Revierderby rivals Borussia Dortmund and Schalke repeat same mistakes
They define themselves against each other, even if they are rarely grouped together in the European consciousness at the moment. Even if they both have important Bundesliga matches in a full midweek programme, minds are already shifting to the first Revierderby of the season on Saturday afternoon, at the Veltins Arena. Even when they are ploughing separate furrows, the paths of bitter rivals Dortmund and Schalke are inextricably linked.
They were united again on the opening week of the Champions League's group stage, driving London's finest to distraction; 24 hours after Dortmund ran Arsenal all around the Signal Iduna Park, Schalke were -- somewhat more improbably -- pegging back a fearsome Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
By the weekend, they were looking markedly more mortal. Dortmund slumped to a 2-0 defeat at Jurgen Klopp's old club Mainz, while Schalke just about scraped a 2-2 draw at home to Eintracht Frankfurt after going two goals down.
You see, Dortmund and Schalke may seem poles apart viewed from outside Germany -- vibrancy versus inertia (an increasingly strange stereotype given Schalke's prolific youth production line), swagger versus tepidness in the Champions League -- but they are far more similar than they would like to admit. Principally, both teams have the problem that they habitually make recurring errors that prevent either from fulfilling their ambitions.
That Schalke repeat the same mistakes over and over again is not news to anyone with more than a passing interest in German club football. Playing with an extraordinarily open interpretation of the vogueish 4-2-3-1 under Jens Keller, they are frequently vulnerable from counterattacks and set pieces. Borussia Monchengladbach and Hannover are among those to have taken advantage already this season, and you would imagine that Dortmund are well-positioned to do the same on Saturday with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's pace, even if Henrikh Mkhitaryan will be missing through injury.
Schalke are, in a way, fettered by the sheer grandeur of the club itself. It is sometimes hard to fully convey outside of the context of the Bundesliga, but this is a quite enormous club. The original giants of German football, pre-Bayern and pre-Bundesliga (which was founded in 1963), they pull in over 60,000 people to their home games at the Veltins. Only five clubs in European football get a larger average attendance: Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern, Real Madrid -- and Dortmund.
There is hence a pressure to take the bull by the horns, which can be a little too intoxicating. It is coping with this, which, at least in part, makes Julian Draxler such a special talent. The Schalke youth product has never shied away from what representing the club means, and has always been ready to take responsibility and rally the troops in a way that some senior teammates have been incapable of doing.
It was Draxler who, at 19, dragged Schalke through a dangerous Champions League playoff against PAOK almost single-handedly. On Saturday, the day that he turned 21, he headed the equaliser against Frankfurt, though he later sullied his display by receiving a red card for kicking out at Carlos Zambrano. It is normally his temperament, as much as his talent, that marks him out as truly special.
Dortmund's blind spots are rather more difficult to fathom. The loss at Mainz could not simply be dispelled as a case of post-Champions League fatigue. It has happened too many times before; dominating, missing chances, and being undone by conceding highly avoidable goals. It is exactly this which will again prevent them from truly worrying Bayern in the title race. As Klopp himself pointed out in preseason, the direct meetings with Pep Guardiola's team ended one apiece in the Bundesliga last season, meaning that the 19 points that separated the two were frittered elsewhere.
Avoiding doing the same again was the priority, but that plan is in tatters after just four games of the new campaign, with two defeats on the board already. Bayern's two draws in the same spell means the gap is just two points for now, but is hard not to envisage Dortmund's slips stacking up as winter draws in.
A lengthy, interminably enduring injury list has clearly not helped. Current occupants of the treatment room alongside Mkhitaryan include Nuri Sahin, Marco Reus and Sebastian Kehl, with Mats Hummels yet to start a league match post-World Cup. For all their evolution to cope with the losses of Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski in recent seasons, Klopp's side are continually yearning for that established spine which was key in the 2011 and 2012 title triumphs.
Schalke would give most things to have been anywhere near as close, but they too have been held up by physical problems. No sooner had Klaas-Jan Huntelaar returned than inspirational captain Benedikt Howedes picked up an injury just before the Chelsea match, while Jefferson Farfan and the promising Leon Goretzka as still out.
Yet they, like Dortmund, could be doing better with what they have. They have proved as much in that match with Chelsea and the draw with Bayern at the Veltins that preceded it by a couple of weeks. There is substance behind the bluster, after all.
There will have to be this weekend, with Draxler banned after his red against Frankfurt. Yet their rivals will be under the microscope too, in a match that they already can't really afford not to win. For either, an authoritative statement is necessary to finally suggest that they can break their individual cycles of self-destructive behaviour.