5WFootball editor Barney Stephenson has brilliantly traced the phoenix-like rise of the fortunes of German football through the lens of Philipp Lahm. It began from the ashes, ‘the worst team to ever make a World Cup final’ to the sky-high heights of that night in Rio de Janeiro in 2014, where an elite German outfit bested Argentina, led by the greatest player to ever play the game. This rise, he suggests, had both its antecedents and repercussions in and for the German kingpins, Bayern Munich, whose players made up six of the German starting eleven in the final. Bayern’s rise and dominance are well documented. They have won each edition of the Bundesliga since the Klopp-led triumph with Dortmund in 2012/13, winning fourteen of the last twenty Bundesliga titles. But, despite what your dad says, the Bundesliga isn’t a boring one team-league filled with Bayern; Porsche engineers from Baden-Württemberg, pilsner brewers from Saxony, and hipsters in Berlin.
For one thing, Bayern find themselves six points behind rivals Borussia Dortmund at the Winterpause. More than that, though, is the interchangeable group of German teams who regularly battle for second, third and fourth place. In the last few seasons, Dortmund, Schalke, Leipzig and Wolfsburg have each had the ‘privilege’ of finishing second to Bayern, which interestingly enough would then be followed up the next season by an intense fall from grace. Take Wolfsburg, for instance, who jumped from finishing 5thin the Bundesliga in 2013/14 to 2nd the following year, this time inspired by Kevin De Bruyne, yet only increasing their points total by nine points between the two seasons. After selling the mercurial Belgian, Wolfsburg dropped to 8th, and then again to 16thfor two consecutive seasons, only narrowly avoiding falling into the 2. Liga by the virtue of defeating Holstein Kiel and Eintracht Braunschweig in the relegation play-offs. At the time of writing, Wolfsburg sit in 5thplace in the Bundesliga, only five points off last season’s total with only half the matches played. This is not an uncommon theme in German football, and makes the highs and lows of its various teams intensely interesting to follow.
In the final third of the 2016/17 season, ailing 2. Liga side Erzgebirge Aue hired 31-year-old Domenico Tedesco to attempt to elevate the squad out of their malaise, sitting bottom of the league. Tedesco’s previous coaching experience had only been in youth football, beginning as an under-17 coach at VfB Stuttgart, before making the move to 1899 Hoffenheim, where he eventually became the club’s under-19 youth coach. Tedesco had graduated as Lehrgangsbester, best in class, from the prestigious Hannes-Weisweiler-Akademie in 2016 – beating out his classmate, current Hoffenheim first-team manager Julian Nagelsmann in the process.
In his eleven games at Aue, Tedesco secured six wins, including a victory away at promotion hopefuls Union Berlin and a demolition of 1860 Munich – who were eventually relegated in their place.
This all occurred while FC Schalke 04 floundered to a disappointing 10thplace finish under Markus Weinzierl. The season had started badly both on and off the pitch: five Bundesliga games, five defeats, further confounded by the sale of Leroy Sané to Manchester City over the summer. Sané was the latest in a long list of big-name departures to greener grass in the club’s recent history, each of whom which had not been adequately replaced, as far back as Manuel Neuer and Ivan Rakitic in 2011, to Julian Draxler in 2015. The club’s decision to hire Weinzierl had not paid dividends: the season is perhaps best summed up with the fact that winter signing Guido Burgstaller from second division side 1. FC Nürnberg finished the season as Schalke’s top scorer with nine league goals.
Weinzierl was let go at the end of the season, as Schalke director Christian Heidel lamented the poor quality of football played by Weinzierl’s incarnation. Heidel, famous for his time at Mainz for giving both Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel their footballing debuts, played yet another gambit.
Three months after being hired for Aue, Tedesco was hired to solve a different kind of problem: stave off stagnation of one of Germany’s biggest clubs, becoming the youngest Schalke manager in history.
Transfers and Tactics in 2017
The gambit paid off. The 2017/18 season couldn’t have gone much better for die Königsblauen. Unencumbered by European football, alongside a more defensively solid but fluid style of play, Schalke finished second in the Bundesliga, and made it to the semi-finals of the DFB-Pokal before losing to eventual winners Eintracht Frankfurt. Leaving the likes of Dortmund, Leverkusen, Leipzig and Hoffenheim in their wake, Tedesco banked upon a mix of youth and experience and old and new faces to restore Schalke to the Champions League. The full-time signings of Nabil Bentaleb and Yevhen Konoplyanka from their respective loan deals in 2016/17 lay the groundwork for Tedesco’s spine and superstructure before he’d even been hired at Aue.
Over summer, on top of the necessary signing of Bastian Oczipka from Eintracht Frankfurt in the summer, the transfer of winger Amine Harit (20) from F.C. Nantes for less than 10m€ proved to be a steal. The Moroccan blossomed under Tedesco: an ever-present through the centre of Schalke’s attacking midfield through the season, Harit won the 2017/18 Bundesliga Rookie of the Season award. Rather than utilise him out wide, where he had played consistently for Nantes, Tedesco recognised there was more to Harit’s game then dribbling – a move akin to Guardiola’s recognition that Raheem Sterling as more than a quick winger, with both managers working with the player to develop other aspects of their games, at once improving and rounding them as players. This summer regeneration of Schalke’s midfield was complete with the promotion of 18-year-old, Dallas-born, Weston McKennie, who would start thirteen Bundesliga games through the season despite his young age.
Tedesco’s brilliance was not simply that he signed the right players. He himself told Bundesliga.com in October 2017 that:
“The system itself isn’t the be-all and end-all … The biggest thing, and what I find the most important, is how you lead people; how you motivate players to run through brick walls for the club and how you help them to make the most of their potential”.
His system requires an almost mechanically precise ability to divide space, stresses the necessity of pressing, and holds dear the need to be comfortable in transition. He is bold and not afraid to make changes: Tedesco was the first ever manager to be given a man of the matchday award by the Bundesliga for his role in the legendary Reiverderby – he subbed on both Goretzka and Harit on ’34 minutes at 4:0 down, and Nastasic on for Kehrer at half-time, three changes which, in part, wrote the game into history as Schalke hit four without response to salvage a 4:4 draw at the Signal Iduna Park. His moves to make the most of his players can be considered as a series of small changes, effecting bigger changes to manufacture a successful system. Beginning with a fluid 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 depending on opposition, there are several key examples of this improvement for individuals to help the team in Tedesco’s first season as Schalke boss.
We can begin with the effects of the change in system for AS Monaco’s newest purchase, Naldo. A Bundesliga stalwart, it seems unimaginable on paper that a defender in his mid-thirties could find more to his game. Yet, in Tedesco’s system, Naldo was part of a back three, rather than a back two – helping cover up his weaknesses, such as pace; next to younger, faster, more agile defenders such as Thilo Kehrer and Matija Nastasic meant Naldo was free to dominate aerially and play a role in Schalke’s build up play.
This back three serendipitously provided another startling aspect of Tedesco’s Schalke: the wing-backs. Another Bundesliga stalwart, Daniel Caligiuri, and new signing Bastian Ozcipka provided both defensive stability but also blistering wing play and width, while the traditional forwards, including the aforementioned Amine Harit, tucked in. This left the defending team with the issue of constant overloading, as Caligiuri and Ozcipka consistently pressed high and posed threats in Tedesco’s routinised system of running both inside and out – relying on their own incredible stamina and footballing IQ to provide not only physical but technical threats to the opposition, as well as aiding the back three. The pair, signed for a combined total of around 7m€ from Bundesliga rivals, found new life in key roles for die Knappen.
This constant option to go wide to the attacking wing-backs or forward to tucked in attackers allowed the successful deployment of Schalke products Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer in the midfield was particularly impressive. Goretzka played as a second striker/number eight, while Max Meyer was pushed back to play the hovering six – a move which suited both players. Goretzka found serious form, and Meyer, who had been in and out of the Schalke team after being tipped to succeed Draxler, Sané and so on as the latest product of the Gelsenkirchen’s industrious youth academy, grew fantastically into the position. Meyer’s role was complimented by his incredible vision, allowing him to dictate the play from deep another example of Tedesco’s minutiae changes to one position having a domino-effect through the team.
Success forever, right?
In spite last season’s rise to the best of the rest in Germany, this season has been a quite different tale. FC Schalke 04 ended 2018 in 13thplace in the Bundesliga, hovering a mere four points over the relegation play-off places. They sit on 18 points, a fairly sizeable margin from the 30 they had accumulated at this point last season. This is potentially worsened by the fact that Schalke improved in the second half of the season to end up finishing on 63 points – an elusive pipe dream for this year.
Once again, the club began the season with five games defeats in the first five games, languishing at the bottom of the table after matchday five. Since then, Schalke have been marred by inconsistency. After these five defeats, they secured two victories, and since then they have never repeated a result, winning one week, drawing the week after, to then lose, to draw again, and so on. It is clear that this lack of consistency, something perhaps both rooted in the squad’s mentality and tactics. Schalke have failed to pick up a single win against any team in the top half, losing seven and drawing two, away at Leipzig and Hoffenheim.
Clear problems have arisen from the frugality in front of goal. This was visible last year, though it was not particularly damaging: Schalke hit 53 goals, while third and fourth placed Hoffenheim and Dortmund scored 66 and 63 respectively. This season, Schalke have managed a mere 20 goals in 17 games – made worse when you consider that 5 of those goals – 25%- came in one game against Hannover. 15 goals in 16 games is a shocking statistic for a team who finished second just last year. Moreover, this offensive flaccidity has further exposed defensive flaws. In games such as the final home game of the Hinründe, Schalke conceded two really simple goals to Leverkusen in quick succession and in response looked completely toothless, scoring their only goal of the game through a quick finish from a scramble from a corner. In games last season, Schalke, though parsimonious, could rely on at least a steady set of goals from other the members of the squad – Naldo chipped in with seven league goals, Caligiuri hit six. So far this season, Schalke’s top goal-scorer in the league is Nabil Bentaleb, with the dizzying-heights of three league goals – each of which has come from the spot.
However, Schalke are actually on track to exceed their shot totals for last season, having taken 203 so far this season in comparison to 393 in the entirety of last season, but Schalke are increasingly resorting to long shots as they fail to penetrate into the eighteen-yard-box; taking 81 in 17 as opposed to 144 in the whole of last season.
In the Champions League group stage, arguably against some of the weaker sides in the competition – Porto, Lokomotiv Moscow and Galatasaray – Schalke managed to progress with eleven points, with six goals scored and four conceded – though when you dig a little deeper, they won two of those games with winners in the last five minutes. This, of course, is still a win, but certainly doesn’t dismiss any lingering doubts about Schalke’s frugality in front of goal. Another example of this is the fact that no Schalke player has scored more than one goal in this year’s Champions League. Moreover, when returning to domestic football, the club won only one game out of the six which followed their midweek European fixture, scoring four goals in the six games – two of which came in the same game at newly promoted Fortuna Düsseldorf.
The evergreen seeds of struggle had been planted long ago, but came into bloom over the summer. Three major departures shook the Gelsenkirchen side. Schalke’s dynamic duo of Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer both left the club in return for no compensation: Goretzka is now winning plaudits at an underperforming Bayern, while Max Meyer signed for Crystal Palace. It would be perhaps hard to begrudge Goretzka’s move south; given that the abundance of German talents who make the same pilgrimage. Meyer’s move, however, is more curious. After being cast-out after publicly criticising the Schalke hierarchy, it is likely that Meyer be earning more at Palace than Schalke, though the German is beginning to take a more pivotal role in Palace’s side after an early bedding-in period. Still only 23, it is likely that Meyer, should his performances continue to improve, and perhaps not criticise Crystal Palace’s hierarchy, could find himself attracting attention from bigger clubs.
The reported 37m€ Schalke received for defender Thilo Kehrer from Paris Saint-Germain will have only slightly softened the blow compared to the raw barbs of losing their best two midfielders for nothing. He had been as crucial as the aforementioned Meyer and Goretzka, starting 27 out of 34 of Schalke’s Bundesliga games. Indeed, Heidel remarked that was is better to lose Kehrer in the summer for a fee than lose him for free as they had with Meyer and Goretzka, but not before mentioning that an agreement with the youngster had been agreed before PSG turned his head.
This has become a familiar theme for Schalke fans; who have now seen the club’s better players move on for big money fees on an almost annual basis. The club relies deeply upon its ability to churn out successful young players as well as cherry-picking players from teams around them and making them better – yet the past few years has seen a story of improper replacement: a story which perhaps rang most true in 2018. Moreover, it seems to me that the Tedesco style of playing to your players best interests is more prone to hurt by losing key players in the transfer market than a team which relies on a set ideology – since it means constant re-evaluation and reconfiguration. Of course, Tedesco and the transfer team had proven adept at spotting players in the previous summer, but buying players for his individuals-based system relies upon the almost tacit hope that the player is going to be the same player they were last season, and find the system agreeable to their own playing style, or themselves agreeable Tedesco’s vision of their playing style.
Three midfielders were brought in to thicken the ever so important midfield ranks: Sebastian Rudy (Bayern Munich, 16m€), Suat Serdar (Mainz, 10.5m€) and Omar Mascarell (Real Madrid, 10m€). To replace Kehrer, Tedesco brought in Hannover 96 defender Salif Sané (7m€). Die Königsblauenalso strengthened with the free transfer of Hoffenheim hit-man Mark Uth, and the signing of right-winger Steven Skrzybski (Union Berlin, 3.2m€) and Lille left-back Hamza Mendyl (6m€).
It would be fair to describe the summer as a mixed bag at this moment in time. Transfers, of course, play out over more than just the months immediately after their execution, but for Schalke they appear to follow the trend of good on paper, okay on the pitch – in the league where okay is competing with an unbelievable triumvirate of Jadon Sancho, Marco Reus and Paco Alcacer, or the incredible form of Alassane Plea and Thorgan Hazard. All of the teams around Schalke in the continental football race have drastically improved from last season, bar perhaps Leverkusen.
Salif Sané has become a staple of the Schalke defence, playing as part of the more interchangeable formation which occasionally brushes between 3, 4 and 5 at the back thanks to the versatility of the Schalke players. After an excellent 2017/18 with Hannover, he has played every Bundesliga minute and has been perhaps the club’s standout performer in the Champions League, playing a key role in the club conceding only one goal in the four games in which he played. Sané’s arrival has not only reduced Naldo’s game time from central to peripheral, but has helped to effect a change from a regular back three to a back four which can be utilised as a back three if ex-Spurs man Benjamin Stambouli steps back into defence, as he often does.
Mark Uth, to me, had to most potential as a transfer, not least because of the fee – nada. Uth had scored consistently Hoffenheim, ending 2017/18 with fourteen goals and seven assists in 31 games. Uth seemed to be a good fit on paper to Schalke’s problems; a proven Bundesliga goal scorer coming into the prime of his career. Alas, it was not to be. Uth has spent the vast majority of the season injured – has not played since December. This is a common theme, especially upfront – Schalke have resorted to once again turning to their youth academy, given injuries to Franco Di Santo, Breel Embolo and Guido Burgstaller.
These injuries have caused Tedesco’s delicate system based on his players some harm. Any team which suffers an injury crisis would struggle, but this is perhaps more pertinent for a Tedesco team. Youth players are becoming increasingly present in the first team before their time to plug the gaps – such as young striker Haji Wright starting as the lone centre-forward in the key December clash against Leverkusen, to little effect. The forward, despite scoring from close range, looked lost and was hooked after 54 minutes.
Another example of this is the renewed use of Weston McKennie in various midfield locales. Last season, the American was used as part of the midfield three which would press, and press, Tedesco trialled him as a centre back in both a back three or back four. This season however, McKennie has often played the role left by Leon Goretzka, becoming the second striker in lightning transitional attacks to help pollute the attacking space with another man. Though McKennie is undoubtedly very talented, he has not yet been able to emulate Goretzka’s presence as the Schalke eight. The Schalke squad, repeatedly abandoned by its best and brightest players and hit by injury crisis, has been spread incredibly thinly. Players have often had to play out of position with no real cover.
Take, for instance, this year’s Reiverderby. Dortmund, all powerful in the Bundesliga, won the game 2:1. However, after the 33rdminute, when the only recognised striker Guido Burgstaller in the squad got injured, Tedesco was forced to do what seemed like the bizarre. Instead of bringing on arguably Schalke’s attacking player with the most prestige, Konoplyanka, Tedesco opted to play back-up left back Hamza Mendyl upfront. This was on account of his pace – since that particular iteration of the Tedesco system required pace up front. It did not work. (https://schalke04.de/en/bundesliga-en/domenico-tedesco-lacking-cutting-edge/)
The other high profile signing, Rudy has also flattered to deceive. Another player who rose to prominence in Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim, he spent a mere season at Bayern Munich, collected his obligatory trophy, and has been moved on. A system player who can play in multiple positions, Rudy still has time to adapt to life in Gelsenkirchen. The other two midfielders, Serdar and Mascarell, have also both been quiet since their moves. Bundesliga.com described Mascarell and Tedesco’s meeting as ‘a match made in heaven’, to help enable Tedesco to be more flexible between a midfield pivot and a singular midfielder, though injuries and general poor form has thus far limited Mascarell’s influence.
Yet it is the signing of Suat Serdar emphasises the Schalke way, a cheap transfer on a young player to replace an outgoing key-man. Serdar, who was apparently watched by Barcelona in Schalke’s 1:1 Champions League draw with Porto, has not slotted in seamlessly, but at 21 represents as much a deal for the future as for now. If he succeeds, he will be signed by a wealthy foreign club or Bayern. If he fails, then he stays. This mode of business isn’t always sustainable. Schalke have plenty of players who fit nicely with each other, but no longer any players who stand out, in direct contrast with each of their rivals – and when they do stand out, they leave.
Where, What, How Now?
At the half way-point Schalke look like a ghost of last season. Was Schalke’s, and indeed Tedesco’s, last season success a flash in the pan, a triumph because of the failure of others? The answer, of course, is down to several factors, both in and out of Schalke’s control. They are both unfortunate with injuries and transfer raids, and are this year’s victims of the continuous German cycle of peaks and troughs for teams, part of the cycle which sees teams find players, progress in the league and then get the extra European fixtures, to increase tiredness, for them to be signed by Bayern or a wealthy foreign club, leading to the inevitable fall. And so on.
The question, of course, what happens next. By all rights, the season is far from over. Though I don’t expect the club to fall into the relegation battle, especially given the run of form the club endeavoured upon in last year’s Rückrundeto ensure second place, it is not impossible or even improbable. Schalke are still present in this year’s DFB-Pokal, awaiting a tie with Düsseldorf, and the Champions League, where Manchester City and Leroy Sané await them.
The winter transfer window looks set to be a busy one, and it is crucial the club gets it right. Disappointingly, the window has begun with a sale of a first team player rather than the purchases Tedesco and Schalke fans would’ve hoped for. Naldo, a key player in Tedesco’s successes last season, has been allowed to leave for Thierry Henry’s struggling Monaco. Naldo had seen his game time reduced by Tedesco’s early preferences for a back fourwhich can become a back three if Stambouli or Rudy stepped back, and Naldo might not’ve been granted his wish had he been more malleable.
Tedesco has spoken of the need to bring in at least two new players this January – an attacker to help gild through the injury-crisis and a defender to replace Naldo. After all, the club has only two senior recognised centre-backs, Nastasic and Sané, with the makeshift Stambouli ‘doing a job’ – very much the tone of this Schalke season. More worryingly, BILD reported that as the Schalke players flew out to their mid-season training camp, big offers could persuade the club to release two of their more prominent attacking players, Konoplyanka and Harit. Both described as ‘controversial’ – Harit not least because he reportedly spends much of his time in a casino in Duisberg, they may yet become victims to Tedesco’s players above all stratagem. Both have failed to make a big impression upon Schalke’s season despite their successes last year, yet it would be counter-intuitive to let them both go at this stage in the season, lest Schalke seek toothless ruin.
Schalke need to increase their numbers and their quality. It is hard to say who they will or could bring in, given their precedents of signing good Bundesliga players; but it would not shock me if they picked up players from teams around them in the Bundesliga from teams who could not promise their starters any hopes of Champions League football, or from players home and abroad playing at bigger clubs who are not currently being utilised in their respective first teams. An early rumour is that Schalke, in typical Tedesco style, are aiming for Barcelona’s Munir El Haddadi. Having said that, I am very excited for the Schalke board to put in a 75m€ bid next week for Memphis or Lorenzo Insigne to render much of this piece irrelevant.
Return of the King
Upon drawing Schalke in the last-16 of the Champions League, Txiki Begiristain remarked that Manchester City had suffered ‘a lot’ against Hoffenheim in their Champions League group stage, and City would still need to be wary of Schalke – suggesting that their poor league form may be going into their Champions League efforts.
Though Schalke cannot be compared to Hoffenheim other than the country they’re from – the club from Sinsheim have scored and conceded in every Bundesliga game bar two, in direct opposition to Schalke – there is undoubted interest in the tie despite what it may seem on paper.
Made in Schalke ⚒️
Meister in Manchester 🏆
— FC Schalke 04 (@s04_en) December 17, 2018
The return of Leroy Sané will provide on and off the field melodrama. Naturally, any player returning to the club he left with reasonable amicability is a pleasant spectacle, but Schalke are there to provide more than just a few songs about City’s superlative German wunderjunge. He his fellow Manchester City wide men will be pivotal in deciding the course of the game.
As Lewis Steele explains, Manchester City can quite often play a 5-5 formation, overloading and overlapping the flanks of each wing with monstrous roaming midfielders like Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva. This is complimented by attacking runs from the likes of Kyle Walker and Danilo, but to most success with Benjamin Mendy, injury permitting. Indeed, Pep Guardiola has become more and more inclined to use his full-backs as what Steele describes as ‘auxiliary centre midfielders’, who have the skill set to both move infield or stay outfield to not only draw defenders in and out, but as part of the middle defensive to intercept counter-attacks as they happen and constantly recycle pressure.
It is not a reinvention of the wheel to suggest that it is the crucial midfield battles where the tie will be won and lost. Manchester City undoubtedly have better players and manager, but the game will not be as simple as City’s star men turning up to Gelsenkirchen and just winning. We have seen how brilliant attacking and defensive full-back displays can seriously blunt Manchester City. From the losses at Crystal Palace (Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Patrick Van Aanholt) and Leicester (Danilo Pereira and Ben Chillwell), to the tough win over Liverpool, where Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold stood up to City’s malevolent wide men and fought them, pushing them back into defensive areas, and in the process each providing attacking width and defensive stability. This translates to an interesting battle of Tedesco’s system, which is heavily rooted in the strengths of its attacking full-backs Caligiuri and Oczipka, against Guardiola’s. It will be an interesting battle to see whose wide men will be pushed back further.
Though it might be unfortunate that Schalke have lost so much of what makes them great through successive summers, what makes them better, and what makes Tedesco better, is that they keep getting back up. Should the Schalke board give him time and backing, Tedesco can continue to make progress in Gelsenkirchen. He is cultivating a side which is strong thanks to its reliance on a team rather than one player in terms of pure numbers, yet simultaneously seems weaker than most when it loses any of its valuable cogs: a balance is required. Next season, unlikely to be burdened by European football, Schalke can once again focus on the league and upending the vast swathes of German clubs competing for the right to be second best. And so, the cycle goes on.
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