Despite a rich history steeped in working-class traditions, the city of Gelsenkirchen is now pursuing a drastic rebrand of its image and reputation. Once the most important coal mining center in all of Europe, the business-friendly city, currently dipping it’s feet in solar technology, looks to be making significant advances as the world around it evolves. Schalke 04, as it turns out, are no different.
Possessing one of the best youth academies in both Germany and Europe, alongside a foundation rooted in rich footballing tradition, Die Konigsblauen were looking to reattain their status as perennial Champions League contenders.
During the three seasons spanning 2011/12 to 2013/14, Schalke finished consistently in the top four places on the back of very credible league campaigns. Though off the pace of Bayern Munich and rivals Borussia Dortmund, The Royal Blues still shone well, seemingly locked in as a near shoe-in for Europe’s top club competition. But the 2014/15 domestic campaign would reverse their fortunes, as Schalke went on to languish in sixth, trailing fourth-placed Bayer Leverkusen by thirteen points.
It was much the same the following year. Though they finished fifth and were only three points off fourth, Europa League was still not the European competition craved for at the Veltins-Arena. But it was back in the 2014/15 season that an upstart manager at FC Augsburg would lay the framework for the progression of his career, ironically helping the Bavarian minnows to finish ahead of his eventual and current employers.
“I’ve been following his career for years. We want a new start at Schalke, and Markus is the right man for the job.” - Christian heidel, Schalke sporting director
The appointment of Markus Weinzierl last summer was met with a positive yet tempered reaction—I discussed that very topic in a piece for Outside of the Boot back in August. His blue collar, defense-first-then-counter approach turned Augsburg into a European upstart that saw them qualify for the Europa League (and advance to the knockout stages) for the first time in their history. Though they lacked depth in quality in the first team, the Augsburg XI was a near-perfect balance of work ethic and tactical understanding, with a sprinkling here and there of technical ability.
Despite a higher-level ability in the first team and a vastly superior youth system to call upon, Schalke certainly lacked tactical balance under Andre Breitenreiter. The appointment of Weinzierl was clearly one which could correct that deficiency, but a bigger question of whether or not the players could adapt to the Straubing native’s approach would have to be asked.
Early season results suggested a very difficult task ahead. Five losses in the club’s opening five Bundesliga fixtures, four of which came against sides currently sitting in the top eight, couldn’t have made for a more unwanted start to life in the Ruhr valley for the Bavarian. It may have been early in the season, but Weinzierl had failed to adapt his players to his approach. His initial dips into the market to bring in players more suited to his approach did not bear fruit early on, as both Benjamin Stambouli and Nabil Bentaleb failed to settle to life in the Bundesliga early doors.
Despite the horrific start, Schalke went on a run of seven Bundesliga fixtures unbeaten, including notable wins against Gladbach, Mainz 05, and a credible point away at the Westfalenstadion. But just when you thought better wheels were placed on the bus, they fell right off just as quickly—three losses and a draw rounded up the Hinrunde, and the Winterpause could not have come at a better time for a Schalke side which looked to be caught in another slide.
Some of the pieces needed for Weinzierl to succeed at Schalke were already there. Sead Kolasinac and Coke, both hard working full-backs that offer quality going forward, fit seamlessly into the tactical system that he used during his time at the WWK Arena. Johannes Geis and Leon Goretzka, both hard-nosed young German midfielders that are technically gifted, could be used very similarly to Dominik Kohr and Daniel Baier. Maxim Choupo-Moting and Alessandro Schopf, meanwhile, are both excellent going forward at pace but also able to track back and provide assistance on the defensive. But a mixture of an initial lack of adaptation, as well as additional areas of the first-team still needing to be addressed, saw Schalke fall well short of the mark on their mid-season report card. It is with that in mind that Weinzierl took action in the winter transfer window, and with stunning success.
The Die Knappen headmaster conducted brilliant winter business, bringing in 1.FC Nurnberg center forward Guido Burgstaller, hard-working right winger Daniel Caliguri from VfL Wolfsburg, and once highly-touted center back Holger Badstuber on loan from Bayern Munich.
Both Caliguri and Badstuber have shored matters up for Weinzierl considerably. In the German wide player, his contributions both going forward with the ball at his feet, as well as tracking back to help Schalke defend in depth, have been a sight for sore eyes. Badstuber, looking to rekindle a career that was once anticipated to see him develop into one of the elite center backs in Europe, has been a breath of fresh air—his distribution from the back, intelligence in defending, great awareness and willingness to work has strengthened Schalke’s ability to defend a great deal. But it has been Austrian international Burgstaller that has been the biggest revelation.
“Sometimes Guido doesn’t even know himself how he manages to do what he does. He works so hard for the team. We’re all excited that it’s paying off in goals.” - Leon Goretzka
At the time of his €1.5million purchase from Nurnberg, Burgstaller was smashing the 2.Bundesliga to the tune of fourteen goals in just sixteen appearances. Since his move to Gelsenkirchen, his eight goals in fifteen outings under Weinzierl have made him the club’s leading scorer in the Bundesliga in only a matter of months. Goals, and his incredible willingness to leave it all out on the pitch for the team, have made him an invaluable asset moving forward.
“I really didn’t know that I was going to come in and score all these goals in the ruckrunde. I’m not doing much different to what I was in Nurnberg, but you learn every time you play in the Bundesliga. When you train with good players, you improve.” - Guido Burgstaller
Burgstaller hasn’t just improved—he’s also formed a valuable network of understanding with fellow new-boy Caliguri, as well as Austrian international teammate Schopf and central midfield dynamo Goretzka.
When you add up all the pieces, Weinzierl has finally found a Schalke side that has balance. Everyone on the pitch now works hard for the team, there is a good degree of creativity in key areas, and goals are becoming much more of a regular occurrence of late.
Since the start of the Ruckrunde, Schalke have only tasted defeat in the league on four occasions, while registering laudable results against Bayern, Hertha, and Leverkusen, amongst others. Now, with just three matches remaining on the docket—including Sunday’s crucial away trip to Freiburg with its Europa League implications—Weinzierl and his Miners are just four points off European qualification.
Spirits will be further lifted by the remainder of their league run-in, with matches still left against struggling outfits Ingolstadt (17th) and Hamburg (16th). Though both are fighting for their lives in the top-flight, Schalke will no doubt fancy the cause they’re fighting for.
It has not been a debut season to remember for Markus Weinzierl in the industrial heart of Germany, one which may end without Europe and questions potentially asked of his appointment. But it must be remembered that managers must adapt to a new life at a new club just the same as players.
There are plenty of positives that can be drawn from the second half of the season, and perhaps the same way Gelsenkirchen has been looking to redefine itself, Schalke 04 may yet find domestic success in that same light. Fresh starts are more often than not rocky, but it is the long term goals that must be remembered; if Weinzierl was capable of getting Augsburg into Europe, surely he must be given time to put his stamp on a club which deserves greater success than it has seen in recent times.