Introduction – An opportunity to make the record books
Only a handful of clubs in Europe can boast a greater attendance record than Schalke. They are renowned for their passionate fan base and are one of the more storied sides in German football. Despite that history, Schalke have not been too successful in Europe, never getting past the quarterfinal stage of the Champions League. Before that, their biggest achievement came in 1997 when they beat, ironically enough, Inter Milan on penalties to win the UEFA Cup.
The tie against Inter this season provided Die Knappen with a chance to make history. One foot was in the door given their impressive 5-2 win in the first leg. But football is unpredictable and a look back through the history books proves that anything can happen at this stage.
As defending champions, Inter came into this second leg with the dual pressure of living up to last season’s achievements while making up the three-goal deficit from the first leg. Leonardo came under scrutiny for his side’s performance in the last couple of weeks and it is fair to say that his future at the club very much hangs in the balance of this outcome. As forgone a conclusion as it may be, Inter supporters wanted a good performance out of their side and few teams in Europe have the experience this Inter side does.
All eyes turned to what was sure to be another exciting affair. How would Schalke line up? Would they sit back and defend the lead? Was Inter capable of a historic comeback without conceding?
Rangnick lines up more defensively
With the suspension of key attacker Farfan and a comfortable three-goal lead, Rangnick had to reshuffle a bit. Metzelder returned to the line up, Zoro mask included, while 19-year-old Matip moved into central midfield with the other 19-year-old Papadopoulos. Jurado meanwhile moved out to the left while Baumjohan filled in for Farfan on the right.
Despite Rangnick’s propensity for attack this line up made the team automatically more defensive. Whereas Jurado played a more attacking role in the first leg out of the center, Matip and Papadopolous are both sitting midfielders. The shape therefore lent itself to be a lot more defensive than what we saw in the first leg.
Schalke could not take the result of the first leg for granted though and while his team was more cautious he did not opt out of attack. Rather, Rangnick instructed his fullbacks to be more proactive in their approach. This made for some interesting early battles between the teams’ two Japanese fullbacks, Uchida and Nagatomo.
Compared to the first leg, Schalke were a lot more comfortable sitting back and absorbing Inter’s attacks. Baumjohan and Jurado dropped back quite a bit to hold off Inter’s forward runs and Schalke hoped to exploit Inter on the break rather than seeking to break up their play. This was very reminiscent of Inter’s strategy against Barcelona in last year’s semi final. The more the time on the clock winded down the more comfortable Schalke became however and the tide started to shift slowly.
Inter chase game from beginning
Leonardo’s tactics were very straightforward, push up to make up the huge deficit. He started Milito and Eto’o up front again and moved Zanetti into midfield while fielding Nagatomo at left back after his good performance against Chievo over the weekend. Inter needed four unanswered goals to advance so there was not a lot of room to sit back. They needed to take the imitative and press forward.
Inter were much more effective using their width this time around. Nagatomo was a threat down the left compared to the more conservative Chivu. And with Baumjohan and Jurado not being natural wide midfielders Inter had more room to operate down the flanks.
Because they needed to score, Inter were always going to expose themselves defensively and that gave Schalke every opportunity to counter. Chasing such a big lead is always a compromise and rarely are clubs able to send wave after wave of attack forward without giving up space at the back. They had no choice however and the first half saw most of the action in Schalke’s half as Inter pushed up ferociously. It was just a matter of time before Schalke pounced on the break and punished Inter’s defensive neglect.
Raul’s goal before half time came exactly under such a circumstance. Jurado picked up the ball near the halfway line and with the Inter defense retreating he slipped it through to an unmarked Raul. The former Madrid player rounded Cesar brilliantly and put his side up. Inter now needed a goal every 9 minutes in the second half to progress and even though Motta pulled a goal back in the second half the tie was effectively over.
Interchangeable Schalke attack
Rangnick instructed his central midfielders to sit in front of his backline while Jurado and Baumjohan helped to cover for their fullbacks. Matip was very busy covering for Sarpei, who was trying his best to hold off Maicon’s forward runs while Papadopoulos was once again given the task of tightly marking Inter’s playmaker Sneijder.
That in turn left unsecured space in the middle that was ripe for the picking by the Italians. Edu and Raul were key in filling that vacuum. The two strikers were instructed to stay deep in their own half rather than wait up field for the counter.
As such, Raul and Edu served two important purposes. For one, they provided the extra manpower in midfield against Motta, Stankovic and Zanetti. Two, they made it possible for Schalke to play in tight quarters and transition quickly out of their own half. With Inter playing a high line and advancing as often as they did it was important to break as quickly as possible and catch them out of position. Had Raul and Edu not dropped back the long ball tactic could easily have prevented Schalke from holding off Inter as effectively as they did. Both were fantastic in their respective roles, particularly Raul, whose performance over the two legs will be talked about for a long time in Gelsenkirchen.
Jurado and Baumjohan were also crucial in Schalke’s link up and performed a dual function of being Schalke’s primary attacking midfielders and linking up their quick counter attacks. The much-maligned Jurado has often been played out wide this season to little effect as he constantly drifted inside. Rather than seeing it as a weakness, Rangnick seems to have embraced Jurado’s natural playmaking tendencies and encouraged him to move centrally whenever Schalke had possession. Before his move to Schalke, Baumjohan played as a central playmaker as well as so Rangnick effectively deployed two natural central playmakers in front of his holding midfielders, a smart move when wanting to link up any play out of the back.
Physical fitness key
Magath’s footprint on this Schalke side may be tarnished but his influence in preparing his side physically cannot be denied. One side looked fresh until the final whistle while the other was left gasping for air after just 45 minutes. Farfan came out recently in strong opposition to Magath’s training methods but the team as a while seems to have benefited from the grueling regiment.
The two legs against Valencia and Inter saw Schalke outrun and outwork their opponents. And while Farfan has bemoaned those methods Raul has stated that this is the fittest he has ever felt in his career so there is something to be said about the conditioning amongst Schalke players which has played a big part in their Champions League run this season.
Preview ahead of Manchester game
Last weekend Rangnick played Schmitz, Schalke’s left back for most of the season, in front of current left back Sarpei. Surely this was done to cover for what is arguably Schalke’s biggest weakness. A lot of Inter’s attacks came down Schalke’s left side and Matip constantly had to move over to help out. Against United, Schalke will face their most difficult task considering Nani is normally deployed on the right for them. No doubt that Ferguson will utilize the Portuguese winger in such a respect and instruct him to continuously attack Schalke’s left back.
It can also be said that Leonardo initially underestimated Schalke and that is why Rangnick’s men were able in large part to surprise Inter in the first leg and create such an advantage for themselves. Ferguson on the other hand was present at this match and is one of the most astute tactical minds in the game.
Rangnick will have to be at his best to match Ferguson’s experience and know-how. It will also be interesting to see if he will continue to utilize two holding midfielders against United and Rooney who has been dropping back to great effect in Europe this season.
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