The Bundesliga has witnessed a sudden spurt in immensely talented youngsters and Schalke is the epicentre.
It would seem close to an era for a Schalke fan since his/her team last won a German National Championship. Truth be told, it has been a good 54 years since that last happened. They have come close to the title in recent years, most notably in the 2000-2001 campaign when they were champions for just about a minute, before the championship was ‘stolen’ from them by Bayern.
Cup success hasn’t eluded them but what most Schalke fans would want to see is the team finally laying their hands on the coveted salad bowl. The last five years has been a turbulent time for Schalke. They have undergone a number of managerial changes, massive squad changes amidst a takeover by Russian oil company Gazprom in 2006, all in a bid to win their first Bundesliga title (their last title was won before the formation of the Bundesliga). The last two years have seen Schalke dig deep into their pockets to buy quality players who could win them the title and take them far into European cups.
But as is the tradition with German clubs, they have also invested a considerable amount on their youth system promoting promising youngsters, and on mixing up this talent with the experience and skill bought by investments and funds. The recipe seems to be working for Schalke as they have successfully qualified for the Champions league twice in the last three seasons. But can Schalke take this success a couple of steps ahead and take the 2012-2013 Bundesliga title?
At the back: The defense is largely unchanged from last season. The back four is marshaled by Benedikt Höwedes, a Schalke youth product and club captain. Only 24 years of age, he’s widely regarded as one of the top defenders in the league and a player who can lead from the front. He’s been a key member of the back four for three years now and is equally comfortable in playing at center back and right back. A number of top clubs have been interested in him and if Schalke are keen on the title, keeping him at the club is important.
Höwedes will probably be partnered by either Greek international Kyriakos Papadopoulos or the German born Cameroonian international Joel Matip. Papdopoulos (21), an Olympiacos youth product made his senior debut for the Greek club at the tender age of 16. He was widely regarded as a young top defender when he came to Schalke in 2010 where he quickly established a name for himself. He displaced Metzelder last season to become a regular for Schalke at center back. He’s also represented Greece at the international level, most recently appearing in the Euro’s. Papadopoulos is credited for his level-headedness during one-on-one situations and his maturity at such a tender age.
Joel Matip, another 21 year old is a defensive midfielder who can play as center back. Standing at over 6 feet, he can easily slot into the center back role and in fact made his senior debut in this position. He’s known for his anticipation and speed.
Sergio Escudero, a 22 year old Spaniard will play second fiddle at the left-back position for Schalke this season. He was part of the triple deal in 2010 which saw him along with his compatriots Raul and Jurado come to Schalke. Atsuto Uchida has made the right-back position his own since joining Schalke two years back from the J-league. A wing-back by nature, his runs on the right flank to help out Farfan was a constant feature during Schalke successful Champions league campaign 2 seasons back.
When Manuel Neuer left for Bayern, Schalke dug into their reserve team to pull out Ralf Fährmann as their custodian. 23 years of age and standing 6ft 5in he seemed to be the apt replacement for Neuer until a mid-season injury ruled him out for rest of the season. Hildebrand may have been brought in as a cover-up, but it was another youngster, Lars Unnerstall, who was the main man between the sticks. Stevens is going to have a hard time choosing between these two young sensations for the coming season.
The midfield: The success of young talents at their rivals Dortmund prompted Schalke’s management and coach to also look into their youth academy. This is one part of the pitch where Schalke hold the maximum skill in terms of youth talent. Lewis Holtby, Marco Hoger, Vasileios Pliatsikas, Christoph Moritz, Julian Draxler and Roman Neustädter will probably form one of the most dangerous midfields in Europe for years to come. But for now they are still in the stage of being groomed to dominate.
Holtby became a household name in Germany during the 2010-2011 season when he was loaned to Mainz 05. Mainz dominated the first half of the season before eventually finishing fifth. Holtby, at 21, has emerged as one of the most promising midfield talents in Germany. Known for his lightning pace and dribbles, he’ll be eyeing a regular position in the Schalke attacking unit. Another midfield sensation at Schalke is Julian Draxler. The 18 year old is one of the most sought after talents in world football today. Holding onto Draxler seemed a hard task this summer and the club has done brilliantly to ward off interest. A pacy winger by trade, he made his debut for Schalke when he was just 16 years old. He was also included in Germany’s Euro squad and made his debut against Switzerland in a friendly.
Schalke recruited the services of Neustädter this season to add steel to the midfield. A deep-laying playmaker, he made a name for himself playing for Borussia Mönchengladbach who finished fourth last season. Schalke will be banking on his ball winning skills and distribution this season for them to mount a challenge. Though Schalke have recruited Barnetta for the midfield and have the services of Jermaine Jones for positions in the center of the park, Moritz and Höger are likely to see more playing time. Höger is a full back who played as a defensive midfielder for Schalke much of last season. A good ball-winner, he’s most noted for his runs up the field. Moritz on the other hand is more of a withdrawn midfielder. Höger and Moritz played a big part in Schalke’s resurgence towards the 2nd half of last season which saw them finishing behind Dortmund and Bayern and qualifying for the Champions league.
Up front: Teemu Pukki is another promising youngster who played a part in Schalke’s 2011-2012 campaign. The 22 year old Finn is a typical goal poacher in the mold of Huntelaar. Used mostly as an impact sub or to give Huntelaar a rest last season, he is sure to play a more regular role this season with Schalke playing the Champions League as well. Jurado will of course occupy the central attacking role with Huntelaar leading the attack.
The Departure of Raul will hurt Schalke but with the abundance of talent at their disposal, Schalke will be entering the new season with renewed hope and optimism. Huntalaar, Farfan, Jurado, Obasi and Barnetta as the more senior members of the squad in terms of experience will have an added responsibility of guiding their dynamic but inexperienced teammates. Schalke are going to be fighting it out on three fronts this season and they will need all to chip in.
But with inexperience comes inconsistency. The back five has an average age of 23 with only Höwedes having played over a hundred games. The midfield will have a new look with only Farfan and Barnetta boasting solid Bundesliga experience. The rest are in their learning phase and it will take them time to gel together and put in consistent performances week in and week out. Schalke also don’t have a comparable strike partner for Huntalaar. Marica and Pukki are still young and don’t have the experience to lead attacks, while Obasi and Jurado are probably not at the level required to win trophies.
Come the new season, and the onus will still largely be on the shoulders of Höwedes, Barnetta, Huntalaar and Farfan to lead Schalke to glory. What Dortmund have done with a young squad over the last two years has been brilliant, something of a fairy tale and it will be something hard for Schalke’s young guns to follow. The Bundesliga is arguably the most competitive league in Europe and a small slip-up could prove costly.
Schalke’s goal for the upcoming season will of course be to retain their Champions league spot and to take the DFB Pokal. But it’ll be really harsh on the young squad to expect them to win the title. Huub Stevens has a very talented squad and the management has to give him time to organize and groom them for Schalke to win the Bundesliga.
Written by Guest Author Siddharth Mohan