On Jan. 4, Bayern Munich announced the acquisition of Schalke goalkeeper Alexander Nubel for the beginning of next season. Nubel, named club captain by new manager David Wagner ahead of the 2019-20 campaign, will see out his contract with the Royal Blues and sign for Bayern on a free transfer. Nubel's exit represents the latest occurrence of a worrying trend for Schalke, which has seen several players depart for free over the years, leaving the club emptyhanded.
— FC Bayern English (@FCBayernEN) January 4, 2020
The move has generated no small amount of controversy, with Nubel having been stripped of the captain's armband as a result. Manager David Wagner said of the decision: “We have mutually agreed that Alex will step down from his role as captain. ... We looked at all the pros and cons and decided that it’s better for the team if he gives up the armband. This way we avoid constant unrest."
Meanwhile, Germany national team manager Joachim Low has voiced his displeasure with the transfer. Low was critical of Nubel, who will follow Manuel Neuer in making the move from the Ruhr district to Bavaria, claiming that the likely lack of playing time he will face at Bayern will inhibit his development.
"Basically, I am a supporter of young players getting as much playing time as possible," Low said of the transfer. "That way they can develop better."
In addition, Nubel has faced backlash from Schalke supporters online, as his agent recently claimed in an interview with German publication AZ: "Alex has switched off the commentary function on his homepage."
If past examples are anything to go by, Nubel should prepare for a tough few months ahead. Schalke fans have long since grown tired of seeing players run down their contracts; when Leon Goretzka announced his own move to Bayern in similar circumstances, he was met with resounding boos and banners reading "Neither money nor trophies are worth more than our club. The one who does not appreciate that can f*** off immediately."
Nubel is the most recent of several players to leave Schalke either on a free transfer or for fees far below their value. Ukrainian international Yevhen Konoplyanka, whose contract with the Royal Blues was due to expire this June, was valued at $7.41 million when he left the club for Shakhtar Donetsk in September. Schalke received just $1.71 million from Shakhtar. Goretzka and Max Meyer, both of whom departed on free transfers after the 2018-19 season, were valued at $45.6 million and $20.5 million, respectively. Sead Kolasinac left the club on a free transfer to Arsenal before the 2017-18 season, when his value stood at $17.10 million. In the same transfer window, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting joined Stoke City for free when he was valued at $6.84 million.
Following the 2016-17 season, Schalke lost both Joel Matip ($20.5M) and Roman Neudstater ($7.98M) on free transfers. Matip joined Liverpool as one of Jurgen Klopp's first signings while Neudstater moved to Istanbul with Fenerbahce. Going back further, Ivan Rakitic departed in January 2011 for Sevilla with six months left on his contract. Schalke received $2.85 million for Rakitic, just over a fifth of what he was worth at that time ($10.26M — all values via Transfermarkt).
While there have been some exceptions to this trend, such as Julian Draxler's departure to Wolfsburg at a price over market value and Leroy Sane's transfer to Manchester City, Schalke has lost millions over the years through the mass exodus of players with expiring or expired contracts.
It would be too reductive to blame any one man for this — Schalke has seen three sporting directors come and go in recent years and each has overseen the loss of several players for nothing in return. The Gelsenkirchen club has been resoundingly successful in producing talented young players over the years. The club knows that players leaving for bigger teams is part of the game. Many clubs all over Europe are faced with this reality, but several arguably do a better job of coping with it. Clubs such as Porto and Benfica in Portugal's Primeira Liga, Genoa and Udinese in Serie A, as well as LaLiga's Sevilla and Valencia have adapted to and excelled at playing "money ball."
Each of these clubs has done well to turn a profit on departing players for all the work they put into those players' development. They use the profits to strengthen their squads for the next season, and on and on the cycle goes. Until and unless Schalke can begin to compete regularly at the top end of the Bundesliga table or consistently qualify for the Champions League, it will remain a selling club. In order to extract the most value from departing players, the club should look to the models of others such as those previously mentioned or Ligue 1's Lyon or Lille.
So long as the trend of player departures via free transfer continue en masse, Schalke can kiss goodbye millions of dollars that could otherwise be reinvested into the squad.