Despite a great display at the Santiago Bernabeu in the 2nd leg of their knockout match against Real Madrid, Schalke were eliminated. The Royal Blues had lost the first leg 2-0, so last week’s 4-3 win wasn’t enough for them to progress to the quarterfinals. Even though Roberto Di Matteo’s team is out of the Champions League, they showed a lot of encouraging signs. Signs that may show that they’re starting to find consistent form, something that has been missing all season.
After the win in Madrid, it looked like Schalke could be finding form at an important time of the season. Just twice in the league this season have Schalke strung together multiple wins. They failed to do so again this weekend, drawing Hertha BSC at the Olympiastadion. Twice Di Matteo’s side fell behind, and twice they came back to level the score, including Joel Matip’s stoppage time equalizer. Although it wasn’t a win, it may prove to be an important point.
Near the top of the Bundesliga table, just six points separate the third and sixth spots. By missing out on next season’s Champions League, and the payday that comes with it, Schalke might not be able to afford to keep some of their talented youngsters. Emerging stars like Max Meyer, Leon Goretzka and Leroy Sané, all played very well against the Galacticos. With the budget constraints that upper management have for this team, that Champions League money is important for supplementing the squad, even if S04 continue developing great talent from within. Sané, the freshest of the bunch of Schalke youngsters, made it two goals in two games with another against Hertha over the weekend.
Keeping the nucleus of this team together is important going forward. Julian Draxler has missed most of this season with a thigh injury, but he is a player that Die Königsblauen will be able to build around, continuing the youth movement. With older players like Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Jefferson Farfán and Kevin-Prince Boateng aging out, the younger players will start to take center stage next year – which could be a crucial point in time for the club.
Since taking over on October 7th after Jens Keller was fired, Roberto Di Matteo has steadied the ship in Gelsenkirchen. When the Swiss international took over, the Royal Blues were in 11th place. Now in fifth, there remains work to be done but the changes he has implemented are starting to take shape. Switching from a back four to a system with three central defenders has been the biggest change he’s made. Again, this is helping to accommodate some of the youth. Kaan Ayhan, a 20-year-old center back, has seen limited playing time but should be a mainstay in the future. Matija Nastasić was brought in on loan to replace the outgoing Felipe Santana, and Schalke liked the 21-year-old Serbian so much that they activated the transfer clause in his loan deal. Nastasić penned a four-year contract last week, and Schalke were happy to play Manchester City 9.5 million Euros.
With Benedikt Höwedes, Joel Matip, Matija Nastasić and Kaan Ayhan, Schalke have four dependable central defenders, three under the age of 23. With an average age of 24.8, Schalke is the joint-second youngest club in the Bundesliga. For all the praise that the brilliant youngsters get, they are also still somewhat inconsistent. Take Timon Wellenreuther for example. After starting the season fourth on the depth chart, the 19-year-old goalkeeper now has six starts in the Bundesliga and two in the Champions League. Wellenreuther has shown great shot-stopping ability, but only one clean sheet shows he is still error-prone and has things to work on. Would Schalke be in a better league position had Ralf Fährmann (and even Fabian Giefer) not gone down with injury? Definitely, but the experience Wellenreuther has gained is important going forward.
Now that we are nearing the business end of the season, it’s important that Schalke can start turning draws into wins. Di Matteo has them close to where they want to be in the table, but a final push is needed. Fortunately for the Royal Blues, their schedule is much easier than say, ‘Gladbach – who have all of the top half left to play, save for Schalke. Di Matteo’s men get to play the entire bottom four. However, trips to Augsburg and Wolfsburg may be tricky.
Will Schalke be able to crack the top four? Nothing is certain, but an easy run-in down the stretch gives Di Matteo’s side a good chance. They’ll be hoping that it’s more Jekyll and less Hyde, as it will come down to finding some consistency and stringing a few wins together. Can the youngsters be trusted? It may be the best chance they have.