I wrote the preview for the site this week, so the opening to this piece is going to be very short. I broke down the situations of both teams in that piece, so I’m going to get down to business in this one. I will say that I don’t think that this Schalke team are anywhere close to being as dangerous as they were last season. It’s not because they’re not as talented. It’s just that they’re missing a lot of key components. Rightly or wrongly, Jens Keller is taking a lot of the blame, but I think his squad is limited in depth, and the injuries are showing that.
Injuries, injuries, injuries.
You can’t start breaking down Schalke without first talking about how many injuries they’ve suffered so far this season. Every member of the ideal first 11 has missed time due to injury, and some of them are still out. It’s made them light in some areas, particularly center midfield and defence, where Roman Neustaedter is just returning from some time off and Kevin Prince-Boateng has been ineffective and 3/4 of their starting backline will miss out due to injury.
They’ve also suffered from a lack of goal-scoring, particularly because, once again, they’ve had players missing due to injury and a sharp lack of form. Julian Draxler and Max Meyer haven’t replicated the form of last year, Sidney Sam was brought in to inject pace to the side, but hasn’t been able to do so, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has missed time with injury.
It’s really hurt their ability to create chances, and when coupled with the injuries to their back line, it’s not hard to see why they’ve struggled in the Bundesliga.
Schalke’s formation leaves a lot to be desired. They tend to play very open.
Over the past two seasons, Schalke have played a 4-2-3-1. Last season, we saw a nice, compact formation that used the fullbacks to create width and allowed players like Draxler the freedom to come inside and create chances with diagonal runs and passes.
However, with all the injuries this season, especially to Felipe Santana and Atsuto Uchida, their second-choice fullbacks haven’t provided that same amount of width and ability to go forward. Last season, Uchida caused us all sorts of trouble down the left-hand side, but this season, they’ve used Kaan Ayhan as Uchida’s replacement with Sam ahead of him, and it hasn’t quite worked, not to mention Draxler has been asked to play as more of a traditional winger with either Christian Fuchs or Benedikt Howedes in behind, and it’s pulled their lines apart. It’s basically split the team into three lines: defence, midfield, and attack, and it’s created gaps between the lines and in the channels that can be exploited.
The ineffective play of Kevin Prince-Boateng has caused a lot of problems for their midfield.
Toward the end of last season, Schalke found a combination that worked, playing Boateng in a deeper role alongside Neustaedter and playing Meyer behind the striker as a true number 10, which he really is. It gave them a bit of creativity, but also possession and steel in midfield. But more importantly, it allowed Meyer to play closer to the striker and not have to worry as much about defending, which he’s not terribly effective at doing.
With the ineffectiveness of Boateng and his subsequent absence from the squad, it’s created a broad gap between their line of three behind the striker and their two holding midfielders. Sam, Draxler, and Meyer are not really defensive-minded players, so a big hole in the middle of the park forms either in front of the two holding midfielders or in front of the back four if the holding midfielders push up to cover.
Against the Blues, this can be suicidal since much of the play in midfield is centered around playing in between the lines and in those gaps that have become a problem for Schalke. Unless they can find a way to close those gaps, they’ll find it tough to stop the Blues from attacking them in waves.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s return can’t come soon enough for Schalke.
If you look at the Schalke squad, there are no other strikers with genuine quality other than Huntelaar. While players like Chupo Moting and Chinedu Obasi are good in spurts, neither of them give the same level of consistent quality or the all-around play that Huntelaar gives you.
We’ve discovered the difference that a top-class striker makes, especially to the players behind the striker. Without Huntelaar, players like Draxler, Sam, and Meyer all have the pressure on them to score goals. But without a solid base in midfield and defence, plus support runners helping to make space, it’s very hard for those three to have any real influence on a match.
Time to switch to 4-3-3?
If the match on Saturday taught us nothing, it’s that Fabregas and Nemanja Matic do not function well together as the base of a 4-2-3-1. Fabregas has proven that positionally, he’s not able to keep the shape and resist the urge to close down the ball. That has opened up gaps that the opposition has been able to play through, and it happened a lot in the last match against Swansea. It’s something that needs to be addressed, particularly because I feel as if that’s a big source of the goals we’ve conceded; the opposition’s ease of playing through our midfield.
Especially with Manchester City coming up on Sunday, I think it would be a good time to revert to a 4-3-3 with Matic in the holding role and Ramires being restored to the side to play alongside Fabregas. That system, I feel, was the turning point of the match against Swansea, though it does mean sacrificing two of Oscar, Andre Schuerrle, and Willian.
Even though Schalke is unlikely to threaten the 4-2-3-1 formation that we’ve played, it might be a good match to play a 4-3-3 in, mostly as a warm-up for the true test in the league on Sunday.