Domenico Tedesco: The German-Italian revolutionizing Gelsenkirchen

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In a period where clubs in England, Spain and other major footballing countries are hesitant to trust a young football manager to handle first team coaching responsibilities, it is refreshing to see the Germans taking a different route. There are at least 5 teams in the German Bundesliga who are managed by someone under 40. This trend of young managers being at the helm started with Julian Nagelsmann (28 at that time) who replaced Huub Stevens in 2016. Julian Nagelsmann made a particularly impressive step up from the youth level to the senior stage. Following this trend young minds like Domenico Tedesco, Hannes Wolf, Sandro Schwarz are all at the helms of top footballing clubs across Germany.

The idea of looking at a young manager with little to no experience is largely frowned upon — it is seen as taboo, and barely anyone at boardroom level has the ‘cojones’ to take the plunge on a younger manager, fearful that their own jobs will be on the line for sticking their neck out on an unknown. Unlike young players, young managers are seen as risky ventures, not ones for the future. Hoffenheim broke the mold, and a number of teams began re-evaluating how they conducted the business of finding a manager. The general footballing setup might be favorable to this too.

Julian Nagelsmann has done a terrific job since taking over in February 2016, taking a relegation-threatened side to the Champions League places. The impressive performance of Julian Nagelsmann didn’t go unnoticed as a couple of teams became keen on hiring young managers.

Schalke have been inconsistent ever since the turn of the decade. They last won a trophy in 2011, the DFB Pokal. That same summer, Manuel Neuer made his big-money move to FC Bayern Munich. The loss of Neuer not only signalled the loss of a great goalkeeper, but the move took a toll on Schalke for many years to come: in the years prior to his sale, Schalke were a fixture in the top three in the Bundesliga; in the years after, they’ve gone through five managers, and have not achieved a top-three finish since the 2013-14 season.

The story of Domenico Tedesco

The appointment of Austrian Markus Wienzierl at the start of the 2016 season proved to be a bad decision as they got off to the worst start in their history. Die Knappen would drop towards the bottom half of the Bundesliga table for most of the season, and inconsistency plagued the team, to the extent that, while capable of scoring four goals against Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayer Levekusen, they would lose matches against lowly Darmstadt, as well as drawing countless others against the Bundesliga’s bottom-feeders. Eventually Wienzierl was sacked at the end of the season and on the same day a young unknown manager Domenico Tedesco inked a 2 year deal.

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Domenico Tedsesco is an Italian German-born in Rossano, Italy, located 60 miles away from the home of the Serie A Club Crotone. His parents moved to Germany when he was two years old. Tedesco grew up playing football at county level. Tedesco had a rather unconventional path to reach the managerial summit.  A more feasible way would have been to work on coaching badges and proving our credentials. But Tedesco didn’t come up that way. He got a bachelor’s degree in business engineering, followed it up with a master’s in innovative management and he became a qualified engineer capable of speaking 5 languages fluently. While working for Mercedes, he became a youth coach for the Stuttgart u17 side and slowly made his way up before linking up with Hoffenheim u19s in 2016. Coming out as the topper of the class of 2016 (ahead of his close friend Julian Nagelsmann) of the Hennes-Weisweller Academy, Tedesco has taken an unlikely route to stardom.

After the stint at Hoffenheim, Tedesco had what he needed to break out as a coach on his own. He saw an opportunity in coaching FC Erzgebirge Aue. Aue were in the bottom three and there were only 11 games left for them to play in the season. At the time, Helge Leonhardt, Aue’s president, had faith in Tedesco and took a gamble with him. It turned out to be a great decision the end as Tedesco steered them to safety from the brink of relegation.

His players are well aware of his sense of humour due to many comical moments he created during his stay. They are also aware that this sense of humour comes with a great belief in education and discipline. According to Tedesco discipline is very important and small things like saying a ‘hello’ or a ‘thank you’ can bring about a lot of change in squad harmony and also in the mentality of the team.

Tedesco saw this as his chance to showcase his coaching and took the job on March 8th, 2017. It was his moment and he took it with much honour. Since he had a huge task ahead of him, with little time, Tedesco had to act fast. He brought in strategies and tactics to the team that he thought would get the job done. He borrowed them from the experience he had at his former club Hoffenheim. His level of profiling the opponent’s team is phenomenal.

On top of that, he instills confidence in his players by allowing them to play the way they want and then adding some few tactics to harness their skills. He explains: “As a matter of principle, I would like to be able to exhale a goal with my teams as soon as possible and to try to think vertically with the ball, but the focus should be on the ball to quickly recapture it.”

Coming to Aue on a short notice would turn out to be the best thing for the young manager. His success to save Aue from relegation, taking 20 points in 11 games and being able to successfully manage a sinking team within just 3 months was tremendous. He won many plaudits for his tenure there and eventually Schalke took notice.

Since taking over at the Veltins Arena in June, Tedesco has done a tremendous job to bring back a previously struggling giant back to its original place, being one of the best Bundesliga teams. He has managed to impress his players including those who are elder to him like Naldo. Schalke’s veteran defender is particularly impressed as he praises his manager, “Sometimes you find people who can convince you of something when they tell or explain something to you. He’s got that gene from God. In a short space of time, he’s really announced himself as a coach. He has a brilliant knowledge of the game as well. He’s one of the most complex coaches I’ve ever come across.”

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Upon joining Schalke, Tedesco did something which would have been previously unthinkable, especially from a manager who would already be frowned upon due to his young age. He let two of Schalke’s biggest players, Benedikt Howedes and Klaas Jan Hunterlaar leave the club. What surprised most was he didn’t even mind signing proper replacements. After a patchy start to his Schalke career, three losses in 6 games had plunged back to the previous season’s mediocrity, Tedesco upped his ante without making any major changes to his tactics. He continued to stress on defensive organization and discipline at the back. As weeks passed, Schalke became all the more impressive with a 4-4 draw against arch rivals Borussia Dortmund at Signal Iduna Park, where Schalke came back from 4-0 down to draw 4-4 being the highlight.

Domenico Tedesco tactics

Tactically, Tedesco sets up his teams to play attacking and direct football while maintaining compactness both vertically and horizontally. His Schalke team is flexible and multidimensional and they seemingly adapt to any situation thrown at them.

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Schalke’s basic structure

His teams generally play a 3-5-2 which becomes 5-4-1 during defending with one of the strikers dropping behind to form a midfield diamond. More than formation and tactics, it is the mental thirst and motivation instilled by Tedesco that gets the best out of his teams. Tedesco gives utmost importance to even the minutest of details and video footage are essential in his coaching.

Playing with three at the back and two central midfielders is a good way to deny central penetration because you are likely to always have a man advantage unless you are getting caught on the counter. In return, it forces other teams to go to the wings and in the rare circumstances, you get a crossing fest. Schalke always press opponents’ wide players, shutting down the center and pressing the ball on the flanks after directing play there.

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Schalke defensive organisation

Domenico Tedesco insists on aggressive midfield pressing, quick turnovers and lightning-fast transitions and switching. The aim is to relocate the ball to a dangerous zone as quickly as possible. The only problem here is the opponent because they might readily counter Schalke’s counter which is why the vertical game is cancelled by Schalke which makes explosive attacking difficult. Tedesco reacts to such situations by creating playful solutions for which Max Meyer is the key (has been the key this season.

Tedesco’s transitioning of Max Meyer into a player who can sit in a double pivot and help stabilize play has been nothing short of fantastic. Tedesco has identified Meyer’s profile to suit this role and the tasks that come along with it and it is safe to say that the German has stepped up admirably to this change in position.

The other midfielder is not only required to serve as a ball carrier, but also act as a ball distributor thanks to his good technique and ball control. As the central man on the court, he always has at least five direct play stations in the 3-5-2 with the central defenders and the two ball near players. If he wants to shift the game, in addition even the two wingers/wing backs are available.

The presence of players like Meyer, Leon Goretzka or Amine Harit a strong and especially ball-safe center is created with the two hard-working strikers Guido Burgstaller and Franco Di Santo supporting. Di Santo is a player who likes to get involved in the build-up, fall back and ideally pull the opponent’s defensive chain apart as well and he becomes the tip of the diamond when the team defends

When one of the two advanced midfielders bumps into the opponent’s defense, one of the two from the midfield immediately moves forward and into the free space on the center forward position to come in final situations.

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The pressing scheme from Tedesco’s Schalke has been much of interest due to the well executed and efficient nature of the press. The ball is forced into the center in a very unsteady manner so that the ball near 8’s can press and win the ball from the opponent. The role of the two strikers here is vital as they need to close the channels to force the ball into the center.

The goal is to conquer the ball as deep as possible in the opponent’s half, to get to the goal as quickly as possible.  Shorter the way to the goal, the harder the Schalke counterattack is to defend.  The key here is the compact centre, a 3-5-2 a kind of central pentagon (six, two eights, two center-forward) is formed. This pentagon as a whole shifts in the direction of the ball-bearing opponent to put him under pressure. If the covered center axis is good, ideally the central playmaker of the opponent will be encircled and thus almost taken out of play.  The winger’s duty when in possession of the ball is to deliver balls/ move into the attacking outside as quickly as possible and the opposing one also plays an important role by cutting inside to provide an additional option in the final third. The striker forms a cover shadow in this case as Schalke continue pressing high up the pitch

When the opponent uses long balls there is very little to get against Schalke, as Tedesco has excellent headers of the ball Naldo or Nastasic and Kehrer, against whom there is little to catch in the air.  Naldo with his 1.99 meters frame is almost insurmountable and a rock in the surf has been leading the defense with example although the contributions of Kehrer, Nastasic and Stambouli shouldn’t go unnoticed

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The compact shape off the ball is a well practised and well drilled game play that Schalke have mastered under Tedesco’s tutlelage. The ball near 8’s have a key role in pressing the opponent’s first line when the ball moves to the side and force turnovers. The ball needs to be fed into the right channels once the ball is won back and this is something that Schalke have gotten good at as time has wore on.

For Tedesco, it is enormously important that his team retains defensive stability with or without the ball. The whole three-way chain remains compact, almost without exception behind the ball and thus always creating superior number against the opposing striker. In addition, the two outside players (mostly Daniel Caligiuri and Bastian Oczipka) are positioned so deep against the ball that the defensive line is converted into a five-string.

Apart from this Schalke have one of the best records in both set piece defending and attacking. This shows Tedesco’s emphasis to leave no stone unturned when it comes to practice.

Tedesco man-management

Perhaps Domenico Tedesco’s biggest plus is his communication and oratory skills. Ralf Fahrmann, Schalke captain says, “He has a God-given gift,” also adding, “Sometimes you find people who can convince you of something when they tell or explain something to you. He’s got that gene from God.” Not only Fahrmann he has left players, club staff and board members in awe with his confidence and persona

Tedesco puts a lot of emphasis on team spirit and cohesion. In fact, a day after a 1-1 draw with Wolfsburg on Matchday 10, Tedesco reportedly surprised his team with a hamburger party at training – when most of his players had probably expected an intense conditioning session.

Tedesco’s relationship with his players may be the most surprising facet of his early tenure. Some suspected the opposite may be true after he fell out with Benedikt Höwedes and Klaas Jan Huntelaar. The longtime Schalke player moved Juventus after Tedesco had stripped the captaincy off him. Since then, however, he has gotten the most out of players like Franco di Santo and Max Meyer, who is now a fixture in Schalke’s midfield. In Amine Harit and Bastian Oczpika he made two signings that have perfectly moulded into his team

“He fits us, 100 percent,” Schalke chairman Clemens Tönnies said in an interview published in Kicker recently. “He communicates perfectly and he interacts with the club and the established people very well — and that after only a short period of time. I am proud that he is here.”

His management, communication skills and tactical prowess in particular have taken Germany by storm. His road to footballing management is not the usual one and he has all the ability and potential to leave an indelible legacy in the game. He is a passionate leader with great vision who can rewrite history with his managerial skills.