Schalke – Better off with Keller?

There has been plenty going on this season at the VELTINS-Arena, both on and off the pitch. That’s why it’s a bit strange to find a club who has endured such instability now 4th in the table and almost assured of a Champions League (albeit qualifying) spot.

Back in August, Huub Stevens was starting his first full season at Schalke for 10 years, having lost Raúl but having made exciting summer signings such as Roman Neustädter from Borussia Mönchengladbach, Ibrahim Afellay on loan from FC Barcelona and Tranquillo Barnetta on a free from Bayer Leverkusen as well as making Chinedu Obasi’s loan from Hoffenheim permanent. Along with thrilling attacking players such as Huntelaar and Holtby and excellent young defenders such as Kiriakos Papadopoulos and Joël Matip, the season was looking promising for Schalke.

Fast forward four months, and the situation had turned very sour for die Königsblauen. Huub Stevens was sacked in mid-December after a 3-1 home defeat to Freiburg, Afellay got injured playing for the Netherlands and hadn’t featured since November, injury also sidelined Papadopoulos, Huntelaar had only five goals to his name, Barnetta had one assist and no goals and Lewis Holtby was set to leave on a Bosman in the summer, with heavy interest from Tottenham. At the end of the Hinrunde, Schalke were lying in 7th place, outside all European competition places.

Sporting director Horst Heldt brought in Jens Keller to replace the sacked Stevens and Schalke fans weren’t filled with confidence. Furthermore, the transfers brought in during the January transfer window weren’t of their liking either, with Michel Bastos coming in on loan from Olympique Lyonnais until 2014 for 2m€ and former Hertha Berlin and Borussia Mönchengladbach Brazilian playmaker Raffael coming in from Dynamo Moscow for 1m€ until summer 2013.

Their Rückrunde started with a thrilling 5-4 victory over Hannover, although things quickly turned sour once again. A run of three draws and two defeats in the following five games, including a humiliating defeat at home against bottom-of-the-table Greuther Fürth, seemed to spell the end of Keller’s short stay as the main man at Schalke.

However, today, Schalke are sitting comfortably in 4th position and looking more than likely to be the team who takes the last Champions League spot, an achievement that seemed so far away during winter. After their 0-1 win at Borussia Mönchengladbach, they realistically only need one more win to secure it and with four wins in their last six, they look odds on to do so.

So what has changed in Gelsenkirchen? How has a team that was performing so poorly for 22 Bundesliga weeks and that was sitting in 9th position in February, seven points off 4th spot, gone to secure that very place?

The explanation is somewhat complex but the changes that the club have experienced are plain for everyone to see.

Lewis Holtby departed the club for Tottenham Hotspur for a measly 1.75m€ after the London club decided they didn’t want to wait until the summer to secure the services of the German U21 international. His departure has meant that young Julian Draxler has taken on a much more important role in Schalke’s attack, and any questions that anyone may have had on his development and whether he would step up or not, have been quashed. Draxler has scored 6 of his 9 league goals in the Rückrunde and has been thriving in a number 10 role.

Another important change that has come under Keller is the change at left-back, with Sead Kolasinac taking over the starting role from Christian Fuchs.  The young 19-year-old Karlsruhe-born full-back has been excellent, especially considering he was playing for Schalke’s II side in the Regionalliga in December.

Still another promising youngster, 17 year-old Max Meyer, has also made his senior debut under Keller’s tutelage. After amazing displays for Schalke’s U19 team (17 goals in 20 appearances) and being a regular feature of German’s U17 side. Meyer was handed his debut in Schalke’s 2-2 draw away at Mainz. Despite the poor situation the club was going through at the time, Keller gave Meyer another chance a week later in the 2-1 win against Fortuna Düsseldorf and has maintained him as a first-team member ever since.

As for the loan signings, their impact has also been a key part of Schalke’s turn in fortunes. Michel Bastos has played on either wing and has contributed four goals and an assist, starting every game since he arrived, without underestimating his energetic style of play and the trouble he causes to the opposition going forward. His Brazilian countryman Raffael has also provided a touch of class in the midfield, contributing no fewer than four assists and popping up with two goals, including the all-important last-minute penalty in the 2-2 draw against Bayer Leverkusen.

Despite being knocked out of the Champions League (3-4 on aggregate against Galatasaray), Schalke fans cannot be too disappointed with how this season is going to end, taking into consideration how it was looking in winter. They now have a young squad with some exciting talents, have done the double over Dortmund this season, Huntelaar is scoring again after his serious injury and they will most likely be playing Champions League football next season. Perhaps it’s one place below what they achieved last year but, but all things considered, it’s a result that fans would have settled for a few months ago.

What part has Keller had in all of this? Well, as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day and the slump early in his tenure can only be attributed as the continuation of the mistakes that were made by his predecessor and the events that happened during the time that he was at the club. Having been given time to make his own decisions, put in his own players and develop his style, Keller has taken Schalke to that coveted 4th place when few thought he would even take them to a Europa League spot.

With Keller’s contract finishing this summer, there has been much speculation as to who will replace him, with names like Stefan Effenberg being thrown into the mix, but Keller’s position is strengthened with every result that Schalke pick up. Heldt recently said in a press conference that Keller has done “an unbelievable job” and that “the players are highly satisfied working with him”, also stating that the choice to appoint him was the right one despite also admitting that speaking to other candidates is part of his job. If Schalke finish in 4th place, replacing Keller for the new season might be the wrong choice.

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Aleix Gwilliam

Is a 27-year-old living in Barcelona who gets more pleasure from watching German lower-league football than from going to watch his hometown team at the Camp Nou every other week. Passionate about European football, its history and culture, you can follow him on Twitter at @AleixGwilliam

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