Few teams have been grateful for the eerily empty stands synonymous with the Bundesliga’s restart and Schalke, used to the heaving bearpit of the Veltins Arena that has over 60,000 fans hemming them in every fortnight, are certainly not one. What is true is that the current representatives of the Königsblauen are feeling less heat on their necks than they would be in normal times. Much post-Klassiker talk has been of the Bundesliga’s players bringing the intensity on the pitch that we miss from the stands, but there can be no substitute for an affronted crowd in Gelsenkirchen.
Saturday’s latest defeat, at home to struggling Werder Bremen, marked Schalke’s 11th consecutive Bundesliga game without a win and though David Wagner said his side had done “very well” after the break in what was a match of “two very different halves”, there was no gilding the lily, and no hiding place. The current run is the club’s worst since 1996-97, as Wagner will know – he was there for that, too, as a player. That was a very different situation, with the Bundesliga run-in going to pot as they chased the Uefa Cup, which ended in glorious, Jens Lehmann-inspired glory in Milan. Even if results take a dramatic upturn from here this campaign will likely finish with a whimper rather than a whoop.
Clearly expectation, partly created by glory nights like that one 23 years ago, presents a problem. The pressure incumbent on all involved with Schalke, this most well and passionately supported of clubs, is sometimes not fully grasped outside Germany, but the Bundesliga’s rise to temporary centre-stage in front of the world’s football watchers is perhaps offering a small window into just how acute the pressure is.
The WAZ journalist Manfred Hendriock described the continuing sequence of poor results as “shameful” after the loss to Werder and increasing amounts of fans, emptying their frustrations on creaking keyboards, as they are unable to do so vocally at the stadium, are turning on the coach. Wagner’s attraction had always been his understanding of the club, its needs and desires. Before Christmas he knew a limited squad was overachieving – Schalke were level on points with rivals Borussia Dortmund at Christmas, potentially in the mix for Champions League qualification – but knew that staying on the front foot would win him fans, and time.
Even in the first game back from the interruption to the season, away at Dortmund, Wagner looked like the man who understood. He spoke before the game about he and his players being ready to overcome the lack of atmosphere at the stadium. They would find the motivation. “Come on, it’s the derby,” he cajoled, waving his hands in front of remotely placed journalists. Even his attacking half-time substitutions, which horribly exposed his team to Dortmund’s lightning counters, showed positivity. The capitulation of Roberto Di Matteo’s side in that same fixture five years ago expunged all his credit with supporters. Not Wagner. He was going down with his boots on.
Yet now here we are. After the midweek defeat up the road at lowly Fortuna Düsseldorf, which saw Schalke drop meekly back into a submissive, safety-first approach which backfired when the home side struck twice from set-pieces in five minutes, the outlook remained the same against Werder. A mistake was decisive when Jean-Clair Todibo was double-teamed on the halfway line by Milot Rashica and Davy Klaassen, and he was still complaining when Leonardo Bittencourt’s magnificent left-footer was nestling into the top right-hand corner of Alexander Nübel’s net for the winner (Todibo, incidentally, was hooked at half-time for his over-adventure).
Up to the point Bittencourt struck, noted Der Westen, Schalke had a threadbare 18% possession, against the second-bottom side. “I think whoever talks up Europe now is in an alternate reality,” Wagner had suggested in his pre-match press conference, trying to remove the pressure of a waning challenge for a Europa League spot. In the circumstances, it looked like the abdication of ambition.
It would be unfair not to recognise that a just above average squad has been affected by injuries, and the losses of Suat Serdar and Amine Harit has left Schalke sorely lacking creativity. Weston McKennie, who fired their short-lived good start to the second half against Werder, had to be substituted as he sailed dangerously close to a second booking. But sending towering centre-back Salif Sané forward to salvage things in the closing stages, as he did here and at Fortuna, will earn Wagner little sympathy. It reeked of desperation, as did the recall of goalkeeper Nübel, excommunicated in late February after poor form and fan opprobrium for agreeing to join Bayern Munich in summer.
Werder still woke up on Monday morning seven places and 12 points worse off than Wagner and company, but a whole lot happier. It’s hard not to compare the leadership of Wagner and Werder coach Florian Kohfeldt over the last few weeks. He has spent months being written off as hopeless by media, fans and former players but stood up for himself after the defeat to Bayer Leverkusen, proudly declaring himself the right man for the job.
Since, Werder have taken seven points from nine and kept three straight clean sheets. They go into Wednesday’s fixture against Eintracht Frankfurt with the chance to escape the relegation zone. Schalke are not in trouble at the bottom, but how their fans would appreciate a fixture to get excited about at the moment.
• Texas-born McKennie was also the first Bundesliga player this weekend to make his point about the unfolding situation in the United States, wearing a customised “Justice For George” armband. On Sunday Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Marcus Thuram – unsurprisingly given his father’s proud history of activism – took a knee after his first goal, while Jadon Sancho removed his shirt to reveal the message “Justice For George Floyd” after scoring at Paderborn (Sancho’s teammate Achraf Hakimi had an identical undershirt). Yet the chairman of the DFL’s disciplinary committee, Anton Nachreiner, said his body plan to “examine” the players’ shows of support, with the league forbidding “political messages”. Schalke’s head of sports, Jochen Schneider, insists the club back McKennie “100%”.
• After struggling for sharpness post-hiatus, Sancho was back with a bang on Sunday, hitting a first career hat-trick in an unusual game at bottom side Paderborn. It was goalless at half-time but the Englishman’s contribution, together with those of Emre Can, allowed BVB to shake off their post-Klassiker cobwebs in style – vital, given that they’re not yet sure of a Champions League place. More disappointing for Lucien Favre was Mats Hummels’ yellow card, which means he will miss next Saturday’s more challenging fixture against in-form Hertha.
• As Gladbach beat Union 4-1 to reclaim third spot – at least pending RB Leipzig’s Monday night trip to Köln – Thuram again showed his immense value, on and off the pitch. He struck twice and after the “highly emotional experience” (per sporting director Max Eberl) of Mamadou Doucouré’s late debut after years of injury misery, Thuram gleefully took the 22-year-old’s shirt, placed it atop a corner flag and waved it in the air in what has become his trademark way of leading post-victory celebrations.
• Bayern also celebrated their victory, 5-0 over Fortuna Düsseldorf, with great joy on Saturday evening, as if they’d been postponing festivities from Tuesday’s win at Dortmund to make sure they got the job done. The scenes on the pitch at full-time showed just how valued Hansi Flick is, after he beat Pep Guardiola’s club record for his first 25 competitive games (22 wins for Flick versus 21 for Guardiola).