It was pretty shocking when Benedikt Höwedes did the usual Schalke thing and skipped town. If there was one player that could always be relied on within the Ruhr Valley club, it was the German World Cup champion. He’d been there forever – 15 years, starting as a youth player in 2001. While everyone else was coming and going and all these superb Knappenschmiede products were making names for themselves on the best teams in the world, Höwedes remained.
A captain if there ever was one. You can’t do much more for a club than what Höwedes did for Schalke — 335 matches for S04 in all competitions, a Pokal champion, and of course, the class and leadership of a world champion.
This past summer, he left. The central piece of the defense, and of the team in general, gone to Juventus. It’s “only a loan,” you could say, but the intention is to buy. He has struggled to stay fit for the Turin side and, perhaps not coincidentally, their defense has struggled as well. While he has yet to make his first appearance with them, a player of his quality touching down on a club of Juve’s quality will most likely end in fireworks.
Meanwhile, at Schalke,, the loss of the captain and centerpiece of the club’s defense for years, hasn’t really been felt on the pitch. I hate to downplay what Höwedes means to this club, but the Royal Blues are cruising in the Bundesliga in one area in particular – defense (they love, they love it, they love it).
Only one other team – Bayern Munich – has surrendered fewer goals than Schalke’s ten. But shouldn’t we have seen this coming? Last year, despite finishing ninth in the table, only three teams – placed first, second and fourth in the table – gave up fewer goals. But that was with a heavy dose of Höwedes, the main man.
A back three is risky enough as it is, but it takes on even more risk when you remove the key component of it and don’t bring in a replacement. Instead, Domenico Tedesco utilized the resources he already, shuffled some guys around, and it has worked so well that Höwedes isn’t even missed.
The back three nowadays consists of youngster Thilo Kehrer on the left, the ageless wizard Naldo in the middle and former defensive midfielder Benajmin Stambouli on the right. It’s not a back three that will sneak into many people’s top defenses, nor will any of these individuals be found in any ideal XI’s that all the players are doing these days.
Yet when you look at the numbers, they’re quite remarkable. Individually, not a single player in the Bundesliga is averaging more completed tackles (3.5) than Thilo Kehrer. He doesn’t just lead defenders, he leads defensive midfielders too, who are notorious for winning the ball back.
And if you want to limit it to just defenders, the nearest number to that 3.5 is a 3.1 from, well, Benjamin Stambouli. These two wide centerbacks have proven to be astute and proactive in their positioning and their play and it is stifling opposing attacks.
Right in the middle of all of it is the man who is trying to make Höwedes obsolete after playing alongside him the previous year – Naldo. The Brazilian wonder is a sentinel in the defense, calm, stoic, and impenetrable.
But the defensive success goes beyond that. You also have to take into account that Schalke lost their star man last year, Sead Kolašinac, when he signed with Arsenal. With his departure, though, Schalke did make a purchase, albeit not a very glamorous one. They simply nabbed Eintracht Frankfurt’s Bastian Oczipka, who had the unenviable task of filling the gaps left by the Bosnian bruiser, who was named on the Bundesliga team of the year with three goals, give assists, and one heck of a presence. Oczipka would have to replicate that success, both offensively and defensively.
It was one of Tedesco’s first signings, and one that carried with it a degree of hesitation, as anyone who dared to try to replicate what the Bosnian left back did was bound to fall short.
Oczipka hasn’t been Kolasinac, but he has been nothing if not reliable.
To think that Schalke would lose their best player in Kolašinac and their captain in Höwedes and would not only not suffer, but seemingly thrive, is a just a testament to the job that Tedesco has done. As well as a massive boost to guys like Naldo and Oczipka, who have done the impossible in replacing the two stalwarts of the club.
It’s a long season, and there will have to be more of a sample size from this defense as compared to last season’s. But the early returns couldn’t be much better. Last year the Royal Blues surrendered 1.18 goals per match. This year that’s been cut down to .90. It may sound like chump change, but tell that to the five table places they’ve leaped in the process.
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