Will Schalke Soar with Andre Breitenreiter?

Against Mönchengladbach, Andre Breitenreiter completely symbolized where he is at with Schalke. They attacked and attacked, shot and shot; yet, it was Mönchengladbach, after just one opportunity, who capitalized on a rare Joel Matip mistake. Schalke felt hard done by, and no other man than Andre Breitenreiter had felt the most disgust of not having luck on his team’s side.

For Schalke fans in particular, the hardest part of this season may be having to watch as their fierce local rivals, Borussia Dortmund, put in absolutely stellar performances on a game-by-game basis. Dortmund have scored 32 goals in the Bundesliga alone, which almost eclipses Schalke’s scoring record last season entirely. All with a new manager, Thomas Tuchel. Many Royal Blues fans must be left wondering, “What is their new manager doing right that ours isn’t?”

To this anecdote, Schalke have been summarized greatly thus far this season: there is a massive renovation coming, and it’s taking the team time to play.

Like trying to live in a house as it’s changing around those living there, Schalke’s players have been going through the season as the playstyle is adjusted. Schalke has had to go through several managers in such short time that, by now, it’s wearing harshly on team veterans.

Where Jens Keller was all about just attack and the rest will just happen, Roberto Di Matteo pushed for a compact defensive team. Now, Breitenreiter has switched the team to an attacking team. It’s no mistake: Schalke are benefitting from this, and fans should recognize this before putting Breitenreiter, like so many of his predecessors, to the fire.

The first aspect of play that has changed is the involvement of the strikers. Both Franco Di Santo and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar have become involved with the build-up play much more. They’ll push out to the wings to receive the ball and then pass it into the middle. They’re tracking back and providing some defense up until the final third. This is a completely different system than under Di Matteo, who pushed for strikers to stay on the offside line and wait.

That’s strategic talking for, in short terms, getting everyone to do more. This shows in games in the Europa League, as all three games have shown a Schalke that is growing confidence and energy to play.

The kinks are still in the obvious areas: Schalke are still struggling to score, with only 14 goals in 11 Bundesliga games (though they have already scored nine in their three European games played thus far). Schalke are also very naïve when they are trailing by one or two goals, as was apparent against FC Köln, who exposed the high-pressing back line and put three past a Schalke side which, as much as they were pressing for a goal, couldn’t break down a resolute defense. And that’s the biggest kink of all: breaking down thick defenses.

It’s a feat that truly only few teams have mastered in Europe. When your midfielders have the ball at their feet and see 6-7 opposing team players in the penalty box alone, it becomes annoying to find a through ball. This, however, comes with time. Breitenreiter isn’t just calling upon players like Leroy Sane and Max Meyer to run past the back line and score, though that’s what they’re good at: he’s demanding all players play smart but attacking football. It is a hard feat to command of your players after playing almost an entire season defense-mindedly.

Almost all great teams in history came from years of consistency from the managers and above. Manchester United had to rebuild under Sir Alex Ferguson, who arrived at a club filled with unfit drunks who had limitless potential, but saw themselves ending mid-table every season. In six years, Ferguson won United their first league title. In the next 20 years, he won them 12 more.

Needless to say, Schalke will only find true form if they can stick with Breitenreiter and stay on the positive. Schalke don’t possess a team filled with a starting XI of world-class athletes, but there doesn’t need to be one to win a title. Breitenreiter is changing things at Schalke, thinking long-term for the club instead of instant solutions.

Schalke’s next game is against their aforementioned rivals. It will be an interesting game, to truly measure the two sides against each other. The progress one has made versus the other couldn’t be more different, but perhaps Schalke can muster an unexpected, underdog-style comeback to form and leave the Signal Iduna park as winners Sunday night. If there’s one team that is a wildcard for any team they face, it’s Schalke.