Champions League winning manager Roberto DI Matteo had a successful week 8 debut with Schalke 04, as they defeated Hertha BSC 2-0 at Veltins Arena. Schalke had two impressive goals from a Klaus-Jans Huntelaar header in the 19th minute and an impressive Julian Draxler strike in the 65th minute, in a victory that pushed Schalke into the top half of the table. Most of this match was relegated to midfield and Hertha had majority possession. Die Knappen did look more impressive defensively than in the past, albeit against a side lacking in much offensive firepower.
It has to be mentioned that while DiMatteo is under pressure to have this side play up to expectations, to gain a stable consistency in results and a clear direction in strategy, the new manager also has the grace of being viewed as a permanent hiring, unlike his predecessor, Jens Keller.
1. Di Matteo’s debut while successful was not a true test.
There were some encouraging signs from the Royal Blues in this game. Di Matteo’s decision to try a 4-2-3-1 format encouraged midfield mobility along with a tighter defence. If the new manager is encouraging a shift towards a more defensive mindset, then this side is beginning a transition that they have desperately needed for some time. Matches against sides like Hertha should become ensured victories for Schalke.
2. Return of Höwedes and Ayhan crucial for Schalke.
Part of the problem with Schalke’s defence has been the absence of players such as the ones that returned this weekend. Both Benedikt Höwedes and Kaan Ayhan provided the necessary stellar defence necessary if this club is going to make any advancements. Ayhan, the excitingly talented 19 year-old, who was on Germany’s U17 side, filled in for the suspended and struggling Joel Matip. His performance today suggests Di Matteo should consider having him in the starting XI more often.
Höwedes returned from his hip injury and had his starting position back. He had a 82% winning rate on his tackles, stopped Ivory Coast attacker Salomon Kalou from scoring on at least two occasions with his various tackles and blocks. He is truly the team captain and needs to regenerate the spirit he displayed in the World Cup.
3. Draxler and Kevin Prince-Boateng can be a deadly duo.
One factor that stood out in this match is the pace and attacking prowess of these two players when they work together. While this was not the first time this was seen, both are looking to recover form that they displayed in the past. They also exemplify how Keller could not get this squad to gel together as a single unit. Draxler looked lethal at times and was part of both goals. Boateng looked more like the player seen in the second half of ’13/14. They could be on level with most midfield duos in Europe if Di Matteo can make the most out of them.
4. Hertha was the ideal opponent for Schalke for MatchDay 8
Despite having talent of their own, Hertha have been a team with ongoing struggles this year. That being said, they outshot Schalke 15-7, had 4 shots on target to Schalke’s 3, survived an early pressing by Schalke till Huntelaar scored and then controlled the pace of the game. Unfortunately despite having 55% possession, they could not turn their ball possession into many meaningful chances. They even showed determination by going after Schalke after Draxler’s goal but again lack of firepower on this squad made things considerably easier for the Royal Blues. For that reason Schalke got away with a less than great, even lacklustre at times, performance.
5. The true first test is this week
The game this past weekend will not be remembered at the end of the year. This week is different. On Tuesday Schalke are hosting Sporting Lisbon in a must win game on Matchday 3 of the Champions League. After only 2 points from 2 games a win would do a lot to increase the number of Di Matteo believers.
Then next weekend Schalke travel to Leverkusen in one of their biggest matches of the year. A win may possibly drive them back into Champions League contention. If Di Matteo is successful in implementing a stronger defence for this club, greater results should come. We will see.
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