What’s going on at Schalke 04? – team analysis
The fascinating thing about Schalke 04 is that it almost seems like, they’re breaking some kind of negative record every year. After the worst Rückrunde of their history, fans and players were just happy that this terrible campaign was finally over. Schalke 04 ultimately finished the season in 12th position, having not won any of their last 16 matches. If it would have not been for their good first half of the season, the team of head coach David Wagner would have been in serious relegation trouble.
However, with the new season starting in September, there are several questions about the future of the Royal Blues. Can they leave the bad phase behind and (once again) start a new beginning? In this tactical analysis, we will try to find some answers to that question and point out what has to change.
Schalke’s disastrous trend
Schalke had a surprisingly good start and finished the first half of the season in 5th position, which significantly increased expectations. David Wagner instantly implemented his very well-coordinated and high-intense pressing system, only allowing 9.97 passes per defensive action over the season. In addition to that, he made them one of the most effective counter-attacking teams in the first half of the season and it seemed his mission of rebuilding the club goes faster than expected.
Nevertheless, even in the first half of the season, their position in the league table was not always perfectly reflected by their performances. In other words: Schalke played worse than the league table suggested and were very lucky at times. In fact, they significantly overperformed their xG-values on both ends of the pitch. According to Understat, they scored 7.51 goals more than they should have based on the quality of their chances created while they conceded 5.44 goals less. So, overall, excluding penalties, their xG-difference was -1.16 compared to their actual goal difference of +8.
An analysis of Schalke’s 5 game rolling average xG and xG conceded values not only indicates Schalke’s overperformance in the first half of the season but also their terrible second half of the season and the worrying trendline. Things started to rattle after their 5-0 loss against Bayern Munich on Matchday 19. Injuries, form crises, poor team performance and bad luck – all these factors ultimately contributed to Schalke playing the worst second half of the season in their history.
Lack of creativity
Even in the first half of the season, Schalke’s offensive approach was very much based on forcing mistakes and gambling on winning the ball in high areas of the pitch. They relied a lot on the individual strokes of genius of players like Harit or Serdar rather than having a collective idea of how to create chances. Their expected goals created of 34.8 was second-worst in the league and even worse than last year.
The issues for that are multilayered. On the one hand, Wagner has not shown that he has a specific idea of how he wants his team to play in possession. The only constant in Schalke’s play in possession was Mascarell dropping deep between the centre-backs, allowing the full-backs to stretch the pitch and push higher. At the same time, this allowed one of the attackers, mostly Amine Harit, to drop deeper as well.
However, although one can still not see Wagner’s concrete idea in possession after a whole season, it’s still too early to make a final judgment on him in that regard. Looking to the EPL, there are other way more popular examples of clubs that needed more than one season to implement a tactical structure and really develop an identity one associates with them today. Additionally, other reasons have to be figured in, such as injuries or general disturbances within the club as we will point out later in this scout report.
On the other hand, there’s an argument to make about Schalke’s squad which is simply not well-composed. The problems up front are just the tip on the iceberg. Neither Michael Gregoritsch nor Benito Raman, Guido Burgstaller, or Ahmed Kutucu could convince here. Benito Raman’s 0.26 xG per 90 are by no means numbers that you want to rely on when it comes to your most proficient striker.
However, the strikers can only convert the chances that the team creates, which brings us to the lack of creativity in midfield, underlined by the number of passes into the box. The importance of and reliance on creative lipchin Amine Harit is just one part of it.
That three of the next four most frequent passers into the box are full-backs show the issue here more clearly. Schalke lack creative passers in the final third. Additionally, Caligiuri, Kenny, and Miranda left the club this summer, which does not make for any better reading. Suat Serdar has seen a lot of praise come his way in the first half of the season, but he is much more of a player who likes to turn up in the box himself rather than creating chances for his teammates. This is also true for Weston McKennie, who has never been very creative and proficient with the ball.
Bad business on the transfer market
So, the question remains how Schalke can fix these problems. One opportunity is certainly excellent recruitment. However, Schalke and excellent recruitment haven been two opposites for a while. In recent years, they burned a lot of money on the transfer market. Sebastian Rudy, Nabil Bentaleb, Breel Embolo, and Yevgen Konoplyanka are just the most popular players that reflect Schalke’s business which, among numerous other factors, has almost driven them into financial ruin.
The task right now is complicated. After the departures of Jonjoe Kenny and Daniel Caligiuri as well as the ongoing lack of a proficient striker, there are at least three spots in the starting eleven that have to be filled. Especially at right-back and up front, Schalke do not have any alternatives as of yet. One position they’ve already fixed is in goal with Alexander Schwolow. The 28-year-old is certainly a decent goalkeeper, even one of the best last year. But especially given Schalke’s financial constraints, the question might be asked if they would have not been better off spending €8 million differently considering that they have other weak points to fix this summer while former regular starter Ralf Fährmann returned to the club.
Generally speaking, without knowing anything about Schalke’s scouting set-up in detail, it doesn’t look well set up from an outside perspective even though technical director Michael Reschke is a proven expert. In recent years, they relied heavily on signings from other Bundesliga clubs for huge sums whether it was Benito Raman, Sebastian Rudy, or Ozan Kabak. This Bundesliga-intense recruitment has been present over the last 8-9 years, ever since Felix Magath left the club, who back then randomly bought players from all over the world. Apart from their own academy, Schalke have not proven to be good at spotting undervalued talent in the market, which complicates the task of rebuilding.
That said, Schalke probably won’t be able to buy any more players for significant fees. The fact that big income earners such as Bentaleb and Rudy are returning from their loans is not making things easier. Now it’s about Jochen Schneider and Michael Reschke to find creative solutions. Eventually due to a lack of options and to minimize the risks, they might end up with some loan deals to fix the short-term needs.
Glimmers of hope
Even though it sounds different in the media and partially in this article, there are certainly glimmers of hope. First of all, Schalke still have a good young core at hand. Amine Harit, Suat Serdar, Ozan Kabak, to name a few, have proven to be more than decent Bundesliga players. Besides, talents like Rabbi Matondo, Ahmed Kutucu, or Can Bozdogan could play a bigger role next season.
One can also not talk about Schalke’s bad performances without at least mentioning their injuries. Whether it was Serdar, Harit, Mascarell or Sané –players were dropping like flies in the second half of the season. This also showed Schalke’s lack of depth. It’s unlikely that Schalke will have their whole squad together when pre-season starts, however, many of them will return and offer more opportunities. Additionally, the long list of injuries allowed players like Bozdogan to make their debut in the Bundesliga, which might be beneficial with regard to next season.
Furthermore, the first half of the season has shown that Wagner’s pressing system can be exciting and also successful even though they overperformed significantly. As indicated at the beginning of this article, it is not unusual that a new head coach starts his tenure by focusing on the tactics against the ball and needs time to develop a real identity. Schalke’s main issue over the last decade has been the (almost) yearly change of head coaches, which made it impossible to establish some kind of continuity. If convinced of his ideas, it might turn out to be a good decision giving Wagner another season or at least the start of it to underline his ambition of being the right man in charge.
Whether the resignation of supervisory board chairman Clemens Tönnies has a positive effect remains to be seen. His aura often hovered over the club like a sword of Damocles and at least for the fans, his departure should be a relief. That said, it might also lead to more changes considering the power and influence he had, even though he was official “only” the supervisory board chairman without any operative tasks.
This summer and the start of next season will be crucial for Schalke in many ways. Their situation might be difficult but there are reasons to believe that Schalke could come out of this crisis stronger than many pundits expect. The chance of a long pre-season of serious tactical work could help Wagner to get his ideas across and develop his squad. If he is able to complement his transition-heavy style with a decent idea in possession, if key players stay at the club and if they are able to add some decent pieces to their squad, chances are Schalke 04 might play a solid season 2020/21. Yes, that were a lot of if’s …