David Wagner has given Schalke fans hope by reviving their team's fortunes this season, but will a new year dip in form cost the Gelsenkirchen outfit European qualification?
bundesliga.com takes a look at the Royal Blue rollercoaster in 2019/20.
Who they signed: The hugely underwhelming 14th placed-finish of 2018/19 and the corresponding lack of funds meant Schalke had to play canny in the transfer market. 'Bargain' was the watchword of the summer with Jonjoe Kenny (Everton) borrowed, goalkeeper Markus Schubert snapped up on a free from Dynamo Dresden, and Benito Raman a sensibly priced purchase from Fortuna Düsseldorf.
Schalke did spend big once: Ozan Kabak, Stuttgart's teenage centre-back who impressed hugely last season, will surely offset his fee and more should he leave in the future, though. With purse-strings still held tightly in January, Jean-Clair Todibo (Barcelona) and Michael Gregoritsch (Augsburg) were equally shrewd additions to the squad.
What they expected: Having experienced their worst season since they also finished 14th in 2010/11, and having not endured such a bleak campaign since relegation in 1987/88, Schalke fans had little hope of much better. David Wagner's arrival as coach did lift hopes, however, and the former Huddersfield Town manager and ex-Hoffenheim youth and Borussia Dortmund reserve team coach sounded an optimistic note after penning a three-year deal.
"I know from personal experience just how strong Schalke 04 can be when the team, club, and the fans are all working together," the former USA international said. "Being able to immerse myself in this environment once more and being able to help turn the situation around were big factors in my decision to return to the Bundesliga."
Watch: David Wagner's tactical revolution at Schalke
How it played out: Having opened the 2018/19 season with five straight defeats, Schalke could not do any worse. In fact, they did quite a bit better. They shook off taking one point from their opening two matches — at Borussia Mönchengladbach and at home to Bayern Munich, danke schön the fixture list — to then record four straight wins, moving into the top four in the table with a fabulous 3-1 win at RB Leipzig on Matchday 6.
They were beaten just twice more — at Hoffenheim and Leverkusen — before the winter break to leave themselves handily perched in fifth place, level on points with arch-rivals Dortmund in fourth, at the mid-point of the season. A 2-0 win at home to Gladbach — then in second place — in their first league game of 2020 suggested Wagner's men might be capable of more than hunting down a UEFA Europa League place.
Hope though — as most football fans know — is what often hurts most, and Schalke have not won since then, losing 5-0 to both Bayern and Leipzig in a winless seven-game streak that has seen them take just four points. It's a miserable run that leaves them 10 points off fifth, just a point ahead of the chasing pack, and their ambitions of European football next season hanging perilously in the balance.
A trip to Dortmund is scheduled for their next league game, a tough-as-they-come acid test of just how much more progress Wagner's men must make to sustain a bid for a top-four finish.
Key player: There is a reason the 22-year-old midfielder made his senior international debut for Germany this season; it's the same reason Schalke have not won any of the seven league games he has missed through injury this term.
The former Mainz man, who is in his second year in Gelsenkirchen, is clearly starting to settle in at the Veltins Arena, and his career-best return of seven goals is nearly a quarter of the Royal Blues' league strikes. He missed the last two games with a broken toe, but will be fit again when Schalke next take to the pitch. That's good news, because they need him.
Best game: Going to Leipzig on Matchday 6, Schalke fans must have had fingers, toes and everything else crossed. The hosts had raced into the season with four wins and a draw — against Bayern — but were stopped in their tracks by Wagner's men, themselves on a fine run of form.
Watch: Schalke dish out a lesson to Leipzig
Salif Sane and Amine Harit struck before the break, Rabbi Matondo after it with Emil Forsberg's 84th-minute consolation scant comfort for the out-thought and out-fought hosts. The fact it remains Leipzig's only home defeat of the season only serves to highlight the scale of Schalke's achievement.
"I'm tired, it was an exhausting game," said Harit, who covered nearly a half-marathon (13 miles) in distance on the Red Bull Arena pitch. "It was incredible when you see how we ran for each other."
Biggest surprise: Kenny had played 31 English Premier League games for Everton before last summer, but with FIFA World Cup winner Djibril Sidibe arriving at Goodison Park, first-team opportunities were going to be limited. Step up Schalke to offer the 23-year-old right-back exactly what he wanted: time on the pitch.
The Liverpudlian, whose role model is Germany and Bayern legend Philipp Lahm, has the work ethic that Schalke supporters love, and Wagner is a fan, too, starting the England U21 international in every league game bar the two Kenny was forced to sit out through illness and injury.
"It's massive that I have a coach who's been fantastic, brilliant for me. He gave me confidence from day one to go out and perform," said Kenny. "I've come in and started well, and the coach has given me the confidence to produce what I can on the pitch."
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