Cologne - In recent years, 'organisation', 'stability' and 'clean sheets' are not buzzwords or phrases associated with FC Schalke 04, but all that has changed since new head coach Robert Di Matteo has begun to get his message across in Gelsenkirchen.
After a difficult teething period following his arrival back in October, Di Matteo's men have risen to third in the table for the first time this season. Three goals for, one against and seven points from three games suggests they are getting a lot of things right at the back.
"Keeping things tight by staying organised - that's exactly what the coach wants," says defender Joel Matip, perfectly describing the Royal Blues' tactics in their last match, a 1-0 win over Borussia Mönchengladbach. Di Matteo's men allowed the Foals over 70 per cent of possession on Matchday 20, but conceded their first shot on goal with 65 minutes played, eventually securing the points thanks to Tranquillo Barnetta's third goal of the season.
The key to the ploy's success lies in its simplicity. In front of a back three, a midfield trio protect and restrict the spaces in front of the defence, with two wing-backs tracking back and supporting the two attackers going forward. The structure of the team is easily identifiable as individuals are rarely pulled out of position, instead moving across the pitch as a unit. Crucially, the gaps between each row of players are kept tight, denying the opposition space to enjoy possession in areas where Schalke are vulnerable.
'They parked the bus'
This approach worked a treat against Gladbach, even if it was not the prettiest of performances and a major factor in a game that promised much in the way of excitement, but delivered comparably little. Granit Xhaka accused Schalke of "parking the bus", while Tony Jantschke said post-game: "I've played here a lot and they've rarely been this defensive."
Schalke's plan was a carbon copy of the one they adopted in their previous home match - another 1-0 win at home to Hannover 96 - and, to an extent, their 1-1 draw at champions FC Bayern München on Matchday 19. Correspondingly, the difference to how they lined up in their last league defeat - a 2-1 home reverse to 1. FC Köln, when Billy Goats striker Anthony Ujah used his pace to effectively exploit both a high defensive line and wide gaps between the lines, is clear for all to see. The Rückrunde may be three games old but no striker has come close to troubling this supremely organised rearguard, giving ideal protection to rookie goalkeeper Timon Wellenreuther.
No 'BBC' repeat
In the coming days, Schalke will be up against two very different, but very adept, front lines, against whom their progress will provide a better reflection of how well Di Matteo's ideas have been studied and executed. This weekend, Eintracht Frankfurt and Alexander Meier, top scorer in the Bundesliga with 14 goals, are the opposition, before the mighty Real Madrid CF roll into the Veltins Arena for a UEFA Champions League last-16 tie next Wednesday.
Twelve months ago, the Spaniards' attacking trio of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo humbled the Royal Blues' defence to the tune of a 6-1 thrashing at the same stage of the competition, and the defending European champions are firm favourites to progress to the last eight this time around as well. However, this season's two-legged clash is likely to be a much closer affair. Di Matteo, the man whose defensive nous helped conquer FC Barcelona and Bayern en route to winning the tournament in 2012, will want nothing less.
Dietmar Nolte / Bernie Reeves