Every young German coach is now compared to Jurgen Klopp, such is the Liverpool manager’s standing within the country's soccer-sphere, but in the case of David Wagner there are genuine parallels to draw. The two men played for the same Mainz side before Wagner pitched up at Borussia Dortmund, coaching the club’s reserve team at the same time Klopp was leading the senior side to back-to-back Bundesliga titles.
Wagner, who credits Klopp with shaping him as a manager, left the Westfalenstadion just a few months after his mentor, following him to England - the former taking over at Huddersfield Town and the latter at Anfield.
“It's not every day two best friends are football coaches, first at the same club, then in England not far from one another, and both in charge of two huge rivals in the Bundesliga,” Wagner mused in an interview last year.
He was talking having not long taken charge at Schalke. Wagner left Huddersfield Town rooted to the foot of the Premier League table in January 2019, but there was still an acknowledgement of what he had achieved at the club, having brought them up from the Championship and surviving the first season with a drastically lower wage bill than fellow EPL competitors. This was enough to get him the Schalke job, arriving in Gelsenkirchen after a the club experienced a dismal season, finishing two spots above relegation–a far cry from the second-place finish the year prior.
The outlook under Wagner has been much brighter. With the 2019/20 Bundesliga campaign set to resume this weekend, Schalke find themselves in sixth place. A trip to Dortmund to face Lucien Favre’s second-place side is a daunting way to start again, but a positive result would symbolise just how far they have come this season, as well as end a poor run of form suffered before the coronavirus shutdown.
Man-to-man pressing was a trademark of Wagner’s time at Huddersfield Town and this is something he has taken with him to Schalke. Indeed, the Royal Blues appear much fitter and much better drilled than they ever were under either Domenico Tedesco or Huub Stevens. It’s not just about running harder and faster, but about knowing when and where to run harder and faster.
Wagner has instilled a higher degree of in-game intelligence in his Schalke squad. He wants his players to use their energy as efficiently as possible, pressing in short, but intense, bursts. Many have flourished in this new environment, perhaps most notably 23-year-old central midfielder Suat Serdar.
Serdar, a true box-to-box operator, has been among Schalke’s best and most consistent performers this season, scoring seven league goals from his position in the centre of the pitch. Jonjoe Kenny also seems to have quickly picked up Wagner’s methods and ideas, impressing on loan from Everton at right back. His work ethic has set an example for all at the club.
Then there’s Weston McKennie, the American who along with Serdar and Omar Mascarell has become a key component of Schalke’s midfield engine room. The 21-year-old’s forcefulness in the tackle and drive on the ball has made him a favourite of Wagner’s, although in Emre Can and Axel Witsel he will face a test to claim control against Borussia Dortmund.
Schalke have also re-focused their transfer market strategy of late, with both Ozan Kabak and Benito Raman quickly becoming key figures following their summer arrivals to the Veltins Arena last year. While the latter hasn't been particularly prolific in front of goal, netting just four times in 18 Bundesliga outings, the forward’s pace means he is crucial to the way Schalke transition and find space in the attacking third.
Just like Klopp, Wagner’s greatest strength is in the way he connects with players. Amine Harit presents the starkest case of this, with the Moroccan involved in a crash in 2018 that saw another man killed. This threatened to derail Harit’s career, but the midfielder has since rediscovered his best form this season, scoring six times and assisting a further four from his position in behind the central strikers.
Of course, sixth place still isn’t where Schalke envisage themselves sitting in the Bundesliga order in the long term. The Royal Blues, along with the likes of Bayern Munich and Dortmund, are among Germany’s biggest clubs. The ultimate objective must be to end their 61-year wait for a top flight championship at some point in the near future. Wagner’s job is to get them into a position to do that, if not go all the way and deliver the title himself.
Schalke are a long way from becoming German champions again, but the appointment of Wagner hasn’t just changed things on the pitch, but also the entire culture of a club that had grown far too accustomed to mediocrity. In many ways, what Wagner has achieved at Schalke is similar to that success initially enjoyed by Klopp in his early days at Dortmund. And we all know how things panned out there.