It began with a 31-year-old rookie boss, with just months of head coaching experience, no European football to look forward to, and a public needing to be won over. On Sunday afternoon, it reached an apparent denouement, gloriously, with sweet victory over their fierce local rivals Borussia Dortmund, with Champions League football within touching distance and with that coach, Domenico Tedesco, wildly celebrating with the fans as Schalke enjoyed their best day in recent memory.
Fittingly, as the jubilant players approached the hardcore on the Veltins-Arena’s Nordkurve, Tedesco – now a seasoned 32 – took centre stage clasped to his defensive rock, the Brazilian Naldo, three years his coach’s senior. This moment, underlining the closeness of the two, highlighted much of the respect that Tedesco has garnered from players who were weary, possibly sceptical and whose expectations had been lowered after a poor season under his predecessor, Markus Weinzierl, which had left Die Königsblauen as close to the relegation play-off as they were to European qualification.
Speaking to The Independent’s Archie Rhind-Tutt last month, Naldo called Tedesco “the best coach I ever had” in a decade and a half of senior football, which is some claim. Tedesco’s preparation and eye for detail has got the best out of a good but not outstanding squad, with the veteran Brazilian a good example of that. The towering centre-back has played every minute of Schalke’s Bundesliga campaign to date in a defence that has conceded less goals than any team apart from Bayern Munich.
With two younger, nippier defenders either side of him in Tedesco’s three-man backline – in Sunday’s case, Benjamin Stambouli and 21-year-old Thilo Kehrer - Naldo’s slowing pace hasn’t been much of an issue. His power has come to the fore, and he has chipped in with seven goals in the league – he followed up his memorable headed leveller as Schalke came from 4-0 down to draw at Dortmund in November with a trademark rocket of a shot from a free-kick to seal Sunday’s win over the old enemy.
The highlight reel will give the fans a great deal of pleasure post-season, but it’s everything in between that makes Tedesco’s work so impressive. To say Schalke’s supporters have overbearing expectations from past, pre-Bundesliga glories would be unfair, but this is a demanding club with significant pressures. They expect brave, normally front-foot, attacking football. Tedesco’s style this season has been courageous in another way – bucking tradition, prizing defensive organisation and containment.
The coach knew he was taking a risk, with the unloved Roberto Di Matteo’s defensive tactics not tolerated when results began to turn. While Tedesco’s side may be more graft than craft, however, they have shown that defending well and being ambitious are not mutually exclusive. They are totally committed, and that has come across well to the faithful.
The opening day win over RB Leipzig set the tone for gritty, possession-light football punctuated by swift counters, normally emanating from wide areas. That was again the template here, with Daniel Caligiuri prominent at wing-back, creating the opener for Yevhen Konoplyanka and teeing up Naldo’s piledriver amid a lung-busting performance that stretched Dortmund’s defence at one end and helped keep their mastery of the ball strictly sterile at the other. Caligiuri, who was drifting at Wolfsburg, and Konoplyanka are two more players that Tedesco has coaxed much more out of than their previous coaches.
On the other bench, Peter Stöger had known what to expect – he acknowledged pre-match that Nuri Sahin would keep his place because BVB would have a lot of the ball, and they ended up with 59% of possession – but his players could do little about it. “We totally screwed it up,” lamented Marco Reus, a rare attacking threat for the visitors, afterwards. “We let them play.”
Dortmund’s sporting director, Michael Zorc, trailed the possibility before the match that Stöger might still stay, highlighting his run of just one defeat in 12 Bundesliga games before this that has allowed Dortmund to get back on course for Champions League qualification. Gratitude can only stretch so far, though.
It’s hard to see how any Dortmund coach losing successive away games 6-0 at Bayern and then the Revierderby could be considered a long-term bet. As Stöger stood passive, stony-faced, almost motionless as his side eventually rolled over, the difference in demeanour between the Austrian and the livewire Tedesco – jumping, clapping and wildly gesticulating across his technical area – did not go unnoticed.
“One coach lived the derby,” wrote Der Westen’s Peter Müller. “He was sweating his polo shirt all the way through. The other coach was able to put his yellow jacket back in the cupboard after the game with all the creases in the right places.” Tedesco was only getting sweatier at full time, beckoned into the Nordkurve to lead chants by the fans in the ultimate honour.
“It’s a privilege to stand in the Nordkurve,” Tedesco said, not for a minute forgetting the power of the collective. “The whole team deserves to celebrate with them.” Having done his work – Schalke are now four points ahead of Dortmund and need an absolute maximum of five more points in four games to mathematically seal a Champions League spot – he now needs sporting director, Christian Heidel, to do his.
They will lose Leon Goretzka – who has already signed for Bayern – and the similarly out-of-contract Max Meyer at the end of the season, and the squad needs to be beefed up in terms of numbers and quality with a return to Europe to negotiate. Yet with Tedesco at the helm, negotiating slightly choppier waters ahead doesn’t seem so much of a daunting prospect.
• Bayern celebrated their sixth successive title in relaxed fashion, with many of the players bringing their children on to the pitch with them before the home game with Borussia Mönchengladbach. Yet once they eventually got underway – with Thiago Alcântara junior not too happy at having to leave the field – it was back to business. Josip Drmic’s early goal only served to provoke Jupp Heynckes’ side, missing a clutch of rested key players but pitiless, demolishing the nearest they have to a bogey side 5-1, notably with a double from Sandro Wagner and one from Thiago senior. The standards for Heynckes’ successor, Niko Kovac, are already clear.
• Kovac’s current club, Eintracht Frankfurt, aren’t over the moon about the way the succession went down, with sporting director, Fredi Bobic, chiding Bayern as “unprofessional” in a Friday press conference. Seemingly half the sports photographers in Germany were waiting for Kovac as he took the bench for Saturday’s match at Bayer Leverkusen, in which his team gave a strong first-half performance against rivals for Europe before being blown away by Kevin Volland’s late hat-trick. Kovac still has plenty on his plate before moving back south, with a top six finish up for grabs – plus, potentially, two meetings with his future employers should Bayern and Eintracht both win their DfB Pokal semi-finals this week.
• Hamburg’s and Köln’s threatened revivals were truncated by losses at Hoffenheim and Hertha respectively – and both will be eight points from safety, and as good as down if Mainz beat Freiburg in Monday night’s game.