Up until this time last season, Schalke 04 and Real Madrid had never met in competitive action. After being obliterated 6-1 on their own patch in the first leg of last year’s Champions League round of 16, the German side wouldn’t have been in a hurry to cross swords again. But cross swords they will on Wednesday.
Roberto Di Matteo’s side are being given little hope of continuing their European adventure beyond this round, even with the best betting offers, but they must nonetheless view their clash with the champions of Europe as an opportunity to see how far they have come in the interim.
At the very least, they will be anxious to avoid a repeat of last season’s embarrassment. They may have fallen to the eventual winners of Europe’s most coveted prize – but being hit for six in front of your own crowd hurts.
Di Matteo succeeded Jens Keller as manager at Schalke in October of 2014. Since then, after a rocky start, including a 5-0 home hammering by former club Chelsea, the Italian has managed to steady the often unstable and wayward Die Königsblauen ship, taking them into the knockout stages of the Champions League and up to fourth in the Bundesliga.
The manner of Schalke’s approach under the former WBA and Chelsea manager has raised plenty of comment in Germany, however. On Matchday 20 in the league, the Royal Blues welcomed Champions League qualification rivals Borussia Monchengladbach to Gelsenkirchen, allowed them an incredible 70 percent possession, denied the visitors a first shot on target until the 65th minute and came away with three points thanks to Tranquillo Barnetta’s third goal of the season.
“Keeping things tight by staying organised – that’s exactly what the coach wants” said Cameroon defender Joel Matip, capturing not only Schalke’s approach to the Borussia tie, but the tactics Di Matteo has used to turn the often open and exciting Germans into a rather dour, organised defensive unit. In fact, in his 15 league games in charge to date, Schalke have averaged only 45 percent of the possession.
The approach has been somewhat forced upon the Italian, shorn for long periods this season of his best attacking talent in Julian Draxler, Jefferson Farfan and Klaus Jan Huntelaar. However, its classic management 101 – make your team hard to beat, build their confidence and go from there.
The German media have not been impressed by what they see as his overly negative approach, however. Even the club’s Director of Sport Horst Heidt was quoted as saying that “We could maybe have got more from the game if we’d opened up a bit” after their recent 1-1 draw with league leaders Bayern Munich.
Tactically, Di Matteo is favouring a rather rigid 3-5-2 formation. The back three are protected by a hard working midfield trio and two wingbacks tasked with protecting the flanks and offering support to the front two. The team rarely loses that shape.
The gaps between defence, midfield and the front line are kept to a minimum, as the players work hard to deny opponents space to play in areas of the pitch where Schalke might be vulnerable. Gone, most notably, is the high defensive line that was so often and so easily bypassed by Real Madrid last year.
It’s not been pretty, but, well, you know the rest. Schalke’s German international defender Benedikt Howedes, unconcerned by media criticism, reflected the defiant mood of the camp. “People can say what they like,” he said. “But when you are successful, why should you start complaining about things?”
Overall, Di Matteo, one of only four managers left in the Champions League to have won the trophy, can be pleased with his impact on the side. But the big question for him long-term will be whether he can create a team that can do more than just defend. It’s that kind of ability that will dictate whether he can aspire to a job like the Chelsea one again in future.
And the weekend’s disappointing away defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt will serve as a reminder that the current approach will only remain palatable to fans if Schalke can remain competitive and keep winning games.
But for this week at least, maintaining that defensive rigour and improving on last season’s showing against Los Merengues will satisfy most.