After just 45 games as a manager, Domenico Tedesco has saved one club from relegation and brought another into the Champions League.
In fact, the 32-year-old has only been in charge of two senior sides – Ezgebirge Aue of Bundesliga 2 for 11 league games last season and German giants Schalke 04 for 34 this. Before that, it was Stuttgart’s under-17s and the youths at Hoffenheim.
In March 2017, the Italian-born coach was the surprise managerial choice of Erzgebirge Aue, who were deep in the second tier’s relegation mire. But 20 points in Tedesco’s 11 games saw them avoid the drop, drawing the attention of Schalke’s sporting director Christian Heidel, who was on the lookout for a new coach.
And so just 93 days after taking charge of the Bundesliga 2 outfit, Tedesco became Schalke boss. His youth and lack of top-level playing or managerial experience raised many an eyebrow. But Heidel had form. Back in his Mainz days, he gave a 32-year-old Jurgen Klopp and a 35-year-old Thomas Tuchel their first serious managerial breaks.
Tedesco was in many ways a lot greener, but Heidel liked what he saw in a young man who had come through the youth coaching ranks while also building a successful life for himself outside football. Degrees in Business Engineering and Innovation Management, not to mention fluency in five languages, set his new appointment apart, as did his ability to communicate his ideas to young players and old.
When he came here, I felt it already on the second day that the players had accepted him. He has charisma – it’s one of those things, you either have it or you don’t
Heidel told The Independent newspaper recently. Veteran defender Naldo, who had looked to be heading out of the club before the new man’s arrival, has certainly been impressed. The 35-year-old Brazilian, who has been revitalised under Tedesco, has described his boss, three years his junior, as the best coach he’s ever had.
There’s no question Tedesco has done an excellent job. Although Schalke never came close to Bayern Munich this term, the leap from tenth 12 months ago to second this has been impressive.
Despite conceding only three less goals than last season and scoring just eight more, Tedesco’s men have been able to convert those seemingly marginal improvements into additional points – 20 in fact. And while they’ll finish a distant 21 points behind the champions, that’s a considerable improvement on the 39-point gap of last term.
Schalke have been a much more difficult proposition for opponents. And while they’ve haven’t been easy on the eye, a return to the Champions League for the first time in three years justifies Tedesco’s methods.
With the high press and the high line seemingly all the rage, the young manager has taken a much more conservative approach. He enjoyed initial success with a deep-lying 3-4-3 formation that featured two screening midfielders, wing backs who would drop in to make a defensive five and an emphasis on counter attack.
Schalke would draw opponents on, only pressing when their box was threatened, before launching quick counters based on early, direct and often long balls to their frontmen.
But as the opposition grew accustomed to that strategy, Tedesco showed his tactical acumen and flexibility by developing a successful, alternative approach designed to unhinge deeper lying opponents.
A change in shape involving one of his holding midfielders and his front three saw the creation of a four-man high press unit.
Schalke still played the ball long and early, but instead of dropping off if possession wasn’t won, this unit was tasked with winning the ball back in high in the opposition half.
A coach who approaches each game with the opponent in mind, Tedesco has dismissed any criticism of Schalke’s unlovely style, insisting the game is still ultimately about results.
So far, he has been successful in that regard, but the jury must remain out on whether we’re watching the emergence of the next great German coach.
Yes, he’s come a long way in a year. But next season will tell us so much more. For one thing, Tedesco will have to deal with the loss of the star midfield duo of Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka.
And for another, he’ll have to handle a much heavier workload and greater expectations, without the element of surprise.
But cope with these issues, and he’ll have to be taken very seriously indeed.