By Jonathan Harding
The third round of Champions League group games sees new manager Roberto Di Matteo pit his Schalke team against bottom of the group Sporting Lisbon.
It’s fair to say that Schalke are the most bi-polar football team in Germany, perhaps even in Europe. After the unceremonious dismissal of Jens Keller and the instant hiring of Roberto Di Matteo, there are signs that their condition might be on the way to being cured.
An astute 2-0 win against Hertha Berlin on Saturday night provided Di Matteo with a winning start, and those watching on with plenty of insight. Hertha had more than twice the number of shots on goal Schalke did, played more passes and had more of the ball. In fact, out of the majority of the match’s statistics, Schalke only bettered their opponents on two – tackles won and goals.
It might not be as pretty as football can be, but it is clever and exactly what Schalke need. Keller constantly fought a winning battle to get Schalke to play beyond their means. In his first game and after two weeks of training, it’s clear that Di Matteo wants his side to play to their strengths, and be ruthlessly effective with it. Who needs Guardiola-sized possession stats when the game is decided on who scores the most goals?
Schalke not only scored two more than Hertha at the weekend, but also kept a clean sheet. In truth though, Hertha asked a number of questions of Schalke’s defence, particularly from wide areas. The problem for the visitors was that they rarely tested Ralf Fährmann, Schalke’s goalkeeper, and credit should be given to Schalke’s back four for this.
Di Matteo’s side also won the battle in midfield, seemingly happy to trade the defensive wide areas in return. And with the defence less harassed, particularly in one-on-one situations, they looked slightly more comfortable. Having that central platform to build on, it was on the break, unsurprisingly, that Di Matteo’s side posed their greatest threat. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, and Julian Draxler provided width and pace, Kevin-Prince Boateng was a physical playmaker in an unusually advanced role and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar did what he does best – although notably scored the harder of his two first-half chances. All in all, there was a real balance to it.
Against Sporting on Tuesday night, this could well all change. The Portuguese side are more technically skilled and faster than Schalke’s weekend opponents, so it seems unlikely Di Matteo will afford them the same amount of width. His side will remain one that absorbs pressure and counters quickly – it’s fast becoming his managerial trademark – but the midfield battle will be decisive. Sporting will not only be quicker out wide, but also in transitional play and Schalke cannot afford to leave their defence that exposed. It has happened before and it wasn’t pretty.
Despite having only seven shots and scoring two goals against Hertha, Schalke could have won by more than two. While individual player quality is important, Di Matteo’s system is one of collective power and tactical understanding. So far so good in that respect, but it’s very early days and their next Sporting test will provide some long-term answers.
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