A thumb up and a wink from Yevhen Konoplyanka after wowing the Schalke fans on Matchday 1. - © © DFL DEUTSCHE FUSSBALL LIGA / Lukas Schulze
A thumb up and a wink from Yevhen Konoplyanka after wowing the Schalke fans on Matchday 1. - © © DFL DEUTSCHE FUSSBALL LIGA / Lukas Schulze

New Konoplyanka, new Schalke after Tedesco's transformational talk


Cast into the shadows somewhat under Markus Weinzierl last season, Schalke winger Yevhen Konoplyanka was back in the limelight on Matchday 1, and could not get enough of it.

The 27-year-old Ukrainian joined Schalke just 12 months ago from Sevilla, but - much like his new employers - struggled in 2016/17, a poor campaign that culminated in Weinzierl being replaced in the dugout by Domenico Tedesco.

Watch: check out Schalke's top 10 goals from 2016/17


Much like his club, but with a point of his own to prove, Konoplyanka approached his duties with a new lease of life at the weekend. Imbued with confidence by Tedesco – a man who has proven in pre-season how much he believes in the Ukrainian winger, who featured just once in the final seven games of last season – many were left rubbing their eyes in amazement at the upswing in Konoplyanka's form.

"It's hard when you are a key player for your country, yet you don't even make the 18-man squad for your club," Konoplyanka said to Sport Bild magazine in June. "It was a huge psychological stress for me; I felt I was excluded from the team, without anybody explaining to me why."

Tedesco took his Ukrainian charge to one side as soon as he arrived in Gelsenkirchen and told him "we're starting from scratch again." It was a breath of fresh air and an injection of faith that the former Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Sevilla winger needed, with plenty to make up for after a disappointing first season in the Bundesliga.

He struck both goals as Schalke overcame Dynamo Berlin in the first round of the DFB Cup, but the proof in the pudding had to wait a week. "He needs to do that all over again next Saturday," said Schalke's sporting director Christian Heidel after his cup heroics against lower-league opposition. "We already knew that he knows where the goal is and how to put the ball in there."

Indeed, he had shown that last season in the cup competitions, netting two in the UEFA Europa League and three in the DFB Cup. With just one in the Bundesliga, though, Heidel was particularly keen to see if he could reproduce that in the domestic bread and butter.

He did just that against RB Leipzig.

"The key thing for me was that 'Kono' made it clear in our first chat that he really wanted to play for Schalke and was desperate to make amends," said Tedesco, who gave his pupil the freedom of the field at the VELTINS Arena.

Watch: Konoplyanka also got on the scoresheet against Besiktas in pre-season

He took that freedom and transformed his words into actions in a lung-bursting 90-minute outing which had more energy crammed in than he had managed in the best part of 17 Bundesliga outings last term. His box-to-box running was a key feature of Schalke's win, as they were forced to weather a Leipzig storm and search for their reborn number 11 on the counter.

Konoplyanka was only too willing to track back and help recover the ball before breaking out and, crucially, showed sublime composure when put through one-on-one with Leipzig goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi to put Schalke's win under lock and key with a fine finish.

Named in kicker magazine's team of the week, Konoplyanka churned up almost 11 kilometres of turf and made ten out of 12 successful passes, earning a standing ovation when substituted in the 89th minute, and savouring - perhaps for the first time - what it really feels like to be a darling of some of the most passionate fans in world football.

"The atmosphere was gigantic," said Tedesco after his first taste of the renowned VELTINS Arena roar. "I got goosebumps even before kick-off in the dressing room. We won this game thanks to the passion we played with."

There were plenty of goosebumps afterwards too as Tedesco and his team huddled inside the centre circle, soaking up the atmosphere and their achievement.

Konoplyanka certainly felt part of the team then, and part of a new family now.

Ben Gladwell

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