Games against Bayern haven’t been kind for Schalke over the last decade with die Königsblauen losing twelve of their last twenty in the league against the reds, and only two of those fixtures seeing three points awarded to the Ruhr based club. Things were looking up for Schalke with two draws against the champions last season, but the performances were less than convincing, particularly the most recent one where for a large part of the game Schalke were dominated by the ten men of Bayern.
From the off Saturday it looked like it might be the same old story with Bayern dominating possession and Schalke pinned back in their own half. The problem with playing Bayern, particularly under Pep Guardiola, is that they’re like a playground bully. Not in the traditional sense where the bully is some big brute twice your size pushing you around. No, this Bayern side is the rich, good-looking, popular kid holding your bag just out of reach.
That was very much the way the first quarter of an hour went, with Bayern holding around 70% possession and Schalke struggling to get near the ball for all their effort. That effort was clear to see, Schalke held formation and pressed the ball once it got into their final third, but the players seemed to be half a second late to the ball and with fifteen minutes on the clock it was Bayern with five shots and a goal to their name, and Schalke with zero of both.
As for the goal itself, when you’re playing Bayern you’re going to need a bit of luck if you’re going to get a result, so the last thing you need is that playground bully getting the luck, which is just what Bayern had when David Alaba’s shot took a big deflection off Leon Goretzka leaving Ralf Fährmann on the deck.
The response was positive though. Whereas in games under Di Matteo where Schalke would sit all their men behind the ball and simply turn possession back over to the reds in a bid to hold out, this Schalke side were more positive on the ball looking to play out from the back when possible and move the ball forward at every opportunity. That’s not to say they didn’t have men behind the ball however; they lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation with Roman Neustädter sitting in front of the defence and dropping into a five at the back when they weren’t in possession. The ball wasn’t being turned over as cheaply as previously, and although Bayern still enjoyed the majority of the ball, there was a sense that Schalke were a threat on the counter.
Five minutes after going behind Schalke were back level as Leroy Sané, who was their best player in the first half, got that little bit of luck needed when he managed to beat a handful of Bayern players with the help of a deflection off of Xabi Alonso before Max Meyer finished tidily into the bottom right corner from the edge of the box, though Manuel Neuer could have done better.
From that point on the half was more balanced with neither side enjoying any clear-cut chances. The best opportunity actually fell to Schalke despite Bayern’s dominance of the ball, but with options either side Goretzka ignored a great run from new German international Sané and instead had a tame effort blocked.
Owen Hargreaves in commentary was complimentary of Schalke, stating they were doing well and that this was often the case when teams ‘play’ against Bayern. I disagree. There are few teams in Germany and indeed world football who can go toe to toe with Bayern, and as the Müncheners’ two games against Arsenal showed, sitting back and counter attacking against them is often the best strategy. Schalke were playing well, but I don’t think they were attempting to come out and play against Bayern, at least not in the same way they would against any other side in the league. The difference this time however, was the way they used the ball, which was a contrast to the wastefulness they could be accused of in previous encounters.
The second half continued much the same way the first half ended as Bayern controlled the possession, but Schalke were looking increasingly dangerous on the counter attack. Sané was getting more and more chances to carry the ball forward and drive into space, constantly being fed the ball while the particularly excellent Goretzka was linking play in the middle of the pitch. The issue was Sané, who can often be guilty of this, tried to take on too many opponents at times and seemed to hold onto the ball just a split second too long when Schalke had chances get through Bayern’s backline.
That lack of decisiveness of course proved fatal with Bayern running out eventual winners, but for a large period of the game Bayern looked frustrated, out of ideas and were clearly struggling to penetrate. The pivotal moment for Andre Breitenreiter’s side was a slip in concentration with about 20 minutes remaining, and from the club captain and heart of the defence no less, when Benedikt Höwedes let Javi Martinez go in the box for the Spaniard to head home. That moment seemed to signal the end of the home side’s fight as Bayern grew in confidence and Schalke rarely threatened from then on. The solitary moment between that point and the end of the game for the Royal Blues came when Matip attempted to replicate his Bayern counterpart at the other end as the centre back somehow found himself on the end of substitute debutant Fabian Reese’s header, only for his lobbed volley attempt to sail past the post.
Thomas Müller added a bit of gloss to the 3-1 scoreline at the end of the match with a tidy finish, but the goal from a defensive viewpoint seemed to epitomise Schalke’s display. Three Blues swarmed round Robert Lewandowski just outside their own box, showing the same heart and desire they had throughout the match, but there was a lack of concentration on Sascha Riether’s behalf when he left Müller free. The fullback, to be fair to him, had been up and down the wing all game and picked up a knock only a few minutes previous.
All in all I feel this was Schalke’s problem. It was certainly a more accomplished and daring performance against Bayern, but being on the back foot for a large part of a game when you’re used to controlling possession can mean players are more vulnerable to a lapse in concentration, especially after three quarters of the match. When you’re playing an opponent as unforgiving as Bayern, switching off at a pivotal moment can cost you dearly and it certainly did with the last two goals, even if the latter was less significant, coming just before the final whistle. Die Knappen were also guilty of dropping too deep at times and allowing pressure onto them, which is equally easily done, but you feel had they kept up the way they were performing during the middle third of the game and been more intelligent in the Bayern half, they might have got something out of it.
The performance wasn’t a bad one and the scoreline is arguably harsh, but it might be easier for the Schalke faithful to take positives from the game had it not marked the seventh match in a row in which they’ve failed to win this year.
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