At the start of the 2016/17 season, Schalke lost each of their opening five games, their worst-ever start to a Bundesliga campaign, as the Markus Weinzierl era, which ultimately lasted just one season, began in ignominious style. On Tuesday night, Domenico Tedesco takes his current-Schalke side to Freiburg, looking to avoid matching that unwanted record.
The fact that they didn’t pick up their first points of the season on Saturday came as little surprise, seeing as they were up against Bayern Munich, who have been unflustered by what little has been thrown at them so far this season, even if, as the final whistle went, it seems as though they had flattered to deceive a little in earning their 2-0 victory at the Veltins Arena.
Regardless of how they have started, the manner of the defeat for Tedesco’s side was worrying given they were Bayern’s closest challengers last season. They were forced to defer to their opponent’s superior might from the very off and the champions took the lead as James Rodríguez headed home a Joshua Kimmich corner.
The manner of that goal highlighted two things. “Defending set-pieces was one of our biggest strengths last season, whereas now we are struggling with them,” admitted goalkeeper Ralf Fährmann after the game, whilst Tedesco said it was “so disappointing” to concede set-piece openers in now three of their four league matches, especially as they have been working on them during training.
Tellingly, it was a man who was not at Schalke last season that let Rodríguez go for the header. Of course, Sebastian Rudy was at Bayern last season. His presence on the pitch, alongside that of former Schalke man Leon Goretzka on the opposite side, showed the relationship between the two sides. Bayern could bide their time before eventually getting the man they wanted on a free transfer to improve their squad, whilst Schalke wound up nominally replacing him by signing Rudy as he was cast aside by Bayern. It cannot be denied that Bayern leave other Bundesliga sides feeding off their scraps.
As well as their loss of composure in defending set pieces, the other noticeable difference with Schalke this year has been their failure to adequately replace both Goretzka and Max Meyer, also let go after failing to agree a new deal. Rudy is too much of a defensive player, whilst Weston McKennie isn’t yet at the point where he can command the midfield, although the Royal Blues were relieved to hear the knee injury he sustained early in the second half was only bruising and not as serious as first feared.
Whilst Schalke did have a bit of a go after conceding, Manuel Neuer was barely tested in the Bayern goal and after Robert Lewandowski converted a penalty kick soon after the break, Schalke never looked like getting back into the game as they went into damage-limitation mode, or at least accepted that they did not have the tools to hurt Bayern. The way that the result seemed certain made it feel like a thrashing, yet it had been nothing of the sort. Again, this highlights how the other teams in the Bundesliga so often are happy to defer to the Bavarian giants.
The managers did though paint a slightly different picture. Niko Kovać said he “wouldn’t agree” with anyone suggesting Bayern had won easily. “We had to work very hard for our victory,” he said. “After going behind we were solid and put a good shift in,” added Tedesco. “We were constantly trying to cause problems. Both strikers worked non-stop and never gave up.”
He is referring to Breel Embolo and Mark Uth, presumably, as another forward involved from the start, Franco di Santo, was once again thoroughly ineffectual. He showed his displeasure at being taken off for Amine Harit in the second half, yet in reality he could have few complaints. The Moroccan livewire looked lively after he came on and surely his energy is what Schalke’s so far limp attack needs as they look to move up the table, in which they are now adrift at the bottom with zero points.
After last season’s finish though, perhaps there was little left to achieve. No-one realistically expected them to make up the gap to Bayern this season and if there’s effectively nowhere left to go, then how can Tedesco motivate his side for another season of consolidation. There is now a clear task and that is simply moving up the table. With Mainz and Fortuna Düsseldorf also to come before the international break they have every chance to do that, but first they need to get lift-off at Freiburg to avoid making history.
1 | Bayern’s relentless pursuit of another Bundesliga title goes on, however for a few small hours on Saturday they were overtaken at the top by Hertha BSC. Their unbeaten start to the season looked under threat when Thorgan Hazard put Borussia Mönchengladbach ahead, however Vedad Ibišević scored twice and Ondrej Duda, currently the league’s top scorer, also got on the scoresheet to settle a 4-2 win, which helped to contribute to 17 goals in the five Saturday afternoon kick-offs.
2 | Bayer Leverkusen finally got their season going on Sunday, as they built on the midweek comeback against Ludogorets with a 1-0 victory over Mainz. Kai Havertz, who scored twice on Thursday, was on the scoresheet again as he headed in a Julian Brandt cross, however it could have been very different if Robin Quaison’s goal had stood, 74 seconds after coming on at half-time. However, Jonathan Tah’s misplaced ball had struck the striker’s hand and it was ruled out through VAR.
3 | On Thursday, UEFA will decide whether Germany or Turkey will host Euro 2024 and as part of the country’s campaign, all for the clubs wore badges in support of the bid as well as the obligatory pre-match photo opportunity. However, a different story was being told in the stands, as banners mocking the slogan “United by Football” – turning it instead to “United by Money” – were unveiled, as the war between fan groups and the football authorities goes on. There will also be an ‘atmosphere boycott’ in the midweek fixtures as fans across the country continue to protest about the growing commercialisation of the game.
4 | On a similar theme, Borussia Dortmund fans were the centre of attention in their game at Hoffenheim, as they unveiled banners and chants against Hoffenheim owner Dietmar Hopp, who just this week has begun legal proceedings against around 30 Dortmund fans for similar protests last season. It overshadowed a competitive match, with Christian Pulisic’s late goal preserving ten-man Dortmund’s unbeaten record in a 1-1 draw. Joelinton had put the hosts ahead, whilst Ermin Bičakčić had a goal disallowed by VAR, for what reason was not entirely clear or obvious.
By James Rees.