Having last season been relegated for the first time in 30 years, eight-time Bundesliga runners-up Schalke are out to make sure their stay in the German second tier is as brief as possible.
Schalke ended the 2019/20 campaign in poor form and that continued into 2020/21. The omens were bad when they lost 8-0 at champions Bayern Munich on the opening day, and they were in danger of matching Tasmania Berlin's record of 31 games without victory in the Bundesliga when they went without a win in their first 14 matches. American teen Matthew Hoppe ended Schalke's dismal 30-game winless streak, however, when he scored a hat-trick in a 4-0 victory over Hoffenheim on Matchday 15. That success briefly took the 2017/18 Bundesliga runners-up off the foot of the table, but Hoppe's heroics were a false dawn. Although he did score in their next two games against Eintracht Frankfurt and Cologne, the Royal Blues lost both encounters. A total of three draws from the 12 games that followed the Hoffenheim victory all but sealed Schalke's fate.
Watch: See Hoppe's hat-trick against Hoffenheim
David Wagner, Manuel Baum, Huub Stevens, Christian Gross and current head coach Dimitrios Grammozis all took charge for spells in 2020/21, but there was no saving a club that had been German champions seven times before the Bundesliga was formed in 1963. Not even the return of academy product Sead Kolasinac and club legend Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in January could sufficiently shake up the team, and late-season wins over Augsburg and Eintracht Frankfurt - Hoppe scored his team-high sixth of the season in the latter game - were of scant consolation. With three wins, seven draws and just sixteen points from their 34 matches, Schalke finished rock bottom. They were relegated for the first time since 1991, and only the fourth time in their history.
Grammozis was appointed in March no doubt with the 2021/22 campaign in mind. The former Hamburg and Kaiserslautern midfielder knows the Bundesliga 2 well from his early experience on the coaching staff of Bochum and then in an impressive stint as head coach of Darmstadt. Over the summer the Schalke boss has lost talented midfielder Suat Serdar, retired veteran Huntelaar, Belgian attacker Benito Raman, and the experienced Sebastian Rudy and Mark Uth. Free agents Bastian Oczipka, Benjamin Stambouli, Shkodran Mustafi, Nabil Bentaleb and Alessandro Schöpf have also departed as well as loan returnees Kolasinac and Goncalo Paciencia. There is no doubt, however, that Grammozis still has a quality squad to work with.
Among a clutch of hardened new arrivals is a familiar face in the shape of Iceland and former Darmstadt midfielder Victor Palsson. Several other new signings know all about Bundesliga 2 - and perhaps more importantly - what's required to get out of it. Defender Marcin Kaminski and striker Simon Terodde were part of the VfB Stuttgart side promoted as champions in 2016/17, while Kaminski went up with the same team in 2019/20 and Terodde's 29 goals made sure Cologne did likewise in 2018/19. Steely midfielder Danny Latza has returned to captain his first and home town club, while Austria international Reinhold Ranftl will also bring his know-how to bear on the right side after joining from LASK. Marius Bülter was a real goal threat with Union Berlin in the top flight, while left-back Thomas Ouwejan (on loan from AZ), Belgian defensive player Dries Wouters (signed from Genk), and forward Marvin Pieringer (on loan from Freiburg) will also be out to prove a point.
What to expect
Bundesliga 2 looks set to be extremely competitive in 2021/22, with Schalke not the only big club to find themselves scrabbling to get back to the top flight as quickly as possible. Hamburg - who Schalke host in the opening match on 23 July - serve as an obvious warning as to how tough it could be. They were relegated for the first time in their history in 2018 but - with two going up automatically and third getting a promotion play-off - they have finished fourth three seasons in a row. Werder Bremen are another former Bundesliga winner who are in the second tier this season, while teams like Darmstadt, Fortuna Düsseldorf, Hannover, Ingolstadt, Nuremberg and Paderborn all have relatively recent top-flight experience.
That said, Schalke certainly have a squad capable of pushing for a top-two finish. Ralf Fährmann provides a cool head in goal, while youngsters like Malick Thiaw and Kerim Calhanoglu will hope to build on the significant first-team opportunities they got last season. USA youngster Hoppe was another rare bright spark in 2020/21, and he could form a winning strike partnership with Terodde - who already boasts 142 goals in 253 Bundesliga 2 games.
Schalke vs. Hamburg (Friday, 23 July)
Holstein Kiel vs. Schalke (Sunday, 1 August)
DFB Cup: Villingen vs. Schalke (Sunday, 8 August)
Schalke vs. Erzgebirge Aue (Friday, 13 August)
Jahn Regensburg vs. Schalke (Saturday, 21 August)
Schalke vs. Fortuna Düsseldorf (Saturday, 28 August)
Paderborn vs. Schalke (Sunday, 12 September)
Schalke vs. Karlsruhe (Friday, 17 September)
Hansa Rostock vs. Schalke (Saturday, 25 September)