Schalke have produced some great players in recent years but haven't been able to keep them around. With Champions League football unlikely again next season, DW's Davis VanOpdorp thinks the club needs to do much more.
Schalke have had a strong academy system for many years. Four of the players in Germany's squad for the 2016 European Championship made their first-team debut with the Royal Blues, and two more have made their competitive debuts in World Cup qualifiers since.
But despite their productive footballer-making machine, Schalke have struggled to achieve what their fans have been aching for - a return to the Champions League. This year, they are farther from their goal than they were last season, and it is becoming harder to entice their academy products to stick around without European football.
DW's Davis VanOpdorp thinks Schalke's youth retention could get worse if they don't return to the Champions League
Sead Kolasinac looks to be the latest homegrown talent to look for Champions League football elsewhere. According to widespread media reports, he'll join Arsenal, moving to the London club on a free transfer when his contract expires at the end of the season. Some reports suggest Arsenal has offered him more than twice the wages Schalke put on the table, but his decision to leave Gelsenkirchen is unlikely to be solely concerned with money.
A good academy isn't good enough unless you pay up
Kolasinac could be the second out-of-contract player to leave Schalke in as many seasons after Joel Matip left the club for Liverpool on a free transfer in 2016. Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer could make similar exits next season as both are only under contract through the 2017-18 season.
This simply shouldn't happen. Tying your best young players to long term deals is basic stuff for any club that wants to move forwards. Cologne, who has not had anywhere near the recent success Schalke has, did just that with Timo Horn and Jonas Hector, signing both of them to long term extensions. Even if you can't keep them forever, with a long term contract, the club at least gets a decent payday when a player is sold.
Instead, Christian Heidel has brought in 11 players since replacing Horst Heldt in Schalke's front office at the start of the season, and less than half of those players have featured regularly. The recruiting effort has not made Schalke any better - they sit in 11th place in the Bundesliga, just five points above the drop zone, after a 2-1 loss to doomed Darmstadt. If Schalke are willing to invest so much in their youth set-up, they also have to invest in the players they produce, not just bring in temporary fixes that have minimal effect.
It's not impossible and they have shown an ability to do so in the recent past. Heldt locked up Julian Draxler and Leroy Sane to four-year contract extensions when they were still teenagers. Those moves gave Schalke leverage in transfer negotiations, and they were able to collect 93 million euros ($98.71 million) in transfer fees.
But those contract extensions occurred while Schalke was still playing regularly in the Champions League. Both players have since left to pursue Champions League football - Draxler with Wolfsburg and Paris Saint-Germain and Sane with Manchester City - when Schalke failed to qualify for the competition in 2014-15 and 2015-16.
Kolasinac just the beginning?
The Royal Blues are unlikely to qualify for the competition again this season after a disappointing Bundesliga campaign. The Europa League path to qualification - the winner of the Europa League automatically qualifies for the Champions League - also looks unlikely after they suffered a 2-0 defeat in Amsterdam last Thursday against Ajax.
With Schalke absent from the Champions League for a third consecutive season, Kolasinac may well be just the first of the current crop out the door. Meyer and Goretzka - and even other prospects such as Johannes Geis and Alessandro Schöpf - may also soon have their heads turned. The best players want Champions League football, and on their current path, Schalke aren't going to provide it any time soon.