After 11 matches without a win, Schalke 04 manager David Wagner has to be thankful for small mercies. Under current circumstances, a draw at Union Berlin counts as a relief.
Wagner, who exchanged relegation with Huddersfield Town last year for the biggest job of his career at Schalke, had a familiar sinking feeling when his out-of-form side fell behind early on in the German capital. He may yet come to cherish as an overdue turning point the brilliant, against-the-run-of-play strike by Jonjoe Kenny that gave Schalke their first point in three months.
Schalke are still drifting in mid-table, still a long way from the force Wagner martialled into contention for a top four finish during the opening half of the season.
And the manager would still be wise to look over his shoulder amid whispers that he will be replaced in a job that is notoriously insecure, at a club wracked by boardroom upheaval. But Wagner can dare to expect a calmer week ahead now that an alarming losing run has been arrested, and a small comeback achieved.
No pair of clubs have found the restart of the Bundesliga more challenging than Union, who gained a single point from their four matches in May, and Schalke, who had lost all of theirs.
The visitors began with their confidence conspicuously fragile. Witness Salif Sane’s timid reluctance to tackle Marius Bulter as the Union wing-back launched a safari down the left. Bulter cut back a cross to Yunus Malli, who tried to guide rather than power in his shot, allowing Alex Nubel to pouch it.
Schalke had been warned. Yet it would be a while before they showed a similar urgency to their hosts. A general observation of post-Restart football in Germany, affected by a lack of spectators and perhaps some rustiness after two months without competitive action, is that a higher rate of defensive errors than usual have peppered matches. There would be several here, although it was hard not to diagnose them largely as a symptom of Schalke’s brittle self-belief.
Take Juan Miranda, who misjudged the bounce of the ball, looking to take control in the Union half of the pitch, territory where Schalke had made little impression in the opening 10 minutes. Miranda’s mistake left him exposed as Anthony Ujah swooped, and, with a neat turn, and a quick glance ahead, picked out the run of Robert Andrich. Schalke were backpedalling, and Andrich had one intention. He finished with a forceful angled shot: 1-0. Union had the reward their bold start deserved.
They might have doubled the lead when Sane, looking to clear, instead glanced his header directly to Ujah. The striker looked a little taken aback by the gift, and volleyed directly at Nubel. The Schalke jitters continued to spread, Miranda bringing down Malli, fearful that any break by Union was a menace. From that free-kick, Christopher Trimmel found Sebastian Andersson, his header unpoliced, Nubel again saving.
None of which conformed with the idea of Union as newly-promoted, relegation-threatened ingenues against the establishment heavyweights that Schalke aspire to be. Union were proactive, Schalke pensive. Wagner’s men launched the odd counter-attack, notably through Rabbi Matondo, but they tended to peter out.
When they equalised, it was via a bolt from the blue. Or more precisely, a bolt from the man who last summer exchanged the royal blue of Everton for the royal blue of Schalke. The English full-back Kenny has learned a great deal from an up-and-down season on loan in Germany, and his contribution to the cause after just under half an hour in Berlin defied the anxious mood of his team-mates. From well outside the Union penalty area, Kenny saw a gap, advanced a stride or two and thumped a low drive into the far corner of Rafal Gikiewicz’s goal.
The scorer was delighted. His colleagues were emboldened. Schalke’s difficulties up front had been compensated by a defender who likes to get forward and seems to like playing clubs from the capital. He scored his first and only other goal this season against Hertha Berlin, during Schalke’s bright start to the campaign; this strike was only Schalke’s sixth goal in the Bundesliga in all of 2020 so far.
They looked more comfortable at 1-1, too, tidier in possession, less vulnerable to Union’s well-rehearsed set-pieces. In the second period, Matondo even found space behind the Union defence, putting his volley well over the crossbar.
But opportunities were few and far between in a tighter second half, neither side quite bullish enough to risk a point in search of three. The draw leaves Union a point above 16th spot, the relegation play-off berth, and with four fixtures left of their first-ever season in the top division, they will hope that represents enough security. As for Schalke, coach Wagner will grateful to grasp onto something positive, for the first time since early March.