It is a bitter winter break in Gelsenkirchen for a team that gave its fans such high hopes with the best season start in 41 years. And if you look at just the numbers, it’s hard to understand where FC Schalke 04 went so wrong.
The Royal Blues were 6-2-1 in their first 9 games and in second place behind the always-dominant Bayern Munich (their only loss, in fact). In the meantime, they’d topped their group in Champions League, undefeated and the first German team to beat Arsenal at home. And then there was the much-savored 1-2 Derbysieger at Dortmund. Life was good in Gelsenkirchen.
Then November happened. A loss to Hoffenheim on Matchday 10 seemed a mere anomaly then, an error committed by a worn-out team after fives games in two weeks: a 2-0 victory and 2-2 draw with Arsenal in Champions League play, a 3-0 victory over SV Sandhausen in the DFB Pokal, and two Bundesliga games — a 1-0 victory over Nurnberg and the 3-2 loss to Hoffenheim (taken by a late go-ahead goal).
Surely that’s all it was — a worn-out team. That next week, die Knappen looked poised to come back with a 2-1 win over Werder Bremen. But then the fall continued with losses to Bayer Leverkusen, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Freiburg. The team did manage a couple of draws in there, against Frankfurt and Mönchengladbach. But no wins. No wins in six games.
Even the Cup slipped through their hands with a 1-2 loss to a resurgent Mainz in the Pokal’s Round of 16.
Schalke fans could only watch in horror as their season slipped away. Well, actually, some did more than sit and watch. Boos could be heard coming from the stands, and social media was aflutter with über-loyal Royal Blues fans criticizing other fans for such heresy. That’s just not how it’s done at the Veltins.
The first casualty of the mess was coach Huub Stevens, who seemed resigned to taking the blame for something that most people didn’t think was his fault. Stevens’ contract was only for the year anyway, and coaches are used to taking the first hit. Stevens came on board, for the second time, at Schalke in the wake of Ralf Ragnick’s resignation over health issues and seemed to bring an iron, steady hand to the rudder, steering the Schalke ship into a Champions League berth at the end of last year and into an amazing start this year.
Yet cracks in the shell began to show. First, there was the obvious tension between Stevens and Jefferson Farfan and Lewis Holtby during the 0-2 defeat at Leverkusen when Stevens sent Farfan and Holtby off the bench and into the locker room. Bild noted it was “the first signs that not all Schalke stars are 100 percent behind their coach.”
More cracks showed as Stevens tried to deal with the goalkeeper position. All seemed settled at the start of the season when Stevens, after rotating Lars Unnerstall and Timo Hildebrand in pre-season games, made Hildebrand his number one. However, an injury to Hildebrand in training, before Matchday 2, saw Unnerstall brought in to guard the posts. What seemed to be a temporary change turned permanent as Unnerstall would remain in goal for most of the first half of the season, much to the chagrin of Hildebrand and some fans. As the Royal Blues’ tumble began, some fans lashed out at Unnerstall and questioned Stevens’ reliance on the youngster. The fans were calling for the more experienced Hildebrand. In a very unStevens-like move, the coach replaced Unnerstall on Matchday 15 against Monchengladbach with Hildebrand. The Royal Blues managed only a draw in that game and went on to lose against Stuttgart and Frieburg, even with Hildebrand in goal. It was obvious that goalkeeping wasn’t solely to blame for the slide. But Stevens’ apparent submission to fans (as some were calling it) appeared to show a coach losing control.
The team parted ways with Stevens after the league’s last game, a shocking 1-3 loss to Freiburg at the Veltins. Schalke brought in U17 coach Jens Keller, whose only game so far was the 1-2 loss to Mainz to knock die Knappen out of the Cup run. Rumors abound on who the next coach will be, with Armin Veh (whose contract with Eintrach Frankfurt ends this year) and Thomas Tuchel (the Mainz 05 coach who protests loudly any Schalke change) being mentioned the most.
It is clear that there are many other areas besides coaching and goalkeeping that are giving Schalke grief this year, but the three most obvious seem to be: awful finishing, contract distractions and a heavy schedule.
If there has been one common rallying cry from Schalke fans this season, it has been “You gotta finish, boys.” An article by the Bundesliga Fanatic’s Cristian Nyari (“The Creative Gene,” Dec. 29) illustrates well that these fans may know what they’re talking about. Nyari notes that only two teams had created more goal-scoring chances this season than Schalke, and of the six teams outscoring them this year, four have created far fewer chances. So it’s not the opportunities that are missing but the taking advantage of those opportunities — the finishing.
Nyari also noted Schalke’s overreliance on Farfan on the right side. This analysis ties in well with one other observation of differences between the first 11 weeks versus the last six weeks — no Ibrahim Afellay. The Dutch international was injured Nov. 14 in a scoreless friendly between the Netherlands and Germany. Farfan’s bookend in the first games scored only two goals in his eight starts, but a look at Schalke’s season before and after Afellay’s injury may show he has had some influence on the team. Schalke’s record before Afellay’s injury: 7-2-2. After his injury: 0-2-4. Coincidence?
Also out, either on cards or with his knee injury, was defender Kryiakos Papadopoulos. While Schalke have been lucky to have team captain Benedikt Höwedes healthy this season, the Greek international has been a major missing link in a leaky Schalke defense. And Jermaine Jones’ behavior didn’t help either, as the defensive midfielder picked up a league sanctioned four game suspension for a hard tackle on Stuttgart’s Ibrahima Traore on MatchDay 15
Adding to Schalke’s miserable last few weeks were the distractions of contract negotiations with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Holtby. It was a mixed blessing in the end with Huntelaar signing on for two more years, but Holtby chose to leave at the end of his contract this season for the EPL’s Tottenham. Holtby has taken a hit from fans on social media for his decision, but it really should have come as no surprise. The half-English midfielder has spoken often of his desire to play to the Premier League, and his work this season has deservedly brought some EPL eyes his way. He will definitely be missed, but perhaps with the unknown now known, the distractions will lessen and Schalke can focus. With his home for the next seasons determined, perhaps the Hunter too can regain the form that saw him score 29 league goals last year, as he’s only tallied five Bundesliga goals so far this campaign.
Focus has also been hard for Schalke with the team torn between three competitions — Bundesliga, the Pokal and the Champions League. A look back at the last five years shows that the Royal Blues have a difficult time handling all three. Two years ago, Schalke advanced to the semi-finals and won the Pokal, only to finish in a disappointing 14th spot in the league table. In seasons with little or no Champions League distractions, the storied club has maintain its high presence in the table, finishing second and third over those years.
Yet, for a team to succeed in all three requires a deep bench, and a deep bench requires spending. Either Schalke doesn’t have the money or sporting director Horst Heldt isn’t spending it (depending on which fans you ask), although recent word from the club is that there may be some spending to keep Huntelaar happy enough to stay on for a couple more years. Transfer rumors have included defender Jan Kirchoff, who recently announced he would be leaving Mainz at the end of this year (he ended up signing with Bayern) and Inter Milan midfielder Wesley Sneijder.
Now, Schalke obviously has some quality, both on the field and on its bench. Unfortunately, many of them seem to be slumping all at the same time. Julian Draxler and Cirprian Marica run hot and cold, and Teemu Pukki, while never afraid to shoot, needs to learn how to find the net. Roman Neustadter and Tranquillo Barnetta have both been a bit disappointing so far this season as well. Some fans blamed Stevens for not using some of these players enough. It is hard for a player to mature if he isn’t allowed to play. One such young player might be Saed Kolasinac, who saw only two starts this season but impressed some with his work in the 1-1 Montpelier draw in the Champions League. Time will tell. Time on the pitch, that is.
So why has Schalke slid so far in the closing weeks of the Hinrunde, from 2nd to 7th? It is impossible to name one thing. Schalke needs a stronger bench which means more money and/or more time on the pitch for some players. The Royal Blues need to fill holes in defense and take advantage of more opportunities up front. In other words — die Knappen need to play good soccer.
Schalke returns to action Friday, Jan. 18, against Hannover. The Royal Blues managed only a 2-2 draw against the club to start the 2012-13 season. Schalke’s next Champions League game will be against Galatasaray at Türk Telekom Arena in Instanbul on Wednesday, February 20.