Tactical frailties weaken Keller’s Schalke

Schalke’s Hinrunde was neither a success nor a complete failure. What can we make out of their performance? Tactical analyst Tobias Escher from the German tactics blog Spielverlagerung.de discusses Schalke’s tactical weaknesses.

Before I analyse Schalke’s tactical system, I have a confession to make: I haven’t enjoyed Schalke this season. Don’t get me wrong, Schalke does not play bad but, from a professional point of view, destroying a bad team in a tactical analysis is as much (if not even more) fun than writing about a good team. But the truth is that Schalke are mindbogglingly average this season. If I was forced to write a lexicon article on the average tactical system in the Bundesliga in the 2010s par excellence, I would simply refer to Jens Keller’s team. In short, Schalke’s Hinrunde was average enough for it to not be seen as a complete failure, but, then again, it was too average to be seen as a success either.

The long version is that Schalke’s 4-2-3-1-system works well against mediocre opponents but lacks punch against opponents with individual or collective brilliance. Schalke use a 4-2-3-1-formation like most Bundesliga-teams do these days; when Schalke’s opponent has the ball, they defend with two banks of four, thus creating a 4-4-1-1. When Schalke themselves have the ball, the two full-backs push high up and one of the central midfielders drops deep, creating a formation that could best be described as a 3-3-3-1. This formation has become very common in the Bundesliga in the last couple of years, although some successful teams today use alternative formations (Bayern and Leverkusen use a 4-3-3 and Gladbach a 4-4-2-0). In Schalke’s case, this formation causes two problems.

Problem one: offensive creativity

The first problem affects Schalke’s attack.  Schalke are lacking creativity in midfield. In many games in the Hinrunde, they were not able to get past their opponent’s defensive lines. This lack of offensive quality is highlighted by the fact that they are the fifth-lowest Bundesliga team in amount of shots (they shot 220 times in the Hinrunde. Arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund have 100 shots more than them).

What causes this problem? To a large degree it has to do with Schalke’s Doppelsechs (double defensive midfielder). Keller tested a lot of different combinations, but has not been able to find the right one yet. The best combination was probably Roman Neustädter alongside Marco Höger. Neustädter provided cover for the defence while Höger dashed forward or distributed passes to the attacking players. However, Höger missed most of the Hinrunde due to injury, so Keller had to improvise.

Often, Neustädter played alongside Jermaine Jones. The problem is that neither Neustädter nor Jones are playmakers. In many games, there was a gap between Schalke’s offensive three and their two defensive midfielders. Neustädter and Jones often fell back between the centre backs to evade pressure, making the gap even more visible.

Kevin-Prince Boateng tried to solve the problem by dropping deep and helping his team in his own half but, in those situations, Schalke was missing an open man in the offensive midfield. A common occurrence was that Boateng or the defensive midfielders had to pass the ball to the full-backs, something which most Bundesliga teams anticipated  pass and therefore focused their pressing on the full-backs. In general, this is one of the big problems of 4-2-3-1ish formations: If a team lacks a good playmaker in the middle of the park, you have to rely on your wingers to create a connection between defence and attack (a problem also apparent in Moyes’ Manchester United side).

Schalke only found one solution to improve the connection between defence and attack: In the build-up, the full-backs pushed high up the pitch to get the ball further up, got closer to the opponent goal and thereby connected Schalke’s defence and attack. However, this caused problem number two.

Problem two: defensive liability

Schalke’s shape was pretty vulnerable due to the bad positioning of the team – only the two centre backs plus one of the central midfielders stayed behind the ball. When they completed the first two or three passes, they were in a good position to create a goal-scoring opportunity thanks to the sheer number of players they deployed in the opponent’s half. When they lost the ball, however, their bad shape gave their opponents a great chance to counter-attack.  This problem was particularly evident in the two games against Chelsea, when Mourinho’s club was able to easily outnumber Schalke in counter-attacking situations. Schalke lost both games 3-0.

Furthermore, Schalke’s defensive line-up also has its flaws. They defend in a 4-4-1-1 and this shape is usually a very balanced shape – the team can defend the whole width of the pitch and also close the centre by pushing together the whole formation. The problem is that this is nothing special in the Bundesliga anymore. Borussia Dortmund have their Gegenpressing, Gladbach have their very tight 4-2-4-0-shape, Wolfsburg play some sort of mixture between man marking and zonal marking… But Schalke? They are simply defending. Sometimes that is sufficient, but often enough their average defending and their bad positioning in counter-attacking situations led to goal-scoring opportunities for their opponents.

How good are Schalke?

Schalke had their best performances when they ceded possession against opponents who lacked offensive creativity. This was most notable against Stuttgart, when Schalke only had 43% possession but controlled the game with their defensive work and won 3-0. However, Schalke rarely ever meet individual and weak opponents who try to control the game against them. Against weaker opponents who sit deep, Schalke’s attack does not get enough balls from the defensive players; against individually-strong teams, Schalke’s defence is not tight enough, leaving too much space open which enables the opposition to create chances.

Schalke only won one game in encounters against top 5 sides of the league, a tight 2:0 victory against Leverkusen. On the other hand, Schalke are not creative enough to dominate weaker sides who work well against the ball. They only won 16 out of 27 possible points against teams from the bottom half of the table. This sets them apart from their rivals Borussia Dortmund, who also failed to win against the league’s top-teams but won 23 out of 27 points against the weaker sides.

Still, Schalke are not a completely bad side. They have enough individual strength to win tight games. Max Meyer blends well with Boateng and Draxler with all three of them able to deliver the punch to win important games. However, their tactical weaknesses in terms of defending and attacking against  deep sitting opponents prevent them from gaining points more regularly.

4-1-4-1 – the solution?

In the winter break, Schalke’s coach Jens Keller experimented with a 4-1-4-1-formation. This could indeed help them to improve the connection between defence and attack. Boateng would best be suited in the role of a central midfielder (the so-called no. 8 position) and could dart forward with all his dynamism and speed. However, there are still plenty of unanswered questions: Which role would Draxler play in this system. It is no secret that he wants to play as a no. 10 and does not like his role as a left winger; How can Huntelaar be implemented? A 4-1-4-1 usually needs either a mobile target-man such as Mandzukic or Kießling or a player with high technical abilities such as Thomas Müller or Mario Götze (false nine). Is Huntelaar up to that task?

It’s a strong possibility that Keller will prefer to use his 4-2-3-1 against Hamburg on Sunday. In the Hinrunde, all the problems mentioned in this article could be seen during Schalke’s 3-3 against HSV and it is now time for Keller to prove that he knows how to tackle these problems. If he can’t solve them, it will be hard for him to keep his job until the end of the season.


Header courtesy of sueddeutsche.com

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