After spending two years at FC Augsburg and being the subject of praise from all corners of the Bundesliga world, Markus Weinzierl finds his reputation under threat. What was seemingly a reward for his hard work with the small Bavarian club, Weinzierl took over for Gelsenkirchen-side FC Schalke 04 during the summer after the club parted ways with Andre Breitenreiter.
Having molded Augsburg into a well-drilled team filled with journeymen and “blue collar” work horses that reached the Europa League knockout stages last season, the native of Straubing was viewed as one of a few German managers tipped for bigger and better things to come. It may be early doors, but his stock has already begun to nosedive after a 2-1 loss to Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim – it was their fifth defeat out of five Bundesliga matches thus far.
Despite now being the headmaster of a club with a much higher bank balance than that of his former employers, a better youth structure and a policy that promotes spending to improve (though the youth system is hardly ignored), Schalke’s early struggles in the league campaign are hardly down to a poor transfer record from this summer. The likes of Breel Embolo, Coke, Benjamin Stambouli and Naldo were all brought in on full deals, while impressive loan moves for Abdul Rahman Baba, Yehven Konoplyanka and Nabil Bentaleb were all agreed for the duration of the season, giving Weinzierl excellent depth with which he was expected to improve on The Royal Blues’ high yet underwhelming fifth-placed finish.
Though they’ve certainly strengthened the squad and brought in a manager who seemingly would establish some semblance or balance and direction to the first-team, Die Knappen find themselves bottom of the table, scoring two goals in the process. While it’s easy to blame the players for underperforming (this is very much true in quite a few cases), if you dig a little deeper the blame could certainly fall at Weinzierl’s feet… not because he lacks talent, but rather due to the fact that he’s failed to mold his style to a side that are very different from his former charge.
During his time at Augsburg, Weinzierl built a team around the philosophy or hard work, organization (especially at the back) and the reliance on creativity through his central players – what was born from that was a side that was defensively stubborn yet lacked a real goal threat upfront and in wider areas. Still, the aforementioned organization and well-drilled nature of his side, one which was filled with quite a few “second-tier” commodities at the time, imposed themselves on a league where pace, technical ability and attacking football are at its core.
The problem for Weinzierl now, at least in the estimation of this writer, is that he is now blessed with a fair few more “luxury” players than he was ever accustomed to previously. While he still has the odd player in his side who can run his socks off, there are more silky, technically able and creative players who are not used to having to put in a workman-like effort week in week out – this poses an immediate clash of mentalities.
In the purchasing of Stambouli and the loan-deal for Bentaleb, he seemingly brought in two players who fit his preferred approach to the game, and that has been reflected by the fact that the midfield pair have each featured in at least four of Schalke’s Bundesliga matches thus far. The problem, to be blunt, is that they just are not as good as the other central options available. With regards to his attacking options, the talent level of his current players are certainly a massive upgrade over what was available to him at Augsburg, but again, the type of players he now has lay in stark contrast to what he put faith in previously.
The solution, though difficult to put into place, is not to have the players adjust to his approach, but rather form a conglomeration between those players he has that can put a rough and tumble shift in, and those who have more ability to bring to the table.
So what would a Schalke XI balanced between work and silk look like?
Fahrmann; Howedes, Naldo, Nastasic, Baba; Geis, Goretzka; Choupo-Moting, Meyer, Embolo; Huntelaar
In Ralf Fahrmann, Schalke possess a very solid goalkeeper who is consistent. A back four of Howedes, Naldo, Nastasic and Baba offer a blend of ball playing ability, solid crossing and experience at the highest level. Geis and Goretzka in midfield is, at least on paper (and in ability) one of the most formidable midfield pairings in the league, with both able to be creative from deeper, drop back and defend as well as get forward and have a crack at goal from outside the box – all qualities Weinzierl used to his advance frequently while at Augsburg. Though the wide players (Choupo-Moting and Embolo) and Max Meyer are not nearly as workman-like as Augsburg’s options in previous years in those positions, they do offer more creativity and goals going forward – the key here would be for these players to chip in more when they’re on the defensive side of the ball.
And finally, in Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (and to an extent Franco Di Santo), Weinzierl has a real quality target man who can dominate in the air, hold up play well to bring others into the attacking move, and a better goal scoring pedigree. This is a team that can be molded into a very balanced yet dangerous side, yet the forcing of a tactical approach that doesn’t suit most of these players is, for me, the reason why they have fallen flat on their faces coming out of the starting blocks.
“I don’t know where the problem lies. We are in a situation where words fail me. Things aren’t working up front and we make the simplest mistakes at the back. It is getting more difficult week by week.” – Ralf Fahrmann
Perhaps there is no better way to sum up the current situation at the Veltins-Arena. Words have failed many when trying to dissect why a team blessed with a talented manager, that have a host of talented players at their disposal, are struggling in ways that are more akin to a side which was just newly promoted rather than a Bundesliga stalwart. But not all solutions are complicated, and for me, this is one that is anything but difficult.
Simple changes are needed in Gelsenkirchen. Simple tweaks in all areas of the pitch, simple adjustments in getting players to buy into a new system while the manager must buy into having different types of players than he is accustomed to having at his disposal.
Football is indeed a simple game, but it demands consistency, hard work, and yes, quality. Schalke indeed have the quality, and they have a manager who believes in hard work. While the consistency, and the results to show for it, may be lacking at the moment, no one in their right frame of mind would assume that Schalke will go down come the end of the season.
There undoubtedly will be questions raised regarding whether Weinzierl was even the right appointment for the club to make, which is another debate for another time, but considering that football is a game with an ever-changing landscape, perhaps it is ironic that Die Konigsblauen must embrace change and adapt if they are to avoid the unthinkable.