Schalke is known to be one of the more difficult teams to manage in Germany, even the whole of Europe. They haven’t won the Bundesliga since 1958 and the wait for the next one looks endless. Roberto Di Matteo was recently hired as their next manager. Here Kevin Hatchard explores what lies ahead for the Italian, and Schalke.
It seems curious that a manager who has won the Champions League should have to prove himself. That’s the challenge Roberto Di Matteo faces at Schalke.
In 2012, the former Italy international helped his beloved Chelsea to finally end their quest to become European champions, but doubts still linger over how much influence he really had. Amidst the wreckage of Andre Villas-Boas’ short and tortuous reign, was it caretaker boss Di Matteo who picked up the reins, or was it a council of the club’s senior players? Di Matteo’s first full season as Chelsea boss did little to dispel those doubts, as he was jettisoned just six months after securing one of the biggest prizes in club football.
Helped by a severance package of eye-watering proportions, Di Matteo was able to sit on the sidelines and wait for the right job. When the powerbrokers at Schalke finally decided to put long-suffering coach Jens Keller out of his misery, Di Matteo was the man they turned to. Turning Schalke from perennial ‘also-rans’ into Bundesliga title challengers is undoubtedly a task that will truly show us how good a manager Di Matteo is.
The Royal Blues have a history of dressing-room infighting, and it says a lot that Keller’s 22-month reign was seen as an example of the board being unusually patient and supportive. In his first press conference, Di Matteo acknowledged that fan expectations are always sky-high, but he insists he can deal with the pressure.
He is an organiser, and knows Schalke won’t be able to make genuine progress until they become tougher to play against. The change in outlook has been apparent in the first three Bundesliga games of his reign. A 2-0 win over Hertha Berlin kicked things off, before a 1-0 defeat at Bayer Leverkusen showed how difficult it is to get the correct balance between attack and defence.
Schalke tried to dig in and counter-attack, but when Bayer took the lead, Di Matteo couldn’t find a way to get his charges back into the match. At least he won the sartorial battle with Bayer coach Roger Schmidt, as his sharp suit defeated Schmidt’s “hobo chic” combination of suit and gigantic trainers.
Another clean sheet and home win delivered against Augsburg, but even the most blinkered Schalke fan would struggle to argue the 1-0 victory was deserved. The Royal Blues are more aggressive in the tackle under Di Matteo, but they aren’t yet defensively watertight. Hertha and Augsburg made plenty of chances against them, and even though Schalke have good individual defenders, the team struggles to keep its defensive shape.
These problems have been starkly apparent in the two Champions League games Di Matteo has overseen against Sporting Lisbon. Schalke somehow contrived to blow a 3-1 lead against ten men at the Veltins Arena, only to win the match 4-3 with a highly debatable penalty in stoppage time. Sporting got revenge on Wednesday, coming from behind to win 4-2. Shambolic marking torpedoed Schalke in Portugal, and they must now conjure up a positive result when Chelsea visit Gelsenkirchen later this month.
Not only must Di Matteo cure Schalke’s defensive ills, but he must also deal with the club’s ongoing injury crisis. Talented forward Julian Draxler is the latest victim of the jinx, and will be out for the rest of the year with a hamstring injury. Rampaging left-back Sead Kolasinac, pocket rocket Jefferson Farfan and midfield tyro Leon Goretzka have all been unavailable for months because of serious injuries.
Di Matteo is expected to reach the Champions League’s last 16, and ensure qualification for next season’s competition. Both goals are achievable but far from easy. If Di Matteo can hit those targets despite defensive frailties, chronic injury problems and raging egos (Kevin-Prince Boateng, I’m looking at you), then maybe he’ll have proved himself after all.