Much has changed since Schalke won against all the odds at the Signal Iduna Park last April to all but secure their top-flight status and hand Borussia Dortmund a crushing blow in their pursuit of the Bundesliga title.
Fourth and seventh respectively after eight matches of the 2019/20 Bundesliga campaign, a solitary point separates Schalke and Dortmund ahead of their Revierderby showdown at the Veltins Arena on Saturday.
Depending on results elsewhere, victory could even send the winning party top – but where will the latest installment of the fabled Ruhr district rumble be won and lost? bundesliga.com has the answers…
1) The formations
Tactically, David Wagner’s Schalke and Lucien Favre’s Dortmund are one in the same, in that both favor a 4-2-3-1 formation centered on retaining possession and regaining the ball as quickly as possible when lost.
It’s a flexible set-up in part to the midfield pivot shielding the back four, along with the line of three attackers behind the central striker. Passing triangles are very much the norm, while the sheer number of potential attacking outlets – from the defense, in central areas and out wide – ensures the lone forward is never short of chances.
On the flip side, an effective 4-2-3-1 requires a consistently high tempo from its attacking players, particularly in the wide areas. Maintaining the pressure on opposing midfielders and full-backs in the build-up and creating overlaps on the flanks is integral to chance creation. There is also the need for attacking players to transition effectively between offense and defense to prevent overloads in the wide areas.
Discipline is key. If the midfield is passive, a team can effectively be trapped in a 4-5-1 with their full-backs hemmed in, midfielders shoehorned into a flat bank of five and the striker isolated. There is also a very real danger of central players being left with an enormous amount of ground to cover to compensate if the attacking wide players don’t cover defensively.
As Sir Alex Ferguson once said, “Football is like chess, lose your focus and you’re dead.”
2) Danger out wide
Schalke would do well to heed the legendary Manchester United coach’s advice. Only Bayern Munich (22) have scored more goals than Dortmund (20) so far this season, and the record champions ran out comfortable 3-0 winners in Gelsenkirchen on Matchday 2.
Dortmund’s previous trip inside the blue half of the Ruhr district ended in a 2-1 success, with Jadon Sancho scoring the match-winning goal. The England international’s sensational solo effort was a microcosm of what makes him such a force and was one of 12 goals he scored the last term. He also registered a league-best 14 assists, a creative streak that has shown no signs of abating in 2019/20.
Sancho co-heads the current Bundesliga assists charts with five, as many as Dortmund teammate Thorgan Hazard. The Belgium international was deployed in Sancho’s stead, on the right-hand flank, in the 1-0 win over Borussia Mönchengladbach last time out, but is arguably at his best floating in off the left touchline. Together they could make for one hellish evening’s work for Schalke full-backs Jonjoe Kenny and Bastian Oczipka, who will also have rampaging opposite numbers Lukasz Piszczek and Achraf Hakimi to contend with.
That’s not to say Schalke’s more advanced wingmen won’t cause Dortmund trouble. Amine Harit, for one, has been in the form of his life with four goals and two assists so far this term. The Bundesliga Player of the Month for September has previous in the Revierderby, too, having acted as the catalyst for Schalke’s unforgettable fight back from 4-0 down to draw 4-4 with Dortmund on black-and-yellow soil in 2017/18.
3) Midfield muscle
It was with avoiding such unfathomable collapses in mind that Dortmund recruited Axel Witsel and Thomas Delaney in summer 2018. A midfield ‘double pivot’ in the truest sense of the term, the duo have flattened out a once soft underbelly to form an uncompromisingly steely midfield foundation.
Witsel’s contribution to the defensive line is marked: Dortmund recovers possession nine times more often when he is in the side, while he averages comfortably over 50 percent for challenges won. The Belgian is also a creative force going forward, with a mean 95 percent for pass completion supplementing his two goals and three assists this term.
It’s an all-action approach complemented quite brilliantly by the rough-and-ready Delaney. The Dane doesn’t always start – Favre sometimes plumps for the more reserved Julian Weigl – but his robustness in the challenge (a rude 59 percent for duels and 64 percent for aerial challenges won) could go a long way to deciding the midfield battle in Gelsenkirchen.
Returning fire for Schalke, Weston McKennie is more in the Witsel, box-to-box, mold. The American’s absence was keenly felt and his influence sorely missed in the Matchday 8 defeat to Hoffenheim, where the Royal Blues were caught looking decidedly light in the center of the pitch for both goals. Even the usually rock-solid Omar Mascarell was left feeling exposed without his Yankee-Doodle security blanket for comfort. Throw in the missing Suat Serdar – Schalke’s unsung No.10 and answer to Dortmund skipper Marco Reus – and it’s easy to see why Die Knappen had such an off-day in Sinsheim.
The McKennie-Mascarell-Serdar axis is set to be restored against BVB, which is just as well for Wagner. His side is a completely different proposition when all three are on the pitch, illustrated by the fact three of their four league wins in 2019/20 have come in games which the trio started – including the demonstrative 3-1 triumph on the road at title contenders RB Leipzig.
4) Cutting edge
If there’s little to separate the midfield, there’s a statistical gulf between the Ruhrpott rivals’ first-choice strikers. Guido Burgstaller hasn’t scored in nine Bundesliga matches dating back to last May, with Schalke’s 14 Bundesliga goals in 2019/20 shared between two defenders, three midfielders, one second-choice forward and two opposition players.
Happily, Wagner doesn’t pick his lone frontman based purely on goal-scoring form. “He runs so hard defensively and going forward,” the Schalke boss said of Burgstaller. “He opens up so much dangerous space for us and creates chances. He has his own, too, but just hasn’t scored yet. If he keeps playing as he has been, I’ll be happy. His mentality is on another level.”
In many ways, Burgstaller is the polar opposite of Paco Alcacer, a player who loves to grab the bull by the horns. The Spain international is the first one to put his hand up; the one who can poach and score from nothing in equal measure; and the one who will find a way when no one else has managed to breakthrough.
“Paco was born to score,” commented Favre. “He knows where to move, and just has a natural nose for goal.”
Alcacer’s goal-scoring bent yielded 18 strikes in 1,204 Bundesliga minutes last season, as well as five in six games this term. That’s only one shy of Burgstaller’s 24-goal tally in less than half as many league appearances – and could spell checkmate for Schalke.