Three Points: Schalke vs. Bayern Munich
Three quick thoughts on Bayern Munich's 1-1 draw at Schalke on Saturday.
1. Alonso's addition fruitful if unlucky
Xabi Alonso to Bayern Munich has been one of the transfers of the summer. The Bundesliga champions completed the deal in what appeared to be only hours, and indeed, from the outside, it took them less than 24 hours from confirming rumours to signing the Real Madrid midfielder.
One day on, the Spaniard, sporting his new No. 3 Bayern shirt, took command on the pitch at Schalke's Veltins Arena as if he had never played anywhere else. Sitting deep, sometimes behind the centre-backs Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber, he was the leader on the pitch, especially in the opening half. He had the most touches of the ball, he played the passes and set up Bayern plays.
Signed on Friday, Alonso already took the set pieces, with one of them, in the 18th minute, chipped nicely into the box, where both Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski missed chances to put the Bavarians 2-0 up.
The signing of Alonso had largely been criticised by German media, who, by and large, were not impressed at all the arrival of the 2010 World Cup winner. A veteran, a short-term solution, another Spanish player. What about those coming through the ranks, like youngsters Gianluca Gaudino or Sebastian Rode?
But all critics agreed. Yes, he might be old, and he might stand in the way of the academy players, but he will have an immediate impact. And that he did. Playing alongside Rode, who brought an aggressiveness uncommon for Bayern, Alonso orchestrated their game in the first half. Philipp Lahm returned to the right, and interpreted the full-back position like only a handful of players can do.
But Alonso, like many others, started to lose control in the second half. His long crosses into the final third, while still beautiful to watch, began to lack precision. After 62 minutes, one of his rare fouls close to the halfway line led to a long free kick into the area, where his clearance hit Benedikt Howedes, who equalised from close range. Minutes later, the 19-year-old Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg replaced Alonso. Without a doubt, he is a reinforcement for Bayern. Still, he has been off to an unlucky start.
2. Schalke survive
"While the player is down on the pitch, let's look at the numbers: 61.973," Schalke's public-address announcer stated after 78 minutes. "The stadium is sold out." It was another weird evening for the Royal Blues.
Two minutes later, he announced Felipe Santana would depart through injury. Santana was the third defensive player to leave the pitch injured. Schalke started the match without the likes of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sead Kolasinac, all of them nursing injuries.
Schalke also stand with their backs against the wall. Their Bundesliga campaign kicked off with an away defeat to Hannover, before losing in the first round of the DFB Pokal to third-tier Dynamo Dresden.
Needless to say, coach Jens Keller is under immense pressure. But then again, Keller has been under fire for most of his 21 months at the club.
It's in the nature of the club, which has never won the Bundesliga, and lifted the Meisterschale last in 1958, five years before the Bundesliga was formed. They have come close many times, including 2001 when they believed they'd won the league for four minutes, before Bayern's Patrick Anderson ended the festivities at the old Parkstadion.
Year in, year out, they want to win it again. Year in, year out, whenever a club representative feels like it's time to go public with the idea, Schalke falter. It was the same ahead of this season. By the time of the Bayern match, it was no longer about if Schalke might win the league, but about whether Keller can survive the next few games. That's Schalke.
Ten minutes into the match, after Robert Lewandowski opened the scoring, it could have all fallen apart. But Schalke battled back, first in the stands, and then, after controversial decisions by referee Marco Fritz, on the pitch. Schalke survived a few late scares, and lifted their campaign off the ground.
Still, Jan Kirchhoff, Kaan Ayhan and Santana were the next casualties for the Royal Blues. They fought back regardless.
"We've always shown that we pull together," Keller said. "For 21 months, we've done that. And I, I do my job, like I always do my job."
3. Where is Robert Lewandowski?
Robert Lewandowski scored his first competitive goal for Bayern Saturday. After starting a clever one-two with Sebastian Rode, finding exactly the right space to run into, the Polish international slotted home from some 10 meters out, leaving Schalke keeper Ralf Fahrmann without a chance.
Only a few minutes before, the former Borussia Dortmund target man set up Thomas Muller for a beautiful chance. Lewandowski's play was impressive enough, making runs into midfield, where he won the ball a number of times.
That's how he used to play at Dortmund, and his determination to be the go-to guy in attack as well as drifting to the wings and dropping into midfield turned him into one of the best strikers on the planet. While the world was talking about "the false nine" and the death of old-school strikers, Lewandowski was both.
He was a star at Dortmund, maybe the star. His four goals in the 2013 Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid left the world stunned. At Bayern, he is one player in star-studded squad. And he needs time to settle, to fully arrive at the club. On Saturday, he had 36 touches, the least of all Bayern players.
But back in 2010, when Lewandowski first signed for Dortmund, he needed nearly a season to arrive. He might not need that at Bayern, but after his first competitive games for the Bavarians, he is no longer as complete and has yet to find his place in Pep Guardiola's system.