Welcome back, Schalke! The Royal Blues return to the Bundesliga
Schalke will make a Bundesliga comeback for the 2022/23 season after securing promotion to rubberstamp a return to the top flight of German football after a one-year absence — bundesliga.com takes a look at how they have done it.
Schalke's relegation from the top level of domestic football — and with memories of UEFA Champions League games in Gelsenkirchen still fresh in the memory — was a painful moment for the club's fiercely loyal fans.
"We're going to be sad and give this disappointment and anger a place," said Peter Knäbel, the man in charge of all things sport-side at Schalke since February 2021. "Then, we'll do everything to get the club back to where it belongs."
"When you're bottom of the table with 13 points, if someone says they've given their all…" said club legend Gerald Asamoah after witnessing what was only the club's fourth relegation ever, and the first since 1987/88. "I don't know what I would do with that person."
Hence the summer clearout with new sporting director, Rouven Schröder, formerly at Mainz, working hard to rejuvenate the squad by shipping out no fewer than 30 players and bringing in half that number. Thirteen of the top 18 appearance-makers for Schalke in Bundesliga 2 this season were not at the club a year ago. Bundesliga experience was added in the shape of ex-Stuttgart defender Marcin Kaminski and former Mainz midfielder Danny Latza, while goals were all but guaranteed by the arrival of Bundesliga 2 defenders' terror Simon Terodde from Hamburg and his foil Marius Bülter from Union Berlin.
But this is Schalke, the club that groomed FIFA World Cup winners Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Höwedes, Mesut Özil and Julian Draxler, Paris Saint-Germain and Germany defender Thilo Kehrer, Bayern Munich and the Nationalmannschaft's flying winger Leroy Sane and midfielder Leon Goretzka, and so many other fresh-faced talents that have scaled the game's summits. So the success has been one of youth, too, though not all homegrown.
Malick Thiaw, 20, has come through the club's famed youth academy after previously being at Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach — just like midfieler Mehmet Aydin, 20 — and has been a near constant presence at the heart of the back four. Rodrigo Zalazar — 22, and on loan from Eintracht Frankfurt — has had another eye-catching second division campaign after impressing while being borrowed by St. Pauli last season. Twenty-one year old North Macedonian striker Darko Churlinov — a loan signing from Stuttgart — and the versatile Kerim Calhanoglu, signed from Hoffenheim's U19 side in summer 2020, have also played their part.
They are names that Bundesliga fans will no doubt hear more of in the future, especially as Schalke are already ahead of their own curve in moulding a successful team of the future. "Of course I want to get promoted, but we have a three-year plan," said club legend-turned-general team manager Asamoah before promotion was assured. "If you had said to us that after relegation, we'd be in this position in the table at this point of the season, we would have signed for it immediately."
That the club had set its sights lower was understandable, but the fractures in the squad and with the fans have been solidly repaired.
"You can feel it from the warm-up, when you come out of the dressing room and you see a lot of fans in blue and white," said forward Terodde, who saw the supporters continue to back their team even in the 4-1 loss to fellow promotion chasers Werder Bremen in late April. "The reaction of the fans to the defeat to Bremen gives me goosebumps."
The 34-year-old veteran forward has given those fans plenty of spine-tingling moments this season himself. In 58 Bundesliga matches for Cologne and Stuttgart, Terodde scored just 10 goals. In over 280 Bundesliga 2 appearances, he averages a goal every 1.5 matches.
Watch: Highlights of Schalke's promotion-sealing win over St. Pauli on Matchday 33
His strike rate of a goal a game this season — he has 29 goals in 29 league matches — is nothing short of phenomenal, and with his goal in the 3-0 win over Ingolstadt in early October, he equalled the 153-goal tally of Dieter Schatzschneider, Bundesliga 2's all-time leading scorer. He has long since passed the former Hannover and Schalke striker's total to claim that crown for himself.
"We had counted on Simon scoring today, he does so in almost every game," said Aydin after the final whistle. "I congratulate him on the record from the bottom of my heart, he's a super striker. I have never seen anyone who's that ice-cold in front of goal. He's earned it."
"He gives you exceptional professionalism, humanity and leadership. He's the complete package," said Schröder. "In Bundesliga 2, it's fundamental that you have a striker who has a certain aura, and his performances have already proven he has that."
Terodde's tally has gone a long way to making Schalke the most potent team in the division, but he has not done it all on his own. Bülter has set career-bests with double-figure totals for goals, including a hat-trick in the crucial 5-2 defeat of in-form Darmstadt on Matchday 30, and assists. No fewer than 14 different players have found the net for Schalke, including four for Japan international centre-back Ko Itakura — on loan from Manchester City — while Thiaw and Kaminski have found the net twice each.
The other half of the recipe for success is that they have conceded few goals too with new goalkeeper Martin Fraisl — another summer arrival, this time on a free transfer from Den Haag — proving a solid last line of defence with Ralf Fährmann, a former youth academy graduate now 33, adding experience on the bench as back-up. The big defeat to Bremen was all the more startling as it stands in a season when Schalke have also racked up 10 clean sheets.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of their success is that there has still been a good degree of turbulence around the Veltins Arena. Dimitrios Grammozis, who became the club's fifth coach of a catastrophic 2020/21 campaign when he took over in early March last year, guided the team to fourth place at the halfway stage of the season. However, he was removed just a year later following a four-game winless run that threatened to root Schalke in the division for another season.
A new boss bounce was needed, and provided, by club legend Mike Büskens. Part of the squad that won the 2001 DFB Cup and the UEFA Cup the following year, Büskens started his coaching career with Schalke's second team, and had interim spells at the head of the first team in 2008 and 2009 before taking Greuther Fürth into the Bundesliga for the first time in their history in 2012. He returned to Schalke as assistant coach in 2019, but his third spell in temporary charge opened with five straight wins that propelled his team from sixth and on the brink of dropping out of the promotion race to top of the table and very much in the middle of the hunt.
"Everyone at Schalke has respect for him," explained former Bremen and Schalke centre-back Naldo, who was part of the backroom staff at the club last season. "He played for Schalke himself, he's a legend. What he does especially well is his personal touch with the players, he speaks a lot to them and always makes it clear what he expects of them."
For all his standing in the club and success, Büskens won't be there to lead the team in the top flight. "We know what we have in 'Buyo'", said Schröder. "It's clear he'll continue from the summer but not as head coach." He will, however, be in the background with Schröder and Knäbel currently hunting for THE man to guide and keep them in the Bundesliga.
Whoever takes over will find a united club from the dressing room to the stands, and with the U19 team coming close to winning their age category title this season, the skies over Gelsenkirchen could be (royal) blue for some time.
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