Following Schalke’s brutal start to the 2016/17 season, the Royal Blues have not only picked up their performance in recent months, but also shown the type of heart this club has always been known for having, yet somewhat lacked in recent seasons.
Most clubs that start 0-0-5 in league play would be quick to say goodbye to their manager, but Schalke stood by Markus Weinzierl, and that decision has paid off. While 9th position on the table with seven matches remaining may not be what Schalke supporters hoped back in August, the club is in an okay spot.
With the exception of Bayern, Ingolstadt and Darmstadt, every point for every Bundesliga club matters. Remarkably, just eight points separate 6th-place and a Europa League spot from 16th-place and a relegation play-off spot. That is simply unheard of in modern football.
Currently, Schalke have 34 points through 27 matches, just three points off of Köln at 6th-place for a Europa League position. That’s a better spot than other fairly large clubs are in. Recent giants Wolfsburg are still in legitimate danger of relegation, just one point safe of 16th. Bayer Leverkusen and Monchengladbach at 32 and 33 points, respectively, also have had poor seasons and aren’t completely safe yet. That shows how competitive and deep this league has become.
Schalke have lost just three matches in 2017, a 4-0 loss to Bayern, 4-0 drubbing by Monchengladbach and competitive 1-0 loss vs. Eintracht Frankfurt. Die Königsblauen have two impressive wins this year over Hertha and PAOK, and they have drawn Gladbach twice, Dortmund, Hoffenheim, Köln and Bayern.
Schalke have come back from down a goal to net a point in four of their past 15 matches. They were down 0-2 and 1-3 on aggregate to Monchengladbach in the second half of the second leg of the Europa League round of 16, yet Leon Goretzka and Nabil Bentaleb netted goals to send S04 to the quarterfinals to face Ajax. That type of fight, heart, or whatever you want to call it is something this club has lacked since they nearly battled back in the 2015 Champions League round of 16 against Real Madrid from down 5-2 on aggregate (falling 5-4).
Sticking with Weinzierl and not ditching the former Augsburg manager was a great move by the board. The more consistency and less change you have is typically a good thing in football, and that was especially important for this year’s new-look Schalke side.
Players like Nabil Bentaleb have come in and proven they have the heart, passion and skill that this club is looking for in players. This club does not want players that don’t want them – see Julian Draxler. There’s no denying Draxler’s world class talent, but he voiced his displeasure with Schalke and then Wolfsburg, ultimately moving to an extremely weak Ligue Un. As enjoyable to watch and passionate Draxler was, those type of players aren’t the ones who will go down as club legends. It’s rumored that Bentaleb, currently on loan from Spurs, has already agreed to a long-term deal with Schalke, which would be massive.
The very best clubs have “lifers”, guys who dedicate either all, most or a good portion of their careers to the club. Schalke was full of those type of guys in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s with Benedikt Höwedes, Jermaine Jones, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Jefferson Farfan, Joel Matip, Atsudo Uchida and Christian Pander. Now, all that’s left from Schalke’s 2011-12 squad is Huntelaar, Fahrmann, Uchida and Höwedes. It will be very crucial to re-sign a couple of these younger pieces to longer team deals and see if they can become those Schalke legends and leaders every world class club needs.
For now, though, the club is heading in the right direction despite the spot on the table. Slowly, Schalke is forming an identity again as a team with a fantastic defense and deep group of attackers, albeit injuries to Breel Embolo, Huntelaar and more have really hurt the squad. Six months ago, this team may have folded when going down to their rivals, but this team looks different. Höwedes and Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting deserve so much credit for their leadership against Dortmund, and Schalke played so well they were actually unfortunate to not win had the referee not missed two penalties.
At this rate, Schalke look determined to capture that No. 6 spot and earn a Europa League bid, and let’s not forget they have been fantastic in European play this year and are probably the second-best team left in the field after Manchester United. If you’re a Schalke supporter, be excited for what should be a positive last two months of the season.