It seems like no time at all since last September when I sat down to write about Schalke’s horrendously poor start to the season. Injuries, poor form and general bad luck had all contributed to leave the Royal Blues languishing in the lower reaches of the Bundesliga, unfamiliar territory for a side which has, in recent years at least, challenged admirably at the business end of the division. Happily, last season turned out to be a reasonably good one, with an excellent run coming off the back of the winter break propelling Schalke to third place and automatic Champions League qualification.
Yet here I am, finding myself once again bemoaning a shocking opening to the season which has seen the men from Gelsenkirchen take just one solitary point from three games; in at least two of those, against Hannover 96 and Borussia Mönchengladbach, a win would have been the minimum requirement.
Against Hannover, it could be argued that Schalke were unlucky. Having played the men in red off the park, they took the lead and looked to be cruising, but could not find a killer second goal and were made to pay by their opponents, who rallied to equalise before finding a late, late winner.
However, it was a different story against Gladbach. The Schalke side which took to the field seemed devoid of ideas, confidence and any sort of spirit. Any resolve that was present among Jens Keller’s men surely evaporated as Gladbach romped to a crushing 4-1 victory.
And yet, sandwiched between those two soul-destroying results, was a draw. Not normally remarkable, but a draw which came after falling behind against the champions Bayern Munich - that all-powerful goal-scoring, trophy-collecting machine. Surely a team which can display spirit enough to claw back a result against such impressive opposition are not to be messed with?
Unfortunately, it would seem that Schalke’s fear factor, if it ever existed, has vanished. The fans are looking for someone to blame, and Keller is the obvious target. The manager has never really convinced despite last season’s strong finish, and the players do not seem able to respond. It isn’t known whether Keller has the backing of the board, but their support will be dwindling rapidly based on the season so far.
His transfer activity, on the whole, has been fairly poor; Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, now advancing in years, is spending more and more time on the treatment table, yet Keller has either refused or been unable to source a second striker to ease the load on the Dutchman. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, signed from Mainz in the summer, is predominantly a winger, and the Royal Blues’ faithful will hope that he is not another Adam Szalai, who lasted just one season in Gelsenkirchen before being offloaded at the earliest opportunity.
But the players are equally, if not even more, at fault for the disastrous start which also included a cup exit to third-tier Dynamo Dresden. There appears, from the outside, to be a lack of team spirit which has been exacerbated by the antics of some senior players; Kevin-Prince Boateng spent the first couple of weeks of the season “injured”, but rumours that he went AWOL refuse to go away and the player, signed in a blaze of glory last term, looks to be on shaky ground at the club.
It’s a similar story with another midfielder, Tranquillo Barnetta. The Swiss international is renowned for his poor attitude and spent last season on loan at Eintracht Frankfurt, but has now returned to the Veltins Arena. In the aftermath of the Gladbach defeat, Barnetta, who was an unused substitute during the match, tweeted: “Three subs used and no Quillo. Go Gladbach.” Barnetta lost the support of the fans long ago, but such an attitude is bound to have a negative effect on his team-mates, and if that is the dominant approach within the squad it is no surprise that Schalke find themselves in their current predicament.
It is bizarre that Schalke continue to start seasons so poorly; if they did not they would surely give Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich a much stiffer challenge. They are capable of turning things around, but they must do so quickly if they are to salvage their season.