defensive tactics must have come as a surprise to many in the first half but ironically enough it produced some of the most effective football they’ve played this season. For nearly the entire first half Bremen were happy to let Schalke have the ball and retreated deep into their own half, waiting for the home side to advance. Bremen fans must have been scratching their head because just 36 seconds into the game Holtby ran past two Bremen and set up Huntelaar in perfect position to score but the Dutch striker was denied brilliantly by Mielitz. Schaaf was playing a dangerous game if this is how things would have continued but Bremen’s tactics slowly began to work. The Schalke players were probably just as surprised at how willing Bremen were to let them have the ball but they also found their box increasingly difficult to penetrate. No sooner did they reach Bremen’s half that the lack of playing space and zonal marking forced them to play the ball all the way back to their defenders.
This played into Bremen’s hands perfectly. Schalke were so focused on trying to break Bremen down that they went to sleep in the 16th minute and conceded an unlikely opener. Huntelaar gave possession away cheaply to Elia who quickly played it off to Junuzovic. The Austrian saw Hunt and played him into space which the captain used brilliantly to beat Unnerstall from 14 meters out. Three minutes later Bremen countered quickly again. A cross came in from the right but Petersen shot wide. In the 30th minute it was Bremen again who came close to scoring when Sokratis beat Jones in the air off a corner but was only able to hit the post. For all the possession Schalke had they could do very little with it. Junuzovic, Hunt and De Bruyne won a combined 30 duels and did well in closing opponents down and tracking back. The only criticism that can be made of Bremen’s first half performance was that they did not make better use of the many chances they created and it would ultimately come back to haunt them.
The second half was a completely different story. Schalke’s eventual comeback was in large part down to Stevens’s substitution. Afellay and Huntelaar were particularly ineffective in the first half and were both pulled soon after the break. This had a twofold effect. For one, it made Schalke more symmetrical and less predictable. In the first half a majority of Schalke’s play was focused on the right side with little coming from Fuchs and Afellay on the left. The energetic Draxler balanced their attacks out again. Second, it unsettled Bremen’s shape which by that point was used largely to repeating patterns of play from Schalke. The visitors were still getting chances though, albeit continually being limited to counter attacks, but as the second half progressed Schalke were beginning to look more and more dangerous until Bremen finally began making mistakes.
Schalke won a free kick in the 59th minute and as has been the case at Bremen for so many years they conceded yet another goal from a set piece. Fuchs sent in a delightful ball from the left which Neustädter headed in. The game was leveled again and Bremen’s defense finally unlocked. It was also the eight goal Bremen conceded from a cross, a league high. Schaaf’s men were also beginning to look more unsure of themselves while Draxler was brimming with confidence. Ten minutes after the equalizer it was Schalke ironically enough who benefitted from a great counter attack. Following a wasted Bremen corner kick, Draxler combined with Jones and received a great ball out on the left that he buried past Mielitz with ease. Just like that, Schalke turned another game around. Could Bremen do the same now? They had not lost this season after leading and did not want to lose to Schalke again after conceding more goals against them than any other team last season.
Schaaf needed to take risks now and brought on two strikers in Füllkrug and Akpala but it only opened up more space for Schalke. Draxler could have scored his second in the 84th minute after yet another counter attack but this time Mielitz was up to the challenge. They could not get it done from open play and relied on a set piece to get the job done. That set piece came in the form of a corner in the 94th minute. Hunt crossed the ball in to an open Selassie on the far post whose volley went past everyone except Holtby who made a goal line clearance that preserved a hard fought win. Had Bremen taken their chances in the first half it could very well have been a different story but Stevens recognized his problems and made the right changes. Schaaf on the other hand had one plan and one plan only which worked well in the first half it has to be said but once Schalke were back in the game he lack a similar response.
Despite the loss Bremen can take comfort from some impressive individual performance, Aaron Hunt most notably, who is having a season to remember. Zlatko Junuzovic is another and remains one of Bremen’s unsung heros and perhaps the most underrated player in the league. The Austrian midfielder has yet to lose a duel this season and had another strong outing against Schalke. His opposite, Roman Neustädter, also continued to impress. He had the highest percentage of duels won (73) and was key in keeping Bremen from extending their lead further in the first half. Huntelaar’s form can be a bit worrying were it not for the team getting results. In his 63 mintues on the pitch, the Dutch striker touched the ball just 13 times and is now without a goal in the last five league matches, his worst stretch in over two years.
With 23 points from their first 11 matches, Schalke are off to their second best start in league history, bettered only by the great 1971/72 side. They have made their stadium a fortress (only 1 loss in 8 games this season) and have shown that they can come back into matches and even win them. What distinguishes this Schalke team perhaps more than past sides is that for the most part they take their chances and that they get results in games they otherwise would have lost in the past. Against Bremen they had just 5 shots on goal, their lowest tally at home since 1994 yet they made it count when it mattered and got back into the game at a time when they were seemingly being outplayed. These are the virtues that really take a team to the next level and were it not for Bayern’s incredible and historic form Schalke may well be the top contender this year.
At times Bremen have played some really good football this season but it has already been over a year since they have managed back to back wins. Is it a byproduct of their transition or inherent in their play? This game showed that Schaaf, while successful venturing outside his comfort zone this season, still has some work to do. Rumors of Klaus Allofs’s departure to Wolfsburg won’t help matters either but a home match against Düsseldorf on the next matchday is an opportune moment to get back to winning. Schalke meanwhile will travel to Leverkusen.
Header courtesy of rp-online.de & dpa
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