By Kevin Hatchard.
Back in November, I wrote a piece for this site about how becoming Schalke coach was a chance for Roberto Di Matteo to really prove himself in the dugout. His Champions League success at Chelsea felt like a triumph he didn’t fully own and doubts still lingered over the Italian’s tactical ability.
After a good start to Di Matteo’s tenure in Gelsenkirchen, not only have the wheels come off, but the doors have been smashed and the engine’s on fire. It has been an annus horribilis, as the Royal Blues have won just four of their 15 league matches. They have failed to win any of their last nine away games, their worst run on the road for decades.
At Christmas, Ruhr rivals Schalke and Borussia Dortmund were at opposite ends of the Bundesliga spectrum. Di Matteo’s side were in contention for Champions League qualification via a top-four finish, while BVB were languishing in the relegation zone. The gap between the sides is now just two points, and while Jurgen Klopp’s men have reached the German Cup final, Schalke’s only remaining target is to qualify for the Europa League. Dortmund fans are enjoying the dizzying shift in momentum, and they were buoyant as Die Schwarzgelben swept away their bitter rivals 3-0 in February’s Revierderby.
That derby defeat epitomised Schalke’s problems. They were desperately short of ideas in attack, and Di Matteo’s natural inclination towards containment relied too heavily on a defence that has deteriorated since the winter break. He was in the dugout for ten Bundesliga games in 2014, and his charges leaked just nine goals and kept four clean sheets. In 2015, S04 have shipped 17 goals in 15 games. That would still be a respectable figure if the side was scoring goals, but Schalke have found the net just 13 times this year.
The attacking side of the game is a real bone of contention for Schalke’s vociferous fans. Di Matteo has served up stale, old-fashioned football, with the ball relentlessly pumped long from defence. This lack of quality service to the forwards has taken its toll, as both Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting have endured goal droughts of more than 1,000 minutes each. It’s easy to blame the striker in that situation, but neither deserves censure, as they just haven’t been given enough chances to hurt the opposition. Despite injuries to Julian Draxler and Jefferson Farfan, 19-year-old playmaker Max Meyer has been yanked in and out of the starting line-up, and it’s thought the talented youngster is growing tired of his treatment at Di Matteo’s hands.
The nadir of Schalke’s season was Sunday’s abject 2-0 defeat at FC Cologne. I’ve commentated on plenty of games this season, but I can safely say Schalke’s second-half display is the worst 45 minutes I’ve seen any team produce. The side looked disjointed, jittery and confused by the Italian’s tactics. Too many square pegs in round holes. Too many players who looked like they’d rather be somewhere else.
Sporting director Horst Heldt, under pressure after a series of ultimately unsuccessful coaching appointments, has brought down the hammer on the players rather than the coach. Perennial underachiever and troublemaker Kevin-Prince Boateng has been placed on gardening leave and told to find a new club, as has winger Sidney Sam, who thrived at Bayer Leverkusen but has failed to produce at the Veltins Arena. Midfield warrior Marco Hoger, who was played totally out of position at right-back in Cologne, has been suspended for a week.
Heldt has, at least for now, backed his man Di Matteo. There is a clear effort to portray the coach as the innocent party, a man working hard amidst a dressing-room revolt. That may be partly true, but when the dust settles, I think Schalke will be left with a coach who is out of his depth. This is the chance for Di Matteo to prove himself – and at the moment he’s blowing it.
Read more from Kevin Hatchard here!