The 2013/2014 season is over! The first half was not so successful for Schalke, while the second half was very much so. In this article, I will provide a more in-depth analysis and overview of the season’s ups and downs.

Halbfeldflanke International: the first analysis in English language here. I regularly analyse games or players of Schalke 04 here. However, it’s usually in German. This one is basically a translation from my original article. Any feedback is much appreciated.

Statistik der Bundesliga Saison 2013/2014

Statistics of the Bundesliga season 2013/2014

While Jens Keller has been widely discussed, I often remarked that many of these discussions are based on misunderstandings. During the first half of the season he was accused for not having a specific plan of how the team was supposed to play or how to develop it. Then again early this year he was praised for making everything right. Let’s have a look at both halves of the season 2013/2014…

The first round of the season

Despite results that suggest differently, not everything was bad in the first half of the season. Schalke dominated large parts of the Chelsea matches and beat Leverkusen, when they were still good. Prior to that the Champions League qualification was achieved against PAOK. In general, a continuous development was observed. Counter pressing and midfield pressing were introduced and stabilized. This began pretty late though, not until the game against Werner Bremen. The final match against Basel was the best and most convincing one, allowing Schalke to proceed to the round of 16 in the Champions League.

Nevertheless, during the whole campaign some weaknesses became obvious. Schalke never really was able to establish a ball-possession-game (hence the defeats by Chelsea) and also had problems against strong teams (hence the clear defeats by Bayern and Dortmund). Keller’s focus for the first round of the season was to stabilize the defense and thus decrease the amount of conceded goals. The result were plenty securing horizontal or backward passes for which the whole team was highly criticized. However, it was quite successful and despite being kicked out of the DFB-Cup, Schalke managed to stabilize towards the end of the first round. Switching the keeper to Fährman probably had a substantial impact. Even though it was considered being an exception at first, the match against Stuttgart can be seen as the turning point in retrospect. During this time Boateng was installed as a part next to Neustädter in the double pivot. The whole game from then was organized from a less offensive position, which ended up being, a great fit.

All in all it was obvious that the coaching team was very busy throughout the first half of the season. In pretty much every single match different ways to build up the game were tried out including variations of the defensive positioning play. These were not only adaptations to the opponents but general developments as these changes were visible over a number of consecutive games. Often changes have been tried out for a few games and then were abandoned again. This divergence loss slowed down the development of the game tremendously. In general, this whole approach did not seem very systematic and in the end they contributed to 7th position in the Bundesliga table. Although not every point loss was deserved, they received 28 points.

The second round of the season

After the winter break, suddenly Keller found ways to lead the young Schalke team to wins. What exactly did he change? Actually, nothing! He continued where he stopped before Christmas with a decreasing amount of goals conceded, but also an increasing amount of goals scored. The return of Huntelaar had a strong impact on the latter. Between the game against Basel (last match in 2013) and the one against Hamburg (first match in 2014) there was barely any difference. Schalke was playing a good midfield pressing and had a stable defense. This went on for 4 matches. And then Schalke met Leverkusen successfully, but the aggressive midfield pressing high up the pitch was suddenly gone. From then the patterns of the first half of the season reappeared. The game of Schalke was temporarily extended with new aspects, which vanished soon after.

Though adaptations were being made, there was also an alarming lack of ideas. While the first match against Real Madrid started quite courageous (and then fell apart after 2 goals in 20 minutes), Schalke seemed to ask Bayern for mercy, not even trying to beat them. During the match against Werder Bremen, Boateng showed his opinion of Keller’s tactics reorganizing the entire team during the match and finally contributing to a tie.

In general, Schalke’s season was lucky with a good beginning but had few ‘ruling the opponent’ moments. The second round of the season was also defined by chance, and had the same strengths and weaknesses as before…

Strengths

Schalke is a high quality team and in comparison to other Bundesliga teams on the Champions League level. As teams in Germany do not have to publish their balances, I will refer to the market value of the squad (3rd highest after Bayern and Dortmund) and the budget of the professional team (2nd highest after Bayern). Research shows that the wages of football players directly relate to the positioning in a league, this reflects the quality of the players.

Valuably, each offensive player of Schalke is pretty resistant to pressing and able to take a reasonable decision under pressure. For example, if a player reaches a dead end with no smart way out, a pass to the goalie is better than losing the ball. By the way, another reason for the backwards or sideways passes, which many people complained about. Moreover, the individual strength of the players can be understood as the strength of the squad. With many young players on the team, the youth has a couple of real talents. For example Kaan Ayhan whose first match was as the starting XI in Madrid with a great performance and Leon Goretzka who exploded in the last months of the season. Thus, don’t let the age of the players distract you from seeing how strong and skillful the players already are as they are undoubtfully of great value to the team.

Another major strength this past season was efficiency. Schalke scored 31 out of 56 chances, coming only behind Hamburg in efficiency. This indicates the focus is very much on creating valuable chances, not just shooting towards the goal whenever close enough. Keller’s concept of defence is focusing on not losing the ball to simple or unrealistic shots on the goal. Which brings us to the defence as another strength. Fährmann allowed only 15 goals. Throughout the whole season Schalke kept a clean sheet for 14 times, only topped through Bayern (17 times). In the second round of the Bundesliga campaign, Schalke conceded only one goal more than Bayern and three less than Dortmund. Since Neuer left, Schalke has not been this stable.

Weaknesses

To discuss the weaknesses, a brief excurse is provided in the field of theory:

  • Individual Tactics. The behaviour of the individual players on the pitch. This includes dribblings and attempts to defend the ball from opponents, but also to see and occupy empty spaces.
  • Group Tactics. The behaviour of 2 or 3 players that are part of the same situation on a subset of the pitch. The key here is how to collectively overcome a group of opponents.
  • Team Tactics. The sum of all group tactical behaviour spread out on the entire pitch. This is connecting the individual decision making with cooperation to get into a good position for a goal attempt.

At Schalke throughout this past season hardly any form of systematic approach to a group or team tactical behavior was observable. But instead, due to the high individual tactical strength of Schalke’s players, the team was still able to cover many of their pitfalls. Nevertheless to observers, the game seems to be freely improvised. Some think this can be an advantage as opponents then have a hard time figuring out Schalke’s strategies, but it’s a naïve fallacy for two reasons. Firstly, Schalke does not have a tool box to use in case the creative spark doesn’t pop. And secondly, individual strength is rather easy to defend through group tactics. The rematch in Stuttgart was a great example for this.

Consequentially, Schalke had problems with teams that focused on parking the bus resulting in playing around the box without actually knowing how to get into it. At times where more and more teams follow Mourinho’s ideas and do little more than defending the supreme discipline becomes breaking through that brick and at the moment Schalke lacks a concept how to do so. The result is then often vast ball possession numbers and no ideas what to do with it. To deal with this problem, Jens Keller decided to simply deny ball possessions. The ball often was pushed toward the opponent, providing space for counter attacks, which worked quite well in early 2014, but then vanished again…

Personally, I believe that the young talents suffer from the lack of tactics. Without tactical guidelines or education their improvement risk sever delay. This can be seen with Julian Draxler, who did not deliver as expected. Moreover, the positional play for fullback Kolasinac did not improve during this last campaign. It will be interesting to see how this will work out for the young players in the coming seasons.

Schalke was also seen to struggle with not being able to play around a midfield pressing. Individually, the players are pressing resistant so that each player is able to play a reasonable pass even under enormous pressure. However, the lack of group tactical behavior effects the creation of passing triangles in the midfield. This is not good because the players are tried being a part of the attack, but as a consequence often forgot about getting the ball into the final third. This sabotages the staggered arrangement in the midfield and makes it difficult for Schalke to find their way around aggressive pressing. There was one exception to this, which was the last game of the season against Nürnberg as spaces were discovered and opened through staggered arrangement of players, despite being under pressure.

Conclusion

While in the end quite successful, it was a very inconsistent season. A rather bad first round of the campaign was followed by a record breaking good second round. Considering these two parts is too general even though most aspects praised in the second half of the season were visible during the first half already. And at the end of the season the same weaknesses became clear as during the beginning of the season, making consistency the major problem. Though many strategies were tried (e.g., counter pressing or aggressive midfield pressing) they were not kept up and the team’s development was very slow. Nevertheless, the defense again became the pride of the team this season.

While Jens Keller has been widely discussed since his first day as the Schalke head-coach, he is often attached to the wrong discussions (good or bad). My analysis of the games this season provides insight into the high individual quality, but lack of systematic group tactics and development. This is alongside the strictness of position play happening within Schalke, which hindered once again the development and performance. /ul

Karsten

Karsten ist auf Kohle geboren, in Europas weltschönstem Herten nämlich, der Stadt, die mal die höchste Fördermenge in Europa hatte. Aufgewachsen in einer Familie von Püttologen studierte er an der FH Gelsenkirchen irgendwas mit Computern. Später zog es ihn in die Ferne zu den Wikingern, wo ihm erst bewusst wurde, wie viel Ruhrpott in ihm steckt.

Nach hunderten von Herzklabastern, weil der elende Internetstream immer bei blau-weißen Torchancen abbrach, ist er als Doktor Labertasche wieder zurück in der Heimat (mit Dauerkarte in Block 5) und theoretisiert neben der Maloche den König Fußball. Weil aber seine Kumpels schnell davon genervt waren, verlagerte er das Ganze und gründete Halbfeldflanke zum Beginn der Saison 2013/2014.