Matt Oldfield

After four years of both domestic and international growth, 2008/09 was supposed to be Schalke 04’s big season. The club was expected to provide Bayern Munich with its toughest challenge in years and perhaps even end a 50-year wait for a league title. However, rather than improving on their previous finishes of fourth (2006), third (2008) and second (2005 and 2007), Schalke slipped and finished the season in a disappointing eight place.

Head coach Fred Rutten was fired in April but rather than immediately appointing a replacement, the German club chose to wait until the end of the season and get the right man for the job, in this case Felix Magath, the man who spectacularly led VfL Wolfsburg to last year’s Bundesliga title, the first in their history. Big things are now expected of Magath, who also won back-to-back league and cup doubles with Bayern Munich in 2005 and 2006. The German has promised to restructure the club and take them to that elusive Bundesliga title. But can he really do it?

Early signs suggest that Magath may need a bit of time to turn Schalke into a championship winning team. His side sits in a very respectable fourth position in the Bundesliga after four games but they have not looked entirely convincing. In their first game of the season, Schalke beat Nurnberg 2-1 but nearly paid the price for a lack of concentration after top striker Kevin Kuranyi’s brace. Next, the German club performed well in a comfortable 3-0 win over Bochum but then drew 0-0 with last season’s surprise package Hoffenheim, before suffering a surprise 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Freiburg.

Magath is far from happy with the way his team are performing. The goals seem to have dried up, despite the exciting attacking options available in Kuranyi, Peruvian Jefferson Farfan and Croatian prodigy Ivan Rakitic. More is expected of Farfan and Rakitic in particular, two big money signings who have so far underachieved at Gelsenkirchen. The 4-1-2-2-1 formation favoured by Magath means that Schalke rely heavily on their three attackers to create chances.

Defensively the Ruhr club look fairly sound, with new signings Mineiro (Chelsea) and Vassilios Pliatsikas (AEK Athens) protecting a competent backline including impressive Brazilian full-back Rafinha and German keeper Manuel Neuer. However, the German side appears indecisive in forward positions, wasting good opportunities against Hoffenheim and Freiburg especially. Magath needs both fans and the board to be patient whilst he develops his team, but will he have the time and the support to do so?

The head coach position at Schalke is currently seen as one of the toughest jobs in German football, due to a toxic mixture of high expectations, financial restrictions and impatient management. Although Die Knappen (The Miners) are one of Germany’s richest clubs, very little money has been made available to Magath because of the previous season’s spending spree. Therefore, Magath has had to largely work with what he has, while rivals Bayern Munich, Hamburg, Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg have spent big on new players.

New signings, or a lack of however, are not the major problem at Schalke, as Magath himself has pointed out. A few new arrivals would be nice but it is a lack of confidence – created by years of near misses and then last year’s big disappointment – which seems to be holding the club back. The quality players are there but the winning mentality is not. Well, not yet anyway.

There is great pressure from the fans but also more importantly from the Schalke management team. If Magath fails to keep pace with the top clubs, history suggests he will soon be looking for another job. Since 2002, Schalke have had a different head coach every season. With the management desperate for that first league title in 50 years, coaches are not given the chance to recover from poor runs, or learn from their mistakes.

Magath does, however, have a few things in his favour, which make his job more secure than previous coaches. Firstly, his reputation in German football speaks for itself; if anyone can lead Schalke to a Bundesliga title, it should be him. Secondly, expectations are not quite so high as in previous seasons; after last year’s mid-table finish, a top five finish and European qualification will probably be seen as enough for the former Wolfsburg coach to keep his job, especially with his talk of long-term plans for the club. And last but by no means least, Magath has more power than previous coaches have enjoyed. The German is acting as both head coach and sporting director, a joint role which offers him greater security and power.

After the international break, Schalke will continue their season with a trip to 1.FC Koln, followed by a big game against Magath’s former club Wolfsburg. Schalke only lie three points behind Bundesliga joint leaders Hamburg and Bayern Munich. There is all to play for. Magath has a squad of players capable of winning the German league title but the players themselves need to believe it. The Ruhr giants must put their years of underachievement behind them and move forward confidently. And who better to lead them than the King of the Bundesliga, Felix Magath?

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