Schalke and the hole that they can’t stop digging for themselves
Never mind needing Christmas to absorb everything that’s happened to Schalke in 2020; we might need the holidays just to make sense of everything that’s happened in the space of the last week. Eight days ago, Manuel Baum’s team were within seconds of lifting a gargantuan weight from their shoulders by way of a first Bundesliga win of the season, at Augsburg.
Since then we’ve had Marco Richter’s 93rd-minute equaliser that put an end to those hopes, a comprehensive home defeat to Freiburg which was more in keeping with their season so far, the sacking of Baum – the second head coach dumped after a dozen games in the league – and the bat signal being shone to the skies to summon the short-term help of the legendary Huub Stevens. There was perhaps a certain inevitability in Baum (‘tree’ in German) being removed by sporting director Jochen Schneider (‘cutter’), as Archie Rhind-Tutt pointed out, though there is precious little humour to be found elsewhere around the club.
The plan, if we can call it that, was clear. A short, sharp shock to the system with Stevens, the 67-year-old voted Schalke’s coach of the century, brought in just to oversee the two games before Christmas; a Bundesliga must-win in Gelsenkirchen against struggling relegation probables Arminia Bielefeld, followed by a midweek Pokal trip to fourth-tier Ulm, with the latter potentially offering some light in what is so far a train wreck of a season.
The first part didn’t come together as the late George Peppard’s Hannibal would have hoped. It was the must-win game that Schalke never really looked like winning. Arminia’s players spoke afterwards of hope. For Schalke, there is little. This was a top-flight game in name only, and it’s hard to imagine it being one at all next season. And Schalke were second best in it. They are now six points behind Arminia, who occupy the relegation play-off place of 16th.
Schalke’s performance was not without desire, but it was so inept that one wondered whether Stevens could ever have been expected to conjure the elusive win, as the team completed their 29th consecutive Bundesliga game without one. Maybe he is just there to point out some home truths for the players to take into their few days off. “When I see that there are three against one in the centre,” he sighed to Sky when describing Fabian Klos’ winner for the visitors, “and nobody takes the man and everyone relies on the other … you have to take the initiative yourself.”
WAZ’s Justus Heinisch wrote on Sunday of “the horror statistics” of this season beyond the winless run – the worst defence, the worst attack, the worst shot conversion rate. That’s not to mention 2020’s goal difference (an eye-watering minus 56) or that no team in Bundesliga history that has been in the top flight for both halves of a calendar year has scored fewer than Schalke’s 17.
With Tasmania Berlin’s infamous 31-game winless run, set in 1966 (a record they’d very much like to keep for marketing purposes) now perilously close, eyes switch to the calendar. The new year starts at Hertha, then home to Hoffenheim. If Schalke don’t win either, they will take the record outright by not winning in the late game at Eintracht Frankfurt on 17 January – which would also mark 12 months to the day since their last Bundesliga win, against Borussia Mönchengladbach.
What’s remarkable is that most of the players who started in that victory, back when Schalke were a reasonably healthy, competitive, normal team, are still at the club. Loanees Jonjoe Kenny and Michael Gregoritsch returned home, Markus Schubert was loaned to Frankfurt and – crucially – the contract of 32-year-old Daniel Caliguiri was allowed to expire; he joined Augsburg in the summer. Yet Ozan Kabak, Suat Serdar – who scored the opener – Matija Nastasić and Omar Mascarell are all still there.
Many have mused that those players have got off lightly by not having to face a full, angry Veltins-Arena. On Sunday morning, fan groups had hung banners of protest around fences by the club offices, focussing their ire above the playing field. Debts hovered around the €200m mark even before the pandemic, and Schalke were the first club to ask fans if they would forego refunds for matches behind closed doors. So chief financial officer Alexander Jobst, along with Schneider, is under pressure. “To Alex and Jochen,” read one banner from the Blue Boyz group, “your painful mistakes can no longer be excused. Terminate your contracts, for the good of the association.”
A limit has been reached. “The stadiums were closed,” wrote Der Westen’s Daniel Sobolewski, “the general meeting postponed indefinitely. The active fan scene currently has practically no opportunities to express the pent-up discontent with the team and club.” Former Stuttgart coach Alexander Zorniger is the early favourite to take over but with little time to get ideas across and morale on the floor, this is a mess that even the spirit of Stevens will struggle to salvage.
Bayern Munich go into Christmas – there’s no real winter break and they’re not Herbstmeister, or autumn champion, until the halfway point – as leaders thanks to Robert Lewandowski’s last-gasp winner at Bayer Leverkusen. Peter Bosz and company were kicking themselves. Having taken a first-half lead through a spectacular Patrik Schick volley (the seventh successive game Bayern have gone 1-0 down in) and having largely defended well, they gave away two terrible goals to the best striker of 2020 to lose their place at the summit. “I can’t explain it,” said a flabbergasted Bosz. “I expect them to sort it out.” Or, in the words of goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky: “These things happen. I don’t give a shit. Next question.”
Leipzig were similarly exasperated after being held goalless at home by Köln, leaving them level on points with Leverkusen and two behind Bayern. “We have to win a game like this,” said midfielder Tyler Adams.
• Maybe there is some small consolation for Schalke’s suffering fans that Dortmund are going through a difficult patch – and that two former Königsblauen, Cedric Teuchert and Manuel Friedrich, combined for Union Berlin’s match-winner on Friday night in their latest reverse. Union go into the mini-pause in the top six, but this was a reminder that all BVB’s problems didn’t go out the door with Lucien Favre. There were bright spots, including a first goal for the now youngest-ever Bundesliga scorer, 16-year-old Youssoufa Moukoko, but a lot of frustration, epitomised by Mats Hummels punching an advertising hoarding on his way to his post-match interview.
• Borussia Mönchengladbach look in desperate need of a break after their hectic schedule, and again lost a lead in eventual defeat at home to Hoffenheim. Finishing with 10 men didn’t help, with Marcus Thuram sent off after VAR examination caught him spitting in Stefan Posch’s face, and the France forward faces a long ban. “Marcus is well-educated and never causes any problems,” said a visibly stunned Marco Rose, “he went way too far.” Thuram apologised at length on social media – to Posch, his teammates and his family – on Saturday evening. “I accept all the consequences of my gesture,” he wrote.