Number Three: Domenico Tedesco, FC Schalke

Words By Blair Newman Illustration by Philippe Fenner
August 30, 2018
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N0.3: DOMENICO TEDESCO (SCHALKE)

Win percentage: 5.5 Position change: 8 Position to value: 3 Knockout points: 4
Points: 20.5

Last July, Schalke decided to take a punt on a young head coach. After years of hiring almost exclusively ‘proven’ coaches, including Roberto Di Matteo, Andre Breitenreiter and Markus Weinzierl, they opted to appoint Domenico Tedesco. Tedesco was just 31 years of age at the time (he’s 32 now) and his only prior managerial experience had been three months in the second tier with Erzgebirge Aue, whom he led to survival. He had no top-level playing career to speak of and was anything but a household name. In short, his appointment was a gamble.

Schalke were perhaps running out of respected domestic and experienced foreign options to choose from. In 10 years they had gone through as many coaches and spent large sums on players, but all they had to show for it was a single German Cup and one second-place league finish. They had grossly underachieved, and in the previous three seasons they hadn’t once cracked the Bundesliga’s top four.

There was little room for Tedesco to fail, so he had to adapt quickly to management at the highest level. At the same time, he would have to deal with a transition period. Important players such as Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Sead Kolasinac and Benedikt Howedes moved on and a raft of additions came in. But after a slow start that saw three defeats in six league games, Tedesco’s tactics began to take effect.

Born in Italy and raised a Juventus fan, Antonio Conte is one of his favourite managers in the modern game. This information is relevant specifically when looking at the way he got Schalke to play in his debut at the helm. In a league that has been influenced greatly by the aggressive counter-pressing of Jurgen Klopp and the positional play of Pep Guardiola and Julian Nagelsmann, Tedesco stands out as decidedly defensive. At their best, his Schalke of 2017/18 were masterful pressers, harrying their opposition into mistakes at various stages of their build-up. Perhaps the best example of his tactical focus came in a 2-1 win over Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim in February.

With the half-hour mark approaching and a 1-0 lead established, Schalke pressed their visitors high up the pitch. Guido Burgstaller – a striker who thrived within Tedesco’s setup – instigated the press, hassling the Hoffenheim goalkeeper and right-sided centre-back. Breel Embolo, Burgstaller’s attacking partner on the day, moved up to cut off the passing lane between the central defender and the left-sided centre-back. As the ball was played along the first build-up line, Embolo moved to cut off the pass, proceeding to score with his next touch.

Tedesco’s emphasis was on cohesive, intense pressing. This style was instituted within one of two favoured formations which were different versions of the 3-5-2 – one system featured an attacking midfielder between two central midfielders and two strikers; the other featured one defensive midfielder between the central midfielders and the centre-backs.

In order to fit the systems, players were converted or improved. Max Meyer, previously a tricky attacking midfielder, thrived in a new role as the team’s deep-lying playmaker. Benjamin Stambouli, who had made his name as a central midfielder, started regularly on the right of the back three. Winston McKennie, a 19-year-old American, was given his chance in the first team alongside versatile defender Thilo Kehrer and dribbling sensation Amine Harit, both of whom are still just 21 years old.

These changes brought positive results. Schalke reached the semi-finals of the German Cup, losing to eventual winners Frankfurt. They also achieved their highest win total since 2014, asserting themselves quite clearly as the country’s second best team – behind champions Bayern Munich – in the process. The wins didn’t just ensure a high league finish, but guaranteed Champions League football for this season coming.

Inside the last year, Tedesco has gone from intriguing appointment to one of Europe’s finest young footballing minds. Along the way, he has breathed life into a club that had become used to failure. It’s fair to say that Schalke’s gamble paid off.

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