Bayern Munich may be well clear at the top of the Bundesliga standings, but one side has picked up more points than even Jupp Heynckes’ all-conquering Bavarians in the last five games: Domenico Tedesco's Schalke.
The Royal Blues, led by their 32-year-old coach, are one of a clutch of sides chasing a top-four finish to qualify for next season’s UEFA Champions League, and 15 points from the last possible 15 available suggests they have the consistency and solidity to return to the competition for the first time since 2014/15.
Top of the current form table, the Royal Blues solidified their grip on second place with Matchday 27’s 1-0 win away at Wolfsburg on Saturday. Victory at the Volkswagen Arena followed 1-0 wins over Mainz and Hertha Berlin, a 2-0 triumph away at top-four rivals Bayer Leverkusen and a 2-1 success against Hoffenheim.
Three 1-0 wins; three wins on the road; four clean sheets in five. While they may not be the most prolific of scorers – just seven goals were needed to claim those 15 points – the statistics show just how solid and efficient a side Schalke have become in Tedesco’s short time at the club.
"I was thrilled for the team and for Ralf Fährmann in particular because it hasn't always been easy for him this season and he hasn't always been at his best, which makes it all the better that he kept us in the game today," said Tedesco after the victory over Wolfsburg. "And when you win 1-0 after your goalkeeper saves a penalty at 0-0 then you can say he's our match-winner."
Watch: Tedesco "thrilled" after Schalke beat Wolfsburg
It was his idea to entrust Max Meyer, previously a versatile attacker, with a defensive midfield role, to make Naldo the leader of a three-man defence, and to boost Ralf Fährmann’s confidence at the start of the season by handing him the captaincy ahead of club legend and Germany World Cup winner Benedikt Höwedes.
Fährmann made a crucial contribution to the win at Wolfsburg by saving Paul Verhaegh’s 76th-minute penalty, denying the Dutchman from 12 yards just as he had done in the home fixture against the Wolves. The ‘keeper has described Tedesco’s coaching ability as “a God-given gift” and “one of the most complex coaches I’ve come across”, and theirs is a very tight connection. Indeed, it was telling that Tedesco sprinted over to embrace Fährmann the second the full-time whistle was blown against Wolfsburg.
The result of the coach’s tweaks and tactical innovations is a Schalke that is efficient in attack, robust in defence and, above all, very tough to beat. “That's the biggest difference from last season,” said Naldo in an exclusive interview with bundesliga.com recently. “The fans can tell that we never give up. A year ago, we would probably have gone on to concede more if we'd been 4-0 down at half-time against Dortmund [back on Matchday 13].
“Our coach is doing a fantastic job,” continued the 35-year-old. “He makes everybody feel really important and treats everyone in the same way. Furthermore, he’s very intelligent and he always finds the right words. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had.”
For a club defined in recent years by instability – Schalke employed three coaches in the three seasons before Tedesco’s arrival – the Royal Blues now appear a perfectly oiled machine, with each player, in or out of the starting XI, pulling in the same direction. And though their 41 goals scored from 27 games is a low total, Schalke’s last 11 goals have all come from a different source, making them unpredictable as well as highly functional.
Qualifying for the Champions League is by no means a given, but considering their consistency, Schalke are surely one of the favourites to stay the course, and they also have a DFB Cup semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt on 18 April to look forward to. Tedesco has the Royal Blue express chugging along very nicely indeed.