Bayern Munich’s 2-0 victory over Schalke 04 at the Veltins Arena on Saturday night saw both sides preserve their 100% starts to the Bundesliga season.
For the champions, it was four wins from four as they reclaimed top spot from Hertha Berlin. But for the hosts, last season’s surprise runner’s up, it was a worrying fourth defeat from four that sees them propping up the league.
Bayern, under new manager and former player Niko Kovac, who last season lead unfashionable Eintracht Frankfurt to the German Cup and their first major silverware in 30 years, were sharp, aggressive and always in charge.
Die Roten have now beaten four of last season’s top seven – Schalke, Hoffenheim, Bayer Leverkusen and Stuttgart – in their opening four league fixtures, scoring 12 times and conceding only twice.
Despite the change in management, it’s as hard as ever to see how their Bundesliga stranglehold can be challenged, let along broken.
Group E of the Champions League doesn’t look like it will extend Bayern either. Benfica were put away with little fuss midweek – and AEK Athens and Ajax are likely to be swatted away in similar fashion.
For Kovac, the long-term injuries to Corentin Tolisso and Kingsley Coman aside, things could hardly be going any better. The intense and aggressive nature of Die Roten’s play augurs well, suggesting he’s getting a positive reaction from his players.
But with Bayern so dominant at home and progress from the group stages in Europe more or less assured, a proper examination of the Kovac effect may not come until the last 16 of the Champions League next February.
For Schalke boss Domenico Tedesco, the tests are coming quick and fast, however. Last season’s big Bundesliga story has literally gone from hero to zero – well zero points anyways – in a matter of a month.
Tedesco guided the Royal Blues to a very impressive second place last term and a return to the Champions League after a gap of three seasons. It was Schalke’s best league finish in eight years – not at all bad for a 32-year-old with only 45 league games as a manager under his belt!
Tedesco’s football may have been pragmatic and often unlovely, but it got results. The Blues may have scored the fewest goals in the top six, but they had the third best defence in the league. And it was that defensive platform that allowed them turn their meagre goal return into points.
But season 2018-19 has started in disastrous fashion.
Scoring goals is a problem once more, despite the arrival of Mark Uth, who bagged 14 goals in his 28 league appearances last season for Hoffenheim. Schalke have managed just two so far this term and are clearly struggling to adapt to the loss of Max Meyer (Crystal Palace) and Leon Goretzka (Bayern Munich) who offered creativity, quality and stability in midfield last season.
But perhaps more worrying for Tedesco has been the loss of his side’s defensive rigour. The departure for PSG of talented centre half Thilo Kehrer appears to have had an unsettling effect, with the Royal Blues conceding at a rate of two goals a game – almost double last term’s figures.
But there’s no sense of panic at the club just yet and the young manager appears to have some credit in the bank.
Indeed, Tedesco was given a contract extension until 2022 back in the summer, with the club and its sporting director Christian Heidel trying to take a longer-term view on how best to achieve a consistent competitiveness.
And there’s a general recognition amongst the club’s hierarchy that they overperformed last season and that new players like Uth and Sebastian Rudy, a €16.5 million midfield signing from the champions, need time to bed in.
That realistic outlook means that Tedesco has never been expected to repeat last season’s runner’s up spot.
However, the club is looking to achieve Champions League qualification on a regular basis – so it’ll be interesting to see what happens should their disappointing start to the campaign continue and threaten that objective.
Heidel and Schalke are trying hard to shake off a damaging culture that saw 21 managers employed at the club in the 16 seasons before Tedesco’s appointment.
The search for stability should keep the current incumbent safe for now, but for the Royal Blues’ coach, the honeymoon period is well and truly over.