Schalke 04 stepping up in the Bundesliga
Background image: Orchi, CC BY-SA 3.0
Schalke can't seem to decide whether they're a big club or not. Their scattershot history in the Bundesliga illustrates the problem. Die Konigsblauen dominated German football in the 30s and 40s, won another title in the following decade but never in the Bundesliga [est. 1963/64]. In the new millennium, it's been a rollercoaster. One season, they're signing a world-class striker like Raul or Klaas Jan Huntelaar. The next, they're fighting relegation. In the past two campaigns, Domenico Tedesco had them battling in the Champions League and then for their top-flight lives. Now it's David Wagner's turn to try and impose some consistency.
Huub Stevens took over as caretaker for Tedesco in March. Schalke were already out of the Champions League. In April, Werder Bremen came to Gelsenkirchen and eliminated their hosts from the DFB Pokal. Stevens rode out the Bundesliga campaign with three noncommital draws, his 3-1-4-2 ineffective. Needless to say, the board did not commit to him.
Wagner brings a more straightforward approach although the former Huddersfield boss' 4-4-2 needed three games to find itself. The season opened with a goalless draw at Borussia Monchengladbach followed by a 0-3 hiding at home from a ruthless Bayern Munich side. Since then, they've ripped off four victories, outscoring Hertha Berlin, Paderborn, Mainz and RB Leipzig 13-3 on aggregate. They've surged into fourth place, level on 13 points with Leipzig and Freiburg, trailing by a single strike on goal difference.
Schalke suddenly look like Wagner's 2017/18 Championship-winning Terriers and it's not just the shirt. The manager's philosophy is similarly grounded, as in working the ball up the pitch with short passes. The Royal Blues are nearly twice as good [82%] at completing short passes than when they launch the ball over the top [47%]. Schalke's crossing success ranks third-worst in the German top flight. Consequently, 77% of the side's attacks come through the middle.
Benjamin Stambouli marshalls the rearguard from the right side of central defence with Omar Mascarall shielding him in midfield. The respectively French and Spanish duo average 7 tackles and 4.7 interceptions per 90. They are the twin sparks for Schalke's lethal counterattack.
Moroccan Amine Harit partners Mascarell in central midfield. He is the distributor who moves the ball up the pitch. He enjoys finishing what he starts. His four goals lead the club. Add in two assists and he is contributing directly to a goal every 86 minutes.
Switching to a four-man backline allowed Wagner to poach right-back JonJoe Kenny from Everton. Toffees boss Marco Silva may look forward to the young Merseysider's return. Kenny's already potted a goal and created two more. His movement, pace and positioning are key. The 22-year-old covers enough ground to defend admirably but also to pop up frequently in spaces in and around the opponent's 18-yard box.
Koln's visit to the VELTINS Arena today offers Schalke an opportunity to exert more pressure on the teams above them in the table. The Billy Goats haven't been knocking opponents off their feet when butting heads. The side returned to the top flight after two seasons in 2.Bundesliga but aren't looking like staying. After six matches, they're second-bottom, scoring the joint-lowest with just four goals and conceding the third-most at 15. A fifth win on the trot seems on the cards for die Konigsblauen. After two rough years in the Premier League, David Wagner is no longer singing the blues.