Despite being shown as part of the Konferenz lineup (the 3:30 pm CET games) on Saturday, Schalke hosting Werder turned out to be one of more dramatic games of the Bundesliga’s Rückrunde.
A quiet first half consisted of fruitless Schalke possessions and the odd counter through Konoplyanka and Harit. Werder featured a possession-based approach with ball-circulation through the left side with Moisander, Delaney and Augustinson. After 45 minutes, there were four shots split evenly, yet the game was not scoreless. A ho-hum Konoplyanka counter ended with a mediocre shot that was turned into an epic howler from Werder’s Jiri Pavlenka who had hitherto been the best keeper of this Bundesliga season, giving the Royal Blues and 1-0 advantage.
With the halftime introduction of Goretzka for Bentaleb, S04 gained a lot of dynamism and dominated the proceedings with a 12 to 1 shots edge until the 78th minute. Nastastic’s second yellow for a foul on Ishak Belfodil proved to be the turning point as the usually reliable Ralf Fahrmann responded by dropping a mediocre free-kick and Max Kruse’s rebound-shot made it 1-1. Schalke lost their shape and still attacked feverishly with substitute Marko Pjaca registering a shot on the post in the 83rd minute, the lone S04 shot in the last 15 minutes. Bremen who had tried just THREE shots in the first 78 minutes managed a whopping EIGHT attempts in the final 12 plus added time and their efforts were rewarded after another defensive mistake by Schalke in the last seconds of the game. The winner by Zlatko Junuzovic was so climactic, some Werder fans even put the Titanic soundtrack to accompany it, which is the highest (lowest???) honour a football match can achieve:
After that quick recap, let’s get into the context of the game before moving onto a couple of scenes to analyse.
Schalke’s attacking woes and the Goretzka Blues
Coming into game, there were concerns about Domenico Tedesco’s outfit’s recent form. After a blistering start to the season which saw Schalke take 24 points from 13 games (the third most in the league) and famously come back from 4-0 against rivals Dortmund in the Revierderby, the Gelsenkirchen side have take only a pedestrian 10 points from their last 7 games, with underlying total XG difference numbers of +.6. The attack had long been an area to upgrade, as Schalke’s Bundesliga best 16 set pieces goals (Germans include the 7 penalties as set pieces) were just one fewer than their 17 open play goals. The point is driven home by the emblematic figure of CB Naldo, who on 5 goals is the 2nd leading scorer behind Guido Burgstaller’s 7. Burgstaller has recently lost his starting job to the extremely hard working pressing monster Franco di Santo, who has a season total of 2 goals on 1.68 XG.
The winter additions of Marko Pjaca and Cedric Teuchert were supposed to address the issue, but so far only the Croatian has gotten about 100 minutes. Their other significant question mark for the game was the figure of Leon Goretzka, who after a fabulous September-October stretch has been public enemy no.1 after agreeing to move to Bayern on a free transfer starting this summer. Schalke reportedly offered 12m Euros per year for the 23-year-old, nearly six times his current salary, but the Bochum-born Goretzka admitted that it was time for him to take the next step in his career and completed a medical at Bayern on January 18th. The situation got so untenable that club president Clemens Tönnies actually threatened to make Goretzka sit in the stands and “should never wear a Schalke jersey again”. To add injury to insult, Goretzka has missed 9 games since late October and has had multiple setbacks. He was always unlikely to start against Werder on Saturday and Nabil Bentaleb who last played in late October took his place in Tedesco’s usual 3-4-3 with the ball.
Werder’s surprisingly attacking lineup
On the other hand, Florian Kohfeldt who had left the Werder U23 team (which is currently on a 19 game winless streak) and replaced Alexander Nouri, came into the Schalke game on a string of moral victories. Unfortunately scoring two goals against Bayern and pushing the champs into extra gear while hanging tough against Leverkusen (1-0 loss) Hoffenheim (1-1 draw) didn’t result in any wins. Werder, who were finally playing some more aesthetically pleasing and tactically ambitious football after the abject start under Nouri, had failed to build on the hot start to Kohfeldt’s tenure – 4-0 against Hannover and a 2-1 win in Dortmund, and were winless in five Bundesliga games entering this one.
In a larger context, Kohfeldt’s ten-game sample size of 12 points with a 0 goal difference and a net -2 XG difference had brought Werder back to respectability which, when you consider that Werder had gained just 5 points on 5 draws (vs 5 losses) on a – 9 goal difference and -3.5 XG difference, is a step in the right direction. The interesting thing about Werder’s lineups in the Kohfeldt era is that against the more offensively dominant sides like Leverkusen and Dortmund they previously featured a defensive 5-3-2. Against perceived weaker sides like Mainz or Freiburg, Werder would employ the 4-2-3-1, and even push against fellow bottom-dwellers Stuttgart or the underwhelming Hoffenheim in a 4-3-3 with two of the Kruse-Bartels (replaced by Belfodil after an Achilles tear ended his season) striker duo flanked by an attacking minded midfielder such as Kainz, Junuzovic or Gondorf.
As a sidenote to their flexibility, Kohfeldt brought back the old Thomas Schaaf favorite 4-1-4-1 diamond that at times shifted to a 4-5-1 in a back and forth affair vs Bayern. A major hint against the perception of Schalke’s strength was that on Saturday Werder lined up in a 4-3-3 with three outright strikers: the emblematic Max Kruse flanked by the combative Ishak Belfodil, usually a target man and occasionally a secondary striker used as left winger! The right wing was occupied by Jan 31st signing Milot Rashica, whose 7m move from Vitesse nearly broke the 8m club record held by Marko Marin, a shocking reminder of the lack of money available at Werder over the years.
The three chain in the middle was an unusual combination, as Delaney and Eggestein typically occupied the #8 roles for Werder, but the Dane had to play as the #6 due to Philipp Bargfrede’s injury. Gondorf’s inclusion was still a surprise, even if the former Darmstadt man has impressed against Bayern with his goal and his movement and Werder fans wondered if they were saving Junuzovic’s legs for the DFB cup match against Leverkusen on Tuesday. The back four was their usual Gebre Selassie (who had regained his starting spot after an ill-advised Robert Bauer start vs Bayern’s Franck Ribery that went about as well as that sounds) Augustinsson fullback combo and the Veljkovic\Moisander CB duo. On the pitch it looked like this, with a 2-3-2-3 shape that Gondorf (blond hair) almost made into a four attacker setup.
Gameplans and reactions – The Meyer Blueprint leads to Naldo as a playmaker?
Domenico Tedesco’s Schalke tenure has been characterised by two pillars:
- a strong and systematic pressing play that works like this: against the ball, the wing backs would drop and turn it into a 5-2-3 or 5-3-2 depending on the situation. With such a compact setup Tedesco’s idea is to overload the centre of the pitch and prevent access there, funnelling it wide. They then usually wait for an opportunity to spring a pressing trap on the opponents.
There are specific pressing triggers – like a long lateral pass between the CBs – that activates the press by the forwards with the entire team shifting. Here’s an example from the 22nd minute:
A few seconds later, Werder are forced to retreat and either:
- A) play the ball back to their keeper for the inevitable long-ball that Naldo, who wins 80% of his aerial duels and has won the third most in the league with 109, will just as inevitably win.
- B) play a pass to the outside that gets attacked by their high-playing wingbacks supported by the 8s closing the halfspaces and di Santo dropping to shadow the playmaking #6 of the opponent (Delaney).
That aforementioned strong press came with Schalke continuing to lead the league the Bundesliga in tackles attempted (38 per game) and successfully won (23). An additional feature was the transition-counterattacking element that together with the set-pieces was the star of the first half of the season. Having scored just 3 of their 10 total goals from open play (including 3 penalties), Tedesco realised the need for a plan B:
- In mid-October, the deployment of previously unsuccessful attacking midfielder Max Meyer as a deep-lying playmaker revolutionised Schalke’s possession play and given the team a new wrinkle. While 17 open play goals vs 16 set piece goals (remember this includes 7 penalties) isn’t anything to write home about, opponents are definitely respecting this facet of Schalke’s approach, as Max Meyer is often getting the “Julian Weigl” treatment – as 4-5 opposing players surround him and watch his every move: RB Leipzig successfully employed this strategy in their 3-1 win
Meyer was a non-factor in the game, allowing Leipzig to overrun Schalke in the 2nd half. I’m not sure whether Kohfeldt and his staff were watching the Meyer-specific 4-3-3 setup by Leipzig, but with Max Kruse almost always dropping deep to cover Meyer and\or have in his cover shadow, the diminutive playmaker was taken out of the game.
He still managed to get close to his season average of 43 passes completed on 46 attempts, but while the percentages were great, the chart above shows that most of those passes had very little impact on the game. Having eliminated Meyer from the passing game, Schalke’s plan B, which of course Werder were completely satisfied with was to have CB Naldo attempt passes after some hesitation:
The veteran Brazilian CB who would attempt 63 passes over the course of the games, had already passed 36 times after 22 minutes! The longer passes were aimed mostly at Franco di Santo who wasn’t able to do much with them.
Schalke’s final alternative was to have Nabil Bentaleb do more of the playmaking. The little-used Algerian did manage 25 attempts and 21 completions in his 45 minutes on the pitch, but very few of his passes improved Schalke’s positioning\amounted to much.
The number of attempts is very low and there’s a reason for that: Bentaleb doesn’t work very hard to get out of covershadows and is often unavailable to receive the ball. He (and Meyer to some extent with 0.6 successful dribbles per game) never dribbles and is usually satisfied with getting rid of the ball. Another one of his flaws in this game was his complete lack of ambition. This fifth minute example shows Bentaleb receiving the ball after a pass from Oczipka at LWB, around the left half-space in Werder territory with a goal 20 yards of space in front of him, but rather than attempt to move forward and get into the teeth of the Bremen defense, he plays a pass to Amine Harit, who is watched by two players.
It’s no surprise that Tedesco opted to insert Leon Goretzka to add more dynamism to Schalke’s midfield and actually present a player who is more of a #8 than whatever Nabil Bentaleb was trying to do.
Although he only contributed with 19\20 passing, one shot and two dribbles completed, Goretzka’s running and movement put constant pressure on Bremen and allowed others like Amine Harit to play more centrally and create all kinds of havoc for Bremen from the central areas in the second half.
Schalke immediately had their best spell after the break, going on a 9-0 shots run in the first 15 minutes of the second half, with several solid chances that Pavlenka saved well, and\or di Santo wasted – most notably an ugly shank that ended in a throw-in after 1v1 vs. the Czech keeper.
Werder’s possession game takes over
After surviving the flurry of S04 attacks, Bremen regrouped with a near two minute possession-spell between minutes 61-63, thanks to a few key Scandinavian actors: the Danish #6 Thomas Delaney who would drop deep to provide a passing option\safety valve vs. the pressing traps of Schalke for the central defenders, of whom the better passing one was the Finnish CB Niklas Moisander who completed 92 of his 97 attempts. The third member of the Scandi passing trio was Ludwig Augustinsson (Sweden) who at LB was particularly happy to pass to Moisander, so much so that their duo had the most number of passes between teammates on the entire matchday.
Possession was arguably the most surprising part of Werder’s performance, with the Green and Whites completing 509 passes – well over their season average of 372 per match. In the context of the Bundesliga, Werder lead the 21st matchday with 36:07 minutes ball possession vs season average of 26min – 12 instances of 45s or more, no other team had more than 8.
Yet, while Werder had all of that ball possession, it often didn’t result in anything interesting: with only NINE entrances into the box for the entire game, Bremen was 16th of 18 teams in that category, with a matchday average of 16. In contrast, Schalke who had the ball for nearly ten fewer minutes managed 21 box passes mostly on effective counters! It all seemed perfectly set up for Schalke to close out a game even if they managed to waste a plethora of chances in the opening 15 minutes of the second half.
Schalke punch themselves out
The tactical changes had already begun with Goretzka’s introduction, and Bremen added some more combinative play by bringing in Johansson for the disappointing and out of sync Rashica. He completed 15 of 19 passes and added two key passes, including this nice outside of the boot one to send in Eggestein late:
Schalke’s other two subs between minutes 65-70 served mostly offensive purposes: Burgstaller is arguably the team’s best finisher and looked to replace the hard-working di Santo. However, his inability to make a decision on a 1v1 in the 76th minute was a key factor in the game:
Pjaca was much more lively and could’ve won the game in the 83rd, but his effort on a counter landed smack on the post. With Harit staying increasingly higher as the right-sided-wide forward and the #8 Goretzka often making supporting runs alongside the RWB Caligiuri, Schalke’s structure became increasingly disconnected. The turning point of the game was the second yellow card for LCB Nastasic, as Fahrmann spilled the ensuing free-kick for Max Kruse to finish it for 1-1. Curiously, Tedesco didn’t really change the formation and it looked like a very awkward 4-2-3, with Naldo and Oczipka leaving a lot of distance between them, as well as huge gaps between the three forwards and the two midfielders.
Perhaps it was mental and physical fatigue that set in, and the final moment of the game – in the third minute of the 3 minutes of added time – was the ultimate example: Max Meyer exemplifies the poor shape of Schalke, but Amine Harit’s misplaced pass to a pretty isolated Leon Goretzka resulted in a turnover.
Meyer’s decision to not track Eggestein was a poor one, but with the disconnect between Schalke’s defence and midfield, the press had no chance to get there in time. The poorly-executed offside trap was easily beaten by a ball over the top and the fresh legs of Junuzovic (trailing Goretzka and Harit on the last pic) outsprinted the Schalke defenders for the winning goal.
With Mainz’s loss and HSV getting only point at home to Hannover, 20 point Bremen finally have a little breathing room and could move further away from the relegation zone if they beat Wolfsburg in the Weserstadion over the weekend. And they are of course at the time of this article still in the DFB Pokal quarterfinals with a trip to Leverkusen that’s historically had a positive outcome.
In the grand scheme of things the loss was not yet catastrophic for Schalke, who now fell back to fifth as BVB and RBL both won, but it’s certainly disappointing to have lost this game when their opponent had 0.03XG for the first 78 minutes. In addition, a trip to Bayern over the weekend looms, but not before an important cup match at home against Wolfsburg that if they were to somehow lose would seriously cast doubts on their European participation next season.
Abel Meszaros is the editor of Bundesliga Fanatic. You can also catch Abel on the weekly English language German football podcast Talking Fussball.