Bundesliga MD 02 Preview: Schalke against Bayern

Justin Separator August 26, 2019

This is the second matchday preview of the season and for the second time we are dealing with a club who wants to turn a new leaf after an unsuccessful previous season. But for Schalke, the situation is even more dramatic than it is for Hertha.

The „Royal Blues“ have been known for an extremely defensive football aimed at quick transitional play and conceding only few goals against in recent years.

This worked quite well in Domenico Tedesco’s first season in 2017/18. But even then there were first signs that the “Miners” were vulnerable when their pressing traps were deciphered. Despite Tedesco’s attempts at establishing a more progressive football, he ultimately failed – not least because he lacked the necessary time and players for realising his ambitions.

Schalke 04: a successful turnaround?

Now it is for David Wagner to try his hand. With Huddersfield Town, the 47 year old attained promotion from the Championship to the EPL, even though his budget ranked in the bottom third of the Championship table. During his time at the club, Wagner established an aggressive and passionate gegenpressing-based brand of football that would be only to welcome at his new club Schalke.

Wagner is a student of Ralf Rangnick, who had a great influence on him during his time at the helm in Hoffenheim. But in Dortmund too he learned a lot from Jürgen Klopp, who is known for a flexible and aggressive style of pressing.

But does Wagner know how to deal with longer phases in possession? And how will his style fit to Schalke in general? Wagner is expected to be the face of a footballing and strategic turnaround at Schalke, but he will have to overcome a lot of obstacles there.

New faces for the turnaround?

At least Schalke did not make the mistake of just changing the coach. In new sporting director Jochen Schneider and new technical director Michael Reschke, who reprises his role as part of the background staff after his unsuccessful stint as sporting director in Stuttgart, two other significant new faces arrived even before Wagner. Together, these three are supposed to be the standard bearers of the new times at Schalke

Schalke’s first signings in this, their new chapter, already show the handwriting of Michael Reschke. With Ozan Kabak (19), Benito Raman (24), Jonjoe Kenny (22) and Markus Schubert (21), only young and promising players have joined Schalke this summer. David Wagner too is known for nurturing and including young players in his plans, which will suit Schalke and their “Knappenschmiede” (their youth academy) just fine.

Furthermore, Wagner’s squad contains players who seem tailor-made for the highly intensive style of football he likes to establish. Over the course of the season, one can expect Schalke to develop a much quicker, more vertical, and dynamic football than they had offered under Tedesco and caretaker coach Stevens.

Still problems in possession

The match against Bayern, however, will probably come too early for this. On matchday 01 away to Gladbach, the “Royal Blues” presented themselves yet a bit cautious. Apart from a few phases of aggressive forechecking, Schalke played a stretched 4-4-2 with a focus on midfield pressing for the majority of the match.

Naturally, Wagner does not want to risk getting ahead of himself. He intends to foster his novel ideas step by step. Thus, it seems unlikely that Schalke will play a similarly aggressive pressing against Bayern on Saturday as Hertha did last week.

Schalke experienced difficulties in their build up play against Gladbach. It very rarely succeeded and the few times it did, it did so only when they could bypass the centre and move the ball forward through their right flank. To make this happen, they had to rely on Guido Burgstaller and Weston McKennie moving out to the side as relays to support Jonjoe Kenny and Daniel Caligiuri in carrying the ball forward.

Step by step ahead

Caligiuri could bring his good form forward from last season and showed that he has the potential to become one of the cornerstones of Wagner’s game. His finishing qualities, his aggressiveness, and his pace will be a boon to the Wagner game. However, he still lacks physical presence and an intuitive understanding of how to open up spaces with the right move at the right time. Consequently, it was too easy for Gladbach to close down the middle of the park and put pressure on Schalke’s holding midfielder and two centre-backs.

The “Foals” won the ball in their opponent’s half of the pitch 20 times last Saturday. In some cases this resulted in big chances – for example when Alassane Pleas’s shot narrowly hit the post in the second half. On such occasions it became evident that Schalke’s new vertical style of play is still in its early stages. Will Schalke finally be able to learn from their past mistakes and improve this season? What to do in possession has been a long standing problem of theirs during the last years. Certainly, how well Wagner is able to eliminate annoying errors in possession from his game will be one of his major benchmarks at the end of the season.

The fickle environment at the club, not known for its patience, will definitely not simplify things for Wagner. But his changes will take time. A realistic target for the league seems to be to keep well clear of the relegation battle. Then the club has to carefully analyse what the weak spots in the squad have been. As for the game against Bayern now, with Ozan Kabak and Mark Uth two important players are out due to long-term injury. Salif Sané and Steven Skrzybski are also still in doubt for making the first team. When all these players are back available again, things will look a lot different for Wagner. After the two heavyweights of Gladbach and Bayern, competition against whom they will be realistically expected to win begins only come the third matchday anyway.

Bayern and the details

Bayern’s way to their best form appears to be not quite so long. In terms of the result, their 2-2 draw against Hertha was below expectations, but the level of their performance was rather decent. Niko Kovač’s team played a flexible and adaptable pressing based on a 4-1-4-1 formation.

Hertha started the match with a back three. Bayern answered by moving the wingers further outside to match their wing-backs. The two number eights then advanced from behind and marked the Hertha players in the middle. Thus, Hertha often had to resort to long balls in build-up play. They did so 25 times in the first half alone, all struck from their own first third, and only eight found their target, none of which was in a dangerous area.

After Hertha switched from a back three to a back four, Bayern again adjusted well. Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman fell a little bit back and one of the two number eights moved a bit further up, which resulted in a 4-4-2 that matched Hertha’s formation man for man. From this, Bayern managed to create several auspicious attacks in transition, none of which was rewarded with a goal.

Open questions in possession

Bayern continue to have a hard time using swift positional changes, runs in behind, or switches of play to break down well organised defensive lines. But at least they are trying. Of the 225 passes they made in the final third, quite a lot found their way into the central offensive midfield area. From there, Bayern kept rotating the ball around in front of the penalty area like a handball team.

Bayern could only occasionally profit from this advanced position. Their forwards showed no inclinations to move in behind Hertha’s lines. Due to their pressure, they managed to crack Hertha’s defensive line open from time to time but failed to exploit the resulting space for a deep run. Instead they kept cycling the ball round and round the penalty area with impressive monotony.

However, not all was in vain. Of Bayern’s 35 crosses, among them 12 corners and a few free kicks, a rough handful actually seemed well planned and executed. This was an encouraging sign of improvement in build-up play.

More emphasis on the centre

Bayern attempted to focus on playing through the centre in the middle third. They did their best to advance the ball from defence all the way to attack through the centre as consistently as possible. This happened by way of dribbles like the memorable, dashing one by Pavard, and frequently by moving the ball through Thiago and the two number eights.

The involvement of the number eights, nevertheless, is not yet ideal as Thomas Müller and Corentin Tolisso are not your prototypical playmakers. But still the team understood to use Hertha’s half spaces to their advantage more productively than they had done over long stretches of last season. A selection of Bayern passmaps demonstrates this.

Bayern’s passmap of their home game against Hertha last weekend.

The passmap of the season’s opening match against Hertha shows a balanced distribution of passes. It comes as no surprise that the wing focus has remained considering the two star wing players Gnabry and Coman both played. But the switch out to the wings occurred slightly later than it did last season. The large blot of blue in the middle demonstrates this middle focus. The opponent’s penalty box may have been a bit bluer (or more yellow), but the difference to last season is obvious.

Bayern’s passmap of their home game against Hertha last season.

This graphic shows the passmap of Bayern’s home game against Hertha last season. It is striking how many fewer passes reached the central offensive area in midfield than this year. There is also much less success in playing the ball theough central midfield and into the penalty area. How predictable Bayern’s game was is indicated by how early they went wide and how many missed passes they had in the middle of the park.

Bayern’s passmap of their home game against Hoffenheim last season.

Compare the game against Hertha with Bayern’s last year’s season opener against TSG Hoffenheim. Hoffenheim was similarly aggressive as Hertha. They also allowed similar gaps in the spaces between the lines. Yet Bayern was not able to exploit these opportunities. The map also shows how unproductive they were in using the playmaker position and how ineffective their approaches in the final third proved to be. The characteristic “U” around the penalty area, the hallmark of a flank-heavy approach play, is clearly noticeable.

These are but first impressions. The match against Schalke will prove if the early gains were only a flash in the pan or if the team can carry on in the same way against a deeper and more compact team like Schalke. Schalke will in all likelihood be a tougher nut to crack defensively than Hertha. Their match against Gladbach left little doubt in this.

More space, more play between the lines, more options

Bayern has to improve on how they set up their wingers for them to launch into profitable attacks. Yes, their focus on passes through the middle against Hertha succeeded in luring the opposition in and opening up spaces on the wings, but these efforts were not consistent and conclusive enough to bring Coman and Gnabry in positions to initiate their deadly attacks often enough.

Bayern’s game also still misses the final punch. The sheer number of passes into the offensive centre area should yield more final passes in behind the opponent’s defence. But Bayern still does not manage to feed the ball to their forwards in a way that has them facing the goal instead of having their backs to the goal.

Yet the bottom line is that the Bayern game enjoys more and longer spells of structured and productive play than this time last year. Additionally, in Philippe Coutinho, Ivan Perišić und Mickaël Cuisance the squad has received a substantial boost. Kovač will have much more options at his disposal to adjust his game than he had last week. If and how often he has to use them depends not least on how much of their promising start his team will be able to carry forward to Saturday night’s match.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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