As a relatively new fan of the club, you'd think I would still be in the honeymoon stage of allowing Schalke 04 to get away with anything and everything. I have invested being ridiculed by all the local Dortmund fans in the Königsblau, however, and if I support a team I do it properly. So I'm entitled to have a fair number of frustrations about Sunday's ridiculously poor performance against Werder Bremen.
After things started so well for Schalke I was reasonably positive, but it didn't take long for the jubilation of the early goal to fade into boredom, before it quickly turned into frustration just before half-time as Bremen equalised. After the second and third goals went in the atmosphere around me in the famous Nordkurve had turned seriously sour and no wonder. Bremen offered practically nothing, gave up multiple clear cut opportunities and still walked away with a comfortable 3-1 win. The Schalke fans were furious, but for once I think the ire must be directed at the pitch rather than the management of the club.
Whilst Schalke have had plenty of off-field issues and complaints in recent years, the frustration with the performance yesterday has to be aimed at the men out there on the pitch. Some of them, including goalscorer Joel Matip, creative midfielder Max Meyer and flair winger Leroy Sane have been linked with big money moves away from the Veltins Arena, but based on yesterday the squad looked like they were all advertising themselves for a drop down to the second division.
Eric-Maxim Choupo-Mouting might as well not have been there; how Sidney Sam didn't get on the pitch must have been of great frustration to the recently returned-to-fitness winger. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar carried the main attacking threat as always but missed two chances that normally would have rippled the net and spent most of the second half wandering around not doing very much either. Sane and Meyer were effective in the first half but faded badly in the second half, with Sane losing the ball almost every time he touched it.
Younes Belhanda was introduced to the action in an attempt to liven up a lacklustre front-line, as was former Bremen goal threat Franco di Santo, who got roundly booed by the travelling fans. The problem was there was no sign of life at any point. The most creative (and overall the two best players generally) players were sitting in the holding midfield roles for Schalke, with Johannes Geis and Leon Goretzka controlling the game and attempting to get their side going. Nothing was working.
So what went wrong? Certainly the winter break in the USA might not have helped. If players have a break, give them a break, don't send them off travelling the world, but in comparison to their Premier League counterparts the Schalke team have had it easy! And the lack of energy in the team was certainly not the fault of boss Andre Breitenreiter who sent out a side with plenty of pace and potential for attacking creativity. What was lacking, in many respects, was simply interest and by association a leader.
Choupo-Mouting, Huntelaar and Meyer really looked like they wanted to be back in the sunny USA where they spent their winter, di Santo touched the ball once and no one gave tried to rouse the side into any sort of comeback attempt. The closest Schalke came to scoring in the second half was when Junior Caicera, who looked very good at right back, squared a ball to the space where a striker should have been for an open goal tap-in. Huntelaar was already in the changing room based on the interest he showed. Herein lies the problem with Schalke; their stand-in captain is playing by example in the worst possible way, in comparison with their regular leader who would not have let Sunday's disgrace occur.
Benedikt Höwedes is often overlooked as one of the best centre backs in the league but it was arguably his leadership that is his strongest trait. Without their captain and talisman yesterday the younger players looked a little overwhelmed, particularly after going behind. At that point players like Matip and Huntelaar needed to become the leaders they should be as experienced players in that squad. Huntelaar wore the captain's armband but trudged around when they needed inspiration; Matip scored the goal but did nothing to assist young centre back partner Roman Neustädter in the run up to the later goals.
Höwedes was supposedly in attendance but he was really needed on the pitch with his team mates, motivating and encouraging a group of young players into really going after that second goal, whilst ensuring Bremen only got the one at his own end. In other words, the World Champions would have taken responsibility for the side as a true captain would (and as he often does), something which was seriously lacking. Nobody took responsibility for the team, some didn't even take responsibility for themselves, and it was a surprise to see some of them finish the game.
The senior players can take responsibility for a weak second half performance and the younger players will have to learn quickly how to deal with the pressure, but it is surely the injured Höwedes that made the greatest difference yesterday. With their leader out of the team until at least Easter and none of the other senior players willing to step up and lead the team in his absence it could be a long Rückrunde for the loyal Schalke fans.