As I stepped off the plane at Düsseldorf International Airport, it was cold, wet and quite gloomy, not too different from the likes of Torino or Swindon. The club had provided a private pickup for me for the journey to Gelsenkirchen. I’m staying in an apartment block less than 10 mins away from the training ground but it’s hard to tell what it’s like from the outside as it’s pretty dark by the time I arrived, I’ll get to see it properly the following morning. I’ve done my homework on the squad, looking at each individual player. The advantage of having to catch a flight over from Bristol is that I could watch old tapes of games and how they have performed already this season. But how is a Swindonian going to manage with not being able to speak a word of German? Guess I’ll be needing to take up some lessons once I find my feet.
I met with the Sporting Director Christian Heidel to meet the backroom staff. Quite a few got binned off in the termination of mister Zaccheroni. It was clear that we needed more coaching staff, so after outlining my training schedules, Heidel had the task of bringing in the right personnel to join our team. From a scouting point of view we had 5 scouts but we had the availability to have double that in the department including data analysts. Due to Germany’s flexibility when it comes to foreign players, I wanted more of a global scouting team, so I gave our chief scout Jose Boto the task of shortlisting candidates.
Before I got to meet the players for the first time, a press conference was arranged for me to be introduced to the German media as Schalke’s new head coach. They put me under pressure from the get go, talking about my lack of experience in the Bundesliga, my sacking at Torino and willingness not to change tactical style or shape. Thankfully, I was full of confidence after being given the opportunity from the board and the warm welcome they have given me. I talked about the importance of reflection and how it has enabled me to grow as a manager. My Assistant and Sporting Director also chipped in with answers and we worked together as a team well. It seemed to go well and I’d like to think that we have started on the right foot with the media and the club.
As I made my way down to the training ground there were a number of fans around ready to watch, the club often put on weekly training sessions for the fans, keeping the club strong in the heart of the community. Thankfully the welcome was very warming and hopefully the relationship between myself, the club and fans can continue to prosper.
Meeting the squad, I was keen to get off to a good start and to ensure we all had each others back and that we would all be working towards the same common goal. We got a lot of hard working players with plenty of technical ability, we just need stability, focus and dedication to get this working. The response was positive and although squad was quite large, it was mainly unbalanced. Only one right back on the books, five centre backs, three left backs, four central midfielders that could cover the defensive strata too, five wingers and 3 strikers.
I decided that a 433 system with very little team instructions. The idea would be to utilise our hard working players, with an urgent pressing style. The high defensive line is something that I will be monitoring through each game as the acceleration of our central defenders is reasonable but I don’t want to be caught out. I’m sure things will take time to click together but I believe in this bunch of players to start to get points on the board and get back to the level of football the club deserves.
The next day was our first game and away to 1.FC Koln; who were down at the foot of the table right by us. It was important for us to get off to a positive start. Unfortunately things didn’t go our way, we were attempting to press too much and due to the lack of time on the training pitch working on the press, the boys were a bit like headless chickens. We headed back to Gelsenkirchen with a 3-1 defeat. I used our time on the team bus to discuss the positives from this, we created chances, we converted one, our defensive line was good, we just got sucked in too much with our pressing. It’s something we can work on but encouraged the boys not to get down about things. We’ve got a weeks worth of practice to make improvements, plus the five week winter break coming up straight after this, plenty of time to start to get familiar with things.
The following game was my first in front of the passionate Schalke fans in our home stadium. The atmosphere was incredible, the noise, the excitement, the emotion on each and every single fans face was something I’ve never experienced before. I used that to get the players going, getting them pumped and ready for this game was essential, it was important we ended the year on a high. We well and truly delivered to those spectacular fans; a 5-0 demolition of FC Magdeburg. We showed a much more controlled press, plenty of chances created from central and wide areas, and most importantly we were clinical in front of goal.
The turn of the year gave us a few difficult fixtures in quick succession, Leverkusen the joint league leaders, followed by Bayern, the destructive force of German football, who were right up there in the mix too.
We started very well against Leverkusen where I opted to lower the defensive line and the line of engagement. This worked as we limited them to minimal chances and we caught them on the break. What a start to 2021, a 1-0 victory over the top side.
I decided to go with the same plan against Bayern as it worked well the previous week, the only difference was I went with a cautious mentality, again this worked as we drew 2-2 with the giants, even taking the lead at one point. We then followed things up with a draw at Wolfsburg, I wasn’t too disappointed with this as it was still points on the board.
Then we hit February, and that’s when things started to hit home, although moral had started to go up following our first five games, confidence was still low in a number of the players. Fringe players who had been frozen out from the previous coach were displaying concerns and unhappiness. I had promised them all opportunities if they started showing me in training what they were capable of. This wasn’t happening and my Sporting Director informed me that the divide in the dressing room needed to be adjusted otherwise we were in deep trouble of hitting negative form again. So I gave some of these players a start in the Pokal against Bremen, Nubel, Mendyl, Bittencourt, Uth and Burgstaller to be precise. We drew the game 1-1 but lost it on penalties, it was a disappointing blow, and I really lost the confidence in these guys to step in and help us out.
We continued our unbeaten run in the league as we drew 1-1 with FSV Mainz. This was another blow as we played very well but lost concentration in the 88th minute and they equalised. Heads dropped and things didn’t get better away at RB Liepzig. After being 1-0 down we showed tremendous character to level things up at 1-1. We were looking strong and causing them issues but couldn’t grab a winner. Then we were hit with another sucker punch; in the name of Dolberg. He punished us twice, the 86th minute and the 95th, sending us home with a 3-1 defeat. What a blow.
I made a few rotations for the Augsburg match just to freshen things up and thankfully we came away with all 3 points in a 3-1 victory. I kept the same 11 for the away trip to Hannover and a mistake from young keeper Nubel in the 87th minute gave the home side the win. Concentration and complacency is something that needs to be addressed.
With 10 games to go, each game is really starting to be important. Another mistake from Nubel costs us more points as we fail at Freiburg, followed by a dreadful performance against Bremen, confidence has hit a low and the dressing room isn’t good.
Although Nubel has potential, I decided to drop him and place Pavlenka back in, who in fairness to him had done well when between the sticks. Out of all of the players who have been moaning about playing time, Nubel is the one I’ve wanted to keep happy the most. An international break gave us chance to regroup and go again, and what a difference it made. We smashed Frankfurt 4-0 in front of our home crowd, it injected some life back into the side. This started an exceptional run of form and the mood shifted back to a positive one. A 0-0 draw with Hertha, followed by three wins on the bounce, 3-0, 2-1 and 4-1 against Gladbach, Hoffenheim and Darmstadt respectively.
Things were looking so much better and the league was incredibly close. Next up, my first experience of the Revierderby and the yellow wall, the enemy Dortmund. Nubel had moaned again about not playing so I gave in and put him in the starting 11 thinking he might want to improve and fight for a place. We took the lead after 2 minutes thanks to Harit, we then went Cautious looking to hit them on the counter. Chance after chance we created but we couldn’t get a second. On comes Marius Wolf for BVB and the 6’2 winger equalises with his head from a corner with his first touch. Straight from the kick off we went close to re taking the lead, Embolo again coming close, then Harit hits the post. Dortmund win another corner, Nubel comes to claim, misses and Wolf scores a second. We had nothing to lose and with 10 minutes left I took off Rudy and brought on a second striker, a 424. Pushing on we were creating but not enough, then Gotze scored a screamer and crushed us. We lost 3-1.
Our final two games were 1.FC Koln which we managed to beat 3-2 but followed it up with a 1-0 defeat to Magdeburg, who were already relegated.
So there we have it, Leverkusen were crowned champions but look at how close it was for the top 3, right to the wire. Considering where we were when I took over, 17 points to be precise, we finished in a respectable 12th place on 43 points, just 5 points from a European spot, which shows how close it was. Take away a few mistakes, a drop in confidence and who knows how it could have ended. Statistics wise, we were strong in plenty of areas which is something to build on.
The plan for next season is to offload the moaners, strengthen the squad with people who actually want to play for the club, as there are a lot of fragile fairies here, and look at promoting some promising youngsters.
Thank you all for reading and sharing. Stay tuned for the next part of the Schalke Story.
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