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While this website has made it’s name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. In this piece, Phil Baki gives an in-depth insight into Schalke’s new boss – Andre Breitenreiter.
Andre Breitenreiter, the footballer, was horribly unlucky. His luck started out undeniably positive as at only 17 years old, he lifted the Deutscher Pokal in 1992 with Hannover 96. Then plying his wares in the second tier, Breitenreiter became an overnight sensation. “The Lightning Bomber” as he was known in Germany, made the jump to the Hamburger SV in 1994 and at 19 years of age, scored a 19 minute hat-trick in the now defunct Inter-Toto Cup against Danish side Ikast FS. His Bundesliga debut came against, of all the sides, Bayern München. His brace helped Hamburger SV to the victory. Andre Breitenreiter, the footballer, had arrived and tragically his luck decided to strike two days after that momentous victory over Bayern when he broke his cheekbone and jaw and was sidelined for the rest of the season.
Ups and downs followed and by 2009, after a few seasons playing in the Regionalliga Nord, Andre Breitenreiter, the manager, was born. He was studying in a Post-2000 Euros Germany. This was an evolved Germany, and one that has created inventive, ambitious, and ruthless managers. Andre was done with waiting for good luck. He was ready to make his own. After successful spells with TSV Havelse and then SC Paderborn 07, Schalke decided that despite Paderborn’s relegation, they wanted Breitenreiter and they hired him as manager.
Andre Breitenreiter is one of the new breed of German coaches who value a high-pressing, high pace, high energy counter-attacking style. So far in his career, he has had very limited resources and thus has lacked quality players relative to the opposition. This style allows him to negate the gulf of quality between his side and his opponent’s. Defensively, it limits the opposition’s creativity because Breitenreiter’s wingers, forwards and central midfielders are closing down the distribution and passing lanes available. Offensively, it is a very direct style that utilizes the space in behind using quick players who transition from defense to offense very quickly.
Breitenreiter is able to achieve this using essentially two different formations, depending on the quality of the opposition. His most favored formation is the 442 with two holding midfielders and wingers pushed up further. The second is a 451, which allows him to have 3 midfielders in the center of the park, and still have three dedicated attackers.
Transitioning from defense to offense quickly is the hallmark of any counter-attacking side and Breitenreiter’s Paderborn was no different. Once the defense controls the ball, they immediately look vertical towards the forwards for a potentially killer ball over the top. Failing that, they find one of the central midfielders. Marvin Bakalorz and Mario Vrančić formed the pivot between defense and attack. The full backs, as part of a back four, transition immediately forward in order to provide additional width. The width creates the space for the forwards to make their runs, which stretch the defense and allow for more opportunities. This feeds directly into the way that they organize offensively.
The core offensive concept of Breitenreiter’s tactics is that possession is unnecessary if it is not building to something. His team was never going to dominate possession in the Bundesliga so if you passed the ball to a teammate, you were expected to move into space for them to find you or to create space for them to dribble. Bakalorz and Vrančić bore the weight of creativity as they worked in the holding midfield role. The intent was to release either Süleyman Koc or Moritz Stoppelkamp down the wings, which would allow them to isolate the defender, beat him and work a cross or pull-back to Srdjan Lakić or the teams top-scorer, Elias Kachunga. Even when they were in a situation where they did not break quickly, they would often hold the ball in the midfield in order to draw teams in and then create a counter attack in the space behind the defenders. A simple, direct approach which wiped out the advantage that top teams would normally have over a team as lowly as Paderborn.
Due to the aggressive nature of his attack, Breitenreiter is reliant on his two holding midfielders to keep some form of stability in the side. The wingers are often very far forward and although they track back often to assist the fullbacks, they’re often too far up field to consider this a, “two banks of 4” system. This system with two holding midfielders is meant to congest the center of the pitch and cut passing lanes in that area so teams are forced wide rather than playing through the back four. Notice in the picture above that the back four has essentially become a back six with the addition of the two holding mids. Having them there allows the fullbacks to stay wide rather than having to pinch inside to assist the center backs. This system is vital to their transition.
When many counter-attacking teams lose the ball in the midfield area, they go into panic mode. Players will sprint back desperately to avoid conceding. Often, Breitenreiter’s teams do the opposite. The attacking players of course drop back to assist the defense, but the defense steps up, aggressively trying to stop the counter before it starts. This is a very high risk, but high reward system, as it has the potential to leave them very exposed, and often it did last season. However, the reward of immediately catching the opposition in their own transition is the reason for the risk.
After 9 games in the 2013-14 season, Paderborn had just 9 points and were sitting just above the 2. Bundesliga’s relegation zone. The 10th game was against FC St. Pauli, Hamburg’s fanatically supported punk rock club. Breitenreiter desperately needed a result but after Mahir Saglik’s opener for Paderborn, St. Pauli equalized through Christopher Nöthe in the 66th minute. With time winding down, Johannes Wurtz found the winner for Paderborn and unknowingly started a climb up the 2. Bundesliga table.
This led to Paderborn having a chance to be promoted on the final day of the season, if they could get a result over VfR Aalen. Things did not get off to a good start with Joel Pohjanpalo opening the scoring for Aalen but Paderborn were quick to fire back, scoring goals through Marc Vučinović and Mario Vrančić to secure lowly Paderborn’s place in the Bundesliga.
Their stay in the top flight was brief, but they had some fantastic results along the way, including a 3-1 win over Europa League-bound Eintracht Frankfurt, with Marvin Ducksch, Uwe Hünemeier, and Stefan Kutschke providing the goals, although it ultimately would not be enough to keep Paderborn in the top flight.
Breitenreiter’s career is not quite long enough to say that he developed specific talents but he has had a distinct impact on the career of a few professionals who should be fixtures in German football. Elias Kachunga, Mario Vrančić (who Jürgen Klopp called “the brightest talent that Mainz has ever produced.”) and Lukas Rupp will all remain in the Bundesliga after being snapped up by FC Ingolstadt 04, SV Darmstadt 98, and VfB Stuttgart respectively. They got their chance in the top flight and showed that they can contribute after a tough season at Paderborn.
What remains to be seen is if Breitenreiter can revitalize a Schalke side that disappointed in 2014-15. Seemingly filled to the brim with young, bright talent, no manager in Gelsenkirchen has been able to solve the Schalke puzzle. Breitenreiter has a system that would seem to lend itself to a young, energetic side, but he’ll have to balance his counter attacking zeal with some level-headed defending and pragmatism. The future looks bright for Andre Breitenreiter, now that he’s making his own luck.