Di Matteo tasked with steering Schalke back on course
Gelsenkichen - This Saturday marks the start of a fresh chapter in the long and colourful club annals of FC Schalke 04, as Roberto Di Matteo takes his bow on the touchline at home to Hertha Berlin.
The former Italy international replaced Jens Keller in the wake of the 2-1 defeat at TSG 1899 Hoffenheim on Matchday 7 that dropped Schalke down to eleventh in the standings.
Good first impression
Given that Keller was fresh from guiding the Royal Blues into an automatic UEFA Champions League group stage slot on the back of their best-ever second season-half in the Bundesliga, his successor can reasonably be said to have landed up in one of German football's hottest coaching hot seats. Di Matteo is well aware of that, however, as he demonstrated during a poised debut appearance before the media at the Veltins Arena. Asked about his prospects of maintaining a moderate degree of control over the famously volatile environment in which Schalke operate, the 44-year-old tactician wryly noted, “Nobody's managed that in a hundred years. You can't control the environment, you just have to deal with it.”
His own capacity to deliver results under pressure has been in little doubt since 19 May 2012 when, as caretaker coach, he led Chelsea FC to a penalty shoot-out victory over FC Bayern München at the Allianz Arena, securing them a debut UEFA Champions League title. Neither is he a stranger to the flipside of top-level management, having been subsequently offloaded by the London outfit in November of the same year. Schalke are not setting the bar quite so high but, while emphasising the need for a degree of patience, Di Matteo made no bones about the fact that “automatic qualification for the Champions League remains the season objective” in Gelsenkirchen. The journey commences under the new coach this weekend and his first priority is to tighten up a backline “that's been having a few problems.” Only two teams have conceded more goals than Schalke's twelve this season - Saturday's visitors Hertha being one of them - and, while acknowledging that injury problems have played their part, Di Matteo stressed that “we have to work on our defensive structure.” Countering suggestions this might imply a defensive mindset per se, in light above all of Chelsea's 'park-the-bus' tactics against Bayern in Munich, he made the point that, “We chose a specific strategy to try and win that game but if you look at the bigger picture, my teams have always scored a lot of goals.”
Consistency the key
That will come as music to the ears of the multitudinous Schalke faithful, who demand not only that their team succeed but that they also do so in style - another tradition to which the Swiss-born former midfielder is familiar, having long been “fascinated” by the Bundesliga as a whole. “The first thing I associate with Schalke is passion, and above all the passion of the fans,” he said, almost by way of an introduction, at his official unveiling. Patchy as their form has been so far, his new charges have shown already that they are more than capable of holding their own against the very best, as testified by 1-1 draws with Bayern in the Bundesliga and at Di Matteo's former employers Chelsea in the Champions League - to say nothing of the Matchday 6 victory over eternal Ruhr district rivals Dortmund. If anything, it was the Royal Blues' inconsistency against supposed 'lesser lights' at home and abroad which expedited Keller's departure to make way for the club's twelfth head coach in the last ten years. “A good start against Hertha” is all the new man is focusing on for the moment at a club where the stakes, like the expectations, are always high. If he can add a measure of defensive stability to the team's undoubted attacking flair, and with a raft of injured stars gradually returning to the fold as well, Di Matteo could just be the one to finally guide Schalke to some heavy-duty silverware.