The best endorsement for Nabil Bentaleb’s auspicious start in Germany could be heard on a train journey to Schalke’s derby against Borussia Dortmund.
Sitting alongside a few seasoned Schalke fans, I asked what they thought of the on-loan Tottenham midfielder. He is “DIE GRANATE!”, they replied. The Grenade.
When I put this praise to Bentaleb later that day, he was humbled. “I’m really grateful for that,” he said, “because I put the hard work in. They can see it and I thank them for that.”
Such is the combative fashion that he has approached life in Bundesliga, it’s not surprising Bentaleb has been a hit with the Schalke fans since joining in the summer.
It might come as a shock to Spurs supporters all the same that the 21-year-old is currently Schalke’s top scorer with five goals so far this season. Compare that with just the one goal he managed in 66 appearances for the North London club, and it shows how current coach Markus Weinzierl has encouraged Bentaleb to become more of a box-to-box midfielder.
The praise this week from sporting director Christian Heidel – “Bentaleb can do things on the pitch that many can’t” – epitomised how highly he is thought of in Gelsenkirchen after only two-and-a-half months, and there are already reports of Schalke exercising their €19million option to make the move permanent.
It’s not like everything has been perfect, though. Despite his success in Germany, Bentaleb’s relationship with some of his parent club’s supporters has turned a little frosty recently. “In the last few weeks, I see a lot of Tottenham fans getting on to me for some words that I say,” he told The Set Pieces.
This was after an interview Bentaleb gave in October to German magazine SportBild. He was asked if he regretted his decision to leave White Hart Lane, with Schalke third from bottom and Spurs second in the Premier League at the time. “Even if Tottenham were top of the league, I would not regret moving,” he replied. “They believe in me at Schalke. I made this decision, and a few defeats won’t change anything.”
Bentaleb then praised the Schalke fans for their support after a difficult start, saying he didn’t know of that sort of thing in England: “If you lose there, nobody supports you in the stadium.”
It is this line that particularly irked some of his former faithful at Spurs, but Bentaleb has set the record straight, insisting it is “not true” that he doesn’t like English fans. He felt his comments had been misinterpreted, adding that the messages he’d received had hurt “because it’s a club that gave a lot to me”.
“I have so much respect for the Tottenham supporters,” said Bentaleb. “And I have so much respect for the club that gave me the chance when I came for the first time to England.”
So why did Bentaleb – who enjoyed a promising breakthrough season with Spurs just two years ago – seek a fresh challenge in the summer?
“I was injured quite a long time and when I came back, the team was only winning. I was not part of the plan and I thought at that time – and still now – at my age, I need to play to improve.
“I made it clear to the coaches and the coaches said: ‘No problem. We can sort this situation out.’ I left on good terms with the chairman and the coach.”
The game time he craved has indeed arrived. Featuring in 14 matches for Schalke so far this season, Bentaleb has already made three more appearances than in the whole of the previous campaign at Spurs. But his decision to swap North London for the Ruhrpott didn’t bear fruit immediately.
Schalke lost their first five games in the Bundesliga, marking the worst ever start in their history. In two of those defeats, Bentaleb appeared to struggle – or as he puts it: “I made some stupid mistakes.”
In mid-September, he gave the ball away against Hertha Berlin to gift them a second goal that sealed a 2-0 victory. A week later at Hoffenheim, he lost the ball again resulting in another winning goal for the opposition.
Since that defeat to Hoffenheim, results have improved for both Bentaleb and Schalke. The club are now up to 11th and through to the Europa League knockout stages after a nine-game unbeaten run in all competitions. Playing a vital role in that improvement, Bentaleb is grateful for the support of coach Markus Weinzierl.
“He put me back on the line and I think I showed that he could trust me. Listen, I’m 21-years-old and I’m willing to learn. I have a lot of things to improve and I hope I will improve even above my expectations.”
He admits that swapping the bright lights of London for Gelsenkirchen has been “a bit of a change” but, if anything, it has allowed him to concentrate on the job at hand.
“I’m not married. My family’s in France. So I just stay the whole day at the training centre, doing some recovery, working on some stuff, watching videos.
“I’m just focusing 200% on what I love. It’s football and I think it’s a perfect city for this because everyone thinks football, drinks football, lives football.”
That much was evident when 4,000 Schalke fans turned up for the club’s training session the day before the Revierderby away to Dortmund.
The match ended goalless, but Bentaleb impressed. He maintained his form in the following games against Krasnodar and Werder Bremen, capping off each performance with a goal. That nickname has certainly been earned: ‘Die Granate’ continues to be a dangerous weapon for his new club.