Both Schalke and Hamburg started the season with lofty ambitions, but thus far nothing has gone right. The negative parallels between this pair of strugglers are so numerous, it’s almost eerie.
When new Hamburg commercial manager Oliver Kreuzer remarked before the season that he saw his club on the same level as Bayern, Dortmund and Schalke, scornful laughter could be heard from Flensburg to Berchtesgaden. But Kreuzer was right in one respect. Thus far this season, Schalke and Hamburg have been equally bad.
During the first three weeks of the season these two large, traditional-rich teams have been mirror images of one another. The two dueled to a 3-all draw in round 1, got slaughtered in round 2, and went down to narrow defeats to presumably lesser opposition in round 3.
That leaves both clubs on one point - and both coaches spouting nearly interchangeable, always-look-on-the-bright-side slogans.
“My team had a really good game in terms of their fighting spirit,” Hamburg's Thorsten Fink said after losing 1-0 to Hertha Berlin on Saturday. “We're looking forward positively.”
Schalke's Jens Keller was also directing attention to the mid-week return leg of his Champions League qualification tie against Greek side PAOK.
“We've got the talent to win,” Keller prophesied after slumping 2-1 to Hanover. “If you can perform as we did after going down a man, you have potential. We're going there to win.”
But it's going to take more than positive thinking for these two clubs to turn their seasons around. Both Schalke and Hamburg have not just short-term problems with their current squads, but long-term ones with coaching and management.
Two Hamburg heads to roll?
Hamburg are suffering from poor decisions on the transfer market in recent years. Most of their big-money signings bombed, while young players brought in from English side Chelsea didn't pan out either. Thus the northern Germans are sitting on a number of expensive contracts and lack the funds for a reboot.
Supporters' faith in Fink is diminishing, and it's debatable whether they ever had any at all in Kreuzer. One of the disgruntled is businessman Klaus-Michael Kühne, who has invested heavily in the club in the past.
“I'm boundlessly disappointed by [Thorsten Fink],” Kühne said in an interview with the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper. “It appears to me as though he can neither lead nor motivate the team.”
Kühne called for the club's entire board of directors to resign and heaped scorn on Kreuzer.
“This is not an easy job, and you have to get a top man, not a third-division manager,” Kühne fumed. “I don't think he's the right man in the right place.”
Hamburg failed to qualify for international competition last season, finishing seventh. Not improving on that performance would surely cost a few people in management their jobs. Meanwhile, right now at Schalke they'd happily just settle for a repeat of last season.
Week of truth
The immediate fates of Schalke coach Keller and his commercial manager Horst Heldt depend on the Royal Blues trip to Thessaloniki on Tuesday. Schalke need a win or a high-scoring draw, having drawn 1-1 to PAOK at home in the first leg of their Champions League qualifier. Otherwise, they'll be out of club football's premier competition before it really began.
But even if the Royal Blues pass that test, Keller and Heldt's days at Schalke are likely numbered. Both come from Swabia in southwestern Germany, a world away from the blue-collar environs of Schalke. And Heldt enraged many fans last season by firing much-loved coach Huub Stevens to bring in Keller.
“What has gotten better since Heldt made Keller Stevens' successor?” asked the Welt newspaper recently. “The answer is sobering.”
Ironically, Stevens now coaches PAOK and can get some revenge on Tuesday. Keller is going to have to improvise a bit since several players are out injured – that's typical of the personnel issues that both Schalke and Hamburg are facing.
Not all hands on deck
Keller's cause has not been helped by the fact that Schalke are a bit short-handed at the moment. In particular, the Royal Blues miss their main goal getter Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who's out with a partially torn knee ligament.
As he showed against Hanover, Adam Szalai is a decent replacement, but nothing more, and Heldt hasn't exactly helped alleviate Schalke's dependence on the Hunter with his recent quixotic pursuit of Arsenal winger Lukas Podolski.
Hamburg squad problems are more homemade. Players brought in to become mainstays like midfielder Gojko Kacar have been kicked down to the amateurs, while against Hertha, Dennis Aogo and Tomas Rincon were suspended for taking a trip to Mallorca after getting thrashed by Hoffenheim the week before.
As a result, Fink was essentially left without any offensive options as a tight match ticked down in Berlin. Hamburg are over-dependent on playmaker Rafael van der Vaart, never the most consistent of players, and one who's on the wrong side of 30.
Hamburg don't have the money to bring in major reinforcements. Schalke do, but the clock is ticking since the transfer window closes on September 2. In any case, things will be changing at both clubs – either for the better or the worse.