Jens Koller will be delighted to see Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scoring again – the Dutch striker got his first goal since November against Wolfsburg last weekend. Huntelaar is vital to Schalke’s single striker system, especially given the adjustments required in the attacking midfield roles following Lewis Holtby’s January departure. The home side could well be full strength, although that depends on the fitness of three first choice defenders Christian Fuchs, Joel Matip and Atsuto Uchida. Fuchs and Uchida missed the Wolfsburg game but have returned to training, whilst Matip has been out with flu.
Borussia Dortmund also have few concerns, and should be boosted by their midweek Champions League victory over Shakhtar Donetsk. Mats Hummels again missed the game through injury, despite featuring as a substitute in Dortmund’s last Bundesliga match, so it is likely that Felipe Santana will continue to deputise.
Dortmund cannot catch Bayern Munich in 1st place, but will want to stay 2nd ahead of Bayer Leverkusen. Meanwhile Schalke will hope their dreadful midseason run, which saw them slip out of the European places, has ended with two successive victories and a goal for Huntelaar. They find themselves in 6th but are only two points away from 4th and the final Champions league place.
Tactical Comparison: 4-2-3-1 vs 4-2-3-1
When two teams play with similar systems the midfield battle becomes key.
Both managers like their deeper midfield pairing to remain close to their back four, which opens up the possibility of space in midfield. This deep positioning enables two things – firstly it occupies the space between the lines that the opposing playmakers will want to work in, and secondly allows the full backs to attack more freely. However what can happen is that space is left in traditional midfield areas, specifically in the third of the pitch either side of the halfway line. Both teams have players capable of exploiting this – Julien Draxler is adept at collecting the ball from a deeper possession before moving forward, whilst both Marco Reus and Mario Gotze are extremely intelligent in their search for space, and both will be happy dropping deeper if necessary.
Therefore it is necessary for the two pairs of holding midfielders to add depth to their positioning, with one or both players prepared to move forward into the central midfield zone when required. Jermaine Jones and Ikay Gundogan are both adept at moving forward with the ball, but will also need to be prepared to engage their opponents higher up the pitch in a defensive capacity.
Elsewhere individual battles will be all important. Can one forward find more space against their centre back opponents than the other? Which wingers will have the greatest impact? Will one set of full backs pose more of an attacking threat than the other?
Tactical Adjustments: Attacking width
The 4-2-3-1 system is an extremely broad term used to describe a variety of shapes and styles. In this case the attacking width offered by both sides differs.
Schalke play the system in quite a traditional manner. Draxler operates in a central playmaking role, and is supported either side by two genuine wingers/wide forwards in Michel Bastos and Jefferson Farfan. Therefore the home side are capable of attacking with great width on either flank, ably supported by their full backs.
For Dortmund Jacob Blaszczykowski also plays as a natural winger on the right, but Reus operates as an auxiliary playmaker from the left flank, supporting Gotze in central areas. Therefore Dortmund’s width primarily comes from Marcel Schmelzer and Lukasz Piszczek overlapping from full back. Polish compatriots Blaszczykowski and Piszczek have a particularly strong relationship which often allows the former to attack central areas, resulting in Dortmund flooding the space between the lines.
The contest will therefore be a conflicting one. Both sides like to attack directly and with pace, but Schalke will look to exploit the falnks whilst Dortmund will attempt to find space in central areas.
Individual Analysis: Huntelaar
Single striker systems bring many benefits – extra men in midfield and greater exploitation of space between the lines being the main two – but they also have a key weakness, namely the dependence on a solitary player. The forward usually holds the responsibility for scoring the majority of their team’s goals, but should they lose form or get injured it can be hard to replace them. It is difficult to rotate a lone striker – if a player is scoring it becomes hard to leave them out, but then when they are not, their replacemsnt are often lacking in match practice. Here lies the problem – at a club built around a single, dominant striker, there are few capable understudies that are prepared to spend the majority of their career on the bench.
Koller’s side have certainly suffered from this this season. Huntelaar has led the line for Schalke for three years, averaging over a goal every other game. Yet during the Dutchman’s alarming loss of form this season, his first since joining the club, Schalke had no reliable replacement. Back up forwards Ciprian Marica and Teemu Pukki simply lacked the quality or the experience to takeover.
Therefore Koller will be desperate for Huntelaar’s goal against Wolfsburg, and all round strong display, to reignite the Dutchman’s form and fire the club into a Champions League place. Against Dortmund he will be vital. With Hummels still missing the visitors lack a leader in defence, which Koller will hope his forward can exploit. Similarly the width provided by both Farfan and Bastos should ensure plenty of supply from wide areas. If Schalke are to beat Dortmund they will need Huntelaar to be back to his predatory best.
Both sides are arguably meeting each other at precisely the wrong time. Schalke will feel (hope) their worst days are behind them with the crushing victory over Wolfsburg only their third in thirteen games. Huntelaar’s goal is sure to give him a boost, whilst Draxler has slotted into Holtby’s central role well. Dortmund also find themselves somewhat resurgent, having overtaken Leverkusen into 2nd place in the Bundesliga and a convincing 3-0 victory at home to Shakhtar dispelling any concerns in Europe.
These teams are a great example of contemporary German football – 4-2-3-1 systems based around quick, creative attackers and cultured defensive players. When two such systems meet it is often the attacking band of three that proves decisive, and few teams have a better trio than Dortmund.