Bundesliga MD 01 Preview: Schalke vs. Bayern
After the treble is before the treble. Something along those lines will probably have been Hansi Flick’s welcoming words to his his still victory-drunk team after a sparse few days of vacation for everyone. The uniqueness of the year 2020 does not stop with the now beginning 2020/21 season. While in normal years the players are given time to recover after the end of a season and enjoy a leisurely vacation before the football engine would slowly revv up again during numerous test matches, this year the Bayern team will have to shift right into top gear as even the safety net of a lower-class opponent in the first round of the DFB-Pokal is missing. In fact, Bayern has to pick up speed so quickly that it is questionable to what extent they could have allowed the engine to cool down at all. It is quite possible that many of them players will have kept them warm knowing what would be asked of them right from the start.
“It is just as well that the first opponent in the new season is FC Schalke 04” – at least that is what Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge must have thought. Originally, Borussia Dortmund was supposed to play the opening match of the new Bundesliga season after Bayern reached the Champions League final, but this honor was too great for the people in charge at FC Bayern to allow to their perennial rivals. A short call to the DFL, and the originally postponed opening game against Schalke was quickly moved back to Friday, much to the displeasure of a certain Max Kruse.
Why Bayern rather happily waived the opportunity to rest a few days more is easy to explain. They played eleven times against Schalke in the last five years, scoring 31 goals and conceding only 4. Only once Schalke could prevent a defeat. Apart from an astonishing intermittent high under coach Domenico Tedesco in the season before last, Schalke have steadily regressed over the last few years. While they were a Bundesliga title candidate and a regular fixture in the Champions League at the beginning of the last decade, all they can realistically aspire to in the new season is trying to prevent relegation. The previous Rückrunde was just too disastrous.
Schalke played an excellent Hinrunde under the then new coach David Wagner. With passionate pressing and classic working-class football they concealed their many individual problems and made it difficult for each opponent. Driven by a sometimes unplayable Amine Harit and an energetic Suat Serdar, whose performances were rewarded with a call-up to the national team for the first time during this period, many did not notice that Schalke did not have a center-forward of Bundesliga quality or that they liked to turn every half a chance into two goals. Without even realizing it, Schalke built what later turned out to be a very shaky house of cards in the first half of the Hinrunde. At first, their edifice seemed to have a chance at lasting stability, but this hope proved short-lived when it broke apart completely in the Rückrunde as soon as the first few cards fell.
With Benjamin Stambouli’s injury and the unrest produced by the continual back and forth in the goalkeeper position, the team’s defense lost all confidence. Omar Mascarell and Suat Serdar were missing at every turn in midfield, especially after the restart, and with Amine Harit’s loss of form it became even more apparent that Schalke had hardly any offensive players of Bundesliga quality in the squad. Consequently, they received one shellacking after another even from rather mediocre Bundesliga Sides: 0-3 at Cologne, 0-3 at home against Augsburg, 0-4 at the end of the season at Freiburg. In the end, they managed to record only one measly victory in the entire Rückrunde, which came in the first game against Gladbach, of all games. Apart from that, they suffered a sum total of ten defeats with a scary goal difference of 7-37. Schalke was without doubt the worst team in world sport for several weeks (even if that was in large part owing to Covid-19).
One summer break a new beginning makes? Alas, not so. Schalke’s financial reports were already deep in the red before Covid-19, but since then, they have positively been fighting for survival. Long-standing employees were furloughed or dismissed outright, valuable players were sold below market value, and in a rather clumsy fashion senior club management has been trying to advance their goal of spinning off the first team as a separate business entity. On top of this came former club boss Clemens Tönnies, who had missed no chance to put his foot in his mouth for the past 365 days before he finally had to leave in the summer after a seemingly endless period of constant back and forth.
Alles neu macht der Sommer? Pustekuchen! Die Bilanzen waren auch vorher schon voller roter Zahlen, doch wie kaum ein anderer Verein kämpft der FC Schalke um das nackte Überleben während der Coronazeit. Verdiente Mitarbeiter wurden in Kurzarbeit geschickt oder gleich entlassen, Tafelsilber wurde verschleudert und mit recht plumpen Mitteln geht die Vereinsführung ihr bei den Fans so unbeliebtes Ziel an, die Profiabteilung auszugliedern. Und dann gibt da es da noch den früheren Boss Clemens Tönnies, der in den vergangenen 365 Tagen kaum ein Fettnäpfchen aussparte und im Sommer nach langem Hin- und Her doch gehen musste.
All of this also made an impact on the first team, because anyone who thought that Schalke were in financial difficulties because they had spent no end of money exchanging half their squad is mistaken. It seems difficult to imagine that David Wagner would have survived the unprecedented series of defeats in the last Rückrunde with fans in the stadium. The pressure coming from the stands alone would almost certainly have forced the club management to act. Without whistling fans forcing their hands, however, the club seems intent to do without expensive compensation payments and give the coach another chance. In a way, this is a noble approach, especially after the coaching position at Schalke has been known as a hot seat for years, but sometimes dismissing a coach is a necessary evil of Bundesliga business. That Wagner’s standing with the team was not massively damaged during the Rückrunde seems unthinkable. Many players may already be expecting an early change of coach and see few reasons why they should go through the proverbial fire for their current coach.
Not just the coaching position, the squad, too, has seen fewer changes than one might have expected before the summer. Despite a dearth of new signings, the team will inevitably gain in quality as the players, who are still injured, will successively return. Leading player Stambouli will bring the central defense back up to a decent Bundesliga level. During the final phase of last season, Schalke had to rely mostly on a few young loan players to fill out the defensive positions alongside the exciting talent Kabak.
The midfield, too, will show a different, more accustomed composition again. Captain Omar Mascarell is fit again and should be a valuable addition in order for his team to better cope with the notorious Bayern presss. David Wagner, however, was skeptical as to whether the game might not come too early for Mascarell. Perhaps Wagner is already thinking ahead and does not want to sacrifice his captain in a game that seems hopeless.
Suat Serdar also missed large parts of the Rückrunde and was still Schalke’s top scorer in the end. He could be dangerous for Bayern, especially with his quick deep runs. The four-time German international is something of a lesser copy of Leon Goretzka, they both have the same player profile, the same strengths.
Both fight hard for the ball, and, once they’ve won it, seek to push into the opponent’s penalty area at pace, and both have an above-average finish. Except perhaps for his speed, Bayern’s midfielder turned Schwarzenegger is only slightly stronger in all these areas and has made great strides in terms of playing strength. Nevertheless, Schalke’s best player of the past season will probably be their most dangerous actor on Friday night.
If Wagner wants to prevent high turnovers against Bayern’s notorious press, he might possibly look to an old acquaintance: Sebastian Rudy. Rudy is undoubtedly the most talented football player in the Schalke squad, but could never show this in his year under Tedesco. Among Schalke fans, his apparent inaptitude has already taken on legendary status, a circumstance about which every Hoffenheim and Bayern expert can only shake their heads. Rudy is a good player and a very good technician, but you will never be able to turn this quiet, reserved guy into a combative alpha male as Domenico Tedesco tried. If you let Rudy be Rudy, he will perform well. The last season in Hoffenheim proved that. Not least because of him the team from Sinsheim reached automatic qualification for the Europa League. But now at Schalke, Rudy may have to help the team in another role. After the departure of Daniel Caligiuri, there is a dearth of competitive players in the right-back position, prompting David Wagner to ask Rudy to fill the vacancy.
Similar to Rudy, Mark Uth also returned more or less involuntarily from a loan spell at Cologne. The same as Rudy, in his case, too, the question arises whether David Wagner wants to try to reintegrate him into the team and whether Uth is willing and able to prove his attacking qualities this time around. Generally, Schalke have their biggest worries in attack. Last season Schalke had a lot of quantity there but only little quality. The team’s two real newcomers are also to be found here: Gonçalo Paciência and Vedad Ibišević. Paciência has never been able to get past his big rivals in attack in Frankfurt (first Haller, then Silva), but at times he was able to prove that he has the makings of a capable striker. Especially Bayern can tell a thing or two about this, as Paciência stood out with his link-up play in the painful 1-5 defeat in the fall of last year. He was the best man on the pitch. Although he has only completed three training sessions with his new team so far, Wagner stated that he sees him almost ready to use.
On the other hand, Schalke in Vedad Ibišević have signed a proven center-forward of the classic center-forward mold. Accurate at finishing, strong in the air, tough to beat in a duel. If he were able to transfer his end-of-season form under Bruno Labbadia to his new employer Schalke, he could be a decisive piece of the puzzle, as this Schalke team desperately lacked goal-scoring precision last season.
The biggest question mark, however, is undoubtedly David Wagner himself. The prospects of his team this season stand and fall with his intended style of play. Quite often, Wagner deployed a very strange and passive game that often seemed wholely unsuited to the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents in the last Rückrunde. Often, Schalke’s players defended knee-deep in their own penalty area without offering any physicality or resistance. Even against relegation candidates such as Augsburg, Bremen or Düsseldorf, they sometimes had less than 30% ball possession. An approach like this cannot and will not work against Bayern. If they were to try something like this, they would only invite Bayern to suffocate them with a ceaseless barrage of attacks. Based on Schalke’s team profile, it seems much more advisable that they do not sit too deep but actively defend forward.
With the return of the convalescents, Schalke has secretly, quietly and silently assembled a very respectable squad, at least as far as the first eleven is concerned. But against Bayern, the probable absences of Nastasić and Mascarell will hit them hard. Without Nastasić and Salif Sané, who has been tentatively returning to team training, Wagner would have to field the very young junior player Malick Thiaw if he were to start with a back five. Benjamin Stambouli completed much of the preparation as a midfield player, but should be expected in defense again regardless of Wagner’s choice of formation.
Even without their captain and the two important center-backs, this team has the types of players at its disposal to be able to threaten a favorite opponent if they choose a courageous set-up. They have the right central defenders for the necessary defensive chores, with Rudy and possibly even Mascarell they have players who can play dangerous passes in behind, and with Serdar they have a box-to-box player ideally suited to capitalize on such passes. With Harit they have quality on the ball and with Paciência and Ibišević players who can score from open play. On paper, this can result in a highly functioning first eleven, in reality Schalke have played a embarrassing pre-season at times, suffering two defeats against third division clubs. Against Uerdingen, even “world champion” Kevin Großkreutz scored a goal against them. Nevertheless, FC Bayern would be well advised not to be too confident. Schalke does have quality.
FC Bayern will be breaking new ground in the now beginning season. Without a single friendly match or DFB-Pokal minute under their belt, they are thrown right into the deep end in the Bundesliga. And there are are no lifelines. Hansi Flick has to pay close attention to the fitness of his players from the very beginning, because the next game is always only a few days away. The first week of the 2020/21 season will also be the first English week, with the UEFA Super Cup match in Budapest coming up next Thursday.
After both restarts last season in the Bundesliga and the Champions League the team was visibly focused and ready precisely on point. This will probably be different now. Save for covid-19 infection numbers rapidly spiralling out of control, this should be the final restart with games coming almost non-stop week after week until the European Championships next year. A monstrous program that will demand everything from the players physically, but mentally it will be different from last time. FC Bayern no longer has the clear goal of winning the Double or the Champions League within sight. After winning the biggest club title, which for some players might even have been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, it is now back to onerous daily routine on the way to winning the Bundesliga championship for the ninth time.
It is a blessing that Bayern do not have to worry about how to compensate serious injuries at the beginning of the season. Only Tanguy Nianzou has to be left out of the planning for some weeks. David Alaba was absent from team training during the week, but on Thursday he was back in full training. Nevertheless, it is possible that Flick will play it safe and prefer Lucas Hernández, who hardly played in Lisbon, but with a very good performance for France against Ivan Perišić’s Croatia recently proved his good current form. Jérôme Boateng has recovered from his injury from the Champions League final and is also ready to play. If Niklas Süle stays fit, it seems to be a matter of time before he will displace Boateng in the first team, but it is doubtful whether this will happen on the very first matchday already. Due to Thiago’s now fixed departure (oh, Thiago …) a regular start in midfield for Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka almost chooses itself. In rotation Mickaël Cuisance and Adrian Fein will have to look for their chances, but that is not yet an issue for Schalke.
Kingsley Coman will be absent due to contact with a person infected with covid-19, clearing the stage for top reinforcement Leroy Sané. It is ironic that he might well have his debut for Bayern against Schalke 04 of all teams. It is important to keep in mind that Sané was out for a whole year and did not play a minute. It was only against Spain and Switzerland two weeks ago that he gained important playing experience after a few scattered minutes for Manchester City at the beginning of the year.
Leroy Sané considers himself at 80% playing fitness, which looks like a quite accurate self-assessment. In the German national team recently, he presented himself as a clever dribbler and athletically up to scratch. He seems to have lost nothing of his speed, but he still seemed to be a bit inhibited mentally. In numerous scenes he did everything right in terms of running, dribbling or accelerating, only to suddenly freeze up in the final action. Instead of the dangerous shot, he took the tame sideways pass. Instead of a cross, he passed on the responsibility with a back pass. As the old football adage goes, players need the same time to come back as they have spent out injured, and the cases of Manuel Neuer and Corentin Tolisso rather confirmed for this theory at FC Bayern in the past years. Tolisso especially is still looking for his form of the time before his cruciate ligament rupture. Leroy Sané seems to be doing better, but he too will need a few more weeks to be fully fit again.
Schalke will want to forget the cruel Rückrunde of last season and courageously try to hit Bayern on the counter. After the game, the main take-away for Schalke will be the resurrection of Sebastian Rudy. Against Bayern’s defenders and Manuel Neuer they will miss out on scoring a goal and will be be pinned back more and more as the game progresses. In the end it will be a 3-0 and Gary Lineker will sarcastically offer his congratulations for the ninth championship in a row on Twitter.