Schalke will be looking to bounce back from the disappointment of losing to lowly Hoffenheim last weekend as poor-on-the-road Werder Bremen visit the Veltins-Arena. Last Saturday’s 3-2 loss at the Rhein-Neckar Arena was actually Schalke’s first defeat in all competitions on the road this season, with Hoffe denying second-placed Schalke the chance to stay within four points of league leaders Bayern Munich (who beat Hamburg 3-0 to make the gap seven points). Bayern Munich are the only other side to have beaten Schalke this season, with Schalke otherwise proving to be imperious at home so far this campaign (a run they maintained by fighting back to draw 2-2 with Arsenal in the Champions League during the week).
On paper, Bremen should pose no problems on Saturday afternoon, as Thomas Schaaf’s side have lost to Münster (cup), Borussia Dortmund, Hannover, and Augsburg away from home this season, and were also held at struggling minnows Fürth a fortnight back. However, at home, the story is a little different, with Sunday’s 2-1 home win over Mainz helping Bremen move up to seventh place in the 1. Bundesliga table (six points behind their hosts this weekend).
Schaaf – now in his 15th season as head coach at Werder Bremen – has been veering away from his trusty diamond midfield system this season, utilising a more width-laden 4-1-4-1 system. The 51-year-old has generally been pretty consistent in his selection of players so far too: settling on goalkeeper Sebastian Mielitz as his number one; a first-choice centre-back pairing of Sebastian Prödl and Sokratis Papastathopoulos; left-back Lukas Schmitz (formerly of Schalke – only he and Bremen’s Stevanović brothers have been at both clubs); and a midfield quartet of Marko Arnautović, Chelsea loanee Kevin De Bruyne, Aaron Hunt, and Juventus loanee Eljero Elia, flanked by playmaking quarterback Zlatko Junuzović, who often interchanges with Hunt, allowing the multi-talented De Bruyne more of a roving role.
However, Schaaf has yet to decide whether Bayern Munich loanee Nils Petersen or Nigerian Joseph Akpala – signed over the summer from Belgian outfit Club Brugge for €2.5million – should be his first-choice line-leader. Likewise, the right-back position hasn’t been nailed down by either Clemens Fritz or Theodor Gebre Selassie, so this 2012/13 season Bremen side is still a work in progress, even though some impressive results have been recorded at home, such as a 2-0 win over northern rivals Hamburg in September, and a 4-0 win against Borussia Mönchengladbach a few weeks ago.
Schalke coach Huub Stevens, meanwhile, has adapted well to the departure of the talismanic Raúl. Although the Spaniard’s ability to time a run into space in the box and finish is in many ways irreplaceable, the 35-year-old moving to Al-Sadd in Qatar has allowed Lewis Holtby the chance and freedom to shine, while the incorporation of Barcelona loanee Ibrahim Afellay into the team has made the Gelsenkirchen outfit more energetic and physically forceful on and off the ball.
Last weekend’s reverse aside, Schalke come into this game in fantastic form. In recent weeks, they’ve won at fierce rivals Borussia Dortmund in 1. Bundesliga, and the Emirates Stadium, London, in a Champions League match against Arsenal. In fact, statistically speaking, Stevens’ side have made the club’s best ever start to a season, making several friends and new fans in the process.
The Dutch coach has settled on the right players for his 4-2-3-1 system in recent weeks: young goalkeeper Lars Unnerstall making the number one jersey his own in the absence of Timo Hildebrand and Ralf Fährmann; Atsuto Uchida – who scored his first league goal for the club last weekend – and Christian Fuchs at right and left-back, respectively, with Benedikt Höwedes and Joël Matip at centre-back; Marco Höger and Roman Neustädter – a revelation since joining from Borussia Mönchengladbach on a free over the summer – as holding midfielders; and the trio of Holtby, Afellay and Peruvian winger Jefferson Farfán playing behind Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (whose own iffy form highlights just how impressive Schalke have been, given the fact he has scored most of the club’s goals in the last two seasons).
In comparison to Bremen, Stevens also has a pretty decent bench to choose from: Jermaine Jones, Julian Draxler and Tranquillo Barnetta being among his substitutes most weeks. Schaaf, on the other hand, generally has to make do with throwing on young and untested striker Niclas Füllkrug, or supine central-midfielder Philipp Bargfrede.
Judging Schalke’s players objectively rather than subjectively, the most effective players in 1. Bundesliga so far have been Farfán (three goals, five assists), and Holtby (three goals, three assists). Just as useful have been Fuchs (four assists), Huntelaar (three goals, two assists), and Afellay (two goals, one assist). Despite not being a regular starter, 18-year-old midfielder Draxler – capable of the spectacular – has accumulated three bookings, the same number as Fuchs, and one more than the combative Jones. The only player to have been on the pitch for every single minute of Schalke’s season so far has been Neustädter, the newbie.
In terms of assists for this weekend’s visitors, Arnautović and Petersen lead the way with four in 1. Bundesliga, followed by De Bruyne and Hunt, who each have two. Elia, who has been disappointing up to now in his return to 1. Bundesliga (the Dutch international spent several seasons with Hamburg), only has a single assist so far this season, and not one goal. Luckily for him, Hunt has scored five times (including two last weekend), and De Bruyne and Petersen have each netted thrice. Junuzović, meanwhile, has scored once, with several other players getting one goal in the 2012/13 1. Bundesliga campaign. As well as scoring goals, Junuzović is also prone to picking up yellow cards – he has four so far in the league, one more than Greek defender Sokratis.
Revenge might be on the mind of some of the players still at Bremen from last season, as Schalke won both the sides’ 1. Bundesliga games (5-0 at home in December, thanks to a Raúl hat-trick, and 3-2 at the Weserstadion on the final day of the 2011/12 campaign). In fact, Werder have a torrid record at the Veltins-Arena in recent years, as they were also hammered there in the 2010/11 campaign, 4-0. One win in Gelsenkirchen at the end of the 2009/10 campaign has been Schaaf’s only taste of victory there in 11 years of trying.
Bremen look set to be without Fritz and Swiss defender François Affolter (both injured) for the trip to Schalke this weekend. The home side also look likely to be missing defensive players, with centre-back Christoph Metzelder definitely ruled out, and Uchida and Höger both doubtful as they nurse injuries. Resultantly, Greek defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos will most probably come in at centre-back, with Höwedes playing at right-back.
The referee for Saturday’s match will be Florian Meyer. The 43-year-old took charge of three Schalke and two Werder Bremen games last season, none of which the two sides facing each other this weekend gained even a point from. Meyer has also officiated in a Schalke match this campaign, getting a Kicker rating of ‘2’ (with ‘1’ being goom ‘6’ being bad) in the Gelsenkirchen outfit’s 2-0 win over Fürth back in September.
Schalke against Werder Bremen kicks off at 2.30pm UK time, and can be watched, live, on Bet365.com.