Bundesliga: Can Schalke 04 pull off the great escape?
Photo by Lars Baron via GettyImages

It seemed like Schalke 04 were dead and buried only 14 games into the 2020/21 Bundesliga season.

They had only picked up four points to start the campaign, scoring eight goals while conceding 39. The Royal Blues had also gone through several coaching changes, as David Wagner was fired after a few weeks while his replacement Manuel Baum didn’t last much longer. Huub Stevens then came in as an interim manager before Christian Gross took over, but even he couldn’t steer the ship right away.

Many feared this was going to happen before the season even kicked off, as Schalke were woeful towards the end of last season. They went from contending for a European spot to nearly getting dragged into a relegation scrap. Things needed to change, but they didn’t have the greatest summer transfer window, so fans were understandably worried. 

However, just as Schalke were being written off for good, they ended their nightmarish run of form last weekend. Against all odds, they ran riot at home to Hoffenheim, ultimately winning 4-0 to pick up three points for the first time this season.

There’s a lot of work left to be done, but there is a chance the Royal Blues could pull off a truly remarkable escape.

Crucial reinforcements

Two recent acquisitions of differing ages were key in the aforementioned victory against Hoffenheim, and the pairing might be the ones who drag Schalke out of this hole.

In football, sometimes a signing has a bigger impact off the field than it ever could on it. Bringing in someone who can raise the spirits of the locker room and lead the team is much more valuable than goals or assists in certain cases.

For the Royal Blues, it seems like that sort of magic has come with the arrival of Sead Kolasinac

After starting his career at the Veltins-Arena, the Bosnian international eventually made a marquee move to Premier League giants Arsenal. Things never quite worked out in London for the player, which led to him falling out of favour with management and falling out of the starting line up.

With both Schalke and Kolasinac having issues, a potential return was something both sides knew they could benefit from. That is exactly what happened, as the 27 year old not only started versus Hoffenheim but was given the captain’s armband as well. That decision proved to pay off, as he led the backline well and kept a clean sheet to mark the occasion.

That was only half of the job done, though. Thankfully for the Royal Blues, another hero was able to step up on the opposite side of the pitch.

At the end of November, Matthew Hoppe was called up to the first team from the clubs academy. He had only been in the system for a year in a half, and even though the American didn’t do much at the youth level, he made his senior debut in almost no time.

Hoppe struggled in his first few appearances, but that all changed against Hoffenheim. He was simply unstoppable on the afternoon, scoring a hat-trick in spectacular fashion. 

His three goals were all set up nearly the same way, as he ran in behind before being played through by Amine Harit. However, it was how Hoppe finished those chances which was truly impressive.

His first came courtesy of a lovely chip over the goalkeeper, the second was a result of him rounding the keeper before passing the ball into an empty net, and the third was an instinctive first-time finish with the outside of his right boot.

It was a performance that put him on the map and gave hope to Schalke fans. The team had been relatively useless going forward in the past, but with Hoppe now leading the line, there’s reason to believe the situation will improve.

The aforementioned Harit also deserves plenty of credit, as he was immense as well. He assisted each of Hoppe’s goals before then getting on the scoresheet himself, capping off a superb showing in style. Some thought he would never play for the club again after being suspended due to disciplinary issues, but he’s since returned to the lineup, and all seems to be forgiven.

What the future holds

That win will have given the Royal Blues plenty of confidence going forward, which is something that they’ll need as they prepare for the road ahead.

Their next match is a tough one to say the very least, as Schalke have to go on the road to take on an in-form Eintracht Frankfurt side. The Eagles have been flying in the league as of late, winning three straight matches as they've rebounded from a poor start to the season.

The pressure will only rise afterwards, as the Royal Blues will have two battles against relegation rivals in the span of two weeks. They’ll first host Koln before then travelling to Werder Bremen, and the results of those games will likely go a long way in deciding who stays up and who goes down.

Between those contests is another matchup with Bayern Munich, and Schalke will just look to avoid embarrassment on that occasion.

Despite their aforementioned woeful beginning to the campaign, the Royal Blues aren’t in too deep of a hole. They’re only four points off the relegation playoff spot and six points behind automatic safety. With just over half of the season left to go, there’s plenty of time for them to turn things around.

Riding the wave of support

Many football fans have a soft spot for Schalke, which was proven by the reaction to their win on social media.

There’s a few reasons for this. Some respect the club’s focus on their academy, as they’ve produced some of Europe’s brightest talents that have since gone on to shine elsewhere. Others just enjoy watching them play, as the Royal Blues usually prefer to send numbers forward instead of sitting back and parking the bus.

Even most Bundesliga neutrals (not counting Borussia Dortmund supporters, of course) prefer them to other clubs, as they are a traditional power that hasn’t been influenced by foreign owners who spend big money.

With this sort of following behind them, Schalke can now push on and try to pull off a great escape. There’s plenty of work left to be done, but at the very least, there is hope.