“We can compete for the title,” were the words uttered by Schalke and USA midfielder Jermaine Jones back in the July heat of the Schalke training camp. Lofty words for a club that has not won a Bundesliga league title since 1958. But the atmosphere surrounding the club was one of optimism. Schalke came off a season where they defeated their arch rivals Borussia Dortmund twice, they managed to extend the contract of the second best German talent, Julian Draxler, something the hated rivals were not able to do with Mario Götze (the best German talent in case you were wondering) and they had also signed another great talent in Leon Goretzka who chose Schalke over Dortmund. So why not make a bold statement? Because after 55 years of heartache, it is the proverbial “kiss of death” for this “workers-club” from the Ruhr valley.
Jump ahead just over two months and the club is back to its over-dramatic ways. Though they just managed to get into the Champions League group stage and have boasted two wins thus far, their domestic campaign has gotten off to a bumpy start to say the least. With just 8 points from 7 matches and sitting 14th in the table (far behind title contenders Dortmund, Bayern and Leverkusen), the club is far off the target set by Jones way back when. And where is Jones now? Well after what manager Jens Keller feels were lackluster efforts in recent matches, the US “bad boy” has been suspended by the club.
But the issues facing Schalke are much more complex than just dealing with another black-eye on Jones’ career. They lacked composure, leadership and structure at to start the season. They then landed Kevin-Prince Boateng (a self-professed Borussia Dortmund lover) in a last-minute transfer coup that seemed to lift the squad and set them off in the right direction. However, the Boateng boost didn’t last long and Schalke have been back to their erratic form; beating top-club Bayer Leverkusen one day and then blowing a 3-1 lead against Hoffenheim on another. The basic issues still remain the same. Though Schalke can look menacing moving forward, they lack structure and composure when not in possession. Despite having German international Benedikt Höwedes (who is also their captain) at the heart of the defense, they have one of the worst defenses in the Bundesliga having conceded 16 goals already this season (it took them twice as long to concede as many last season).
It’s also not just the on-the-pitch issues that plague the club. Manager Jens Keller was brought in from the youth setup to take over when Huub Stevens was let go last season. Keller is the manager that nobody wanted and sporting director Horst Heldt openly advocated for potential candidates to replace Keller, which included names like former Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo and, farcically, Stefan Effenberg. However, after Keller secured fourth place, he was finally given the job on a permanent basis. But the discussions about him in public by club officials neither strengthened Keller’s position with the team nor with the supporters. Now with the team struggling to find consistent good form, the doubts swirling around Keller’s suitability for the job are beginning to resurface. But Keller isn’t the only one to cast a critical eye over. Sporting director Horst Heldt seemed lost at times during the transfer window, looking for suitable players. Once Boateng was signed, some of the pressure left Heldt, but the doubts remain.
Finally, the greatest dilemma facing Schalke is the pressure of history. FC Schalke 04 was one of the great clubs in the 1930’s, ‘40’s and ‘50’s, winning no less than seven German league titles during this time. Though they’ve experience numerous German cup wins and even the mythical UEFA Cup victory over Inter in 1997, the fact that no league title has been won since 1958 is burdensome on the psyche of the club and its supporters, especially since rivals Borussia Dortmund have won the league six times since Schalke won it last.
So in terms of what needs to change, the club have made the first right step in suspending Jones, who is often more trouble than he’s worth. Boateng needs to take a greater leadership role as the season progresses, but most importantly they need defensive stability and discipline, something that only the manager can instill in them.
And so we do finally end up with a discussion if Keller is the right man for the job. That’s never easy to say from the outside looking in, but if he wants to still be in charge at Schalke come the winter break, he must get the defensive frailties worked out fast. Schalke have two easy matches coming up before they must host a dangerous Borussia Dortmund side in the “Revier Derby” on October 26. An embarrassing loss that day could send the club in a spiral they might not recover from and cost Keller his job.