Schalke again flattered to deceive as this tie between two of the Bundesliga’s middling sides ended in a draw.
Nuremberg came into the game looking to make it five wins in a row, the side on an impressive run of taking 14 points from the last 18 available. The Bavarians are as good as safe from relegation, and travelled to the Arena AufSchalke in a buoyant mood, perhaps seeking revenge for their DFB-Pokal exit at the hands of Felix Magath’s men last month. Schalke, sitting in tenth spot and still in the Champions League, were six points behind the Bavarians in the league. More pressing fixtures than this one were on the horizon in the shape of their second leg against Valencia, and the DFB-Pokal semi-final with Bayern Munich.
The visitors made the early running, dictating the tempo, bossing the ball, and looking to get both their widemen involved. But with the home side using a ‘1-2’ system to accommodate their three strikers and constantly ensuring one of them pressed the ball high up the pitch, neither Nuremberg centre-back was able to stray too far away from their own D. Philipp Wollscheid and Andreas Wolf tried their level best to bore the rest of the home side’s outfield players into submission and higher up the pitch, but it was all to no avail. They had to be patient and content with possession in innocuous parts of the pitch against a home side content to sit back and play on the break.
Schalke’s system meant they had little width in midfield or attack, and despite playing against one striker, the defence was pretty width-free too. Thus, Nuremberg continued to do a lot of attacking down the flanks, but balls into the box were easy for the deep and disciplined home side defence to marshal. With the quarter-hour mark approaching, chances were still few and far between for either side, save for a cute little one-two move which ended with on-loan Leverkusen man Jens Hegeler blazing over the bar. By winning a number of free-kicks and taking advantage of Sergio Escudero’s Rory Delap-esque throw-ins, Schalke began to creep into the game, but the visitors were still doing the majority of the question-asking; neat, tidy and committed stuff in the opposition’s half, yet the game was still scoreless.
Meanwhile, both of the away side’s full-backs were off the leash, bombing forward, overlapping and exchanging passes at will – causing Schalke’s most defensive seven outfield players to take a more hands-on approaching to halting them.
While Nuremberg were constantly unable to get their way in the home side’s box, Schalke’s problem was a lack of quality in finding the right pass to set a counter-attack in motion. The only luck they were having came via long-diagonals over the top of the defence for their forwards to chase. However, these kind of balls required holding up, or provided poor angles from which to unleash a first-time shot. Frustrated by the minimal impact he was able to make on the game, Christian Eigler began dropping to get his foot on the ball and link up with teammates. Unfortunately for him, Anthony Annan was deployed to stop this kind of thing from happening.
Yet in spite of this increasing the regularity of Schalke’s time on the ball, they were still devoid of imagination and penetration in the attack – little surprise when there were no flying full-backs, and no midfield magicians there to make a defence-splicing pass. The impact a surprise burst from one of your full-backs can have was shown in the 30th minute when Atsuto Uchida was at last let off his leash, delivered a cross to the near post, only for Schäfer to just about smother Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s near-post header. Coming to his senses, Magath at last altered his formation – pushing Edu onto the right flank, Peer Kluge into the centre as the box-t0-box midfielder, and Raúl alongside Huntelaar up top in a 4-4-2. The Spaniard nearly made the change an instant success when pouncing on a Wolf mistake, only to scuff the finish with his right foot.
Hegeler wasn’t so wasteful in front of goal in the 36th minute, however. A poor free-kick from on-loan FC Bayern man Mehmet Ekici was cleared, and José Manuel Jurado stuck to his task by pressing the loose ball. However, his colleagues at centre-back, along with Anthony Annan, weren’t so attentive. Runners weren’t tracked through either side of the D, resulting in an Ekici shot which Manuel Neuer parried into the path of Hegeler, who made it 1-0 to the visitors.
Riled, Schalke began to launch long balls and direct their attacks centrally, with Edu nearer the goal again. The away side’s rearguard did look shaky, save for the reliable Schäfer, and several errors nearly gave Schalke a way back into the game. Dieter Hecking had also altered things, albeit personnel and tactics-wise rather than changing his system. His side were now sitting off a little more, and looking to play on the counter with Schalke spending longer urgency-laden periods in possession. As Juri Judt had hobbled off injured, 18-year-old Markus Mendler was on in his place – he went on the right side of midfield, and Timothy Chandler dropped to full-back, albeit with the pair dovetailing throughout the rest of the match. With Nuremberg now looking to play more on the break, there was a greater degree of fluidity to the side’s attacks, and Róbert Mak occasionally popped up on the right-wing, and Ekici the left.
Schalke made an inauspicious start to the second half, with Christoph Metzelder being chased down and tackled by Eigler from kick-off, instantly giving the visitors a chance to launch one of their training ground moves – Eigler dropping quickly to flick on to the position-replacing sprint of Ekici. With Hecking content to hold on to what his side had, it wasn’t long before Schalke regained control of possession and were dictating the game’s tempo. With the red-shirted bodies sat back, mainly in their own half, there was a lot of sideways passing from the Schalke midfield, before feeding one of the full-backs to fly forward and carry.
Schalke were now playing a 4-2-3-1, with Edu back on the right, Jurado higher and more infield on the left, and Raúl playing in the hole. The visitors were in a 4-4-1-1 when Schalke had the ball in their own half (with either Hegeler or Ekici helping Eigler press the ball), and the starting 4-1-4-1 when Schalke attacked closer to Schäfer’s goal. But the most adept system and tactical ideology in the game wouldn’t have stopped Schalke’s equalizer seven minutes into the second period, as Nuremberg again showed their vulnerability at the back, presenting Raúl with a tap-in. It would be a lie to say the former Real Madrid man deserved a goal, as his passing before (and after) his equalizer had been atrocious, and often the reason why his side found themselves on the back foot.
The champagne flutes were now out for Schalke, and they began playing the kind of football the visitors had been playing in the first half – Schalke’s version, somewhat unsurprisingly given the higher calibre of their players, was slicker, sharper and more penetrative, however. That this change in style also coincided with exciting midfield youngster Julian Draxler replacing Edu was no surprise, and Raúl should have crowned his side’s revival in the 60th minute, yet under no pressure and with the ball at a perfect height, he headed straight at Schäfer. Everything about the hosts was now a million times better – ball boys hurriedly tossing the leather sphere at players sprinting to take throw-ins, Uchida constantly higher than former Nuremberg man Kluge, and neat and exciting one-twos in and around the D with scores of recipients waiting to collect the ball in the box.
With Uchida now at the heart of nearly everything and Lukas Schmitz on and attack-hungry, the visitors began increasing the ferocity with which their midfield widemen pressed the ball. With 20 minutes left, the game was wide open, and Mak illustrated that his side still had their foot in it when cutting inside and firing just over the bar on his right foot. Credit must go to the away side, as they showed no fear in commiting men forward at this stage of the game, even though it nearly led to them being overrun on a number of occasions.
And Marek Mintál, on for Ekici, had a great chance at the back post to give his side the lead 15 minutes from time after a Chandler gallop and cross. The Slovakian veteran was playing off Eigler, and with his colleagues exerting great energy in their own half by doubling-up to retrieve the ball, became the guy they gave the ball to in order to alleviate the pressure on them, and create chances for the team. The equally influential Mak handed Mendler the chance to win their side the game in the 82nd minute. His inch-perfect cross saw the right-winger’s first header crash off the bar, and his second effort, the rebound, go wide – despite Mendler being under no pressure and with an open goal at his mercy!
Alas, it wasn’t his day, but then neither was it Huntelaar’s – the Dutchman had the best Schalke chance in the closing stages, but it just hasn’t been his or his side’s season in the 2010/11 Bundesliga.