Roberto Di Matteo's defensive-minded tactics, which had taken Schalke into fourth before Matchday 23, have now come under scrutiny after a comprehensive derby defeat to Dortmund
Roberto Di Matteo's defensive-minded tactics, which had taken Schalke into fourth before Matchday 23, have now come under scrutiny after a comprehensive derby defeat to Dortmund

Schalke's Di Matteo facing tactical dilemma

Cologne - After FC Schalke 04's heaviest defeat in a Revierderby since September 1987, the head-scratching began for head coach Roberto Di Matteo.

Höger: ‘We were garbage’

A 3-5-2 formation with an emphasis on defence had been the basis for the team's slow and steady ascent of the league table since the 44-year-old's arrival, but this time the system was put forward as the reason for Schalke's limp display. “We have to take a look at whether or not we need to fundamentally change something,” said the Italian in his post-match press conference. “We have to see if we can still go forward with this system.”

Ostensibly the result looks bad enough for the Royal Blues, but it truth, 3-0 flattered Di Matteo’s charges. Dortmund racked up 31 shots on goal - their highest number in any game since records began - whilst also enjoying 64 per cent possession, playing more passes, forcing more corners and winning more tackles. Their three goals eventually came in the final 12 minutes, but BVB might easily have hit double figures, and to describe the flow of the game as ‘one-way traffic’ would be a major understatement.

Inevitably, the inquest into why the visitors were so passive in the game dominated the post-match discussion. “Our plan had been to use the width of the pitch and hit them on the break, but we couldn’t manage it,” said Dennis Aogo, while captain Benedikt Höwedes surmised, “We thought we'd be able to stop them playing by having two holding midfielders. That didn't work at all.” Marco Höger summed it up rather more succinctly: “We were garbage today.“

Lack of ambition

The buck stops with the head coach, however, and Di Matteo now has some tough decisions to make regarding the defensive system he has preferred. Early on in his reign, the Swiss-born tactician had appeared to bring stability to a notoriously unpredictable side, and results - barring the latest defeat - have no doubt improved. Adopting a more compact appearance, Schalke have earned 1-0 wins over Hertha Berlin, Hannover 96 and Borussia Mönchengladbach recently, with the latter in particular seen as a defining game amid an obvious tactical facelift.

They also took a point off the league leaders FC Bayern München in early February, but that performance left a caveat. The Bavarians were down to ten men for over an hour, yet Schalke showed little ambition in possession and remained content to play for a draw. Alleged to have ‘parked the bus’ in recent weeks, their defensive approach came back to bite them against Dortmund as they sat back and invited pressure, with Di Matteo’s defensive wall not so much breached as shattered.

Change of tack against Hoffenheim?

One of the main reasons that they mustered a paltry three attempts on the Dortmund goal - another unwanted record - was down to the lack of an attack-minded creative player in midfield. Dortmund looked fresher and hungrier all over the pitch, but a Max Meyer or a Sidney Sam, players who look to get hold of the ball and make things happen, may have been able to disrupt the hosts' dominance and provide forwards Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting with more support. As it was, both remained unused substitutes.

With a home game against TSG 1899 Hoffenheim to come on Matchday 24, Di Matteo must now decide on a system that will return them to winning ways but also appease the supporters, who roundly booed the team off at the Signal Iduna Park. The fans will expect a response and that may necessitate changing the formation to a more attack-minded 4-2-3-1, for example. Doing so is not without risk, however, with Hoffenheim possessing ample pace and movement going forward, in good form after two straight wins and no doubt feeling confident of recording a league double over the Royal Blues for the first time since 2010/11.

Schalke at least have a full week on the training ground to prepare for Saturday’s game and to put any changes of tactic into practice - the question is: will Di Matteo stick or twist?

Bernie Reeves