Schalke struck late winner to eliminate plucky Augsburg from the DFB-Pokal and move into the quarter-finals. This was the fifth consecutive game the Gelsenkirchen side had won in all competitions, and they’ll be disappointed that the winter break now eats into that momentum. The defeat was the first suffered by Augsburg in more than two months, but they won’t be too disheartened as they seek to gain promotion to the top-flight for the first time in their history.
It was a typical opening to a German game – fast and frenetic, with the ball back and fore with no one side particularly in control. Augsburg already had their defence set deep, but Gibril Sankoh looked to step out throughout the game to mop up and kill the ball during its journey from A to B. On top of the deep defence were two restrained defensive-midfielders: Jos Luhukay was playing a 4-2-3-1, and looking to kill the hole in which Schalke might concoct something for their two strikers – one of whom, Raúl, likes to play in this zone whenever Ivan Rakitić is bobbing elsewhere. This tactic worked against Augsburg defensively as it ensured that the home team’s midfielders were always pinned back, creating an occasional gap to the forward-four that meant the only way a side low on quality could reach them was via a long ball.
Whereas Augsburg at least had an attacking tactic, Schalke seemed to lose all impetus and ideas going forward as soon as the stopwatch hit the tenth minute. Initially, they passed the ball about on the floor near halfway, trying to draw their hosts out, before running the ball at the deep defence – exploiting the gap between wide-attacker and full-back Augsburg had left. Lukas Schmitz was rampant within that quality-telling ten minute spell, but Paul Verhaegh gradually began to cork him, and shuttled forward more freely himself down the flank. To be fair, Schalke did start to come back into things five minutes before the break, this time using the opposite flank as the tricky Jefferson Farfán sought to take advantage of the static and deep Axel Bellinghausen. But as had been the case in the previous 40 minutes – the same applies to Augsburg, particularly Tobias Werner, too – the ball into the box was weak.
Felix Magath, sticking with the team and 4-4-2 diamond that beat Cologne 3-0 on the weekend, would no doubt have been disgusted by the fact that his team were only looking good enough for a scoreless draw. However, this was a game which had to be decided on the night, and as tight as Schalke looked at the back during the opening 20 minutes, their reluctance to take proceedings by the scruff of the neck on the break – just as they did so superbly recently in the Champions League against Benfica – allowed Augsburg to gain confidence, and alter their long ball tactics to work around Schalke’s high and disciplined defensive line.
During a lacklustre and imagination-free opening, Luhukay’s sole tactic was for his defenders to knock the ball about aimlessly at the back, trying to draw Schalke’s high rearguard even higher up the pitch than they already were. However, Schalke kept their discipline, sat in their extremely close-to-one-another banks, and made the Augsburg man on the ball as claustrophobic as possible. Whenever Sankoh & co. stepped up to play the pass, Schalke – who followed the melina side-to-side – set up miniature triangular walls. This hurried the hoof, rendering it wasted and straight into the hands of Manuel Neuer who got his team going again with a quick toss of the ball. Even the punts that weren’t overhit to Nando Rafael – who dropped to flick-on for the ghosting Werner – were mopped up easily by the Schalke centre-backs.
Yet from around the 20th minute, the 2. Bundesliga leaders began to play more cleverly. Instead of looking for flick-ons, they went in search of fouls and free-kicks. This tactic wound their Bundesliga opponents up, and kept the set-pieces coming. However, Augsburg had now introduced another dimension to their game too. Rather than just relying on straight arrow hoofs over the top, they started to go diagonal. Schalke, who sat quite narrowly in defence, couldn’t stop the ball over to the lively Stephan Hain on the right strip of chalk, and he began to turn Schmitz inside-out. As well as becoming more effective in attack, the home side compounded Schalke’s frustration by closing the ball down faster whenever they were without it. Keeping their defence deep (yet Sankoh still following Raúl out to keep him quiet), Rafael began to hurry the ponderous and clumsy Christoph Metzelder whenever the former Real Madrid man had a look before attempting to feed a colleague. Metzelder and several others couldn’t cope with this added on-ball pressure, and began to give it away incessantly. They looked a bit more dangerous as the half came to close, but really, Augsburg were on top overall in the first half.
Yet the score as the teams came out after the break was still 0-0. Nevertheless, it was Schalke who seemed more determined to change that – attacking with greater gusto by giving the likes of Atsuto Uchida more freedom to come forward, and pressing the ball up to the opposition’s ‘keeper where feasible. The midfield area was still particularly cramped, but with Schalke making the early running, it was only a matter of time before the home side looked to regain some control to repay the vociferous support their supporters were giving them, thereby opening the game up for the attackers. However, space began to present itself initially thanks to Schalke’s sharpness – they were moving with a greater degree of cleverness and urgency in the final-third, stepping off their markers when the ball came to them rather than going to looking for it too early, and thus prising Luhukay’s seemingly tight backline apart.
Nevertheless, Augsburg still retained their wing-weapon, as whenever one of the widemen got a foot on the ball, they found it far too easy to come inside and unleash a – usually tame – shot. But in general, they were too scared to attack. The long ball would have required them to push men forward in support of the lone striker, and with Schalke showing their quality (Uchida giving Farfán cover on the wing so the Peruvian could cut inside and lurk, and Schmitz zooming infield to drag the right-sided midfielder away and allow Edu to stay on the chalk, one-on-one with the full-back), Augsburg didn’t want to give them even more space than the acres they had already unearthed. Luhukay had experimented personnel-wise by replacing Rafael with Sören Bertram, fielding him on the right, and placing Hain up top. But the tiny 22-year-old was isolated, and Luhukay was forced to bring on the still-injured goal-machine Michael Thurk. The final quarter-hour was a particularly feisty affair, added to by the home fans’ increase in volume following Thurk’s introduction.
But as Augsburg finally began to throw caution to the wind, they were caught out. Huntelaar was fed on the floor in the home side’s defensive midfield zone without a white-shirted player in sight. The Dutchman spun, had a look, and fed the on-your-marks-get-set-go dart of Raúl which helped him evade the close attentions of Sankoh. The classy Spaniard weaved his way through lunging second-tier defenders in the box, and rolled the ball out to the right where Farfán stood with time to control: the Peruvian made no mistake with the finish, the deadlock finally broken.
Thereafter, last season’s semi-finalists had just six minutes and whatever was played for stoppage time to take the 2009/10 Bundesliga runners-up to extra-time. They weren’t able to put their guests on the back-foot, however, and Schalke are now just 270 minutes away from winning the German Cup for the first time since 2002.