When Max Meyer joined Crystal Palace from Schalke on a free transfer this summer, the former wonderkid caused plenty of eyebrows to be raised back home in Germany when he claimed that his new team might be better than his old one: “We have plenty of quality and a strong squad – when you compare it to Schalke, it’s as strong, or maybe even stronger.”
At the start of the 2018-19 season, it looked as if Meyer’s words were ringing true as Schalke lost their first five Bundesliga games to find themselves bottom of the table. A second-place finish in 2017-18 earned a spot in the Champions League with Meyer and Leon Goretzka starring in midfield as Schalke finished above Hoffenheim and Borussia Dortmund to record their best league finish since 2009-10.
The loss of their midfield duo looked to have set Schalke back hugely, but after that terrible start, Domenico Tedesco has repaid the faith shown in him by the board to turn things around. Four wins and a draw in the next seven games see Schalke climbing up the table, while they have already booked their place in the Champions League last 16.7
Their most recent league performance was their best one yet, smashing Nurnberg 5-2 with their attackers firing on all cylinders. Striker Steven Skrzybski had played just five minutes in the German top flight before last weekend, but netted twice on his first start for Schalke, with Guido Burgstaller and Amine Harit also finding the net.
As well as Meyer and Goretzka last season, Schalke’s good form was down to excellent wing play from their attacking defenders in Tedesco’s 3-5-2 approach. New signing Hamza Mendyl had deputised at left-wing-back this season, but Bastian Oczipka returned from injury with a goalscoring performance on Saturday, while Daniel Caligiuri continued his career renaissance with three assists from the opposite flank.
Schalke’s defence is also gaining in confidence, having kept four clean sheets during their improved run of form. New signing Salif Sane has settled well after a slow start, while Naldo and Matija Nastasic have regained their form from last season. French midfielder Benjamin Stambouli has shown his versatility, slotting in at centre-back, while American midfielder Weston McKennie has also impressed despite being deployed in a range of positions.
McKennie just turned 20 this season and has moved up a gear from last year, when he played 25 games for the club in all competitions. This season, he already has 15 games under his belt, as well as his first league and Champions League goals – the latter an all-important late winner against Lokomotiv Moscow.
Oczipka credits Schalke’s lack of a mid-week match for the reason they were so scintillating against Nurnberg. With Champions League qualification already secured, they can now rotate their team and focus their attentions fully on the Bundesliga before the winter break.
After a lot of mid-week fixtures, we finally had some time to work on our game,” the 29-year-old told the club’s official website. “You could see some things weíd worked on in the past couple of weeks in the goals that we scored. With wins like that, you have to take things step by step.”
While Schalke had no wins after their first five games, Crystal Palace have failed to win since their fifth league game, with one team on the rise and the other plummeting down their respective league table. Meyer may start regretting not only his pre-season comments, but also his decision to leave Schalke for the lights of the Premier League, especially with his former club now in the last 16 in Europe.