Schalke's disastrous season reached a new low as the Royal Blues were humiliated by Düsseldorf. With sporting director Heidel already gone and coach Tedesco in the firing line, DW asks: where do Schalke go from here?
Domenico Tedesco led his demoralized Schalke players towards the baying fans in the Nordkurve, who had long since stopped getting behind their team.
"We've had enough," they had chanted throughout the second half as newly-promoted Fortuna Düsseldorf increased their lead from one, to two, to three and finally to four.
"It was a cowardly, empty performance that we can't be proud of," admitted Tedesco, raising his hands apologetically as if begging for forgiveness from the apolectic ultras.
With only one win from their last seven games, a 2-1 win over Wolfsburg back in January, Schalke have slipped to 14th and can count themselves fortunate that there are still seven points between them and the relegation zone.
And Tedesco is fortunate that his superiors in Gelsenkirchen seem to have decided, for the time being at least, that the problems lie elsewhere – principally with sporting director Christian Heidel, whose resignation they accepted before last weekend's 3-0 defeat to Mainz.
After the first season of the Heidel era ended with an underwhelming tenth-place finish, it was coach Markus Weinzierl who paid the price. But now, two years and over €150m ($170m) later, Heidel's voluntary termination of his contract was an admission of his own failure to construct a squad capable of competing for a top four spot.
Signings such as Mark Uth, Sebastian Rudy, Omar Mascarell, Suat Serdar, Steven Skrzybski and Salif Sané have shown themselves to far from the level required to replace the departed Leon Goretzka, Max Meyer and Thilo Kehrer.
Tedesco has escaped blame
Tedesco knows that he too must take responsibility. Under the 33-year-old, Schalke surprised everyone by finishing second last season but the Bundesliga's second-youngest coach has now presided over an equally improbable collapse.
The Royal Blues' success last season was built on a solid defense (the third-best in the league) and reactive football which yielded 11 goals fewer than any other top-four side. This season, the expectations in terms of the style of play were understandably higher but Tedesco has failed to deliver.
Schalke don't press aggressively, they don't transition quickly after winning possession and, when in possession for longer spells themselves, they lack the creativity and inventiveness to break down defenses. Injuries to Guido Burgstaller, Franco di Santo, Breel Embolo and Uth at various stages of the season haven't helped in that department.
But in the last two months, their defensive solidity has evaporated too. The humiliation against Fortuna took their goals-against tally to 14 in the last seven games, but this was a new low.
With wing-backs Hamza Mendyl and Daniel Caligiuri showing a complete disregard for their defensive duties and both Nabil Bentaleb and Benjamin Stambouli failing to protect the back three, Schalke were brutally exposed time and time again — not helped by Sané's terrible positioning.
Has Tedesco lost the dressing room?
A penny for Benedikt Höwedes' thoughts? The former German international and Schalke captain was banished to Juventus and then to Lokomotiv Moscow by Tedesco in what many interpreted as a symbolic show of strength by the young coach, as was the demotion of Ralf Fährmann, another Gelsenkirchen talisman, to second-choice goalkeeper.
According to reports in Germany in December, several Schalke players were frustrated at the amount of rotation from game to game while others thought Tedesco too academic and unable to communicate his ideas correctly. In his dealings with the press, on the other hand, Tedesco has come across as an honest, articulate and clear communicator.
"I've apologized for our performance, it's the least I can do in the situation," he said after facing up to the verbal assaults from the Nordkurve. "The fans were understandably frustrated and aggressive. I can appreciate where the ultras were coming from."
Still, Tedesco would appear to be safe for the time being, but only because there's nobody to sack him. Christian Heidel's successor, Jochen Schneider, watched the debacle in the company of club boss Clemens Tönnies but won't be officially presented until Tuesday.
His first task will be to identify a new director of football – Leverkusen's Jonas Boldt and former Borussia Dortmund head of recruitment Sven Mislintat have both been touted – but he will also need to decide whether a change of coach is also necessary.
"I'm not the sort to abandon ship," insisted Tedesco down on the pitch. "We have to fight."
Meanwhile, behind him, representatives of the Ultras Gelsenkirchen were on the pitch addressing the players, stripping Benjamin Stambouli of the captain's armband. "We are just small players," said the visibly tearful Frenchman. "But Schalke is a huge club."