David Wagner was appointed as the new coach of FC Schalke 04 last summer with the main goal of stabilising the club after the disaster of 2018/19 in which they finished 14th.
On the face of it, it seemed a sensible appointment. Already popular with Schalke supporters having been part of their 1997 UEFA Cup winning side as a player, Wagner was considered a bright young manager who had overachieved with Huddersfield Town in England.
Wagner’s Schalke exceeded expectations during the Hinrunde, collecting 30 points and in 5th place and apparent Champions League contention at Christmas. However, some warning signs were already apparent. Victories came with unconvincing performances and die Königsblauen’s lack of cutting edge up front remained a persistent problem following a paucity of goals in the previous season.
Nevertheless, Bundesliga commentators would not have foreseen FC Schalke 04’s devastating drop in form since January, which has only worsened since the break enforced by Covid-19. Up to and including the draw with Union Berlin, the team have collected only eight points and scored six goals.
This places Schalke bottom of the Rückrunde table. Were it not for Hinrunde overachievement, they would undoubtedly be in the midst of the relegation scrap. As it is, the current 10th position in the Bundesliga exhibits the side in an overly-favourable light.
Die Knappen’s problems run deeper than this season, though, with the club experiencing a slow decline since the start of the last decade. Schalke’s last silverware came in 2011, and there has been a running theme of appointing coaches without sustained success.
Domenico Tedesco appeared on the right tracks after the surprise 2nd placed-finish in 2018, but he parted ways with the club the following year during the dismal 2018/19. He is just one example. Remarkably, Schalke have had 18 head coaches in the last 15 years, permanent or otherwise. With just short of two full seasons, Tedesco’s reign may actually be considered one of the more long-term appointments in recent years.
This begs the question: how can the club hierarchy expect long term-success with such instability? Perhaps more attention should be paid to the quality of the playing personnel. FC Schalke 04 prides itself on existing as one of Germany’s largest clubs, and by most indicators it still is. However, that isn’t reflected by recent league finishes and the current squad itself. There seems to be a tendency of buying players who have over-performed for smaller German clubs.
A glance at the recent lineup against Union Berlin showed a side largely made up of loanees or the likes of Salif Sané, Alessandro Schöpf and Benito Raman- signed from Hannover, Nürnberg and Fortuna Düsseldorf respectively. With a spine of players signed from clubs accustomed to mid-table finishes and relegation battles, should it be any surprise that Schalke end up in similar scenarios?
Gone seems to be the days of them buying players from fellow Bundesliga giants. Sebastian Rudy from Bayern Munich is the most recent example, but this move was a failure and he is currently loaned out to Hoffenheim.
The club have often relied on youth graduates from the famed Knappenschmiede academy, but at the moment there is a lack of prospects coming through. One of the current graduates in the first-team squad is Ahmed Kutucu, but he is underutilised by Wagner who would rather persist with the likes of Guido Burgstaller (no league goals this season) and more recently loan signing Michael Gregoritsch (one goal since signing).
A more prominent Knappenschmiede product has been goalkeeper Alexander Nübel, however after being appointed captain at the start of this season he has since agreed to join FC Bayern on a free at the end of his contract.
This is not an isolated incident as there has been a string of players lost without any transfer fee received such as Max Meyer, Joёl Matip and albeit not a Schalke youth graduate, Leon Goretzka. These departures represent millions of euros lost in potential transfer fees and points to a careless lack of foresight on the club’s behalf.
This leads to the subject of finances which underpins a number of Schalke’s present issues. The club’s chief financial officer Peter Peters is to depart the club at the end of this month, leaving Schalke with approximately 200 million euros of debt. The lack of profitability from their transfer policy will be a contributing factor, as well as constant budgeting for continental qualification and regular failure to achieve this.
These economic challenges will likely lead to a fire-sale of players in the summer, but with a lack of promising youth players and quality in general, Schalke may struggle to make any substantial money from departures. Additionally, without the young talent or funds to replace any outgoing players, a weak squad next season seems likely.
The Schalke UK Fan Club (@S04UK) summed up the club’s problems on Twitter: “We play terrible football and have average players. The result of that is that the league status reflects reality. If we want better football and players how do we pay for this? The conveyor belt of talent to sell has gone so we can’t rely on that revenue.”
This quote well represents the anxieties of Schalke supporters regarding the team’s future. The side may well be consigned to a relegation battle next season.
Furthermore, a longer-term worry that the club enters the category of sides such as Hamburger SV and VfB Stuttgart persists- becoming a traditional big city club living in the shadow of its historical success and dropping into the second tier.
It may be too hasty to consign Schalke to inevitably following this path. After all, the club won’t be alone in their financial difficulties amid the coronavirus pandemic. They are still in the middle pack of the Bundesliga for the moment, and may even confound expectations with a European push next season. This faint hope aside, it is difficult to put a positive spin on FC Schalke 04’s current downward trajectory.
By Colin Moore.