While this website has made its 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. Ross Bramble turn his discerning eye to Domenico Tedesco’s Schalke.
32 years old and managing a team second in the Bundesliga. This is usually a scenario confined to the files of a Football Manager save, but in 2018, it’s reality for one Domenico Tedesco. The German-Italian had no experience of Germany’s top flight when he took the job at Schalke on June 9th 2017, having only played for ASV Aichwald in the lowest tier of German football during his brief stint as a footballer. His true vocation was as a wholesale merchant; a bachelor’s degree in business engineering, a master’s in innovation management and full control of five different languages are all very impressive accolades, but hardly the CV of a managerial prodigy.
Topping your German football federation’s coaching course, however, is a distinction that should pique the interest of any and all chairmen. Tedesco managed to outperform the highly-vaunted Julian Nagelsmannn in that class, too. He got his break as the assistant of Stuttgart’s U8s team, before moving on to both assist and then manage the U17 squad. He later joined the coaching staff in Hoffenhaim’s academy, where he was reunited with former classmate Nagelsmann. His first big break came in the Bundesliga.2 with FC Erzgebirge Aue; 13 points in his first five games helped lift the basement boys out of the relegation zone, and ultimately retain their league status by three clear points. His appointment at Schalke came completely from left-field at the start of the 2017-18 season, but Tedesco took the Royal Blues to a comfortable 2nd place finish. How did he do it?
Although his personality and charisma are huge pieces of the Tedesco puzzle, the path to unpicking his success starts with an understanding of his tactical philosophy and team shape. His preferred formation is a 3-4-3, but the exact number of players in each bank of the field alters depending on the opposition and the state of play; 3-4-3 in a game Schalke can expect to win, 3-5-2 in a game Schalke can expect to be on the back foot, and variations of both depending on certain scenarios.
What both of these formations preach is defensive solidity with an attacking intent. When out of possession, the full-backs drop deep into a defensive five, progressing forward to cut off passes and put pressure on opposition wingers. The holding midfielders are the ones doing the most pressing, however; in the case of our two selections, Bentaleb and Goretzka (while he was still at the club) chased the ball into corners, forcing the opponents further back and into the pressing-range of the Schalke strikers. When the ball does cross the midfield, the players drop deeper and continue to harry the ball, while wing backs now step forward and try to push the ball further back down field. A defensive five, really, is Schalke’s default setting; when out of possession, the aim of the game is to pressure the opponent’s passing rhythm until the ball returns to the Royal Blues. As soon as the ball is won, the wingers push up to create more options, the strikers break forward and the two central midfielders begin to advance. Attacks are built to be swift, potent and direct.
One of the more interesting changes implemented under Tedesco’s rule was the re-positioning of Max Meyer. Meyer’s qualities were generally applied to more attacking rules, either as a playmaker or a winger, and on occasion as a centre forward. Tedesco, however, gave him a new task; at the heart of a five-man midfield, Meyer was deployed in a central defensive role. He was, much like the rest of his team-mates, responsible for pressing the opponent and trying to win back the ball with consistent pressure, but his real role was to utilise his creativity when possession returned to Schalke. Dropping Meyer so deep in the midfield drew markers toward him in an attempt to quash his creativity. Instinctively, he looked to play his way out of trouble; his ability to see passes that players like Bentaleb and Goretzka perhaps didn’t, allowing Schalke to play out from deep, with wingers and strikers breaking into the space created by opposition players who tried to close Meyer down. Playing such a talented attacker so deep was controversial among some pundits, but no-one can deny the results. Meyer recorded a very high pass completion rate last season (89.1%), creating some good chances for his teammates.
Positioning and responsibility are key to maintaining the shape that Schalke have now become to accustomed to. Each player needs to know when the obligation to press falls on them; in the above image, we see both strikers dropped deep into midfield with the central pair close behind. Further back, we see Max Meyer in his deep playmaker role, with the back five stretching behind him. Each has an area of influence in which they become responsible for pressing the ball, but must fall quickly back into position when the ball leaves their pressing zone. Tedesco has said in interviews that video footage – which he is a particularly astute and vociferous proponent of – and continuous training drills have helped forge this rigid defensive structure, but that key communicators are required to make the press work. Players need to be able to pull each other back into formation if any begin to stray, and remind one another who should be pressing the ball as it comes forward. Constant communication and keen dedication are what makes this formation work; this is where Tedesco’s personality becomes so key.
Off the field
His tactics are carefully crafted and his methods well-drilled, but what sets Tedesco apart are his interpersonal skills. His charisma, charm and focus have rubbed off on his players, fostering a team ethic that replicates that of their manager. He demands everything from his players in every training session, let alone every match, but he is open and considerate enough to open the floor to his players. Tedesco alters his positions and responsibilities depending on the reaction of his players; those who press three out of five occasions are given the support they require to better aid their teammates, whether that be by altering their position or encouraging strikers to drop deeper to support them. The team works for one another for the common cause. That said, those who truly do revolt or refuse to match the standards Tedesco sets are quickly called out on their sloth; the young coach has publicly criticised the physical condition of Breel Embolo and thrown the captain out on loan in his first six months. For most young coaches, that’s a death wish. For Tedesco, it’s just the way things work. The team fights for one another and sets the standard for all those around them; those who can’t commit are exposed.
Clemens Fandrich, a midfielder on loan from Leipzig during Tedesco’s time at Erzgebirge Aue, said that he could “watch a game eight times and I would never see what Tedesco sees.” The Schalke keeper Ralf Fährmann speaks just as highly, claiming the Italian had a “God-given gift” for coaching. It was never more apparent that Tedesco was something special than during the now legendary 4-4 draw against fierce rivals Dortmund in November of 2017. The Royal Blues were 4-0 down inside 25 minutes, but Tedesco remained calm while all around him fell into disarray. At half time, he knelt down to the players level and spoke calmly and positively; the plan was to win the second half, but to stick with the principals they had worked so hard to master in the past few months. His empathetic motivation was exactly what the doctor ordered; 4 goals in the second half brought Schalke back to parity in an astonishing Revierderby.
Ultimately, Tedesco is a passionate, principled, driven young coach who preaches a tactical approach rooted in the very same attributes. His mind, however, is perhaps his greatest asset. His magnetic personality and understated charm lures players, fans and pundits into his world with little resistance. The passion he inspires is palpable on the field, and the transformation of Schalke from perennial crisis club to one of Europe’s most promising sides is in no small part to his methods. At 33 years old and still only in his third professional management position, the hype may be considered by some as a little premature. But there is little doubt that Domenico Tedesco is a manager on the rise, and if he should continue on this path, it can’t conceivably be too much longer before the envious eyes of Europe’s biggest clubs are soon cast on the Veltins-Arena and their budding young coach.