Bundesliga: Were Schalke the makers of their own downfall?
March 29, 2019
Schalke have been the surprise package of the campaign, for all the wrong reasons. Given their inability to solve a prevalent problem dating back six seasons, the Royal Blues only have themselves to blame.
Just three points above the drop zone and with only a single win to their name in 2019, Schalke are staring into the abyss heading into their relegation six-pointer with Hannover 96 on Matchday 27.
Last season's Bundesliga's runners-up have been on the receiving end of a stark reality check and are currently in the midst of their second-worst campaign in Bundesliga history.
Only in the 1982/83 season were the Royal Blues worse off after 26 matches. They went on to be relegated that season and their only saving grace for avoiding a repeat performance this season is that the sides below them, including Sunday's opponents Hannover, are showing little to no signs of life.
Breel Embolo claimed that Schalke "deserve to be so far down the table" because the side "have messed up too many games". There's undeniable truth in the Swiss striker's statement, but it is also a short-term revision of a long-term problem, one which laid the foundation for a disastrous drop off that was both inevitable and avoidable.
Schalke's good old days?
Rewind to the 2011/12 campaign. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was in his prime and dovetailing to devastating effect with legendary forward Raul.
The prolific Dutchman racked up a jaw-dropping 48 goals in 48 games in all competitions. Meanwhile his 29-goal haul in the Bundesliga - which earned him the golden boot - were complimented by 15 goals from Raul.
It was a remarkable season that will live long in the memory, but it was also the last Bundesliga campaign in which any Schalke player scored more than 12 goals in a single domestic campaign.
Following the loss of his Spanish sidekick, Huntelaar's formed dipped dramatically and, while he hit double figures in three of his final five seasons with Schalke, the Dutchman was no longer a reliable source of goals.
The likes of Julian Draxler and Leroy Sane chipped in before being lured away, but with the exception of Embolo, the Royal Blues have limited investment in their front line since Raul left the club.
Solving a puzzle with the wrong pieces
Former sporting director Horst Heldt tried signing low-budget alternatives like Adam Szalai and Franco Di Santo, and came up short. His successor Christian Heidel pumped money into other areas of the squad despite recognizing the problem at hand.
"We aren't scoring six or seven goals up top, but we've constantly been very strong at the back," Heidel admitted halfway through the second half of last season in which Naldo's seven league goals were the biggest talking point in attack.
Schalke's second-place finish papered over the cracks, but signing Mark Uth from Hoffenheim on a free transfer was still meant to address the squad's biggest weakness. With just two Bundesliga goals to his name though, the 27-year-old's form has only compounded the existing problem.
After matchday eight's loss to Bremen, Heidel claimed that Schalke "won a lot more close encounters last season because we were clinical in front of goal". The bigger issue is that Schalke don't have a clinical striker on their books. Domenico Tedesco tried to offset the problem with a resilient backline, but had nowhere left to turn when his side's defensive discipline disintegrated.
In the last two seasons, Guido Burgstaller has been the club's top scorer with respective goalscoring returns of nine and 11. This season, Embolo and Daniel Caligiuri top the charts with just four goals. The problem is becoming increasingly permanent.
Sunday's encounter against the most porous backline in the league has the potential to be a short-term tonic, but until a long-term solution is found up front, Schalke's aspirations of cementing their place amongst the Bundesliga's elite are unlikely to come to fruition.