Schalke kinda-sorta sucked last year. They ended on a high, as they won the DFB-Pokal. But the Bundesliga campaign was miserable, and they could have been relegated if they hadn’t got their act together. However, judging from the results so far, it was probably the result of coach Felix Magath going amok, and giving him the boot has since righted the track.
Things were certainly murky when the season started. Ralf Rangnick was brought in as the new coach, and there was a fair amount of excitement. Rangnick is known as “der Professor” for his cerebral approach to the game, and there were high hopes he could slap Schalke’s underachievers into shape. (Of course Magath was doing the same thing, only he was really slapping them, booting them in the ass, etc.). However, Rangnick wasn’t having the effect, and Schalke had uneven results. It was increasingly clear that der Professor wasn’t right, and he soon resigned due to “mental exhaustion”. Schalke and their fans were stunned, but soon rallied around his replacement, Huub Stevens. This has proved to be an ideal appointment so far, as Schalke quickly turned around and started winning. (Stevens had led Schalke’s previous mini-run of success in the 90s, when they won the UEFA Cup – when it actually meant something. In those days, it seemed like the requirement was you had to speak Dutch…)
Foremost among Schalke concerns starting the season was the sale of GK Manuel Neuer to Bayern. This was inevitable, as Schalke needed the money, and Neuer’s head had obviously got too big anyway. But subtract a world-class keeper from a team with a wimpy attack, and that’s sure to be a recipe for trouble. They did find a nice replacement in Frankfurt GK Ralf Fährmann, who came in on a free. He was doing quite well until he went down injured. The club did pick up veteran Timo Hildebrand (who basically ruined his career by going to Spain and then sucking), but youngster Lars Unnerstall has stood in nicely. Overall, the goal keeping has been pretty decent, so the sale of Neuer was a very good move.
The defense has been OK, typical of Schalke. The star is clearly international Benedikt Höwedes, but there’s been somewhat of a revolving door on other positions. Christian Fuchs came over from Mainz, and appears to have established himself. His forays and crosses down the left flank have helped the attack considerably. Greek youngster Kyrgiakos Papadoupoulos has had some growing pains, but appears to be getting stronger. I would say veteran defender Christoph Metzelder has been a mixed bag, his best years clearly done despite being only 31. The most promising player from the rest seems to Japanese Atsuto Uchida, but he hasn’t really played enough. Tim Hoogland has been out injured (as usual) and youngsters Marco Höger and Joel Matip have seen considerable playing time, but have not risen to the next level yet. Still, defense is has been solid, so it’s not much of a worry.
The midfield has shown improvement. Huub Stevens has clearly got things back on track. Jermaine Jones is back from Felix Magath’s doghouse and brings his usual thug-like play. But since Schalke lacked backbone last season, a few muggings can’t hurt. Youngster Lewis Holtby is clearly a major attacking talent, but hasn’t fully established himself. Spaniard José Manuel Jurado has shown flashes of brilliance, but it’s not clear that he can be consistent enough to carry the attack. Alex Baumjohann was one of Germany’s top young talents a couple of years ago, but his transfer to Bayern stunk up his career. He’s not back, but at least he’s till young enough that maybe he can recuperate at Schalke. (Magath of course f%^&ed him up too.)
However, the difference is that Schalke has remembered how to attack. In fact, half way through this season, they have scored as many goals as the entire 2011 season!! The Blues trail only Bayern in goals scored, a remarkable turnaround. Largely responsible has been red-hot Klaas-Jaan Huntelaar, who is clearly relishing his recovered scoring form. 15 goals is quite a haul. And ageless Spanish wizard Raúl is still effective, scoring 10 times. His cleverness and experience work wonders. Peruvian winger Jefferson Farfan has been Schalke’s best attacker in the last couple of years, and has continued his good form. However, he has been slowed by injuries, and with a high price tag, I wouldn’t be shocked if Schalke accepts an offer in the winter break. The new stadium cost money, and Schalke (like rivals Dortmund) over-extended themselves, and now are looking to consolidate financially. The main problem is that the attack is a bit thin. Sell Farfan, and have either Raúl or Huntelaar go down, and now you’re relying on retreads like Ciprian Marica or Finnish youngster Teemu Pukki. Pukki scored a couple of goals late, but has a lot to prove.
In summary, I don’t think Schalke is that much of a threat to Bayern. However, they clearly have turned things around, and have gotten the maximum out of the first half of the season.