Here's something you probably noticed if you watched last night's Champions League match between Chelsea and Schalke: In European competition, Schalke sucks. Playing at home in front of about 60,000 of Germany's loudest fans, Schalke was pulverized, losing 0-5. If you sat on your couch, wondering how one Germany's best teams could lose so convincingly, you were not alone.
Last night's events appear to have also troubled Jermaine Jones. Jones knows Schalke well. He spent seven seasons patrolling the Schalke midfield before moving to his current home in New England. In the midst of the drubbing, Jones was so moved he tweeted and then deleted the following message about Schalke's general manager: "I just say 'Horst Heldt' …who are you blaming now? It's bad that someone can ruin a club like this."
It's not often that a player calls out a general manager, and the German sports media had a minor meltdown last night as newspapers and television crews tried to unpack Jones's statement. What sort of bad blood exists between the two? Is Horst Heldt really destroying Schalke? (And by far the most intriguing, given Jones' punctuation: Is "Horst Heldt" an alias?)
A former player, Heldt retired from Stuttgart in 2006 and immediately became Sportdirektor(general manager). As GM, he's never been afraid to make big moves. One of the first things he did at Stuttgart was fire coach Giovanni Trapattoni, whom Heldt had played under the previous season, when the team finished ninth. Heldt appointed Armin Veh and Stuttgart promptly won its third Bundesliga title. In 2010, he moved to Schalke.
As you may have pieced together, one of the moves Heldt oversaw as Schalke GM was the shipping off of Mr. Jones. This wasn't a terribly controversial move. Jones's tenure at Schalke wasn't, shall we say, consistent. He was at times a key player; at others the German media portrayed him as a locker-room cancer. In 2012, he got in a fight with a teammate, Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, an incident Heldt quickly downplayed. As the 2014 season got underway, Jones faced stiff competition in the Schalke midfield and limited playing time. After a 3-3 tie against Hoffenheim that September—a particularly terrible game for Jones—Heldt publicly criticized the player before suspending him for one game. At the time, the team was in fourteenth place. In the following transfer window, Jones moved on loan to Beşiktaş Istanbul, where he played out the remainder of his Schalke contract.
Despite what Jones might think, Heldt hasn't ruined Schalke. That said, as last night's match suggests, the GM is due for a little criticism. Over the last three seasons, Schalke has made some good player acquisitions and somehow managed to keep Julian Draxler, one of Europe's hottest young talents. But the team has nevertheless plateaued. It's still early, but this season might even be a step back.
Most preseason bookmakers picked Schalke for third, but given Dortmund's injury problems, second wouldn't have seemed too optimistic back in July. Despite a couple of good results—a draw against Bayern and a win against Dortmund—the team is currently in seventh in the Bundesliga. Third isn't out of the question, but Schalke needs to stop doing things like losing to Freiburg if it wants to get there.
What Heldt has failed to do is make Schalke into a decent Champions League team. According to Forbes, Schalke is the world's twelfth most valuable team, and it's arguably in a better financial situation than some of the teams above it on the list: The team has the Bundesliga's second best sponsorship package, and a consistently full stadium. Given its financials, Schalke should at least make the Champions League round-of-16 every year, something it's in danger of not accomplishing this season. And when up against Europe's elite, Schalke should play like it belongs. Last year, remember, Real Madrid dismantled Schalke in the knockout round, putting nine goals past the Germans. In the group stage of that tournament, Chelsea and Schalke also met. Schalke lost 3-0—twice.
So, what's the problem? The team has defensive issues. In the league, Schalke has shipped as many goals as it's scored, in the Champions League, it's far worse. Heldt no doubt hopes new coach Roberto Di Matteo will sort this out, but it might be tough with the defenders on hand. Jan Kirchhoff, on loan from Munich, has looked particularly suspect. (He scored a fantastic own goal last night.)
On paper, the team has the personnel to finish second or third in the league, but when it comes to European play, the squad starts to look thin. Full of excellent players, there are few truly world-class stars. Boateng, Draxler, and Höwedes have all shown world class form at times in their careers but haven't maintained it in recent campaigns.
Until Heldt uses the club's resources to sign that rare talent or finds a coach who can transcend the talent gap (the jury is still out on Di Matteo) Schalke isn't likely to find that next gear. But finding that next gear, moving Schalke from good to great, is on Heldt.
Last night, Sky Sports asked Heldt about Jones's comments. He responded by saying "this is not my level." When asked about the Champions League, he could have said the same thing.