Schalke 04 won again in the Europa League last night, stretching their winning start to 3 matches. Can they transfer that form into the Bundesliga?
After a mostly convincing 1-0 victory over FK Krasnodar, Schalke 04 head back to Bundesliga competition on Sunday afternoon knowing that one more win in Europe will almost guarantee them qualification into the next round of the Europa League. Three straight wins over their group rivals will give them confidence of topping their group too and has extended their unbeaten streak in the group stages of the secondary competition to 14 games. Schalke seem to enjoy the early stages of European competitions and often manage to progress, before being beaten in the knockout stages (frustratingly and embarrassingly, on many occasions).
So far this campaign they have beaten Ligue 1 table-toppers OGC Nice, Austrian energy drink advertisers Red Bull Salzburg and Krasnodar, a pretty tough group by Europa League standards. Having taken 6 points from 6 on the road the Königsblau should be feeling pretty confident, especially given that last night was a makeshift team to allow some of the first team to recover from minor injuries. So if the back-ups can do it on a Thursday night in deepest Russia, why are the first team struggling to get into their stride at the weekend?
It isn't a question of talent, at least in my mind. Dennis Aogo is a functional left-back and can play holding midfield adequately, but there is no competition when it comes to choosing between him and Johannes Geis, Nabil Bentaleb, Leon Goretzka or Benjamin Stambouli. There is a depth of talent at holding midfield that other clubs can only dream of and in Bentaleb Schalke have a player who can perform the "kind of box to box but not really" role that Axel explored a few weeks ago. In the wide areas Alessandro Schöpf and Yevhen Konoplyanka are starting to demonstrate their abilities, whilst Max Meyer continues to spark in the creative role. Whilst Schalke need more consistency from their young star, he needs support from the players around him. Too often he is left isolated and with few options; more needs to be done to get the supporting cast up the pitch. More, calculated risks need to be taken to support Meyer and the lone striker,
Defensively, individual errors have hurt Schalke in the Bundesliga so far this season, which could suggest it is only a matter of better luck on a Thursday than on Bundesliga match days. That would be both naive and generous; Naldo in particular has had some worrying lapses in concentration, whilst the adjustments to the system often leave the defence looking lopsided. Against Krasnodar it wasn't clear to me watching whether Benedikt Höwedes was playing right back or the right of three centre backs. Whether that is intentional or not is an interesting one. Höwedes has experience playing both and it could be a sign that Markus Weinzierl is giving his side licence to be flexible and make tactical decisions on the pitch depending on what they are seeing. In the Bundesliga, against teams who play them regularly and who can much more easily scout them before they play each other, this could be exposed to a far greater level than in the Europa League, which is often seen as a distraction.
And finally, the striker problem. Schalke have really been struggling to score goals this season and the terrible injury to Breel Embolo against Augsburg last weekend won't help the situation. Franco di Santo lacks form and confidence, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar lacks pace and hasn't really been in form either, and... Nope, that's it. Well, there's always a plethora of young stars at Schalke thanks to the world-class academy, so maybe it is time for some of them to get a chance. Felix Platte, on loan at Darmstadt, could have been an interesting option if he were still in Gelsenkirchen.
Weinzierl is undoubtedly, in my mind, the right man for the job, so let him continue to tinker and experiment. With such huge changes to the club over the summer it was probably understandable that things wouldn't start smoothly, but the Europa League success has shown that it can be possible and that in time this team will start to be successful. The players are there, the system is coming, results will follow. Have patience, Schalke fans.