Domenico Tedesco may have left Italy at the age of two, but it appears the country’s appreciation for defending had already taken root. His Schalke side are the success story of the season and heading for Europe.Schalke’s 2-0 win over Freiburg on Saturday was their sixth Bundesliga win in a row; and their best run since 2011-12 is one built on a remarkably solid foundation. A soft penalty converted by Daniel Caligiuri and a smart Guido Burgstaller finish was enough to see them past a Freiburg side who had captain Nils Petersen and coach Christain Streich sent off in the second half.
But until Breel Embolo tumbled over a trailing leg in the box to win the 63rd minute spot kick, the Royal Blues had struggled to break down their opponents, despite enjoying the lion’s share of possession and territory for a change.
Those chances they created against 11 men largely came from a high press implemented zealously by Embolo, Burgstaller and Franco di Santo, a player who inverts what you’d expect from an Argentinian playing in the number 10 role. He gets through a huge amount of work but rarely demonstrates any creativity. Perhaps the first defensive trequartista?
The three have just 14 league goals between them in nearly 4000 minutes of action but typify the ethos Tedesco rapidly forged in the club from Germany’s coal mining region.
Though Leon Goretzka has stolen many a headline this year, for Schalke, teamwork, aggression and organization are the keystones of a season where they’ve overachieved to such an extent that qualification for the Champions League now looks highly likely. They have a seven-point lead over Bayer Leverkusen in fifth.
The discipline that starts at the front went right through the side on Saturday, as they registered their fifth clean sheet in a row and eleventh of the season to preserve the second best defensive record in the league.
Tedesco’s men make the second most interceptions, third most tackles and most fouls, often of a tactical nature, in the Bundesliga. Their high press is less risky than it can be for some sides (for example Peter Bosz’s Dortmund) because the wingbacks – Caligiuri and Bastian Oczipka have the intelligence to drop and form a back five when the first phase of the press fails.
When Freiburg managed to break through that, they came up against a wall of three strong center backs, marshalled as well as ever by the ageless Naldo. When Tedesco offloaded Benedikt Höwedes, a World Cup winner who was long perceived as one of the shining lights for the Bundesliga’s most consistent underachievers, there were plenty who questioned the rookie coach’s judgement.
Building a backline around a 35-year-old was a risk but Tedesco’s 3-5-2 protects the Brazilian and his aerial threat remains a potent weapon for a side who still often lack thrust and nous in the final third. Naldo is Schalke’s second top scorer this term, with five league goals.
Among the many positives of Saturday’s performance and the season as a whole, the goalscoring record of his attacking players highlights an issue for Tedesco, one which he’ll need to address next term.
With Goretzka – and probably Max Meyer – departing in the coming months – Schalke will need to invest to find the cutting edge that will add a second string to their bow. The pre-contract agreement with Mark Uth, who scored a brace for Hoffenheim on Saturday, is a good start. But to compete in Europe and maintain this season’s displays will require them to add decoration to those foundations.
Everything Tedesco has done so far suggests he’ll be up to the challenge.