The sides who finished third and second respectively in last season’s Bundesliga played out a carefree and thrilling 1-1 draw on Saturday evening – a result that nigh-on confirms both sides’ places in the top division next season.
Life for Schalke fans is pretty sweet right now. They might have come into this game in tenth place – nine points from a Europa League qualification spot – having had to endure the season-long celebrations of nailed-on title winners and arch rivals Dortmund, but with Felix Magath gone, Ralf Rangnick stepping up to the managerial plate with ease, and their side in the last four of the Champions League, this league tie had something of a ‘who cares?’ about it for the Gelsenkirchen outfit’s fans. And this was reflected in their side’s starting line-up, with five changes made to the side which overcame Inter. Nevertheless, Schalke had won all four games which had been played under Rangnick to date (including those two heroic quarter-final games against Inter), so there was no need to let that good form go to waste now. The hosts, sitting five points above the drop zone coming into this game, knew that another three or four points would be enough to secure their safety, and after two successive draws, a game against a side presumable exhausted after overcoming the reigning European champions was a better time than any to stop the rot. Schaaf stuck with the side that contested the game against Frankfurt last week (save for replacing Denni Avdić), but he had to make do without Sebastian Prödl, Avdić, Philipp Bargfrede and Naldo. Bremen’s guests, meanwhile, were without Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Tim Hoogland, Peer Kluge, Christoph Moritz, Christian Pander, Vasileios Pliatsikas and Mario Gavranović.
The home side started brightly, moving well and shifting the ball about quickly. Out of possession, they pressed intelligently and keenly, Wesley in particular. But undeterred, Schalke played like a team 270 minutes away from being crowned European champions. They looked to play the ball on the floor and moved positively, confidently operating as a unit. Formation-wise, it was an interesting battle – Schalke, for instance, looking to exploit Bremen’s diamond midfield by pushing their full-backs on. By playing two defensive midfielders, they had guards against the Marko Marin threat – enabling their centre-backs to track the wide-peeling strikers. Similarly, Raúl was part support-striker, part Torsten Frings shadower. With Jefferson Farfán and Julian Draxler looking to join in and make their runs from or into the centre, things got a bit congested, and a stalemate devoid of chances ensued for nine minutes.
But then the home side got sloppy, allowing Farfán to release Angelos Charisteas down the right. The Greek striker nutmegged Mikaël Silvestre, crossed for Raúl, but Tim Wiese, phenomenal last week, was off his line in a flash. Going close became temporarily infectious – a minute later, Bremen had a goal ruled out from a free-kick for over-physicality. This re-sparked Bremen into life, and aided by Schalke’s unwillingess to press in the opposition’s half, Bremen got Marin into the game – the livewire young German dropping deep to get the ball, turn, and run at the Schalke defence. Suddenly, Bremen were in the ascendancy – Marin’s speed and the increased zip on the final-third final balls were catching Schalke off-guard. Even Claudio Pizarro got in on the dribbling act, dropping a shoulder and accelerating to test Manuel Neuer at his near post just moments after Tim Borowski had done the same.
In the 15th minute, we got our first glimpse of Danilo Avelar – the Brazilian making his Schalke debut at left-back. His burst from the back was direct, his posture upright (Cristiano Ronaldo-esque), and his pace troublesome. Alas, the cross-cum-shot was totally mishit. A minute later, Farfán had a turn at exploiting the space vacated by Clemens Fritz – the Peruvian popping up on the left, sending in a fantastic cross, but Wesley, making up for abandoning his right-sided centre-midfield post, tracked Raúl superbly, denying the Spaniard a headed tap-in.
As the 20-minute mark came and went, the game was as two-sided as this report no doubt reads – the teams taking it in turns to foray forward, none of the four full-backs shy about coming forward (Fritz and Atsuto Uchida especially, the pair exchanging overlaps and crosses in the 23rd minute). Of course, attacking down the flanks was a necessity – the discipline, determination and win-rate of whichever set of defensive midfielders was out of possession was second to none, killing the possibility of either side orchestrating the game through the middle.
Schaaf briefly encouraged his midfield to mix things up a little, with the three centre-midfielders bobbing in different positions, thus giving the Schalke defence something new to think about. But as the midfield movement of each side improved in and around the 25-minute mark and the pace of the respective attacks remained penetrative, the pressing went up a notch. While it was all about the duos down either flank for the visitors and the full-backs and energetic centre-midfielders for the hosts, the four forwards on display were on the fringes of the game – limited in helping create chances when dropping back due to the congested middle of the park, but starved of service when staying near the centre-backs and waiting for possession. Nevertheless, adding to Charisteas’s early cross, there were one or two moments when clever runs between the right-back and right-sided centre-back from Sandro Wagner opened up just enough space for Marin to run with the ball towards goal (albeit unsuccessfully).
As the 35-minute mark approached, things got a little bit ugly – Wesley, yes, whippet thin Wesley, had lunged into a number of bruising tackles, and thus, perhaps unsurprisingly, was taken down in a revenge slide from Charisteas (nearer to Neuer’s goal than Wiese’s!). But the pace of the game soon died, as Schalke began to retreat with half time mere moments away. Bremen tried to use this to their advantage by again making a subtle alteration to the tactics of their midfield. With Frings or a defender holding the ball just over halfway, it was Borowski who could be found bobbing menacingly in the square of space between the two Schalke centre-backs and defensive midfielders. Marin, meanwhile, was now lurking in the space between Anthony Annan, Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Raúl. Yet despite it being about 7pm in north Germany, Bremen too were adopting Schalke’s bedtime pace. Thus, when they did locate Marin, the reduction of movement of his colleagues meant he was unable to make an incision into Schalke’s thick defensive skin. In the seconds before half time, the away side made the game even more Serie A like than it already was. Galloping forward four-on-four after breaking down an attack, Avelar decided to hold the ball up instead. After showing some subtle dancing feet, the tricky Brazilian finally beat his man, but pinged in another hopeless cross (although to be fair, no white and blue-shirted player made an effort to attack the ball).
Rangnick made two changes at the break, replacing Greek duo Charisteas and Papadopoulos with José Jurado and Edu. The changes were positive ones, giving Schalke much more fluidity offensively – Draxler and Farfán could now take up positions in the hole or on the right wing as their side broke forward, with Jurado covering the left. Similarly, Edu, on nominally as the centre-forward, also has experience of playing on the flanks, and showed for the ball on either side in the opening five minutes of the second half. With this increased presence in the opposition half, there was less of a burden on the full-backs to fly forward. Thus, when Wagner picked up pace after dropping deep to get the ball and run head-down at the away side’s defence, they were braced for his arrival, narrowed accordingly, and therefore were able to steer him away from danger.
After tame efforts on goal from Raúl and Marin, the crowd sparked into life and the game’s pace soon picked up again. We were back to the end-to-end football of the first half, with the game stretched. But things got a little too hasty for Benedikt Höwedes in the 58th minute. The young German centre-back tripped Pizarro, the former Chelsea striker looking to step inside and curl a shot at goal. After a few seconds in thought, the referee, Knut Kircher, pointed to the spot. Wagner’s sharp right-footed penalty to the bottom left-hand corner was athletically saved by Neuer, but the rebound was on a plate for the young striker to make it 1-0.
Before the goal and in the immediate aftermath of it, Wesley made a few decent runs forward. Hanging deep and waiting for the right moment to make the tackle, the Brazilian would then carry the won ball upfield, making leggy, penetrating strides with a tracker in his dust. Nevertheless, the footballing Gods were in a good mood (perhaps ensuring Wesley’s delivery was constantly skew-whiff too), and Schalke were rewarded for their positive play in the 63rd minute. Jogging sideways in the shadow of the D, Draxler slipped a pass into the byline-headed Uchida. The cross was played at a perfect height and speed across the box by the former J-League player and Edu, the former K-League player, had the simple job of pushing it over the line for 1-1. Three minutes later, the passer nearly turned poacher – Farfán zoomed down the left, easily beating auxiliary right centre-back Silvestre for pace. His diagonal ground-based pass for Draxler was inch-perfect, but the poor finish demonstrated that as great a prospect he is, the young midfielder is still just 17-years-old and has things to learn.
The final 20 or so minutes saw a series of substitutions – including the replacement of the ever-busy Pizarro – and snatched chances. The atmosphere at the Weserstadion was fantastic, keeping the pace of the game competitive. Rangnick’s tactical and formational boldness was fantastic to see – his side in something resembling a 2-3-4-1 at some points during the closing stages. But there was no doubt that his side were drained, as encapsulated by Fritz’s dribble in through the left side of the box which left several Schalke players on the floor in the 81st minute. Unfortunately, the right-back, an offensive monster in the second half, was determined to shoot with his right foot, thus limiting his placing options, and wasting the chance. The referee neglected to play any injury time, which was a real shame, as this fun-filled game was a fantastic advert for Bundesliga football.