All's well that ends well: Jens Keller's Schalke finished a difficult campaign with a crunch win at Freiburg to secure the Champions League qualifying slot
All's well that ends well: Jens Keller's Schalke finished a difficult campaign with a crunch win at Freiburg to secure the Champions League qualifying slot

Schalke setting the bar high once again

Gelsenkirchen - The moratorium on transfer fees is a thing of the past now at FC Schalke 04. After the Royal Blues managed, at the last, to secure fourth place in the table and with it a Champions League qualifying slot, Horst Heldt has this summer for the first time had "a bit of money available and a mandate to prioritise quality and attitude," as the sporting director put it himself.

More attacking options with Szalai

The upshot of which has been the arrival in Gelsenkirchen of a mixture of battle-hardened Bundesliga pros capable of slotting in straight away and highly-talented youngsters brought on board with at least half an eye to the future. What the newcomers all have in common however is that they enhance the competition within the squad and present head coach Jens Keller with fresh options both in terms of personnel and tactics.

Potentially the most significant of those will be up front, where Adam Szalai has been snapped up from Bundesliga rivals 1. FSV Mainz 05. Last season, Schalke's overreliance on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was one of their most glaring deficits. The Dutch striker, Bundesliga top scorer the season before, finished the campaign on a modest ten-goal tally and when he was off-form, or injured, the team's lack of a punchy alternative in attack was often all too apparent.

Szalai, who netted 13 for Mainz, has already amply demonstrated in the pre-season preparations that the move to Gelsenkirchen has not dimmed his eye for goal and the availability of the 26-year-old Hungary international either alongside or as an alternative to Huntelaar, as well as lifting some of the scoring burden off the latter's shoulders, gives Keller more scope for systematic variation, a quick switch to a 4-4-2 set-up included.

Youth to the fore in midfield

At the other end of the park Felipe Santana, snapped up from local rivals Dortmund, can be expected to put some serious pressure on Joel Matip for the second central defensive berth alongside skipper Benedikt Höwedes, while behind them, former Germany keeper Timo Hildebrand is the designated no1 going into the campaign.

Nowhere, though, is the competition for a starting berth likely to be more intense than in the middle of the park. In Christian Clemens and Leon Goretzka, Heldt has acquired two outstanding midfield prospects, with 18-year-old Goretzka in particular being touted as a player who could go all the way to the very highest level. Both he and Clemens, signed from Bundesliga 2 sides VfL Bochum and 1. FC Köln respectively, first have to establish their credentials in the top flight however. Goretzka, for example, is in competition with established duo Jermaine Jones and Roman Neustädter as well as the equally ambitious Marco Höger for one of the two available holding roles.

Key role for Keller's new assistant

Completing the club's near-embarrassment of up-and-coming midfield riches are 17-year-old Max Meyer and, of course, Julian Draxler. Still only 19, the man with the no.10 shirt - who is appropriately hungry to step up and take on the mantle of acknowledged playmaker this season - is in fact already a relative veteran, being the youngest player ever to have racked up 50 Bundesliga appearances. And having recently committed longer-term to the club he joined at the age of seven, Draxler is indeed a, if not the, pivotal figure in Schalke's ambitious forward planning.

The management are carefully avoiding any talk of titles but if the feeling is that catching up with Bayern Munich may be a bridge too far, Heldt certainly believes that German football's current second force, Ruhr district rivals Dortmund, "aren't that far in front of us." Keller, whose first few months in the job were critically received by parts of the media to say the least, has meanwhile beefed up his own assistant team with the experienced Peter Hermann. The 61-year-old, most recently in the employ of Bayern, has already had a noticeably revitalising effect in training - and could yet prove to be Schalke's best summer signing of the lot.

Dietmar Nolte/ Angus Davison