Schalke’s tactics of score few, concede fewer have led to third and second place domestic finishes in two of the last three seasons, with current coach Felix Magath achieving the latter.
The ruthless disciplinarian is impossible to second-guess, as he’ll relentlessly tinkers tactics and personnel between or during matches, and last season, even removed poor Christoph Moritz 22 minutes after bringing him on in the derby!
Money issues dog the club, affecting transfer policy, budgets, wage payments and the general aura. The club’s Champions League participation this season will bolster the kitty, especially if Schalke progress beyond the group stage.
Balancing Bundesliga and European battles will be tough for the Gelsenkirchen side, regardless of their hefty, youthful squad which has been endowed by the quite astounding acquisition of Raúl.
Save for the ageing Real Madrid legend, strikers are only conspicuous by their absence at the club right now. With Kevin Kurányi lured to Russia, Edu Gonçalves is as senior as the back-up comes. Nevertheless, expect that situation to be remedied imminently.
To be fair to Edu, his versatility is an asset. The Brazilian melds vision and positional interchanges with that burly frame, and gives Magath a multifaceted line-leader.
From the bench, we’ll gradually see more of Mario Gavranović as the campaign goes on. The Switzerland U21 international offers more poise, energy and potency than the departed Gerald Asamoah (St Pauli).
Until a new striker arrives, Gavranovićand Edu face competition from one of World Cup 2010s most impressive youngsters, Erik Jendrišek? The 23-year-old attacker joins from Kaiserslautern, who received Jan Morávek in return.
The Slovakian international made some brilliantly timed darts from the flank to the forward line in South Africa, where he and Robert Vittek’s tag-team efforts ran Italy in particular ragged.
Versatility-blessed Jendrišek is primarily a winger, which is where Magath might find him most resourceful. Last season, the coach often played a trio of attacking midfielders, all tucking in when Schalke lost possession.
Ivan Rakitić was the central playmaker, and the Croat enters the new season fresh from a summer break. To maintain regular selection, he must improve on last season’s meagre tally of three assists, and seven goals (mainly penalties).
Nevertheless, Rakitić scored a memorable winner against Dortmund after the winter break, and his fluid manoeuvres see him cover, weave, and locate his colleagues from the left flank or centre of midfield.
However, it’s quite a poorly kept secret that Magath intends on restructuring his side into a 4-4-2 diamond, and intends to buy a star playmaker to play at the point behind the strikers; Diego or Zvjezdan Misimović, perhaps?
In this scenario Rakitić and Peer Kluge – the German version of Lee Cattermole – would be henchmen to a fully-fit defence-screening Jermaine Jones, although Jones can expect stiff competition from the impossibly calm Joël Matip.
Watching Schalke can be a laborious task. They revel in cynical negativity, and launch themselves into attack too infrequently.
As Magath seeks to keep the banks so close together (and therefore quite high), goalkeeper Manuel Neuer is effectively the team’s sweeper.
Last season, goals tended to originate from set-pieces and crosses to Kurányi; the latter assist method also presenting chances to Schalke’s many hulking athletes.
Competition on the flanks remains fierce should the diamond be shelved, despite Uruguay’s Vicente Sánchez moving to Mexico, and Lewis Holtby joining Mainz on loan.
Jefferson Farfán is an incisive winger-cum-forward, and if the Peruvian doesn’t leave Schalke for pastures new, he might actually struggle for a place in Magath’s new system.
Keeping him company will be the blossoming Hao Junmin, the often frustrating Alexander Baumjohann, plus the aforementioned Jendrišek.
Despite sending Carlos Zambrano out on loan (St Pauli), and releasing an ageing, error-strewn Marcelo Bordon, Magath has two excellent German centre-backs to choose from.
Christoph Metzelder, who built his reputation at local rivals Dortmund, joins from Real Madrid. Flanking him, Benedikt Höwedes is as strong as they come in the Bundesliga, and equally capable at full back or as a defensive midfielder.
It appears as though Magath will settle on two or three permanent options apiece at full-back.
After turning up to training three weeks before schedule and shackling Bayern’s Hamit Altintop in the Super Cup, right-back Atsuto Uchida should keep Tim Hoogland at bay.
New sporting director Horst Heldt paid a a paltry €1.3million to J-League side Kashima Antlers for Uchida, and the 22-year-old could be the bargain of the season.
Meanwhile, there’s a trio of candidates for the left-back role, but the great set-pieces and furious wing-back drives of Lukas Schmitz mean he’ll be first choice.
New Spanish signing Sergio Escudero – quick of mind, body and feet, but a player who can get overzealous when facing a runner – and Christian Pander will therefore have to bide their time.
Rafinha, who’ll be a Brazilian international if Maicon and Daniel Alves ever sustain long-term injuries simultaneously, has departed for Genoa, and such is his level of skill, hunger and effervescence, Schalke have lost a crucial attacking dimension.
With three fronts to fight on (they reached the semi-final stage of the DFB-Pokal last term), the question will be whether Schalke can rise to the occasion?
Despite a relatively empty trophy cabinet, they remain a big name club, although tactical naivety could prove their undoing. In Europe, they’ll frustrate *bigger* teams, but can they boss and win matches against less ambitious opposition?
Last season, Schalke didn’t prevail under pressure. They won the home leg of the derby, but occasionally that high defensive-line proved costly, resembling a flock of headless chickens.
At the tail-end of the campaign they lost to Bayern Munich, and even Hannover beat them 4-2. The strugglers needed the points, but Schalke neither commanded proceedings or retained their dignity.
Still, Schalke boast some of the best support in Europe, and one of the world’s most diligent tacticians in Magath.
The 4-2-3-1-cum-4-5-1 balances the shift from attack to defence very capably, and the advantage of having a young, ego-free squad means the coach can ruthlessly impose his discipline and ideas on the team.
It remains to be seen how the new 4-4-2 diamond will affect Schalke’s disciplined style, but the flat 4-4-2 used against Bayern certainly disrupted the opposition’s rhythm and imagination.
Fans celebrated 2009/10s Bundesliga silver medal as if they’d won the title, although a repeat is unlikely given the multitude of circumstances, and the fact that die Königsblauen were extremely lucky injury-wise during the previous campaign.
Ultimately then, finishing in a Champions League berth and advancing beyond the group stage of its latest edition would be hallmarks of a job well done for the Gelsenkirchen outfit this season.