Munich - They made a poor start before gradually picking up the pace and now, preparing to head down the final season straight, FC Schalke 04 are finally looking like the team who self-assuredly set out a top-four finish as their minimum target for 2013/14.
Keller making his mark
Alongside FC Bayern München, the Royal Blues are the only side still boasting a four games into the New Year, a return that has been rewarded with a climb up the standings from seventh at the winter break to fourth ahead of Matchday 22.
And while world, European and defending domestic champions Bayern maintain their relentless tempo well clear of the chasing pack at the top, a 2-1 victory at Bayer 04 Leverkusen last weekend brought Schalke back to within three points of their second-place hosts and keeps them hot on the heels of local rivals Borussia Dortmund in third.
“On the back of four wins in a row you can afford a bit of euphoria and a certain swagger in your stride, I don't begrudge the lads that,” head coach Jens Keller commented after the contest at the BayArena, before swiftly adding: “What we have to do now is continue working in the same focused manner towards achieving our season targets.” For Keller, the approbation currently raining down on his charges from all sides is the vindication of a year's planning and fine-tuning, as well as being a pleasant change from the near-constant public speculation about his own job ever since he stepped up from the youth team ranks to replace Huub Stevens at the end of 2012.
At that juncture, Keller had only been in Gelsenkirchen a matter of months but brief as it was, his stint at the helm of the Under-17s provides one of the most telling keys to the current upswing in the fortunes of the senior side. On the back of his shotgun promotion, he left his junior charges with a record of 14 wins out of 14 in the Bundesliga (West) and both they and their U-19 counterparts - the defending German title-holders from 2012 - once again advanced to the latter stages of the national finals. In short, Schalke have one of the most successful youth systems in the country.
Ahead of the 2011/12 season, in the wake of some fundamental restructuring, the Knappenschmiede was born. A conflation of one of the Ruhr district club's traditional nicknames, die Knappen (The Miners) and the German for 'forge', the new-look academy has the longer-term goal of measuring itself against the very best anywhere in the game. The foundations already in place are solid, to say the least. Skipper Benedikt Höwedes and defensive all-rounder Joel Matip are the longest-serving youth system graduates in the current senior squad, and superstar-in-the-making Julian Draxler undoubtedly the best-known in the wider football arena. Ralf Fährmann, recently promoted to first-choice keeper, also came up through the ranks and a whole host of up-and-coming prospects are waiting eagerly in the wings. The established Schalke policy now is not to let them wait too long.
Stuff of champions?
Oliver Ruhnert is director of youth football at the Knappenschmiede and he has absolutely no doubt that “a lot of good lads are going to come through over the next few years, and at least one in the same category as Julian Draxler”. More than a few pundits believe one such is well on the way already in the form of
Max Meyer. The attacking midfielder is in the process of carving out a regular first-team berth for himself this season and above and beyond the five goals he has managed so far, the 18-year-old's technique, close control and vision have already drawn comparisons with the likes of Mario Götze and Lionel Messi.
Another standout creative talent, Leon Goretzka, learned the tools of his trade at nearby VfL Bochum 1848 but he, too, is emblematic of Schalke's local-sourcing philosophy. Freshly turned 19, the Germany U-21 international just last weekend offered a taste of what has made him one of the country's hottest prospects with a sublime solo strike to set the Royal Blues on the road to victory in Leverkusen.
Youth has also been given its head in the form of Sead Kolasinac, signed from VfB Stuttgart as an 18-year-old in 2011 and impressively ploughing his furrow down the left flank this season. Kaan Ayhan could soon follow in his wake, the promising central defender already having been given his first taste of Bundesliga action. Left back Philipp Max and holding midfielder Marcel Sobottka are two further U-19 graduates recently drafted into the senior squad by Keller, along with free-scoring 17-year-old forward Donis Avdijaj. “A lot of people are saying this is a golden generation,” Ruhnert has noted. The massed ranks of the Schalke faithful are ardently hoping that prognosis will prove well-founded and that not all too far down the line, the home-grown success story will culminate in a first-ever Bundesliga title.