The last time Schalke 04 won a first division title the Bundesliga was still seven years from existence. While in the intervening year's they've won their fair share on minor silverware (including a UEFA Cup and four DFB Pokal titles) and seen their fair share of trials and tribulations, the Bundesliga title has always eluded them. With one of the most promising young attacking cores in the entirety of the Bundesliga, one of Germany's, and the world's, biggest clubs is on the brink of a precipice; either watch their best and brightest depart for greener pastures across Europe, or take the next step forward towards being one the biggest clubs in Europe behind the strength of their young core.
When we last met
As the Bundesliga's perennial runners up last year was no different than the preceding uncountable years. When Klaas Jan Huntelaar went down in preseason their year went from near-guaranteed Champions League spot to an uphill climb as they struggled in the Bundesliga and went out in the 3rd round of the DFB Pokal to Hoffenheim.
Their second half was a dominant league performance that saw Schalke go 11-3-3 to finish out the season strong with a 10 point lead over the fourth place side. Despite the strong league showing, their second half was marred by a horrendous flameout in the Champions League as they were trounced 9-3 on aggregate by eventual champions Real Madrid. It was an embarrassing end to their European competition last season, but at least they can hold their heads high considering the thrashing Real Madrid also laid on fellow German side Bayern Munich in the semi-finals.
Ins and outs
In the summer transfer window Schalke 04 have been one of the quietest clubs in the Bundesliga, content to make small smart additions to their young core rather than overhauling sections of their roster. Their only splash to date was an incredibly sharp piece of business in activating the buyout of Bayer Leverkusen's breakout winger, Sidney Sam, for €2.5M. They've also addressed some fundamental depth concerns at striker with the addition of Erik Maxim Choupo-Moting on a free transfer from last season's surprise breakout team, FSV Mainz 05.
Their lone departure of any note has been 26-year-old Adam Szalai, who left for Hoffenheim. The 26-year-old was a depth piece only and only saw minutes due to the long term injury to Klaas Jan Huntelaar last season. His absence has been offset by the previously mentioned Choup-Mouting.
Transfer business still to come
Overall, Schalke's relative quietness in the transfer window has even extended to the rumor front. They have been linked with AS Roma's attacking midfielder Adem Ljajic but given their vast depth in attacking midfield the idea has always made little sense for Schalke.
On the needs side of the coin, Schalke 04 need a defensive midfield playmaker to backup Kevin-Prince Boateng. The former Ghanaian international is the heart and soul of the Schalke midfield, but with the only defensive midfield replacements being Marco Höger and Jan Kirchhoff -- a true center back -- the team needs a playmaking option capable of filling in should the Ghanaian go down or their season could be in trouble.
Is Jens Keller the man to lead Schalke to glory? - The 43-year-old has been the coach at Schalke coming up on 2 years this December. While it's hard to blame him for the leaps and bounds Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have improved in the last 4 years, there's a real question as to whether or not he has the tactical acumen and wherewithal to compete on Germany's, and Europe's, biggest stage. The tail spin caused by the early season injury to Huntelaar further magnified that concern. Either way, this year will likely be the make or break year for Keller, especially with such an appetizing gem of a coach in Thomas Tuchel currently out of work.
Is Julian Draxler the real deal? - In the last two years, Julian Draxler has showed flashes of incredible promise and the ability to contribute at some of the highest levels in world football. Yet at other times, he looked naïve and lost like the 20-year-old he was. Last season, he continued that trend with up and down form. While he certainly showed why Schalke were correct to lock him up to a long term contract at the age of 19, there's also the intended growing room to take the next step up. Without that next step, there's every possibility Schalke can't make the jump from perennial has-run to actually challenging for the Bundesliga title.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar - The Hunter is THE man up top for Schalke 04.Huntelaar is the focal point of their attack and in some ways perhaps their only option. Schalke's struggles last season in front of goal during his prolonged injury absence really shone a light on the dearth of attacking depth and highlighted in fluorescent orange just how important his continued presence is to Schalke.
Kevin-Prince Boateng - The Ghanaian international is the man who pulls the strings for Schalke up and down the pitch. In his time with AC Milian, the 27-year-old was well known for his dominating physical presence and creative ability while playing just behind the main striker. Upon his move to Schalke last year, he began playing deeper functioning in a more box-to-box role that allowed Jens Keller ‘s sides to incorporate more diverse attacking midfield options culminating in the breakouts of both Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka for die Königsblauen.
While the necessity (and ultimate efficacy) of that move can still be hotly debated, it's a role that Boateng embraced. While there are still doubts about his ability to effectively defend in the middle, the fact that he is still only 27 plays to his advantage. Whether or not he can be a better two-way player for Schalke will be determine just how far Schalke's domestic and international aspirations can be advanced this season.
Benedikt Howedes - Hot off winning the 2014 World Cup as the primary leftback for Germany, Schalke captain Benedikt Howedes is the past, present and future of Schalke's defense. Already a stalwart defender on the pitch his ability to marshall the backline and his evolving relationship with his young counerparts Joel Matip and goalkeeper Ralf Fahrmann will be the main ingredients for whether Schalke defense can measure up with the powerful attacking threats present in many Bundesliga sides. After several injury shortened seasons the last few years, his ability to stay healthy this year will be a major factor in Schalke's ability to challenge both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
Projected ideal starting XI
Schalke spent last season almost entirely lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation emphasizing the attacking interplay of their young core, but the real question for their new season is how Sidney Sam will fit into the side.
Key reserves: FW Erick Maxim Choupo-Moting, AM Leon Goretzka, AM Jefferson Farfan, DM Marco Höger, CB/DM Jan Kirchhoff, CB Felipe Santana
The previously mentioned Choup-Moting has the biggest role to fill behind the aging Huntelaar, while Leon Goretzka and 29-year-old Jefferson Farfan will probably split equal time with the other attacking midfielders on the roster. Marco Höger is the only seasoned backup to the defensive midfielders, while Jan Kirchoff is a solid piece in either defensive midfield or in the backline. Felipe Santana is the wild card backup center back: at times downright incredible, yet at times capable of being completely abject.
How do I watch Schalke this season?
Unfortunately, as with all things Bundesliga, the weekend rights have been squirreled away with GolTV which you can only get it you happen to subscribe to the right cable provider. While it's disappointing, you can still catch them on Fox Sports 1/2 for mid-week UEFA Champions League games as well as occasionally via streaming on WatchESPN/ESPN3 for the DFB-Pokal matches.
With the massive investment in quality players by Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen, VfL Wolfsburg, and Borussia Mönchengladbach, Schalke 04 will only be able to retain their place as Champions League qualifiers if their young attacking core of Julian Draxler, Leon Goretzka, and Max Meyer can elevate their games to an entirely new level. If they can do that, the sky's the limit. Unfortunately, the odds of all three of them bursting out at once is extremely low. League: 5th
Schalke has advanced to the Round of 16 the last two years in the Champions League. Like in seasons past, Schalke's UEFA Champions League hopes will rest entirely on the draw they receive. After a relatively easy draw last season against Chelsea, Basel, and Steaua Bucharest, this year's prospects of escaping the group stage are beginning to look much darker with the presence of some real heavyweights in Pots C and D. However, even if they do draw an easy group, their prospects in the Round of 16 darken dramatically, to say nothing of the challenges they'll face in the quarterfinals even if their young attacking trio suddenly turn into the best thing since sliced bread. However, they've proved the doubters wrong as recently as 2011 when they made a surprise run to semi-finals (it cost them the next season's Champions League though) Champions League: Round of 16