David Wagner’s much-improved Schalke side could put a serious dent in Bayern Munich’s title charge this weekend, and even pull level on points with the record Bundesliga champions if they can inflict a third home defeat of the season on Hansi Flick’s men.
It’s an unfamiliar backdrop for both teams, but one that adds an extra layer of intrigue to Saturday’s tussle. But where might it be won and lost at the Allianz Arena? bundesliga.com shines a light on the key factors...
1) The formations
Flick has now taken charge of 11 games in all competitions for Bayern and he has tended to favour a 4-2-3-1 formation. The defence (see below) is invariably shielded by a pair of holding midfielders – two from Thiago Alcantara, Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich or Corentin Tolisso – although one always breaks forward when Bayern have possession.
The full-backs, either Kimmich or Benjamin Pavard on the right and Alphonso Davies on the left, also tear forward, creating overflows in an effective 2-1-4-3 in possession. Whether from crosses from the wings or through the creativity and eye-of-a-needle passing from Thiago and Philippe Coutinho, Bayern invariably find a way through. Having won nine of his matches at the helm, Flick is unlikely to change tack now.
Wagner’s set up mirrors that of Bayern. Omar Mascarell is the deepest of the two holding midfielders alongside Suat Serdar, who is given free rein to roam forward. Daniel Caligiuri, Amine Harit and Michael Gregoritsch are likely to be given the more attacking roles in midfield, with the latter’s height and powerful frame offering a new approach for Schalke behind Benito Raman up front.
Another option available to Schalke following the loan arrival of Barcelona centre-back Jean-Clair Todibo would be to play a 3-5-2, allowing the Royal Blues an extra man in midfield to effectively man-mark Kimmich, who often plays the decisive pass before the pass in the build-up to Bayern’s goals.
That strategy worked brilliantly for Bayer Leverkusen, for example, in their 2-1 triumph in Munich at the end of November, with Nadiem Amiri tasked with nullifying the Germany international that day. Schalke are familiar with the formation, having beaten Eintracht Frankfurt, Werder Bremen and Armenia Bielefeld with it this season.
Watch: How Wagner has transformed Schalke this season
2) A tale of two (injury-hit) defences
How the teams line up will undoubtedly play a major role in the outcome of the game, but so will the continued displays of the teams’ makeshift backlines. Both have been hit by absences to key defenders this season, with Bayern losing Niklas Süle, Lucas Hernandez and Javi Martinez to long-term injuries; Schalke have been without Salif Sane, Benjamin Stambouli and Weston McKennie for a number of weeks.
Kimmich returns from suspension for this game in a boost for the hosts, so Pavard is set to move into central defence from right-back as Jerome Boateng drops to the bench. And with David Alaba and Davies occupying the two left-sided defensive slots, Bayern will at least have a sense of familiarity at the back - and the option of bringing on new signing Alvaro Odriozola if needed.
That has been Flick’s preferred back four in his time in charge, with Bayern conceding just 12 times in their last 10 league games. That is exactly the same number as Schalke, who are once again expected to start with Jonjoe Kenny at right-back, Ozan Kabak and Matija Nastasic in the middle and Bastian Oczipka at left-back.
Indeed, Gladbach (20 conceded) are the only team with a better defensive record than Schalke (21) this season, so if they can maintain their solidity at the back they could yet beat Bayern for the first time since December 2010.
3) Talismen old and new
Lewandowski seems to break new goalscoring records by the week these days – the latest in becoming just one of three players in history to hit 20 goals after 18 matches of a season – but it is one thing to know about his threat, and quite another to stop it.
Schalke felt the full force of the 31-year-old’s prowess in the reverse fixture on Matchday 2, with the striker netting a hat-trick in a comfortable 3-0 triumph for the Reds.
The bad news for Schalke is that while Lewandowski is the undoubted focal point of Bayern’s attack, he is not the only weapon. Serge Gnabry and Coutinho are particularly tricky customers, but Thomas Müller’s blade seems to cut deeper than most right now: the 30-year-old is the Bundesliga’s leading assist-provider this season with 12, and with a further three strikes of his own, he averages a goal involvement every 70 minutes.
Watch: All of Müller's assists in the 2019/20 Hinrunde
All of which has led to Bayern scoring 50 times so far this season, only one fewer than leaders RB Leipzig. Furthermore, they have found the net in every league game in 2019/20, so the chances are they will do so again on Saturday, especially as Flick’s charges have hit the target more often on home soil (28) than any other team.
Schalke might as well give up now in light of such an overwhelming barrage of evidence, right? Wrong! The Royal Blues have scored a relatively meagre 31 times – the lowest tally in the top five – but they make them count. Their position just three points and three places behind Bayern in the standings testifies to that. Wagner's men average 6.90 shots per goal this term; Bayern are only marginally better at 6.72.
Those numbers do not factor in the team’s recent improvement either, with Schalke looking increasingly comfortable with Wagner’s ideas. Summer signing Raman is a nightmare for defenders, his tireless harrying forcing mistakes and keeping opponents on edge; his four goals and three assists in his last seven Bundesliga outings are just reward for such gruelling legwork.
Serdar, the club’s leading the scorer with seven goals, is an expert at arriving from deep and when you add winter recruit Gregoritsch into the mix – the towering Austrian contributing a goal and an assist to Schalke’s Matchday 18 victory over Borussia Mönchengladbach – then it becomes clear that Saturday’s visitors have the tools to do plenty of damage of their own.
And, having taken eight of a possible 15 points from assignments against teams currently in the top four (a victory over Leipzig, a draw with Borussia Dortmund and a win and a draw with Gladbach), the occasion will not overawe them; Schalke thrive in the big games.
4) Late goals galore
Anyone thinking of leaving the Allianz Arena early to beat the traffic should think again; late goals are a bit of a specialty for these two. So far this season Bayern have scored 13 times after the 75-minute mark, and have even struck twice in that period in five different games.
That means that over a quarter of all their 50 league goals this term have come in the closing stages. Coincidence? More like the result of patience and persistence. Bayern stick to their game plan, wear teams down and invariably reap the rewards.
It happens over and over again. The defending champions dealt the knockout blows between minutes 76 and 79 in Der Klassiker on Matchday 11, scoring twice to seal a 4-0 win. Flick’s men were drawing 1-1 away to Freiburg in the 90th minute on Matchday 16, but ended up 3-1 winners; against Wolfsburg on Matchday 17 it was 0-0 up until the 84th minute – and Bayern eventually won 2-0.
Watch: How Flick masterminded Bayern's Klassiker victory
More recently, they put three past Hertha Berlin in the final 17 minutes of their Matchday 18 encounter to earn a 4-0 triumph. Müller succinctly summed up the strategy after that victory on Sunday: “We tired them out and then the gaps got bigger.”
This is where Schalke might be concerned. While they have scored nine times themselves in the final 15 minutes of games, they have also conceded nine in that same period and have done so in exactly half of their league games this season.
Even more worryingly, they have shipped late goals against teams in the lower half of the table, including Mainz, Cologne, Fortuna Düsseldorf and Werder Bremen.