Bundesliga MD 18 Preview: Schalke vs. Bayern

Justin Separator January 24, 2021

The reverse fixture last summer should still be fresh on everyone’s mind. Schalke entered the match with a glimmer of hope that perhaps Bayern would still be recovering from a hangover after winning the treble in Lisbon just a few weeks before. But the insatiable hunger of the record champions outdid the Miners’ hope eightfold.

While for Schalke supporters this game was only the ominous beginning of a disastrous season, Bayern had to pretty quickly face up to the fact that the following games would not be equally straightforward affairs. Now, for the first matchday of the Rückrunde, the two teams face each other again.

The big question is whether anything has changed in the meantime. Schalke sacked Manuel Baum in December and, after a three game interim stewardship of Stevens, presented Christian Gross, a coach who does not boast an overly successful coaching CV. His first meeting with Bayern as a Schalke coach will be a duel of first against last. So on paper it seems likely that Schalke’s quest to secure their league status will probably not begin until the next matchday.

FC Schalke 04: En route to the 2. Bundesliga?

That is quite a long way to go yet. Nevertheless, although with a lot of goodwill there might be a hint of a silver lining at Schalke of late, this team simply does not seem equal to the Bundesliga challenge at the moment. There is a lack of quality in almost all positions. However, it is fair to ask whether this is not as least as much a question of the available quality not fitting together.

At Schalke, the coaches in recent years invariably have had trouble welding the individual parts together to form a coherent whole, a team with a coherent structure. Even Domenico Tedesco, who had an excellent first year with the Royal Blues, was given little say in the club’s squad planning for his second season. Instead, he was presented with a squad that lacked player types with whom he could establish a capable possession game.

Jochen Schneider joined Schalke as sporting director in March 2019. Before that, Michael Reschke, who is well known in Munich, had tried his hand at compiling a useful squad as a technical director. Reschke already is history, he was sacked in November 2020, and Schneider has also not been exceedingly successful so far. It is an open secret that Schalke’s steady downward slide during recent years cannot be attributed to an individual person or one single overriding issue. Coaches, sporting director, technical director, investors, board members, the convoluted Tönnies story – if the squad is a bunch of individual parts not fitting together, it is probably a reflection of what is happening at the very top of the club.

Palpable uncertainty

Schalke’s story of recent years is too big and intricate to adequately relay in a Bayern blog. But it is also one that is interesting in that Schalke, one of Germany’s most tradition steeped football clubs, seems to be heading for the second division.

From this perspective, it seems almost absurd to analyze Schalke’s tactical problems. This alone would require a multi-page analysis. The team lacks confidence and courage at all levels. In possession, there seem to be no clear procedures and certainly no players who can win and then hold the ball.

Instead, Schalke lose the ball very quickly, often in situations that in the wildness of their activity resemble a pinball machine rather than a football pitch. If the game with the ball is constantly chaotic, it is that much more difficult to be positioned right to quickly close down and challenge the opposition when the ball is lost. Passivity and conflicting individual decisions characterise Schalke’s defensive efforts.

Small glimmers of hope

Christian Gross and his team, however, have no choice but to address these problems again and again and visualise them in video analysis. Even for a team like Schalke, there is not enough time at the moment to be able to make decisive improvements in training.

For the game against Bayern, Schalke will take a lesson from what Kiel, Freiburg and Augsburg have done: Stay compact in defense and, when the ball is won, get in behind Bayern’s high back line as quickly as possible.

The last three games against Hoffenheim (4-0 victory), Frankfurt (1-3 defeat) and Cologne (1-2 defeat) give a little hope. But why actually? Ultimately, Schalke’s record remains poor even under Gross.

Back five against Bayern?

Under the new coach, Schalke have at least shown that they can be effective in offensive transition after winning the ball. Although there is neither the consistency nor the quality in execution to attach too much importance to this, almost all of the six goals under Gross were the result of a well played out counter-attack with pace after winning the ball in pressing.

Being active is what will matter most against Bayern, too. If Schalke opt to sit deep with a back four or back five and wait for their opponents to make a mistake, they will go down in flames. Goretzka, Müller and Kimmich are all capable of pulling apart a passive defense (such as Augsburg’s in the first half) with their runs and the quality of their passing.

Schalke therefore need an idea that generates pressure in midfield without losing compactness at the back, ideally a stable mid block. In the Sky show “Matchplan”, André Schubert suggested a 5-4-1 system that allows the centre-backs to situationally push out in front of their back line to clear threatening situations in the space between the lines. This system would also allow three players at once in transition to pick up speed from a deep position and run in behind. Against the background that Schalke under Gross have so far been keen to hit their opponents on the break, the signing of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar seems more like a Hail Mary effort than a well considered transfer. It is hard enough to sign players without money, but it remains to be seen whether Huntelaar will be able to help Schalke in the system they currently use.

A must win for Bayern

However, Schubert’s suggestion seems like a good idea against a team like Bayern at the moment, because for Schalke it will be decisive to always have a lot of players behind the ball in their own half – especially given the rate of mistakes the team is prone to make. In the coming weeks, however, Schalke’s coaching team will have to somehow develop a kind of tactical framework that will give the players orientation, stability, and confidence.

For Gross, rescuing Schalke is possibly the toughest challenge of his career so far – and perhaps even an impossibility. At the moment, it seems more likely that Schalke will go down to the second division than that they will be able to stabilize again.

Bayern, that much is certain, must above all look to themselves at the weekend. If Hansi Flick’s team can once again muster the intensity levels from the two first halves against Freiburg and Augsburg, Schalke will surely collapse under the pressure. It will be important, especially with a view to Bayern’s second half performances recently, that they kill off the game as quickly as possible.

After Flick has used a fairly similar starting eleven two times in a row recently, it will be interesting to see whether he will continue this trend against Schalke or whether he will rotate more – as he did several times in the first half of the season. Either way, a win at Schalke 04 is a must this season.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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