Ultimately, there were few surprises. Avoidable goals conceded from set-pieces. A threatened second-half renaissance when it was already too late. And a shambolic, stumbling, chaotic ending like an unwelcome drinker being turfed dishevelled from the doors of the hostelry at the end of a long night.
Yes, Schalke’s 5-1 defeat at Stuttgart or “promoted Stuttgart”, as it has been obligatory to underline in German media in the time since, as if Schalke’s humiliation needed to be made more acute and contained all the hallmarks of a performance under the Christian Gross era. Possibly the worst part of it is that the veteran Swiss coach’s spell in charge has actually been the best, most productive spell of Die Königsblauen’s season (and it did contain their sole win so far), though it’s all comparative in a campaign which has thus far yielded nine points from 23 games.
The club’s pain has become an addiction which a currently stymied German football public can’t quit as “a club who continue to die a new death every weekend,” as Bundesliga commentator James Thorogood put it after Philipp Klement hit number four to finish the game. The tail had wagged in the second half, though typically they even managed to make a mess of that, when Amine Harit and Nabil Bentaleb argued over who should take the penalty that could have pulled the deficit back to 3-2 (the latter won the argument but didn’t convert). Yet the die had already been cast, not so much in the first half when the team trailed 3-0 with each conceded from a dead ball situation, but in the days leading up to the game.
Schalke’s actions of Sunday morning suggested a tipping point, with the confirmation that coach Gross, sporting director Jochen Schneider (who was already scheduled to leave at the end of the campaign), general manager Sascha Reither, fitness coach Werner Leuthard and assistant coach Rainer Widmayer were all gone, with immediate effect. Saturday in Swabia had been a mere confirmation of what we already knew, though. That Schalke are gone, and have been for some time.
“Better late than never,” mused Kicker’s Toni Lieto, who noted “the decision-makers of Schalke had remained far too inactive for far too long.” The “planning vacuum” at the club that Lieto describes is apparent even as the club clears the decks for inevitable relegation. Jens Buchta, the head of the club’s supervisory board, said in his statement that “disappointing performances” in the heavy losses to Dortmund and Stuttgart made change “inevitable”, but it appeared at least partly in reaction to the rebellion before Saturday’s game in which reports - denied by the club - suggested winter signings Sead Kolasinac, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (who has played 10 minutes in the Bundesliga since returning) and Shkodran Mustafi approached Schneider and Riether with their complaints over Gross getting players names’ wrong, addressing them in the wrong language and more.
Gross said no players had approached him directly, while acknowledging having “briefly dealt with the subject of revolt” in his address ahead of the Stuttgart game. When Sky asked after the game if he was involved, Mustafi sidestepped. “My job is to go and help on the pitch,” he said. “Now is not the time to try and do anyone else’s job.”
Whatever your view of the veteran coach’s appointment, any of this group of serially failing players would have some brass neck attempting to shift the blame onto the coach. Two years ago a similar group to the current crop was halfway through a Champions League last-16 tie with Manchester City. Since then they have seen off four head coaches and, in fact, Gross was their fourth this season alone if you count the caretaker stint of Huub Stevens.
The one silver lining of this awful season is that a club well over £200 million in debt will be able to shift some onerous contracts that run down in the summer and Kolasinac, Huntelaar and Mustafi won’t be staying on.
Quite who would want it next is anyone’s guess. Despite initial reports noted club servant Mike Büskens would be stepping in for Gross for a third spell as caretaker, a decision has yet to be made and the remaining staff took Monday’s training session. So what would Gross do differently if he had his time in Gelsenkirchen again? “I wouldn’t bring the same players in during the winter,” he told Swiss newspaper Blick. With the head coach gone (again), those players have run out of places to hide.
Bayern put an emphatic seal on a productive few days by brushing aside Köln 5-1 , with two goals from Robert Lewandowski taking him up to 28 Bundesliga for the season (in his record goalscoring campaign of 40 in 1971-72, Gerd Müller had only 25 at the same point). The main victor of the past few games has been the returning Leon Goretzka - “he was player of the day,” said Hansi Flick - who assisted the first two goals and whose class has made light of Bayern’s continuing defensive issues.
There is still a title race, though, with RB Leipzig improbably pulling a fifth straight Bundesliga win out of the bag in dramatic fashion via Alexander Sørloth’s late header after trailing Borussia Mönchengladbach 2-0 at the interval, and thus staying just two points off the top. “The second half was incredibly good,” enthused Julian Nagelsmann. “We now need to take that momentum with us.”
In Dortmund the Jadon Sancho revival, or surge in form, at least, continued as he made one and scored one in BVB’s 3-0 victory over Arminia Bielefeld to become the youngest player to register 50 Bundesliga assists, beating Thomas Müller’s record. Edin Terzić’s team now put their new-found confidence to the test in two huge away games; in the Pokal quarter-final at Mönchengladbach on Tuesday and then at Bayern on Saturday.
Some love for Wolfsburg, too, who continued their fantastic run (now seven wins in eight in all competitions) by edging out a game Hertha 2-0. The clincher was a towering header by their excellent young French defender Maxence Lacroix, who has been helping Oliver Glasner’s team to work wonders at the other end of the pitch and they have now kept eight clean sheets in a row.
Leverkusen 1-2 Freiburg, Mainz 0-1 Augsburg, Union Berlin 1-1 Hoffenheim, RB Leipzig 3-2 Mönchengladbach, Bayern 5-1 Cologne, Dortmund 3-0 Arminia Bielefeld, Stuttgart 5-1 Schalke, Wolfsburg 2-0 Hertha Berlin, Werder Bremen 2-1 Eintracht Frankfurt
Eintracht Frankfurt’s stellar run came to an end in defeat at Werder Bremen, cutting their lead ahead of Dortmund in the final Champions League place to three points - but at least coach Adi Hütter told Sky 90 “I’m staying” in response to reports linking him with succeeding Marco Rose at Gladbach.
After going out of the Europa League to Swiss champions Young Boys it went from bad to worse for Leverkusen, who slumped to a 2-1 home defeat to Freiburg, the misery compounded by a suspected cruciate knee ligament injury to recent signing Timothy Fosu-Mensah. A desperation derby against fellow Champions League losing-hopefuls Mönchengladbach is on the horizon. “We have to get a result next week,” said coach Peter Bosz, who Rudi Völler has insisted is not under pressure but the current slump snowballing into the sort of freefall that finished Bosz at Dortmund could change minds in the boardroom.