With Bayern Munich flying at the top of the Bundesliga and Schalke currently experiencing a poor run of form, Schalke manager Jens Keller may drop his customary 4-3-3 shape in favour of a more defensive 4-1-4-1 as his predecessor did in the reverse fixture in September. Unfortunately they will be without first choice forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to lead the line, so must choose between Ciprian Marica and Teemu Fukki. Jupp Heynckes has no major selection concerns and will start with Bayern’s usual 4-2-1-3 shape. With such discrepancy in form between the two clubs Schalke will travel to Munich in the hope of avoiding defeating, while the home side will look to continue their excellent form.
Schalke to revert to a 4-1-4-1?
The main tactical change could be Keller’s switch to a 4-1-4-1 shape. Although it was Huub Stevens who managed the team against Bayern earlier in the season, Keller was at the club as a youth team coach and has continued Stevens’ tactics elsewhere. The move is logical – a negative midfield triangle mirrors the positive triangle of Bayern, and withdrawing the wingers provides greater cover on the flanks and guard against the threat of Bayern’s full backs. However the plan was not successful earlier in the season, and for Schalke to secure a result on Saturday there are a few things that they will need to perform well.
Firstly, Roman Neustader will need to have a good game as the deep midfielder. Bayern do not start with a player specifically positioned between the lines – Toni Kroos starts deeper and Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller are wide – but they are excellent at getting players into dangerous positions between the oppositions defence and midfield. Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger will move forward from midfield while both wide forwards will drift in from the flanks. Neustader will undoubtedly need help from his defenders and midfielders around him, so deciding who to cover and communicating well will be paramount.
Secondly, Schalke must offer a threat on the break to avoid being overwhelmed by Bayern. With dangerous full backs in David Alaba and Phillip Lahm and excellent deep midfield playmakers in Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez the home side are excellent at smothering opponents. While Schalke’s three central midfielders will primary be concerned with shielding the space in front of their defence they will also have to apply pressure on Bayern’s deeper midfielders to prevent them from dictating play. It will be the responsibility of the wide midfielders Jefferson Farfan and Michel Bastos to offer a threat on the break. Both players are quick and will need to charge past Bayern’s advancing full backs when Schalke win possession. The loss of Huntelaar is a massive blow as he is a player capable of holding the ball up and pouncing on half-chances, so whoever gets the nod in attack will have a tough act to follow.
Toni Kroos’ positioning
Bayern’s formation has essentially been a 4-2-3-1 variation for half a decade, but the emergence of Kroos in recent years has connected what often resembled a broken team. The 4-2-3-1 phenomenon that has swept through European football owes itself to a number of benefits based around the solidity of a back four and a two tier midfield. Yet with the advanced midfield band looking to operate between the lines and the deeper midfield pairing having to compete in the middle of the pitch whilst also covering the space in front of their defence, it becomes easy for many teams’ midfields to become disjointed, consisting of a defensive two and an attacking three.
Kroos’ positioning makes up for this, and it is arguably his inclusion that has completed Bayern’s transition from a good to an excellent side in the past two years. He has a wonderful sense of space, constantly positioning himself in the areas between midfield and attack where the opposition are at their most disadvantaged. Against Schalke’s probable midfield, Kroos movement will be particularly important. The playmaker is unlikely to position himself between the lines where Neustader can easily track him. Therefore Kroos can choose to play close to Mario Mandzukic in an attempt to create space between Neustader and Schalke’s midfield or drop deeper to help dominate possession in the middle of the pitch.
Different roles for deep midfielders
Both sides will field midfielders in deep positions, but the dramatic contrast in their roles reflects the strength of the sides and their intentions. Deep midfield positions can give themselves to both defensive and attacking role depending on the interpretation of its positional benefits. Bayern’s pairing of Schweinsteiger and Martinez are positioned in front of the defence to benefit from space and time afforded them, looking to dictate the tempo and look for passes into the forwards. In contrast Neustader will be entirely focussed on denying space to the opposition and occupying the area in front of Schalke’s defence. The distinction between the two teams gives an excellent example of how players and managers can interpret space and positions.
Without Huntelaar Schalke lack an obvious goal threat so will largely concern themselves with stopping Bayern scoring. Despite the quality of the home sides’ forward line, the main area of interest will be the midfield battle, particularly with Kroos’ movement. If Neustader fails to adequately deal with Kroos it will destabilise the whole Schalke side, either pulling another midfielder deeper or dragging defenders out of position. Keller will want defensive structure, but some flexibility will be required to deal with Bayern’s playmaker.