Magath philosophy at fault for Schalke woes
How quickly reputations can change. Felix Magath had the world at his fingertips six months ago. After a successful spell with Bayern Munich, he took unfancied Wolfsburg to the German title in 2008-09 and then, in his first year with Schalke, almost repeated the feat the following season. But now, after a summer of upheaval, Magath is presiding over a club in crisis and one that he has somehow turned from title contenders to the worst team in Germany.
Schalke's derby defeat to Borussia Dortmund last weekend represented a new low; impressive for a side who had already lost their opening three games of the season (including an embarrassing 2-1 defeat to Hannover 96). After the game, Magath said: "This is my worst day here" and bemoaned the lack of confidence in the side, maintaining: "I have never gone through such a start to a Bundesliga season in my career. It is obvious the recent defeats have made a mark on the confidence of the squad. The team looks completely worried and totally insecure. I have not experienced my team playing like they did."
But, after lapping up the praise for his handling of his clubs in recent seasons, the main reason for Schalke's decline can be attributed to the coach.
The summer saw the club spend €14 million on Dutch forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar from AC Milan and €13 million on attacking midfielder Jose Manuel Jurado from Atletico Madrid, while veteran striker Raul was snapped up from Real Madrid on a free transfer. But, while Magath could argue that he has brought quality to the strikeforce and replaced the influential Kevin Kuranyi, he has been guilty of overlooking his side's defensive duties.
Three of Magath's impressive back four from last season: Marcelo Bordon, Heiko Westermann and Rafinha were all sold, while promising youngster Carlos Zambrano was allowed to leave on loan. A club that had the Bundesliga's joint-best defence (31 goals conceded) and kept 15 clean sheets, now has the second-worst defensive record (9) after four games and the players that Schalke have brought in are simply not up to the task.
You could be forgiven for only knowing one of the quartet that replaced them. Christoph Metzelder, Atsuto Uchida, Hans Sarpei and Nicolas Plestan arrived, but despite the fact that Metzelder was once viewed as the future of German football, the centre-back's injury record and loss of confidence during his spell at Real Madrid has made him virtually unrecognisable from the player who won the league with Dortmund in 2002. Uchida's only experience has come in Japan, while Plestan and Sarpei were only signed once Magath realised that he was not going to be able to bring in anyone else - hardly the thinking you want to govern your transfer policy.
Shifting his back four around - with Metzelder playing at right-back against Hoffenheim - the coach has been unable to find a stable partner for Benedikt Howedes and, in choosing to overhaul his defence, Magath has contributed to a real lack of understanding and stability at the back. One feels for one of the league's best young goalkeepers, Manuel Neuer, whose hopes of cementing his place in the German No. 1 jersey full-time will surely be hit by the club's inability to keep a clean sheet.
Magath's tinkering with the defence has also had an impact on the rest of the side. In attempting to plug the gaps around the pitch, players are being played out of position. Defensive midfielder Joel Matip should be screening the defence, but instead has found himself occupying the right-back berth, with the holding role seemingly taken up by one of the club's best attacking talents, Ivan Rakitic, alongside the more defence-minded Jermaine Jones.
The root of the problem is the change in philosophy. Magath wants his players to play beautiful, attacking football, rather than the functional game that took them to the brink of the title in 2009-10. "We made it to second place, the squad worked and battled really hard - but they didn't actually play that well, and that's something we want to work on,'' he said at the start of the season. ''We want to play better football. So for the new season, we'll be using a new formation with new players.''
The coach's decision to attempt a more attractive style of football flies in the face of his reputation as a ruthlessly hard-working, authoritarian coach (one of his nicknames is "Qualix", a mixture between his first name and the German word for torture) but it appears, so far, that the change has not stuck.
Magath has struggled to get his side to score goals, despite the summer outlay on attacking talent. Removing the set-piece threat of Westermann (who bagged two goals in the league last season) and also the dangerous Bordon, there are more pressing issues with the way the side attack, most notably the failings of Raul as the leader of the line.
While Huntelaar has shown something up front, Raul has struggled to impress and his inclusion in the side has blunted the speed of Schalke's counter attacks. With Rakitic already taking up a more defensive role, Jefferson Farfan has also been pushed back into an attacking midfield role - wasting his speed - and Magath may be forced into leaving the Spaniard on the bench before he makes the decision himself. At least until the side start winning again, Raul is a luxury that they simply cannot afford.
Ultimately, Schalke may be forced to take a step back from their attacking ambitions in order to get their Bundesliga season back on track. With confidence at an all-time low, the club are lucky that rivals Wolfsburg, Stuttgart and Bayern have also suffered poor starts to the campaign, but as the season wears on it will be harder and harder to make a significant impact.
Magath may be renowned for his tenacity, but it may be his ability to admit his mistakes that sees Schalke turn a corner in the coming weeks. If he cannot, then there will be no way back and a once great reputation could be tarnished forever.