Second from bottom, 19 points behind bitter rivals and Bundesliga leaders Dortmund, one victory and six defeats: the story of Schalke's season to date is a woeful one. It makes desperate reading for coach Felix Magath.
As Schalke plumb the depths, Magath feels the pressure
On the face of things, it seems disrespectful to talk about Felix Magath potentially losing his job over Schalke's disastrous start to the Bundesliga season. But such is the climate of modern soccer that any coach, regardless of record and reputation, is fair game in the sack race if he doesn't deliver the goods.
The mounting pressure that comes with a relegation battle is the surest indication a coach can have that the buck stops with him. Underperforming players may get dropped, even sold in the transfer window, but none of them will be sacked.
The same cannot be said for the coach. A coach sends out his team every week in the knowledge that he is only as good as the result the men he puts on the field can achieve. Looking at Schalke's season to date, it looks as though Felix Magath is not good enough.
This in itself may seem a harsh assessment considering who we're talking about. Magath won back-to-back doubles with Bayern Munich, dominating the Bundesliga and German Cup competitions between 2004 and 2006. He also took Bayern to two Champions League quarter-finals in the three seasons he was in charge - seasons in which the Bavarian giants were struggling to compete financially with other so-called European giants.
Perhaps his greatest managerial feat, however, was leading Wolfsburg to the league title in his second season at the unfashionable club after being jettisoned from Bayern in 2007.
Magath's departure from Bayern - for failing to get the club higher than fourth even though there was still five months of the season remaining - is not the only time he has been sacked. He was fired from his first coaching job at Hamburg, his alma mater, way back in 1997, and again in Frankfurt in 2001. But more often he has left his coaching posts on his own terms and at his own behest.
Still, coming off an unlucky loss to Leverkusen and a limp draw in Tel Aviv, one feels that should Schalke lose another game or two, Magath could either be put to the sword or choose to fall on it.
High expectations weigh heavy on Schalke's coach
Things were looking up for Magath after his first season
If the Schalke hierarchy choose to wield the axe at this early juncture of the season, it would suggest that they got it badly wrong when they appointed Magath in the summer of 2009, despite the fact that he led the club to second-place finish in his debut season, returning Schalke to the Champions League in the process.
"The hierarchy made a great choice in getting Magath to Schalke," Shane Kapral, who covers Schalke for The Offside.com, told Deutsche Welle.
"The club was an absolute mess after the 2008/2009 season and could never have envisioned a second place finish and nearly winning the league. He succeeded well at the start because he is respected by players, his teams are always the fittest, he teaches discipline and organization, and he knows how to discover young, talented players."
This season has been different. Since Magath was installed to bring the Holy Grail to Schalke, their first German title since 1958, it bodes ill that this looks as far away from happening as it ever has in the preceding 52 years. Maybe last season's performances led expectations to rise too high and that the club's hierarchy started to see echoes of Wolfsburg's sudden elevation in the club's fortunes.
Maybe Magath, the short-term thinker and trouble-shooter, simply bit off more than he could chew. As a coach, he has come into most of his jobs with a smash-and-grab mentality. He has planned shock-and-awe campaigns rather than long-term strategies for success and consolidation. Once Wolfsburg had been battered into championship winning shape, his job was done. He was never going to create a legacy there. Armin Veh and now Steve McClaren can attest to that.
Long-term project a new prospect for quick-fix Magath
Magath led Wolfsburg to the title in his second season
"Anyone who looks at Magath's career will see that he is not the man for longer projects," Schalke expert and sometime Sportschau.de correspondent Marcus Bark told Deutsche Welle. "His brand of tough man-management only works for a short - albeit often successful - amount of time."
Schalke may have looked like another vehicle primed and ready to be driven at breakneck speed towards another title, but this season has shown that while adding a Raul here and a Huntelaar there, it's still an old banger under the glossy paint job. Magath has looked powerless to stop the wheels coming off as his team has spluttered to the hard shoulder.
To be fair it can't help that, with the club some 250 million-euros in the red, Magath was told to slash the wage bill this summer - while at the same time attempting to build a team capable of fighting on domestic and European fronts. The management may be to blame for the financial aspect of this problem but Magath was the one who sold the best defense in the league last year, offloading Heiko Westermann, Marcelo Bordon and Rafinha while bringing in the washed-up Christoph Metzelder to help marshal their understudies.
He also showed Kevin Kurayni and his steady haul of around 15 goals a season the door, bringing in the over-rated AC Milan and Real Madrid reject Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and the aging Raul to replace him - two transfers, it must be said, which ate up all the profit he made from sales and then some.
Depleted defense and non-firing strike force add to problems
Raul was a marquee signing but was he a pertinent one?
"Magath took a big risk in changing his squad so radically," Thiemo Mueller, kicker magazine's Schalke beat writer, told Deutsche Welle. "He urgently wanted a better attack, which is why he bought Raul, Huntelaar and Jurado. But Raul hasn't been able to fulfill the expectations until now. He is not the focus of the attack as Magath claimed he would be."
Or perhaps, said Mueller, Raul is just too old to adapt physically to the Bundesliga. "In many games it has seemed like this."
"The club and fans have given him everything," said TheOffside.com's Kapral. "They approved a transfer budget that was very aggressive and gave him the funds he asked for."
Magath’s mistake, said Kapral, was to replace the majority of his defense when he didn’t need to. In so doing, he broke up the best part of the team. "There was no reason to let Westermann, Bordon and Rafinha leave. Perhaps he could let one go, but no way should he have sent all three away."
Magath has also had bad luck with injuries, but even those mistakes belie bad judgment, said Kapral. "At full-back, he made a huge error in believing Hoogland would be healthy for the start of the season and he was overly optimistic to think that Christian Pander could get fit." Pander has missed the better part of the last two seasons with recurring injuries.
It hasn't just been the transfers though, Kapral added - Magath has also made a lot of bizarre line-up decisions and substitutions. Perhaps the most befuddling was taking off Jurado in the 60th minute against Frankfurt last week. "No Schalke fan could understand what he was thinking."
Future looks bleak but sacking is not a foregone conclusion
Will Magath be waving goodbye to Schalke sometime soon?
Just as it rings true that no club is too good to go down, it also appears that no coach is too good to be sacked. Success and silverware are always things of the past for a coach. They are men who are judged on the here and now. And Felix Magath's present reality is a dark one.
"Schalke as a club is all about the fans," Kapral concluded. "If the fans turn on Magath then he will not be around long."
But kicker's Thiemo Mueller believes it may end up being more complicated than that.
"Magath's job is still quite safe," he said. "First of all, Magath still has a certain amount of credit because of his surprising success with Schalke last season and because of his success with former clubs Wolfsburg, Bayern and Stuttgart. No one can have any doubts, that Magath is one of Germany's top coaches. His position is even stronger because of his status as coach, manager and member of the board of club directors."
More tellingly, said Mueller, if he was sacked, Schalke would have to pay the wages due to Magath and his assistant coaches - about 10 million euro per year, all told - until summer 2013.
"This seems nearly impossible for the club, especially in the context of the level of debt that needs to be serviced, the cash needed to hire a new coach, and the fact there could be no income from European competition next season."
In other words, Schalke may want to fire Magath…but they probably can’t afford it.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann