Convention tells us that tactical trends change in cycles. Possession was the style du jour after Pep Guardiola’s success with Barcelona. Counter-pressing was in vogue after Jürgen Klopp’s success at Borussia Dortmund. Strikerless formations dominated the last World Cup, while the success of Italy under Antonio Conte at Euro 2016 has resurrected the back-three defence.
As the most tactically sophisticated league in European football, the Bundesliga should throw up some interesting propositions this season. Dortmund under Tuchel’s stewardship have a number of precocious options, About 30km up the road, arch rivals Schalke have stepped cautiously out of a self-perpetual shadow of being the league’s crisis club – to being one of the most interesting projects for the new campaign.
The Royal Blues have acquired two of the brightest brains in German football: Christian Heidel, as sporting director, and Markus Weinzierl as head coach. Both were inspirational in their own ways, building their own clubs with values and foundations.
Heidel, who worked in the family business as a car trader, built Mainz from the bottom up into a modern stalwart of the Bundesliga, with a brand new stadium and one of the best youth departments in Germany. Weinzierl, meanwhile, steadied Augsburg in the Bundesliga for around four years and took the club into the Europa League for the first time. Amid a backdrop of history, tradition and a demanding fanbase, the combination of two leaders, whose clubs have tackled Schalke on numerous occasions, is interesting.
Just weeks after walking in the door, replacing Horst Heldt who had served the club for six seasons, Heidel was active in the transfer market, picking up the vastly-experienced Naldo from Wolfsburg on a free transfer. The 33-year-old centre-back brings a wealth of knowledge to the side, having made almost 300 Bundesliga appearances.
For 27 million euros, the club signed Breel Embolo from Basel, the 19-year-old who was hot on the radar of many European clubs. The fact that Schalke beat many elite clubs to his signature has already earned Heidel a glowing report card for his first 100 days in office. On Sunday, Heidel completed deals for Sevilla right-back Coke and Abdul Rahman Baba, on loan from Premier League side Chelsea.
However, Schalke’s rebuilding will take place without talented teenager Leroy Sane who has joined Manchester City. Negotiations were protracted as City wanted him immediately, rather than waiting until next year to activate a release clause. Securing top value for the youngster was a job well done for Heidel. Further attacking reinforcements will arrive before the end of the transfer window next month, and how Weinzierl pieces together this squad is quite as fascinating.
German football magazine 11Freunde placed Schalke as runner-up in their pre-season predictions; that’s the kind of expectations that has seen the axe fallen on 15 different coaches in 15 years. Weinzierl is certainly no tactical revolutionary, but his sides are competitive with a compact defensive structure. The continuity of his selections at Augsburg, the clear roles and responsibilities, and the formation of a positive club culture helped Weinzierl’s sides avoid relegation battles entirely.
Schalke’s business this summer is far from finished now that Sane has departed. Yet the moves made by Heidel and Weinzierl so far perhaps illustrate the kind of plan Schalke will look to implement this season. Competition is fierce for centre-back positions – there’s Germany international Benedikt Höwedes, Matija Nastasic and Naldo vying for a starting spot. One more option would give optimum cover in central defensive areas.
Kolasinac and Baba, who played under Weinzierl at Augsburg, offer brilliant attacking options on the left. Coke, Atsuto Uchida and Junior Caicara will fight for the spot on the right. Such a varied set of options defensively aid the argument for Schalke to adopt a back-three this season.
Weinzierl’s teams were built on the same solid foundations at Augsburg, with clean sheets laying the roots for success. When he was able to field Ragnar Klavan, Jan-Ingwer Callsen-Bracker and Daniel Baier, the Bavarians were a match for everyone. If defences win championships, then stability at the back fosters the right culture to succeed.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s championship-winning teams were formed out of a solid base. Portugal, the current European champions, were built on defence, while Germany’s World Cup winners included two of the top centre backs in the game and the best keeper. Conte’s Italy played three at the back and the Azzurri were almost once again the nemesis of Germany’s national team at a European Championship.
Although swashbuckling, attacking football is intertwined in the tapestry of Schalke 04, now is the time for cool-headed pragmatism as the club embarks on a third season out of the Champions League. While Roberto Di Matteo’s sides were inherently negative, the four-man chain at the back was exposed consistently nder Jens Keller and Andre Breitenreiter in all competitions.
A tenet of Weinzierl’s coaching values is making use of what tools he has at his disposal. If the Royal Blues can successfully rack up clean sheets this season with a powerful back-three, the team’s attacking prowess and individual brilliance will deal with itself. If the new coach can find the right equilibrium, Schalke can certainly become a difficult opponent for any side in the league.