Schalke ended a horrible 2020 rock bottom of the Bundesliga table having won only one league game all year. They have now appointed their fourth coach of the season in Christian Gross with the sole aim of avoiding relegation.
bundesliga.com has five reasons why the Royal Blues will avoid the Bundesliga trapdoor…
1) A new start under Gross
Gross, 66, follows David Wagner, Manuel Baum and caretaker boss Huub Stevens as the man charged with getting Schalke their first Bundesliga victory since 17 January 2020. Since then, the club has gone 29 matches without three points and is now only two games short of equalling the league’s longest unbeaten run of 31 set by Tasmania Berlin in 1965/66.
“We’re in an extremely precarious position,” said sporting director Jochen Schneider with the Royal Blues sitting bottom on four points after 13 matchdays – six adrift of Arminia Bielefeld in the relative safety of the play-off spot. It’s Schalke’s worst-ever start to a Bundesliga season and makes them the fifth club to have four points or fewer after 13 matches. The previous four were all relegated.
While the weight of history and form is difficult to shift, that is what Gross must do when he begins his tenure away at Hertha Berlin on 2 January. They need to start anew in Gelsenkirchen or risk dropping out of the Bundesliga for the fourth time in their history. It’s actually a position the new coach knows too well…
His appointment is reminiscent of what happened at VfB Stuttgart in 2009/10. While sporting director there, Schneider brought in Gross with the team languishing in 16th after 15 matchdays. Admittedly, they were far better placed than Schalke now, having 12 points on the board and finding themselves only one from safety, but the Swiss coach still worked wonders after his arrival.
With a team featuring the likes of Jens Lehmann, Sami Khedira, Cacau, Ricardo Osorio, Thomas Hitzlsperger, Aleksandr Hleb and more, Stuttgart won 13 of their 19 games under Gross, losing only twice. Their 39 points in the Rückrunde was the most in the league and saw them rocket up the table to finish sixth, only two points behind Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund, and qualify for the UEFA Europa League.
While Schalke are evidence of how poor form can quickly snowball, having started 2020 in fifth place, Gross showed at Stuttgart how good form can take hold just as quickly and catapult you up the table.
It wasn’t even his first big rescue job as a coach. Having twice guided Grasshoppers to the title in his homeland, Gross was brought in by Tottenham Hotspur in November 1997 with them hovering above the bottom three in the English Premier League. Just one defeat in the final nine games of the season saw Spurs finish a full nine points clear of the drop.
Still, Gross described his latest job as a “special task” at his unveiling. “The team needs to be braver. I want a brave and clever team. I won’t overtrain the team, they have to be fresh,” the new boss added as he gears his team up for a big 2021.
2) All in the head
2020 has been a difficult year for most people in every sense, and that includes at Schalke. As mentioned, they won just one league game in the entire year – their very first at home to Borussia Mönchengladbach (2-0). By the time the Hertha game comes around, it’ll be 351 days since that win, which is the longest a team has ever gone without three points in the Bundesliga without being relegated in-between.
Watch: Highlights of Schalke’s sole Bundesliga win in 2020
People may ask the question of whether they have been affected worse than most teams by the absence of fans in stadiums, but they still failed to win their seven Bundesliga fixtures between the Gladbach game and the resumption of the season in May, only scoring twice in those matches. It’s a jinx that seemed to take effect overnight, so why can’t it be removed just as quickly?
Football is a notoriously fickle game. One week you’re a hero, the next a villain, then a hero again. Hansa Rostock were once top of the league after seven games in 1992/92 but still ended up relegated. Schalke’s arch-rivals Dortmund were bottom at this same stage in 2014/15 but went on to finish seventh. They are one of the 24 teams to be propping up the table after 13 matchdays and avoid the drop. A survival rate of 42 per cent will provide the Royal Blues some hope.
It’s all proof, though, of how quickly fortunes can turn around, even in the space of a season, and what can happen once that first win comes and the dam bursts. Perhaps having ended the year on a slight high by beating Ulm 3-1 in the DFB Cup second round under Stevens will have been an ideal way of rounding off 2020 and allowing Schalke to put it behind them.
3) A good squad
A cursory look at the current Schalke squad would likely leave you scratching your head as to why they are propping up the Bundesliga table without a win. The team has a good mix of experience and youth players coming through from the club’s famed Knappenschmiede academy.
Seven members have over 100 Bundesliga appearances under their belts, of which Ralf Fährmann, Vedad Ibisevic and Bastian Oczipka have over 200. And there are eight academy graduates still under the age of 23 who have featured this season.
In man-mountain centre-back Salif Sane they theoretically have the league’s best defender, with his success rates of 72 per cent in overall duels and 84 per cent in aerial duels both top across the division.
Ibisevic is the fourth in the Bundesliga’s all-time scoring chart for non-Germans with 127 goals, as well as having 59 assists, from 344 games. Mark Uth has an impressive haul of 38 goals and 23 assists from 130 appearances and returned to the club in the summer seemingly revitalised by a personally excellent loan at Cologne where he scored five and provided six assists in only 15 appearances.
Suat Serdar earned his first four Germany caps thanks to his early 2019/20 form that saw him score seven goals from central midfield over the first 18 matchdays. Morocco international Amine Harit has proven before that he has what it takes to turn games for Schalke, Turkey’s Ozan Kabak is one of the most highly regarded young centre-backs in Europe, while Goncalo Paciencia joined on loan on the back of seven goals from 23 games for Eintracht Frankfurt last season.
And then in Ahmed Kutucu, 20, and Nassim Boujellab, 21, there’s a combined 66 Bundesliga appearances from academy products. This season has also seen Malick Thiaw, Can Bozdogan and Matthew Hoppe emerge as genuine first-team members.
In total, only two of Schalke’s most common XI this season weren’t at the club last term, meaning it’s mostly the same squad that saw them up to fifth and level on points with Dortmund at the halfway stage of 2019/20. It is a cliché, but the talent in their ranks surely makes the Royal Blues too good to go down.
4) Favourable fixtures
Gross will be acutely aware of how crucial a good start will be for him. A continuation of the winless run will see heads drop further and likely leave relegation a mere formality.
Their performance, and of course result, away at Hertha on 2 January will therefore be key. It’s possibly the ideal fixture for Schalke to herald in a new year, with their 21 Bundesliga wins against the Berliners the most Die Knappen have recorded against any club since the turn of the millennium.
They then take on mid-table Hoffenheim and Frankfurt, both struggling to string together a consistent run of results, before completing the Hinrunde at home to Cologne in a big relegation six-pointer.
Watch: Captain Omar Mascarell: “We are Schalke, we never give up”
Schalke then begin the Rückrunde with the toughest of tasks at home to Bayern Munich, but an upturn in form before then could see them much closer to safety – they are still only seven off Cologne in 15th with 21 games to play – and go into the game with few inhibitions, which is often when teams have most troubled the Bundesliga and European champions.
And as an added boost of confidence with Gross taking over ahead of these games, he beat all five in 2009/10 after taking over at Stuttgart midway through the season, by an aggregate score of 13-4. He’s only one of two VfB coaches to beat Bayern since 2010, which is something only Felix Magath has done (once) for Schalke in the league in the same period.
5) Hoppe for the future
When it comes to Bundesliga academies, there are fewer greater sources of young talent than the one in Gelsenkirchen. Schalke’s Knappenschmiede has produced the likes of Manuel Neuer, Ilkay Gündogan, Leroy Sane, Julian Draxler, Mesut Özil, Joel Matip, Sead Kolasinac… The list goes on!
Watch: The Schalke academy dream team
It has been a great pool of excellent young players and generally helped maintain the club in the upper third of the Bundesliga table for the last few decades. And with funds now tight, the Royal Blues are once again looking to their academy to step up.
Wagner drew praise for his willingness to promote Schalke’s own youngsters, handing Bundesliga debuts to Timo Becker, Bozdogan, Levent Mercan and Thiaw. Baum continued to use a couple of those and also gave senior bows to strikers Luca Schuler and Hoppe.
The latter’s involvement has naturally drawn attention Stateside, with the former Los Angeles Galaxy youngster featuring in three of Baum’s final four games in charge. He follows in the footsteps of Weston McKennie as an American who took the risk of heading to Europe to further his career prospects and work his way into a major first team. McKennie has even gone on to captain the USMNT.
Generations have done it before with the Royal Blues, and across the Ruhr in Dortmund they will have seen 16-year-old Youssoufa Moukoko proving that age is but a number in football. Whatever the inspiration for the latest crop coming through at Schalke, they know this crisis is a chance for them and an opportunity to help save their club.