How Schalke Completed Their Return to The Bundesliga

Ismail Ansar

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How Schalke Completed Their Return to The Bundesliga

Schalke were relegated to the second tier of German football in ignominious fashion in 2021, playing out one of the most awful and embarrassing Bundesliga campaigns of all time.

Die Konigsblauen finished rock bottom of the Bundesliga with just 16 points to their name – to note, the other side who were relegated that season, Werder Bremen, finished 15 points ahead of Schalke. Out of their 34 Bundesliga fixtures that season, Schalke picked up just three wins, drawing seven and losing an astounding 24 games.

They scored just 25 goals and conceded 86 that season, and went through five different managers, with David Wagner, Manuel Baum, Huub Stevens, Christian Gross and Dimitrios Grammozis all in charge of the iconic club from Gelsenkirchen at different points of the season.

The effects of the economic climate were suffocating the club, who had recently announced debts of over €200m. Simply put, it was an abysmal season for both fans and players. But Schalke have bounced straight back up to the Bundesliga after just one season in the second-tier, and here we take a look at how they’ve done it…

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Schalke’s Form Leading to their Relegation

Before we go into how they have made their return to the top division of German football, we will take a closer look at the form they were in preceding their relegation from the Bundesliga.

The 2019-20 season was not an impressive one for the club, as they ultimately finished in 12th position in the Bundesliga. A midtable finish was not catastrophic by any means, but fans were understandably disappointed that a team that had finished second in the Bundesliga in 2018 was now finishing in midtable.

David Wagner’s side finished that season with nine wins, 12 draws and 13 losses, picking up 39 points. The finish in the table wasn’t concerning however, it was the run of form at the end of the season that was. Their last league win came against Borussia Monchengladbach in January of 2020, and they picked up their final win of that season in any competition in February in a DFB-Pokal match against Hertha Berlin.

After that, they made it to the end of the season without picking up a single win. Out of their 15 remaining games in all competitions, they drew five and lost 10, their worst run of form coming in May in which they lost all four games on the bounce. It was a sign of things to come.

Their awful form carried on into the next season, where they would not pick up a win in any competition until November – which would be a 4-1 win against fourth-tier side FC Schweinfurt in the DFB-Pokal.

That was nine whole months without a win for Schalke. Yes, nine months! For fairness, let’s take out the three months of April, and July and August due to the season-ending in June because of all the fixtures that had been postponed being played at a later date – that’s still six months of competitive action without a single win! They failed to pick up a single win in their opening 14 league matches, a run that included an 8-0 opening day thrashing to Bayern Munich.

With the 16 matches they failed to win at the back-end of the previous season, it meant that Schalke had failed to pick up a win in their last 30 Bundesliga matches in a row. The club was on the verge of breaking the extraordinary record of the longest winless run in the German top flight, a record held by Tasmania Berlin, who went winless in 31 matches in the 1965-66 season.

However, in the match that would’ve equalled that grim record, Schalke managed to record a stunning 4-0 win at home to Hoffenheim – it was their first win in 359 days. However, normal service resumed, as they failed to pick up a win in any of their next 12 games, before picking up just their second win of the season in April at home to Augsburg.

Just two games later though, their relegation to the second tier for the first time since 1988 was confirmed after a Fabian Klos strike helped Arminia Bielefeld to a 1-0 win.

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The Squad Reset

One reason why Schalke fell so far in such a short amount of time was due to mismanagement of funds – namely, spending big on players who failed to impress.

Former Sporting Director Christian Heidel signed off on some of the most expensive signings in the club’s history, and many of these signings did pretty much nothing during their time in Germany to justify the transfer fees spent on them.

A reported £16m was spent on midfielder Nabil Bentaleb, defender Sebastian Rudy joined for £15m from champions Bayern Munich, and £20m was spent on Basel striker Breel Embolo. Winger Yevhen Konoplyanka was signed for £12m from Sevilla, and striker Adam Szalai was bought for around £10m. All of these players had little to no impact at the club.

Another aspect of mismanagement was the number of talented players who were allowed to run their contracts down and leave for free – the likes of Leon Goretzka, Sead Kolasinac and Max Meyer all could’ve fetched decent transfer fees, but did not, depriving the club of vital income.

Since they were relegated, there has been a lot of change at the club, especially when it comes to the transfer policy. Although helped by the crushing debt they are in, Schalke are no longer spending big on players who have impressed at other clubs, as these players are still liable to become major flops – there now seems to be a focus on bringing players through the academy or signing young, promising players via loans or small transfer fees.

seven players who have made at least 10 appearances this season have all been age 24 or under. This strategy of “playing young players in the hope that they come good so they can be sold for big profit” is one that has worked for many clubs in the past, and one that Schalke now look to be trying.

In the summer before their Bundesliga 2 campaign commenced, Schalke brought in over 15 new players and got rid of over 20 of the old guard, with the likes of Weston McKennie, Matthew Hoppe, Benito Raman, Omar Mascarell, Sebastian Rudy, Matija Nastasic, Shkodran Mustafi, Benjamin Stambouli, Suat Serdar, Mark Uth and Alessandro Schopf all leaving the club in a mass exodus.

In their place, many young players came in. 20-year-old former Schalke academy player Malick Thiaw was brought in, and 22-year-old midfielder Rodrigo Zalazar was signed on loan from Eintracht Frankfurt alongside striker Darko Churlinov, who joined on loan from Stuttgart. 23-year-old Blendi Idrizi, alongside 21-year-olds Florian Flick and Henning Matriciani, were all promoted to the senior side from the club’s reserve side, and 20-year-old midfielder Mehmet Aydin was called up from the club’s U-19 side.

To complement all these young players, older and more experienced players were signed, with 34-year-old striker Simon Terodde joining from Hamburg. Midfielders Dominick Drexler and Danny Latza were also signed, with both of them having played in Germany’s top 3 divisions in their careers. Goalkeeper Martin Fraisl was brought on a free transfer from Eredivisie outfit ADO Den Haag, and defender Marcin Kaminski, like Churlinov, joined from Stuttgart.

Only three players were signed for transfer fees – those three being midfielders Reinhold Ranftl and Victor Palsson, and striker Marius Bulter, who have all been key members of the squad.

These players have all contributed to helping Die Knappen back to the Bundesliga at the first attempt. Striker Simon Terodde, who at the age of 34 has managed to score 29 goals this season, has been the club’s main man in their promotion push.

Marius Bulter has chipped in with double-digits in both goals and assists, and Dominick Drexler has contributed to eight goals. Midfielders Rodrigo Zalazar and Thomas Ouwejan have both been involved in over 10 goals each, and defenders Marcin Kaminski, Malick Thiaw and Ko Itakura have all scored two or more goals.

Those three have also been ever-presents in the Schalke backline, with 30 appearances each in the league. New goalkeeper Fraisl has been a reliable presence between the sticks, and the experienced Ralf Fahrmann is still at the club and has been dependable in his seven outings this season.

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Managerial Changes

At the time of their relegation from the top flight, the club’s manager was Dimitrios Grammozis. The Greek was appointed in March of 2021 when Schalke were already bottom of the league and were near certain to be relegated.

Under Grammozis, Schalke still continued to play poorly, but two of their three wins that season did come under his stewardship. Grammozis remained in the dugout as Schalke began life in the second tier. Under the former Darmstadt coach, Schalke did not do too badly at all, picking up 12 wins in his 25 games in charge.

But, despite their form, the Royal Blues were not in the top three where they wanted to be, and so, after a 4-3 defeat to Hansa Rostock in March that left them in sixth place, the decision that Grammozis should be sacked was made.

Club legend Mike Buskens was selected to replace the departing Grammozis. Buskens’ appointment had the desired effect. Schalke went on to win their next five games on the bounce, and in his eight games in charge, Schalke have won seven of them and lost just once.

That form has propelled them from sixth to the top of the table. As a result, they have secured promotion back to the Bundesliga in their first attempt, and they have the chance to be crowned champions away at FC Nurnberg on Sunday.

Schalke currently sit top of the Bundesliga 2 table with just one game of the season remaining. Werder Bremen sit in second and are two points behind the leaders, so the final matchday will confirm who will be crowned champions. With 19 wins and a recent run of good form, it’s likely that Schalke will be lifting their first piece of silverware since 2011.

It will be a moment to celebrate and savour for the club’s fans who have gone through rough times recently. With a brand-new squad of players for next season’s return to the Bundesliga and a new structure in place to ensure that the mistakes of the past don’t happen again, Schalke are a club on the rise.

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