Schalke fought back after a lacklustre first half performance to beat Werder Bremen 2-1 and keep pace with 1. Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich. An Aaron Hunt-inspired Bremen deserved the 1-0 lead they took into the break after executing an effective gameplan and capitalising on some lethargic play by the home side (with Hunt himself putting the ball in the net). But after being allowed to equalize a little too easily shortly after the hour mark (Roman Neustädter’s headed goal was pretty defendable, and came at a time when Bremen were still exerting a degree of control), Schalke took charge, with 18-year-old substitute Julian Draxler showing great composure – amid erratic defending by the visitors – to score the winner with just under 20 minutes to play.
Thomas Schaaf will feel his side didn’t get what they deserved after one of their best performances on the road this season, yet Bremen only have themselves to blame. Huub Stevens, meanwhile, will be relieved his side came away with all three points from this game, as during the first 45 minutes, Schalke looked tired after their heroic efforts against English Premier League side Arsenal in the Champions League on Wednesday. Although Schalke remain seven points behind Bayern Munich, who also won this afternoon, beating Eintracht Frankfurt 2-0 at the Allianz Arena, Stevens’ side remain four points clear of fierce rivals Borussia Dortmund (who won 3-1 at Augsburg), and three ahead of third-placed Frankfurt, with a much better goal difference. So, in a nutshell, a forgettable match but an important result – one that could be the difference between tears of joy and jubilation come the conclusion of matchday 34 for both these sides.
Schalke (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Lars Unnerstall; Benedikt Höwedes, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Joël Matip, Christian Fuchs; Jermaine Jones, Neustädter; Jefferson Farfán, Lewis Holtby, Ibrahim Afellay; Klaas-Jan Huntelaar
Werder Bremen (4-1-4-1, from right to left): Sebastian Mielitz; Theodor Gebre Selassie, Assani Lukimya-Mulongoti, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Lukas Schmitz; Zlatko Junuzović; Marko Arnautović, Hunt, Kevin De Bruyne, Eljero Elia; Nils Petersen
The home side were nearly ahead within 60 seconds of the match commencing, but Huntelaar fired straight at Mielitz from inside the six-yard box. The chance came about after Bremen let the blue-shirted players pass the ball amongst themselves in their own half from kick-off; steadfastly refusing to press until the ball came into their half of the pitch. But, this focus on holding a tight 4-4-2 – with Hunt pressing furthest up the field alongside Petersen – plus some Arnautović ball-watching allowed Holtby to sneak onto a floated ball down the left flank, and feed the Dutch striker.
The next few minutes were slow and bitty, with Schalke not seizing on that early opportunity and keeping up the pressure, and Bremen’s short, first-time passing game not being deployed with enough pace. Although the hosts pressed Bremen in their own half in a 4-4-2, with Holtby up alongside Huntelaar, neither side seemed particularly willing to take the game by the proverbial scruff of the neck – two experienced coaches each wanting the other to lower himself into the driving seat first.
As we approached the tenth minute, De Bruyne had become far more involved in the game. The Belgian midfielder – on loan from Chelsea – never shied away from seeking out possession, and his graceful but hasty running style and slick, stroked through-passes complemented the visitors’ counter-attacking talents – the pace and trickery of winger Elia, for one, and also the willingness and speed in which Bremen’s full-backs flew forward on the break, particularly Schmitz (who was only just denied the chance to square the ball inside the box after a quick break in the eighth minute).
As we reached the quarter-hour mark, Stevens’ side still weren’t posing a threat to their guests. The passing and movement was too heavy and lethargic in the final-third in particular, allowing Bremen’s defence as peaceful a 15-minute spell as they could have hoped for (Huntelaar’s early miss aside). Although the away side had had mixed success up to this point with their tactic of starting short from the goalkeeper (more often than not, the high-pressing hosts regained innocuous possession around the halfway mark), one move in the 15th minute – where the ball went from the edge of one box to the other through several short passes and a determined dribble by Hunt – showed how effective this way of playing could be.
A minute later, Hunt was at the heart of things again – another driving run from the centre of pitch ending with the club’s top scorer crossing early for Arnautović, who narrowly failed to make contact with the ball on the penalty spot. The Austrian believed he had been felled by his compatriot, Fuchs, but referee Florian Meyer waved away his doe-eyed protest. Schalke lost possession cheaply from the subsequent throw-in, though, which eventually landed at the feet of a back-to-goal Elia standing just off the D. The agile Dutchman’s swivelling and quick distribution allowed Junuzović to take on possession facing goal, and he slipped in Hunt. Despite being at what seemed like a difficult angle to score from, the 26-year-old made light of the challenge and fired a low left-footed shot across the face of goal and into the back of the net to give Bremen a 1-0 lead! The strike was Hunt’s sixth goal of a so-far fantastic 2012/13 campaign, and no player on the pitch had deserved a goal more.
Perhaps it’s too easy sometimes to point to midweek Champions League games and say ‘such-and-such a team must be tired for their weekend domestic fixture as a result of their European match against X’. But the way Schalke started against Bremen this afternoon – sluggish in attack, and showing physical and mental failings in not preventing Hunt’s opener – bore no comparison to how they’ve been playing the rest of this 1. Bundesliga season. Schalke, to be fair, did entertain Arsenal in a thrilling and entertaining tie at the Veltins Arena in the week, fighting back to draw 2-2.Thus, the two-game-a-week fatigue factor must be considered the only rational explanation for a team of this quality to let in such a silly goal after a lacklustre start to an important game.
The ten minutes contested after Hunt’s goal were very open, and therefore, extremely enjoyable. Both sides won corner-kicks and squandered half-chances, as Bremen continued to look full of beans, and Schalke dug deep to inject some energy and urgency into their play. The away side – resplendent in their orange and green jerseys – came close to adding to their lead in the 33rd minute, although somewhat inadvertently – De Bruyne’s right-footed corner from the left flank nearly dipping in under Unnerstall’s back-post (luckily the rookie goalkeeper – stranded, and flapping at thin air – had a man in position to head clear).
As we entered the final ten minutes of the half, Bremen had virtually set up camp in the first-third of the pitch. Yet, despite one or two nice passes, and some penetration down the left flank and centre, that final ball was still proving elusive for Schalke – be it through lack of pace on the pass, or too obviously placing the return ball of a tippy-tappy one-two move in and around the D. The home fans kept up their support of the team throughout, but the players never had the same spark in the first half. In my opinion, the paucity of explosive Japanese right-back Atsuto Uchida was key. Bremen swamped the centre of the pitch, hindering progress down that route, and with the right flank therefore very underused (save for one chance on the stroke of half-time, when Höwedes’ disguised dart into the box resulted in a cross across the face of goal; a ball which no player in blue could make contact with), the hosts’ left-sided forays were expected by the opposition, and therefore not overly difficult to deal with, especially when there was more petrol in their collective tank.
Formations that started the second half
Schalke (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Unnerstall; Höwedes, Papadopoulos, Matip, Fuchs; Jones, Neustädter; Farfán, Holtby, Draxler; Huntelaar
Werder Bremen (4-1-4-1, from right to left): Mielitz; Gebre Selassie, Lukimya-Mulongoti, Sokratis, Schmitz; Junuzović; Arnautović, Hunt, De Bruyne, Elia; Petersen
It was to nobody’s surprise that Stevens sought to inject some energy and creativity into his midfield for the second half – something the Dutch coach tried to make happen by replacing the disappointing Afellay with Draxler. The away side frustrated their hosts in the minutes following kick-off – playing keep-ball, primarily at the back, and getting the players in blue to harry and hound from flank to flank. The home side were back on the ball by the time we reached the 50th minute, mind, but it was the visitors who had the first attack of note, when De Bruyne was fed for a one-on-one with Papadopoulos. After the Belgian evaded the Greek international centre-back, leaving him in a crumpled mess on the floor before proceeding towards Unnerstall’s goal with the ball, referee Meyer blew his whistle, calling for a foul. However, a replay showed that the Schalke man had gone down all too willingly – a crucial decision called incorrectly, alas.
As well as weathering the – admittedly weak – storm, Bremen had been deploying an intelligent gameplan in the first 15 minutes of the second half. As soon as there was a turnover in possession, the away side looked to feed Petersen – a willing runner – as quickly as possible, mainly by playing long balls that had the light-on-numbers Schalke defence darting here, there and everywhere, with the on-loan Bayern Munich striker always breathing down their necks. This tactic allowed Schaaf’s side to win a few set-pieces and well-earned breathers, and further frustrated the home team – who had failed to get Draxler into the game – by dragging them back into their own half.
But then, in the 61st minute, disaster struck. After Arnautović conceded a foul on Jones near the corner flag, he allowed Fuchs the chance to curl a crossed free-kick into the box. The Austrian’s left foot sent the ball deep, towards the back-end of the six-yard box, where Neustädter was positioned – far too alone for comfort from a Bremen point of view. The centre-midfielder leapt well, heading the ball rainbow fashion over Mielitz and into the opposite corner for 1-1! The goal could so easily have been prevented had there been a man on the post, but guard there was none, and in the blink of an eye, all Bremen’s good work had been undone, perhaps encapsulating why they’ve only won one game on the road so far this season.
A few minutes after the equalizer Schaaf made his second change of the afternoon: off went Huntelaar- after yet another poor showing in the league – and on came Romanian striker Ciprian Marica (like for like). The 27-year-old was handed a chance in the box a minute after arriving on the pitch, but got caught in two minds between squaring the ball and dropping a shoulder and taking on his man. Resultantly, the ball rolled out of play, much to the annoyance of Marica’s teammates. Schaaf followed Stevens in making an attacking change, doing so in the 70th minute by bringing on Niclas Füllkrug in place of Elia on the left wing.
If the Bremen coach had hoped to quash some of Schalke’s momentum with that substitution, his plan failed. Two minutes after Füllkrug had come on, Schalke were 2-1 up. Bremen lost possession down their right side of the pitch, with Schalke immediately knocking the ball upfield. It eventually landed at the feet of Jones, running towards the right-hand side of Mielitz’s box. Three defenders sprinted after him, so determined to cover the part of the box they believed the American to be headed for, they were totally caught out when Jones curtailed his own run, turned, and squared the ball for Draxler, running into space through the other side of the box. The substitute, calm as you like, trapped with one foot, and finished with the other for his first goal of the season, putting Schalke in front in the process!
Chasing the game, Schaaf moved to more of a 4-4-1-1 system, moving Junuzović alongside Hunt, and pushing De Bruyne behind Petersen. The talismanic Hunt’s dogged dribble in the 77th minute won Bremen a free-kick in the D, but Arnautović smashed the set-piece into the wall. That chance was sandwiched between a good five-minute spell for Bremen, who saw a good deal of the ball in decent attacking positions, but failed to really test Unnerstall. With under ten minutes to go, Schaaf made another personnel change, replacing Junuzović with a striker, Joseph Akpala, and reverting to his trusty diamond system. Despite Akpala offering hunger and drive, Schalke had two great chances to kill the game in the closing stages of regulation time, with Draxler missing one, and setting up the other for Holtby (who had drifted offside before tapping in).
The two coaches both made their final substitution for the three minutes of injury time, with Schaaf replacing Schmitz with Sebastian Prödl (a change that saw the Austrian go to centre-back, and Sokratis to left-back), and Stevens making a like-for-like switch by bringing off Jones for Christoph Moritz. There didn’t appear to be any danger of Bremen equalizing, though. The most noteworthy thing a visiting player seemingly did in time-added-on was boot a second ball on the pitch rather ferociously at a stand of home supporters (no prizes for guessing that the ‘man’ in question was the feisty Arnautović). But then, with the last two kicks of the game, Gebre Selassie did excellently to meet De Bruyne’s corner with his head, only for Holtby – on the line – to make a last gasp clearance. Meyer blew his whistle as the cleared ball exited the box, and Schalke took all three points! They go to Bayer Leverkusen next weekend, while Werder Bremen host Fortuna Düsseldorf.
Formations that finished the match
Schalke (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Unnerstall; Höwedes, Papadopoulos, Matip, Fuchs; Moritz, Neustädter; Farfán, Holtby, Draxler; Marica
Werder Bremen (4-4-2 diamond, from right to left): Mielitz; Gebre Selassie, Lukimya-Mulongoti, Prödl, Sokratis; Arnautović, De Bruyne (base), Hunt, Füllkrug; Petersen, Akpala