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A Tale of Two Teams

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Taking a closer look at where everything started to go wrong for Schalke

Borussia Dortmund v FC Schalke 04 - Bundesliga
DORTMUND, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 28: Players of Dortmund and Schalke jump for a header during the Bundesliga match between Borussia Dortmund and FC Schalke 04 at Signal Iduna Park on February 28, 2015 in Dortmund, Germany. (Photo by Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images for MAN)
Photo by Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images for MAN

In lieu of Christian Heidel leaving the club whilst the team sits seven points above the relegation playoff, looking at Schalke’s failings - in vast contrast to Dortmund’s current success - seems more pertinent than ever. Identifying what Schalke has done so poorly to get into that position while analyzing what Watzke has done as well, sets the two teams apart, while not geographically, or in terms of greater club philosophies, but how in the direction that each club seems to be heading in.

Rudolf Assauer Memorial Ceremony In Gelsenkirchen Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke always seems to get flack for the summer of 2016. Letting all three of Hummels, Mkhitaryan, and Gündogan go was always perceived as a mistake by the majority of the fanbase. They were all entering the final year of their contracts, and their agents leveraged Watzke and Zorc into selling. Out go three vital cogs of Dortmund’s title charge the year before, enter Marc Bartra, Ousmane Dembele, and Mario Götze. That summer is when a lot of fans lost respect for Watzke.

Currently looking at Schalke’s struggles, reflecting on that summer, my admiration for Watzke is reborn. Recalling an old episode of the USA Network show ‘Suits’, one quote remains entrenched in my head, “Cut off the arm to save the body.” While Watzke’s patience, whether in the transfer market or on the pitch, has been blasted in recent years for not attempting to compete with Bayern, his willingness to lose the battle, year on year, in order to collectively grow as an organization and close ground on Bayern, in order to potentially win the war at some point, should be celebrated.

Contrasting all of that to Schalke, former sporting director Heidel was brought in from Mainz in 2016 to resolve a lot of the problems with the club, including their backward take on transfer dealings that used to be run through the board. Schalke would only sell players for obscene amounts, or not at all. That policy resulted in the sale of Manuel Neuer to Bayern for €30 million in 2011. Julian Draxler departed for €43 million in 2015. Leroy Sane left for Manchester City for €50.5 million in 2016. For each departure, Schalke relied on their academy to replace the talents that departed.

The year that the Bundesliga rights deal was announced can be pinpointed in Schalke’s spending. It jumped from a total of €4 million to shy of €40 million. Many of Schalke’s ensuing transfers have just not worked out for the better, including Geis, Nastasic, Embolo, Konoplianka, Harit, Rudy, Serdar, and Mascarell. Poor spending has crippled the club financially. Rather than attempting to salvage any sort of a fee from clubs, a lot of the aforementioned players have left for cut rate or free transfers. In Dortmund, poor transfers are certainly impossible to avoid. But mistakes are realized - Yarmolenko was sold for a €5 million loss, Schürrle was sent out on loan, as were Rode and Toljan.

The bigger problem, not just the unintelligent spending, is the unwillingness to sell one player in order improve the rest of the team. It was known that Goretzka and Meyer were going to leave. Instead of cutting their losses and making €40 million or more on the pair, they were both given away for free this past summer, resulting in Thilo Kehrer getting sold to PSG to find several mediocre replacements for all three.

On top of Goretzka and Meyer, others who were let go for free include the aforementioned Geis and Di Santo, Choupo-Moting, the formerly up and coming Kolasinac, the club legend Huntelaar, the once promising keeper Wellenreuther, Liverpool’s Matip, and Christian Fuchs, who went on to win the title with Leicester City that year. Those free transfers date back to 2015. While selling them a year before would not have left Schalke a fortune, it would have given the club something to work with in finding a promising replacements in each position.

FC Schalke 04 v FC Lokomotiv Moscow - UEFA Champions League Group D
Former Schalke Sporting Director Heidel
Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images

While Heidel has done his best at making a vast culture change within the club, Schalke is a pit of draining energy that seems impossible to fix. From the culture, to the front office and the pitch, to turn the ship around would call for a herculean task of restructuring the organization. Tedesco has certainly not helped himself with his shithousing brand of football, but without talent in the middle of the park like Meyer or Goretzka, the result is sitting at 14th in the table. The common sense to save the club from losing out on millions over the course of several years should have been thought of long ago, and it would have prevent a collapse of this magnitude.

Schalke’s struggles do not lie on Heidel’s shoulders, as the weight of the challenge in changing a club unwilling to adapt to the future proved too much for one man. Not only has tactics and football philosophy changed since the mid-2000’s, but the way a football club is run has changed dramatically. Schalke’s inability to pick up on those nuances, from the front office to the board room, has left them in Dortmund’s shadow over this season, despite somehow finishing second last year.

Looking back at Dortmund, retrospectively the summer of 2016 was a massive success. Contract showdowns are a ‘can’t win situation’; collect cut rate fee from any club willing to buy or try to have a successful season and lose the player for free. If the player is intent on leaving that summer, or the summer thereafter, then taking the money is always the right option. And looking at Schalke’s decision making over the last several years, the right option has become clear.

Cut off the arm to save the body. Sell Dembele to Barca for €120 million. Sell Pulisic to Chelsea for €64 million. Sell Aubamayang to Arsenal for €65 million. Because it will always be easier to find a replacement with a bunch of money than with vastly less. And having one bad season is not necessarily the end, as long as the means remain to rectify the situation. Schalke no longer have the means to fix the absolute mess they find themselves in. Because of Watzke, Dortmund will always have the economic means to fix whatever goes wrong, whether a toxic coach (Tuchel) or a naive one (Bosz), whether a bad transfer (Yarmolenko, Schürrle, etc.) or a player threatening to leave for free in the following summer.

Watzke was at the center of bringing the club out of debt. Watzke is also at the center for the continued success of this club. While his tactic of conservative (net) spending and his unwillingness to dip into the Champions League money have left fans frustrated, always in anticipation for the growth of spending from the 12th richest club in the world (according Forbes). Watzke’s unwillingness to splurge has brought the club into the position it is today, competing with sides in the Bundesliga flush with cash, most notably Red Bull Leipzig and Bayern München. Because it does not matter if players come and go, as long as the money is there to replace them.