Adam Szalai saved Schalke from an opening day defeat as his second half strike earned the Royal Blues a draw at the Veltins-Arena.
After a remarkable fourth place finish last season, Jens Keller is aiming to replicate last seasons success and solidify a spot in the top four. Keller aligned his side in a 4-2-3-1 that saw Klass-Jan Huntelaar lead the line ahead of Julian Draxler, Jefferson Farfan and Christian Clemens, while Roman Neustädter and Jermaine Jones played in the double pivot.
Thorsten Fink suffered a massive blow last season, as his side missed out on European football, but a few of his summer acquisitions that featured at the Veltins-Arena have bolstered Hamburg in several areas. Fink also opted to play in a 4-2-3-1 with Jacques Zoua leading the line, while Rafael Van der Vaart, Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Maximilian Beister played behind the Cameroonian international. Tolgay Arslan and Milan Badlej shielded the back four, while summer signing Lars Sobiech formed a centre back partnership with Heiko Westermann.
Hamburg highlighted Schalke’s deficiencies in wide areas and aerial battles, which is why they were unfortunate not to walk away with maximum points, seeing as they were the better side for large portions of the match.
The first half of this match was identical to last year’s encounter at the Veltins-Arena, the difference being that Schalke opened the scoring in the second minute. Draxler played in a delightful ball to Huntelaar, who quickly placed his shot past Rene Adler and into the back of the net. Unfortunately for the Royal Blues, their lead was short-lived, as Hamburg was awarded a penalty for a clear handball on Joel Matip – in the 12th minute Van der Vaart stepped to the spot and calmly sent Timo Hildebrand the opposite way.
Keller’s men were in for more bad news in the 22nd minute, when Draxler was forced to leave the game with an injury that he sustained from a late challenge. Draxler was Schalke’s creative spark going forward as he was making clever passes in the final third and in wide areas to start attacks. Leon Goretzka replaced the German international, but two minutes later Beister gave Hamburg the lead with a magnificent header. Fink’s men showed belief, and in the span of 12 minutes came from behind and took the lead.
A key element in Hamburg’s dominance was their aim to attack Schalke in wide areas – mainly trying to get the ball behind Atsuto Uchida and Christian Fuchs. Marcell Jansen and Dennis Diekmeier were free to get forward as Farfan and Clemens failed to track their runs. Last season, Fink’s men sustained possession, but they lacked penetration in the final third, which is why their utilization of width was so significant. Keller’s men constantly conceded possession due to Hamburg’s will to win the ball back once they lost it.
Once Fink’s men settled into the match, they were distinctly the superior side due to their pressing. Schalke allowed Hamburg’s centrebacks to play from the back, with Arslan occasionally dropping deep to receive the ball. But Fink’s men were content with the free time awarded to them as they often lobbed long diagonals out to the Hamburg wide men.
Meanwhile, Hamburg’s pressing was efficient – they often sat higher up the pitch in two banks of four, with Badelj and Arslan closing down Jones and Neustädter. The Royal Blues were unable to keep possession or get the ball to their midfielders, and they rarely threatened in the final third once Draxler departed.
Luckily for Keller’s men, they found an equalizer at the stroke of half-time. Off a corner kick, Fuchs delivered a scintillating ball into the box, which Huntelaar nodded past Adler. Despite struggling to grab a hold of the match, Schalke were leveled going into the break.
Hamburg nearly retook the lead in the 47th minute, when Beister snuck behind Benedikt Höwedes, but Hildebrand comfortably saved his shot. Beister’s direct running caused the Schalke back line problems throughout the match, and they were fortunate not to be punished. But two minutes later, Hamburg got their reward off a corner kick, when Sobiech rose above Matip and nodded the ball past Hildebrand at the near post.
Schalke were exposed once again, as they struggled to cope with long balls and aerial duels all match. With the lead intact, Fink decided to move into a 4-3-3 and Zoua played on the left flank, knowing that Uchida would push forward. Zoua was superb on the night – in the first half he dropped deep to link play and held up the ball, and in the second half he was disciplined with his defending and got into great areas in the final third.
Keller looked to his bench and introduced Adam Szalai for the ineffective Neustädter. With Hamburg tiring, the Royal Blues began to assert their dominance in possession, which allowed Clemens, Goretzka and Szalai to flourish in the final third. Schalke mounted constant pressure forcing Adler to make two top saves in the 64th and 68th minute to deny Farfan and Huntelaar. In the 72nd minute, the Royal Blues got their equalizer, as Adler spilled Clemens’ shot and Szalai tapped in the rebound from six yards out. Considering the sudden switch in dominance, the goal was deserved, but Keller will be worried about the three goals conceded at home.
The final substitutions made were conservative as neither manager risked the chance of dropping all three points – this leading to a highly entertaining opening match and a well deserved draw.
Fink will be disappointed considering his side gave up the lead twice, but Hamburg’s performance was impressive nonetheless. They exposed Schalke’s weakness with aerial duels and in wide areas, and two mistakes merited a draw. Zoua’s arrival looks to be beneficial, as the Cameroonian striker’s versatility is enticing. Furthermore, there are several positives to take from this performance, as Fink looks determined to claim a European spot this season.
On the other hand, Schalke were quite fortunate to claim a point in their home opener. They lacked creativity in the final third throughout the match without Draxler, despite improving gradually in the second half due to Fink’s tactical change. Matip and Höwedes struggled in the air, and were caught out of position on several occasions, while Farfan and Clemens struggled to complete their defensive duties.
We start by conceding three goals at home. That’s way too many. We weren’t in the game at all in the first half, but we did a lot right in the second half,” Keller said.
With trips to Hannover and Wolfsburg and a Champions League fixture between their home match with Bayer Leverkusen, the Royal Blues will need an improved performance if they intend to be in the top half of the table come September.