Today’s Bundesliga vocabulary word is Englische Woche, or English week. It refers to any week where the clubs play multiple matches, a fairly frequent occurrence in English soccer but a relative rarity in Germany. With Bayern losing to Wolfsburg this past Friday and Schalke FC 04 taking all three points from Hanover 96 on Saturday, this Englische Woche has already provided plenty of intrigue for both clubs as they prepare for what is consistently one of the best matches of the year.
The first meeting between the clubs this season saw a hard-fought 1-1 draw at the Veltins-Arena. Reflecting on this early match, it is striking how much has changed in the succeeding five months. Philip Lahm and Xheridan Shaqiri were in Pep Guardiola’s starting lineup. Xabi Alonso was making his Bayern debut. Jens Keller was still Schalke’s manager. Since then we have watched Schalke struggle mightily, eventually firing Keller and replacing him with Robert Di Matteo. Since then they have been a completely different club, and currently sit fourth, after sinking as low as 18th and sitting at just 11th after eleven matches.
Bayern, on the other hand, had been typically dominant until they travelled to Wolfsburg suffering a shocking 4-1 loss. Manuel Neuer allowed as many goals in that match as he had in the entirety of the season (17 matches) leading up to that point, and for the first time in a long time, Bayern looked vulnerable. This vulnerability may stem from over confidence or simply be an aberration caused by the month long layoff. It is very difficult, after all, to anticipate how extended breaks will affect any given team.
Watching Bayern stumble their way through that match though, I think their problems lie mostly in their back four. Before I get into that, though, hats off to Wolfsburg. It’s a common sports trope to argue about who won or lost a game, and while Bayern certainly did little to aid themselves, Wolfsburg put on an inspired performance, especially given that in the opening few minutes Bayern appeared to be the stronger side.
Anyway, Bayern’s back four. The first problem stems from the absence of their captain, Philipp Lahm. Not to denigrate any of the other players that play in the back with Lahm, but he turns great players into amazing players. His versatility and ability to help guide his younger and less talented counterparts is incredible. Lahm can play all over the field and can simultaneously defend his side of the field, allowing his teammates to focus on their roles, and move around to assist his teammates should they need it. Without him, the weaknesses in the games of player like Sebastian Rode, Jerome Boateng, Dante or Juan Bernat (the starting back four against Wolfsburg) are far more visible and easy to exploit.
The other big question regarding Bayern’s back four is David Alaba. Now, before his injury, Alaba was arguably the third best player for Bayern, after Neuer and Lahm. He is not strictly a back player, and he did of course start in the midfield against Wolfsburg, but he plays his best games when he starts in the back with Lahm. He looked like he was still building his confidence after a long injury layoff, and he was not his usual vibrant, world-beating, transcendent self. Especially given Lahm’s absence, Bayern will need Alaba to step up; luckily he should improve the more he plays, even between the beginning and end of the Wolfsburg match he seemed to settle in. Expect him to have a huge impact against Schalke.
On the other side of the ball, Schalke will be hoping that rather than the Wolfsburg loss being a wake-up call for Bayern, as a handful of player described it, it is a sign of weakness. Wolfsburg gave Schalke the blueprint for how to beat Bayern, but executing this blueprint in Munich will be difficult. Benedikt Höwedes will be vital to this and he needs to anchor the Royal Blues’ defense. Höwedes can play anywhere in the back four, but expect Di Matteo to deploy him from a central position in his experimental three-man defense, allowing him to branch out wide should speedy players like Arjen Robben or Mario Gotze be cut loose on the flanks. Bayern will be aggressive and Schalke will be relying on Höwedes to spearhead their defense. Di Matteo will likely pair him with Jan Kirchhoff and Matija Nastatsic, the same trio he started against Hanover 96. The three play exceptionally well together, and will be the genesis of any potential upset at the Allianz.
Meetings between Schalke and Bayern have been consistently intense and exciting over the past few years, even as Bayern has asserted its dominance. Bayern needs to re-establish themselves as the dominant club in Germany, while Schalke needs a positive result to stay competitive in what has become a heated race for a Champions League berth. A win will not come easily for either side, and expect them both to play with the intensity of a team that knows their season may hang in the balance.
For soccer fans in the United States, the game is being shown live at 2pm ET on GolTV.
If you don’t get GolTV, you can watch the game live on your computer, smartphone, tablet or Roku with fuboTV PRO with their free 14-day trial.
We reviewed fuboTV PRO last week. Unlike illegal streams, fuboTV PRO is a legal streaming service that doesn’t contain pop-ups, malware or any of the hazards of illegal streaming. Instead, you get a high quality stream. And if you like the service, it’s only $6.99 month.
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