With three-quarter of the season in the books, the Bundesliga is entering its home stretch and while the title race appears academic, there is still much jockeying for the European spots. It begins on Friday night in Gelsenkirchen, where the enigmatic Schalke 04 entertain the rising Borussia Mönchengladbach in a matchup of two former Paderborn managers named Andre: Schubert (2009-11) and Breitenreiter (2013-15) It may also be called the Lucien Favre bowl, as incoming Schalke sporting director Christian Heidel has been rumoured to be interested in bringing the former BMG coach to replace Breitenreiter, whose imprint on the teams remains unclear, despite the club’s bright start.
Back on September 21st, the Royal Blues were already on 10 points from just 5 matches and off to a flying start. Since then, Schalke have earned 31 points, as they won 9, drew 4 and lost 8 with a 30-29 goal difference. The Foals, on the other hand, famously started with 5 straight losses that ended up costing Lucien Favre his job, but have taken 42 points in 21 matches since, going 13W 3D 5L with 51-30 splits.
The first meeting on Matchday 10 ended with a 3-1 BMG victory and should be remembered for the brilliant Raffael (who spent 6 months at Schalke in 2013) free-kick. In actuality, Johannes Geis’s horror tackle on Andre Hahn (tibial fracture and lateral meniscus tear) stole the headlines. Adding insult to injury, the Schalke midfielder offered only a text message apology to the Gladbach player, who is finally fit again and will no doubt be looking to get even – by scoring the game winner. Given Gladbach’s wild season under Schubert and Patrick Herrmann’s goal, just 32 seconds into his comeback from a knee injury against Stuttgart, would you bet against something wacky involving Andre Hahn happening?
Gladbach’s away misery (11 points from 12 games) and Schalke’s home form on Friday nights – 12 out of 13 games won- prevent us from taking the Foals outright, but their offensive firepower (over 2 goals per game) will result in goals against a shaky Schalke backline. Joel Matip is the only consistent defensive presence, as Roman Neustädter is more than capable of repeating the atrocity against HSV, Dennis Aogo can also give away a PK like in the Hinrunde matchup and Sascha Riether, who to the delight of one Mr.Wildhagen migh get the start due to Junior Caicara’s suspension, has only played 90 minutes once in the Rückrunde. Only conceding 34 goals is a credit to Ralf Fährmann, who has rescued the Gelsenkirchen outfit on multiple occasions with his 73.4 save percentage – 5th best in the league. The dreaded Gladbach goalscoring attack features Raffael and Lars Stindl’s combined 20 goals and 15 assists, excellent wing options with Fabian Johnson (6 goals) and Thorgan Hazard (looking very lively so far in the Rückrunde) or the aforementioned Herrmann. Twenty year-old wunderkind Mahmoud Dahoud – 4 goals and 5 assists – is enjoying a breakout season. The Foals’ 35 goals scored from open play is double that of Schalke’s 17 and just 7 behind the monster attacking force that is Borussia Dortmund.
On the flip side, Schalke do have a feast or famine attack quality to them, as outside of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar ( 8 goals) this team lacks a true goalscorer. The Dutchman’s shot accuracy is just 38% and he has more blocked shots than shots on target, 15 to 14. That 38% ranks Huntelaar 31st out of 36 qualified players (17 or more games) and it’s probably a bad sign for Schalke’s attack that Franco di Santo and Eric Choupo Moting are 29th and 34th on the same list.
Luckily, they have a couple of things going for them: 1. their staggering selection of midfielders – Leroy Sané, Max Meyer have 5 goals each and 4 others have combined for 9 more goals – is capable of getting a goal almost anytime. 2. The woeful BMG defense. Injuries (Alvaro Dominguez, Tony Jantschke) are partly responsible for Gladbach’s 42 goals allowed in 26 matches – a number only exceeded by Werder’s and Stuttgart’s dumpster fire defenses (52 and 53) and the Hannover/Eintracht/Hoffenheim relegation trio. Part of that has been the stunning inconsistency, as BMG have tried a whopping 13 different defensive pairings. Their youth (25-year-old Havard Nordtveit is the elder statesman alongside two 19-year-olds and two 23-year olds – aside from injured 30-year-old hipster extraordinaire Oscar Wendt) is a great sign for the future, but leaves them vulnerable to conceding. Moreover, their fullbacks often like to wander up the pitch and leave their center backs exposed to quick-hitting counter attacks, a statistic in which Schalke are 2nd only to Stuttgart with 9 goals allowed. Last, but not least, Yann Sommer is sporting a 65% save percentage – 3rd worst in the Bundesliga- suggesting that he is both getting exposed (BMG are in the top 3 of danger zone shots allowed) and not doing the best of job saving the shots that do hit the target.
The prediction: Gladbach have scored 21 goals and conceded 26 in their 12 away games, while Schalke sport a 21-17 goal difference in their 13 home games. Adding those numbers to the aforementioned points means that a high-scoring game should take place in the Veltins-Arena, and a 2-2 prediction seems appropriate.