Leonardo Bittencourt’s excellent first-half finish was enough to secure an important three points for Werder Bremen, who extended Schalke’s winless run to 11 Bundesliga games while improving their own chances of avoiding relegation.
Bremen closed the gap on their relegation rivals by returning to winning ways with a much-needed 1-0 win over strugglers Schalke.
Bittencourt’s fourth goal of the campaign, and second in three games, proved the winner in a match of two halves – they could have easily lost but exposed an increasingly blunt S04 side who looked bereft of ideas at times.
The last time they had three successive clean sheets was six years ago, so you can understand Florian Kohfeldt’s approach to his players from the first whistle.
Schalke are now on an 11-match winless run – their worst streak since the 1996-97 campaign.
Although the club have publicly backed David Wagner to turn the tide, they’ve lost all four top-flight games since the restart and look a shadow of their former selves.
Royal Blues swarmed by a tenacious Bremen display
Suffocated and struggling for possession during the opening exchanges, S04 were up against a Bremen side who need wins as they look to pull away from relegation trouble.
The Amine Harit-sized hole in Schalke’s midfield was again noticeable, as they lack a creative-minded player who can confidently carry tbe ball forward or orchestrate moves for teammates.
Jean-Clair Todibo’s twinkle-toes got himself into trouble as he tried to play into midfield, inviting challenges from three Bremen players. Davy Klaassen gleefully earned possession near the halfway line and the visitors advanced quickly.
Within seconds, midfielder Leonardo Bittencourt wheeled away to celebrate his well-taken opener – arrowing into the top corner beyond Alexander Nubel.
Nubel, who caused controversy after agreeing a pre-contract with Bayern in January, made his first appearance in three months here – having been dropped in March.
There was nothing he, or under-fire ‘keeper Markus Schubert would have done to save a sweet effort which was nothing less than Bremen deserved for their early industry.
Weston McKennie headed narrowly wide from a promising free-kick minutes later, though Bremen continued to threaten before half-time.
Maximilian Eggestein combined with goalscorer Bittencourt, though the latter fired over the bar before a bemused Nubel continued remonstrating with the Schalke bench.
Bremen could have scored more, McKennie frustrating
Unsettled by an apparent lack of defensive protection in-front of him, it would get worse before things improved for Schalke.
Essentially sleepwalking themselves into another frustrating defeat, they were fortunate that Bremen captain Niklas Moisander headed over the bar from a corner.
Meanwhile, McKennie will miss their next game vs. Union Berlin on June 7 after being booked and suspended for a needless, cynical foul. It typified his game to that point, frustrating as he wasn’t really involved and you expect more from someone of his ability.
Bittencourt was visibly struggling in stoppage-time after sustaining a painful blow, falling heavily on his hip after emerging second best in an aerial challenge. He couldn’t continue and was replaced by Yuya Osaka to begin the second-half.
Bremen were tenacious, first to every ball and persistent early on while the first-half statistics spoke for themselves:
S04 had just 28% possession and 117 total passes – Bremen almost triple that figure at 310.
A tale of two halves as Schalke improve
David Wagner made a double substitution to start the second-half: an already booked Todibo and an ineffectual Rabbi Matondo off, for Bastian Oczipka and Benito Raman.
It was Raman who had the hosts’ first big second-half chance too, but watched in frustration as goalkeeper Jiri Pavlenka thwarted him from close-range.
Michael Gregoritsch flashed narrowly wide with an audacious snapshot, in what proved his last action of the afternoon before Ahmed Kutucu replaced him.
McKennie, also on a booking, was understandably hauled off ten minutes after the restart, having been given his final warning for a forceful challenge on Osako.
Wagner’s half-time teamtalk seemed to rouse his players, while four substitutions in less than 15 minutes reiterated a steely determination to strike the right balance.
To their credit, Schalke responded just as Bremen did to start the afternoon. They were more energetic, working harder and created half-chances as the roles reversed.
Chances wasted by both sides as time wears on
However, they rued their missed opportunities. As substitutions increased, Bremen were playing more conservatively to protect their slender lead.
Guido Burgstaller came on with ten minutes to play in Wagner’s final throw of the dice, but Schalke were fortunate not to give away a penalty after Salif Sane’s reckless moment.
He was rash, clattering into Osaka in the box with no attempt to play the ball. Judging by Kohfeldt’s passionate reaction on the touchline, he knew it should have been a penalty but VAR did not intervene.
With both Bittencourt and top goalscorer Milot Rashica nursing injuries, former Germany U21 striker Davie Selke came on for the last half-hour.
He played his part, intensely pressing from the front and being a constant nuisance wherever Schalke looked to get forward from deep areas.
A last-ditch challenge by Ozan Kabak stopped him in his tracks as he advanced goalwards, before Osaka squandered a great chance to put the game beyond doubt.
He didn’t look up in time to see Klaassen was marked before passing across the box towards him, while Nubel rushed out to close the angles.
He should have shot but despite being sacrificed in stoppage-time in another tactical change, Bremen held on to prevail.