In German, Schalke are known as 04 after the year of their founding. Unfortunately for them, 0-4 is also their record thus far this season. And their 3-1 loss to Dortmund showed the problems are deep and homemade.
Coach Felix Magath does not like what he's seeing
Rarely have the Royal Blues lost so badly at home to their fiercest local rivals. So the shock was deep.
"I had the feeling that my team didn't see this match as a derby," Schalke captain and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who has played for the club since he was four years old, said after the match. "It was like a friendly."
Schalke coach Felix Magath was likewise nonplussed.
"We were never a real opponent," Magath told reporters. "I'm going to have to re-analyze [the team]. But not right now."
The truth was, however, that Schalke didn't fail due to lack of effort. Nor does it require mental gymnastics to see where the problems lie. Too much turnover at the back, a lack of a leader in midfield and an inability to link defense and offense have meant the Royal Blues are off to their worst start ever in the Bundesliga.
The dearly departed
Neuer has been the only bright spot at the back
Make no mistake about it. The 3-1 scoreline against Dortmund was flattering. Schalke's best player was goalkeeper Neuer, who turned away a number of shots, and their second best performer was the goal itself, as their opponents hit aluminum three times.
Schalke had the league's best defense in recent years, and last season's second-place finish was largely down to their ability to eke out close wins.
But this summer Magath let go three-quarters of the back four: central defenders Marcelo Bordon and Heiko Westermann and left back Rafinha. The only holdovers are 22-year-old Benedikt Hoewedes and 20-year-old Christoph Moritz.
To plug the gaps, Magath brought in two past-their-prime veterans, Christoph Metzelder and Hans Sarpei and a 29-year-old Bundesliga debutante, Frenchman Nicolas Plestan.
The consequences have been all-too-predictable. Against Dortmund, corner kicks almost always resulted in dangerous headers, while the first two goals were set up over Schalke's out-matched left side.
Plestan's second-half sending-off reflected the desperation of a defense that had to use any means possible to prevent an even more embarrassing defeat. And as is so often the case, problems at back keep Schalke from going forward effectively as well.
Huntelaar, l, hasn't been getting the balls he needs
In the first 25 minutes of the match, Dortmund had ten shots on goal to Schalke's one, with that lone chance coming after a botched clearance. And over the course of the game Schlke's superstar striker Raul had more touches in his own half than in his opponents'.
Those two statistics illustrate the haplessness of Schalke's midfield. The starting eleven on Sunday lacked both an effective holding midfielder and a true playmaker, as Jefferson Farfan is more of a forward and Ivan Rakitic more of a specialist for set pieces.
Schalke's biggest hopes at these two crucial positions are both problematic. Spaniard Jose Manuel Jurado is another Bundesliga debutante, while hard guy Jermaine Jones is one of German football's most often injured players.
As a result, the potentially stellar frontline of Raul and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar are getting virtually nothing in the way of service. Over ninety-plus minutes against Dortmund, the Royal Blues only managed to create two clear chances – hardly a winning recipe.
Rays of Hope
Jones could help, if he's ever fit
Schalke fans can take a bit of consolation in the fact that Huntelaar managed to convert one of those chances. The Dutchman's clinical finish in the waning minutes showed what is possible if the Royal Blues manage to get the ball into opponents' danger zones.
Moreover, three of Schalke's four losses have come against teams one would expect in the top half of the table, Hamburg, Hoffenheim and Dortmund. Magath brought in no fewer than 14 players in the summer so it's logical that the team might need some time to gel.
But such a radical team make-over may have been a grave miscalculation, considering Schalke's tough early schedule. As Magath himself knows only two well, the Bundesliga does not allow many coaches to sacrifice short-term result for long-term prospects, and with round five being held mid-week, the squad has only three days to recover from the Dortmund thrashing.
Their next match, away to Freiburg, is truly must-win and not easy, considering that 19-year-old Joel Matip will probably have to deputize in central defense. If 04 go 0-5, Magath's once so-secure position could start looking pretty shaky indeed.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Andreas Illmer