Weston McKennie says the Schalke players "feel part of a brotherhood" this season and has told The Athletic the secret for their upturn in fortunes lies in coach David Wagner.
McKennie was part of a Schalke side that finished a disappointing 14th in the Bundesliga last season, one year after being runners-up to Bayern Munich. But Wagner's arrival in the summer has changed the outlook and the mood radically. The Royal Blues are in fifth place, level on points with arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund a place ahead of them, and a bridgeable seven points behind leaders RB Leipzig at the mid-point of the season.
How? For McKennie, the answer is simple: effort and solidarity.
"You see one person running and then you look around and everyone starts running. It’s contagious. You're working for me and I'm working for you. You feel part of a brotherhood. We might not have a super big-name player but we don't need one because of the way we work and the good chemistry," McKennie told the Athletic.
"I promise you with everything I love - every single player that has come to Schalke from another team has either gotten better or put in more tackles or has run more."
That unity has brought the fifth-best attacking record and the third-top defensive tally in the division. But to reduce Schalke to a merely an industrious side that gets lucky would be to misjudge the influence of Wagner.
Watch: How Wagner has transformed Schalke!
"He showed us video clips from the 3-0 defeat against Bayern [in August] and said, 'Why are you kicking the ball long? They have good players but you could take a touch here and play it to that guy' and as a player, you think, 'Oh, he's right. Why did we do that?' He has instilled that confidence in us to play football against any team, no matter who. He's made soccer fun for us again. And that's the whole point, isn't it? To have fun and try to win games," said McKennie, whose side certainly enjoyed themselves in an impressive 3-1 win at Leipzig on Matchday 6.
It is no surprise Wagner and McKennie should find themselves in tune both with each other and their club. Given he is a former USA international and Schalke player, and had a four-year spell as Dortmund's reserve team coach, Wagner is well beyond Class 101 in 'Ruhr Valley football'. He also has the same straight-talking approach his young Texan charge employs.
"He's had one-on-one talks with me and he's told me about his past and what he struggled with as a player," McKennie, who joined Schalke from FC Dallas in summer 2016, explained. "He sees that I go through some of the same problems, say, with my weight. I try to keep it under a certain level, there's a goal that I want to keep, and he helps me towards that goal by giving me little incentives or making it a competition. Little games like that. Fun.
"There's no, 'You have to do this.' He just explains, in a very personable way, what I have to do if I want to get ahead and go from this level to the next one. He's been a really, really big help for me personally and I can say he's done the same thing for many other players as well."
McKennie has been a big help to his boss too with his jack-of-all-trades ability to play at both centre-back and central midfield - as well as even further up the pitch - making him a square peg that can be snugly fit into any round hole.
It is a situation many players would recoil from, but not McKennie, even if he would happily rein in his coach’s tactical wanderlust.
"Nobody wants to play out of position but I kind of had to. The team had all centre-backs out injured, and I was the only guy who knew to play there. I couldn't be selfish. Hopefully, the guys will come back in the second half of the season," he said.
"You have your James Milners of the world who still play for top clubs and play many positions as well. I'm a workhorse. Teams look at you and say, 'OK, he can play many positions. He is a utility player.' I might be good at many positions but I want to be great at one. I want to be the guy who's playing because I’m the best in my position."
With a winter training camp in southern Spain behind them, Wagner’s side should be ready for the Rückrunde, and they will need to be with second-placed Borussia Mönchengladbach the visitors to Gelsenkirchen to kick off the second half of the campaign on Friday.
A trip to Bayern, currently in third, then follows before current leaders Leipzig come to the Veltins-Arena next month and the derby with Dortmund follows in March. Victories against those four sides would give Schalke a significant boost in their ambitions of returning to the UEFA Champions League next season with a top-four finish this term.
Schalke have already raised eyebrows with their form, and McKennie sees no reason why they should not surprise a few more people before the Bundesliga curtain falls in May.
"I don't want to speak too soon but at the beginning of the season, I said that we wanted to compete for top four, top five - to be in Europe," he smiles. "And everyone, every time said, 'Don't you think that's going a little too far? Maybe mid-table?' but no - Schalke are meant to be up there.
"I'll be damned if we were down where they were last year again. It's not where we belong. Honestly, this is just the starting point of how he wants us to play. I believe the second half of the season could be even better. We had a really, really good first half the season and I don't think we plan on stopping until we reach the goals we want to reach."