How David Wagner has turned Schalke from relegation battlers to European contenders


Schalke’s David Wagner wasn’t kidding when he told bundesliga.com earlier in the season that his coaching has been shaped by Jürgen Klopp.

In less than six months on the job, the 48-year-old has dusted Schalke off from their worst top-flight campaign in 36 years and transformed them into genuine top-four contenders.

The football has been intense and effective. As for the results, well - Schalke are level on points with fierce local rivals Borussia Dortmund at the halfway stage of 2019/20, in fifth.

bundesliga.com assesses the whys and wherefores of the turnaround….

Schalke had finished Bundesliga runners-up in 2017/18, but struggled for much of the ensuing campaign.

Head coach Domenico Tedesco lost his job on the back of a 10-2 aggregate defeat to Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League last 16, and it was only with three games to go under caretaker boss Huub Stevens that the Ruhr district club put any lingering relegation fears to bed.

It was down to Wagner to wake Die Knappen from their slumber.

Huub Stevens was parachuted in to rescue Schalke last season. - INA FASSBENDER/AFP/Getty Images

Klopp and Wagner on parallel paths

Schalke’s 11th different coach of the recently ended decade, Wagner had spent time in Gelsenkirchen as a player, lifting the 1997 UEFA Cup under predecessor, Stevens.

He also played in the same Mainz team as Klopp, before delving into coaching with the Hoffenheim U17s and U19s and taking the reins at Dortmund's reserves in summer 2011, with Klopp’s BVB fresh from lifting the Bundesliga title. The seniors won a domestic double the following season, while Wagner's B-team gained promotion to Germany's third tier.

Klopp and Wagner left Dortmund in May and October 2015 respectively, the former moving to English Premier League giants Liverpool, and the latter linking up with Huddersfield Town of the English Championship.

Klopp went on to claim the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League, whilst Wagner famously oversaw Huddersfield’s fairy tale rise to the English Premier League and successful debut campaign in the English top tier in 2017/18.

Aside from being former teammates amd coaching colleagues, Jürgen Klopp and Wagner (l-r.) are the best of friends. - 2016 Getty Images

Hardened in Huddersfield, suited for Schalke

Despite leaving Huddersfield by mutual consent in January 2019 with the club bottom of the Premier League standings - some eight points adrift of safety - Wagner's professional reputation had been enhanced rather than sullied.

He had embraced the culture of the Yorkshire outfit, the city and the supporters. And while his zest for life was in-born, his football IQ and vision had been forged in the mould of best friend, Klopp.

For Schalke, a club steeped in the traditions of the old mining communities of Gelsenkirchen, there was no better man to oversee the restoration project.

Schalke held Borussia Mönchengladbach to a goalless draw in their first Bundesliga match with Wagner in the dugout. They suffered a chastening 3-0 loss to defending champions Bayern Munich in their second, but were flirting with top spot by the end of October.

Although a run of four straight wins, including a demonstrative showing against current leaders RB Leipzig, and a draw at Hoffenheim, the Royal Blues were beaten just once more during the Hinrunde.

Watch: Schalke inflicted a first defeat of the season on Julian Nagelsmann's RB Leipzig!

Tangible improvements

Seventeen fixtures in, Schalke are 12 points better off than at the same juncture last season (30 from a possible 51). They’ve scored nine more (29) and conceded three less (21). Only the top two - Leipzig and Gladbach - have a superior defensive record.

What's more, Wagner’s incarnation are averaging 1.90 points per game compared to a collective mean of 1.6 12 months ago, and are already over halfway to matching the 2018/19 class’s season total for clean sheets (four v seven).

As well as a solid defence, Schalke’s success has been built on intense, man-to-man pressing - a Wagner hallmark.

Efficiency at its best

He has drilled his squad to play hard and run even harder. The fact Schalke are bottom of the table for distance covered underlines how efficient the Wagner press is.

The former USMNT international striker has, to all intents and purposes, outlawed chasing shadows. No team won more challenges in the Hinrunde (1,904), while six counter-attacking goals and a league-leading nine from recovered possession attest to a group of players committed to maximising energy efficiency. Someone call the low carbon planning committee…

Right-back Jonjoe Kenny is emblematic of the Wagner school of hard work. The uber-disciplined Everton loanee has started and finished 15 of the Royal Blues’ league assignments so far this term, only being sacrificed for a nominal attacker in the closing stages of defeats to Hoffenheim and Bayer Leverkusen.

Kenny is a dyed-in-the-wool hunter of the ball defensively, but no less important in the final third, where he provides width and stretches the opposition, in turn allowing the Schalke wingers to come inside and exploit space in the channels. One goal, two assists and 668 successful passes from open play - including 35 crosses - put him comfortably inside the league’s top 10 full-backs for offensive output.

Excellent returns from summer signings

Fellow newcomers, defender Ozan Kabak and forward Benito Raman, have also excelled since becoming first-team staples on the back of the Matchday 10 win over Augsburg.

Kabak’s performances have made light of a swathe of injuries across the back line, with the 19-year-old averaging 70 percent for tackles won, nearly 90 percent for successful passes whilst chipping in with three goals from corners.

Raman - with energy levels and a turn of pace tailor-made for Schalke’s razor-sharp transitions - has four goals and three assists to show for his last seven games. Only Amine Harit has fared better.

Ozan Kabak (1st.l), Benito Raman (c.) and Amine Harit (2nd.r) are blossoming under Wagner at Schalke. - Matthias Koch via www.imago-images.de/imago images/Matthias Koch

Strong interpersonal skills

That in itself is another Wagner masterstroke.

Harit was voted the Best Young Player in the Bundesliga at the end of his debut season at Schalke in May 2018, but tragedy and indiscipline off the pitch cost him his form (he tallied one goal and two assists in 18 league games in 2018/19), a place in Morocco’s 2019 African Cup of Nations squad and almost his Royal Blue shirt.

It took fatherhood and a pre-season meeting with Wagner to refocus the heart and mind of one of the German top tier’s most gifted young attackers.

"At the time, I described how I saw things to him, and he said how he saw things," Wagner told Bild. "We decided to tackle it together and reconvene at the end of pre-season. In the end, the second conversation wasn't needed. Everything had become clear."

Harit duly produced a team-leading six goals and four assists during the first half of 2019/20, claiming the September Player of the Month award along the way.

His pace and skills in the one-on-ones have been central to Schalke’s tactic of playing through and around the opposition, and he’s come up with the goods whether deployed on the left-hand side of attack in a 4-2-3-1, or as a second striker in a modified 4-4-2 formation.

If master and pupil have had any further chin-wags, they were probably bookended with a warm pat on the back.

Watch: Amine Harit - reborn under David Wagner at Schalke

Extracting the best from his players

"Amine is one of many players aged 19 to 23 who can be the future of this club," Wagner told the Schalke website after Harit put pen to paper on a contract extension through to summer 2024 late last year.

"I’m happy that he wants to be part of this group and continue his development here. He’s really impressed this past six months, and shown what you can achieve when you work hard and execute a plan."

In many ways, Harit is Schalke’s renaissance under Wagner personified. Former coach Tedesco was unable to maximise the Moroccan's talent as much as he and his raft of predecessors failed in the medium- to long-term to sculpt the team to their respective philosophies.

It’s still early days in the Wagner era, but Schalke appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet. The Champions League anthem could soon be on their playlist.

Chris Mayer-Lodge