FC Schalke put together another solid 2-0 win to see themselves into second place in the Bundesliga table, the highest they’ve been in five years. And while they had periods where they weren’t the most convincing, it’s hard to look at what Domenico Tedesco has done here and not see it as sustainable. His defense and midfield is so compact and talented that opposing attacks are often smothered before they can put much of anything together.
But for as good as this starting XI has been in this streak of six straight unbeaten matches in the Bundesliga, there has to be added attention given to who isn’t featuring for the Royal Blues, because any doubts as to their ongoing quality can be answered there.
For starters, they’ve been without their best player, Leon Goretzka, since the 2-0 win over Mainz 05. Since that time, the miners have continued to go unbeaten, drawing (via a late equalizer from Wolfsburg) 1-1, winning at FC Freiburg 1-0 and winning against Hamburger 2-0. They’ve suffered no drop off in the midfield behind the pairing of Weston McKennie and Max Meyer. Goretzka’s impending return would logically mean that Schalke should only perform even better, although they will face some better competition in the remaining matches of the Hinrunde in BvB, Borussia Mönchengladbach, FC Augsburg and Eintracht Frankfurt, along with a league fixture and Pokal match against 1.FC Köln.
Getting their star man back is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Schalke are also doing all of this without Matija Nastasic, who was their second-choice centerback going into the season. They’ve filled in with 21-year-old Thilo Kehrer and defensive midfielder Benjamin Stambouli. And the drop off in quality? It’s not here either, as Kehrer is tied for 2nd in the league with 3.5 tackles per game (Stuttgart’s Santiago Ascacibar leads with an average of 3.7 tackles) while Stambouli is averaging an 83% passing success rate on an average of 63 passes per match, while also averaging 3 tackles per match.
Also missing this season has been Alessandro Schöpf, who was frontrunner for player of the year last season before getting injured, and has only been on the pitch for six minutes thus far as he returns to fitness. The Austrian wide-man had six goals and two assists in last year’s campaign and now that he’s healthy again he provides even more options for Tedesco in making his lineup and substitutions.
The return of Goretzka, Nastasic and Schopf by themselves provide a deeper squad. But wait, there’s more.
Schalke are also waiting for star pupil Breel Embolo to come back into form. The lad oozes talent, but after his serious injury that caused him to miss nearly all of last year, the Swiss attacker has been found wanting. Spoiler alert: form does not evade people of Embolo’s quality for that long. He has clearly responded well to being called out by Tedesco and it has to be only a matter of time before he finds his footballing foundation and begins to contribute regularly.
As if that wasn’t enough, the inner competition that Tedesco has built between players ensures that there is always another option available with no drop-off in quality. If Yehvan Konoplyanka isn’t clicking, he has Amine Harit. If Weston McKennie struggles (no chance) then he has Nabil Bentaleb.
This isn’t just a list of names. This is a list of players who have proven their quality in the Bundesliga. And that list isn’t just 11 guys. It’s 15, 16, 17 guys.
Sticking Schalke up next to Bayern Munich, RB Leipzig or Borussia Dortmund, there may seem to be a gap in individual player quality, but as any great manager does, Tedesco is making this team better than the sum of its parts. And he is doing that through superior depth and teaching the team to ebb and flow as a unit, as well as working to his players’ strengths by asking them to do what they can do well instead of putting them in situations in which their weaknesses are exploited by the opposition. For example, Franco Di Santo and Guido Burgstaller are far from being the most imposing front line in the Bundesliga, but they are both contributing and Burgstaller especially is running his socks off pressing the opposition
This is a really, really good Schalke team, and they should only get better with the pieces that have been missing, or not entirely needed just yet, now available. These are exciting times once again in Gelsenkirchen, and Schalke will foreshadow how the next two-thirds of their season will go if they can continue to get results against more formidable competition than they’ve faced the last month or so.
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