Schalke and Roberto Di Matteo are a match made in heaven
It’s been three emphatic wins in a row for the Bundesliga side, thanks to a tactical shift from their new manager.
Even as the whistle blew for kickoff at Hannover, in Schalke’s first game of the Bundesliga season, Jens Keller knew his days were numbered. Sure, he’d secured fourth place for the Royal Blues last season, but the club were ready to move on, and were only keeping him around because Thomas Tuchel wasn’t available. But by the end of September, it looked like Keller had turned things around, picking up back-to-back wins over Werder Bremen and Dortmund.
The Italian, who’d never before managed in Germany, seemed a bit of a strange choice for Schalke. He hadn’t seen a dugout since November 2012, when he was sacked by Chelsea after just eight months in charge. But he did manage to guide those other Blues to both an FA Cup and the Champions League trophy.
And perhaps more importantly, Di Matteo had Chelsea playing free-flowing, attacking football. What was lacking was the ability to stop the opposition from scoring — which is why he had to go. But although Schalke, too, have had a few blips in that department since Di Matteo came, for the most part it looks as though the club have found the perfect icing for their gooey chocolate cake.
Make no mistake — even under Keller, Schalke had the raw ingredients. The strength of captain Benedikt Höwedes at the back. Up top, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who scored 12 goals in 17 games after returning from injury last season. The speed of Sidney Sam and the power and precision of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. The raw talent of Julian Draxler. But before Di Matteo, the Royal Blues simply didn’t know how to put everything together.
But since his appointment in October, Schalke have five wins from eight matches, collecting 14 goals along the way. They’ve turned it up a notch over the last three games, winning 3-2 against Wolfsburg, 4-1 against Mainz 05 and then 4-0 at Stuttgart this weekend.
The changes Di Matteo has made have wrought wonders. At first, he used a 4-2-3-1 with either Choupo-Moting or Max Meyer behind Huntelaar. But against Wolfsburg, he shifted to a five-man defense, and moved Choupo-Moting up alongside Huntelaar.
Against Wolfsburg, Choupo-Moting scored twice. He netted a hat-trick this weekend against Stuttgart. Meyer, moved out wide, has reminded everyone of his potential, with the 19-year-old setting up a goal for Huntelaar last week, and scoring the second this week. All in all, Di Matteo has created an incredibly fluid attack, with the forwards taking it in turns to both create and score.
The defense, too, is improving. Jan Kirchhoff, on loan from Bayern Munich, is now at the heart of defense, alongside Höwedes and Roman Neustädter, who’s been pulled back from midfield. Christian Fuchs and Atsuto Uchida are allowed free reign out wide. It’s taken some experimenting, but Di Matteo has finally landed on what looks to be a stable — and more importantly, successful — lineup.
Of course, there’s still the Champions League to contend with. That was the last straw at Chelsea, with Di Matteo getting the boot after losing to Juventus. Under their new manager, Schalke have won once and lost twice, shipping 12 goals in the process. Their last match was a 5-0 thumping at the feet of Chelsea themselves. The former Blues boss elected not to make the switch away from a 4-2-3-1, and so his players weren’t simply ineffective, but rather humiliated.
But after two more extremely successful results in the Bundesliga, Di Matteo must be confident that this Schalke side have more than settled into their new formation. He’s almost certain to use it when Schalke travel to Slovenia to meet Maribor in their final Champions League group stage match. A win on Wednesday, and the German side may well have the chance to show off their polished selves in the knockout rounds.
And while the Bundesliga title is nearly sewn up already, Di Matteo is also giving Schalke the chance to return to their old days of glory — days that possibly haven’t been seen since the 1930s, when their quick, fluid passing had them labelled as the Spinning Top. Di Matteo isn’t trying to replicate that old style, but he is embracing its ethos: use the players you have in a system that works to their strengths. If Di Matteo continues on this path, Schalke may be giving Bayern Munich a strong challenge next season.