With a more than convincing balance of 16 out of 18 points in the group stage, only conceeding a draw at the always complicated Juventus Stadium, the white team qualified to the Round of 16 as the best team in the competition, sharing this honour with Atlético de Madrid. However, this is nothing but history now. Nobody will remember Ancelotti's men for their results at the first phase of the competition, but for their performance in the play-offs.
Our first (and not last, hopefully) rival will be the German team Schalke 04, a squad that a good proportion of madridistas keep at their hearts because of Raúl's stay there. The pairing could have been worse, obviously, since we avoided Arsenal and Manchester City, but it would not be wise to believe that qualifying to the next round will be easy as pie.
The Gelsenkirchen miners are not as strong as their compatriots from München or Dortmund, but their performance at Bundesliga is being quite solid, mostly after the winter break, having won their all of their games to rise to the league's fourth position.
The purpose of this article is to introduce you to Schalke 04. We will have a look at some of their best players, their style and their biggest strengths and weaknesses. The analysis is essentialy based on the last four games they have played. The author wishes to thank Shark Gutiérrez for his useful advice and for his permission to use some of the videos he posted at his analysis of Schalke 04 at the websites Rondo Blaugrana and El Contragolpe. Obviously, for any mistake or lack of accuracy I am the only responsible.
After a hesitant first part of the season, undermined by the absences of important players such as Huntelaar, Draxler or Papadopoulos, the miners have returned from the Christmas break full of power. Jens Keller, their coach, was really questioned at the Ruhrgebiet, but he has come up with a system that definitely suits his players the best, and which I believe has not shown yet its full potential, given that Julian Draxler, Schalke's undisputed top-class individual, isn't still recovered from his injury.
The key idea has consisted in using Boateng as a central midfielder, together with Neustädter. Although we are used to seeing Boateng in more advanced positions, this new role has revealed his capabilities as a box-to-box player supported in a great physical condition. On the board, we would say that Schalke 04 plays in a 4-2-3-1 system, I believe that the most accurate way to put it is as a 4-1-Boateng-3-1. In defensive phase, however, the system clearly organizes in a 4-4-2, with Boateng at the same height as Neustädter and Meyer upfront, together with Huntelaar.
Schalke with the ball
The miners don't stand out for their elaborate possessions. In fact, this may be their worst feature. When trying to initiate the attack from the defensive line, it is frequent to see how they fastly run out of ideas. This is a clear consequence of the lineup's configuration: both fullbacks go up and no midfielder comes down to receive the ball from the centerbacks, so they normally end up throwing a long ball to Huntelaar, who will try to control it and give it to any of the players behind him to stabilize the possession close to their rival's box.
This manoeuvre is Schalke's best strategy towards building an attack. The seconds Huntelaar wins are enough to make Draxler, Meyer, Boateng or Farfán arrive to the frontline, and their individual talent suffices to build goal ocassions. The contribution of the fullbacks is also remarkable in this setting, arriving to the endline to create a 2 vs 1 duel on each wing.
Schalke's second weapon for scoring is counterattack, and this is basically related to the previous one. Their football is vertical by nature and they base their chances on their speed. If Farfán, Meyer or even the fullbacks have space to run, Draxler will find his way to the ball to give it to the runner in the best possible conditions. Huntelaar and Boateng's physical condition is essential for this to work, since they will be ones responsible for finalizing, and I believe their duel with Pepe and Ramos is disadvantageous in speed terms.
Schalke without the ball
When it comes to defending, Schalke's performance is drastically reduced. They don't have a well organized pressing system and their midfielders are not great stealers, what makes it easy for their rivals to control the ball and arrive to their box. There, their defense is based in men accumulation. A clear 4-4-2 with little space between all lines is their tool to reduce their opponents' options to create occassions.
With the absences of Höwedes and Uchida, their possibilities to defend properly are even fewer. Hoogland and Matip will likely be their substitutes, and both of them are quite limited and prone to make terrible mistakes, a chance Real Madrid's strong flank (Marcelo-Di María-Ronaldo) will, for sure, try to exploit.
The entrance of Fährmann in the team has been determinant for Schalke's good performance lately. The amount of mistakes Hildebrand was making was not sustainable, and the new goalkeeper is clearly beating his partner. However, they still struggle a lot when defending set pieces, exhibiting an alarming lack of coordination between the men inside the box.
Given Schalke's difficulties in the defensive phase, Real Madrid should not have a problem to score in both games and move on to the next round. However, the offensive talent of our rivals should not be underestimated, while the Veltins Arena crowds, together with the curse that prevents us from winning in Germany, might make it hard for us at the first leg of this draw.