Depending on how much Bundesliga you’ve watched this season, you may be unfamiliar with Manchester City’s opponent in the Champions League round of 16, FC Schalke 04. Most probably know the name, as Schalke are one of the biggest and most historic clubs in German football.
But they’ve fallen well behind Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in both the standings and the collective headspace of football fans, so the players and tactics may be a mystery right now. If that is the case, take a breath and don’t freak out, because we’re going to tell you everything you need to know before Wednesday’s match so you are ready.
We looked at the last three matches Schalke has played, against Borussia Mönchengladbach (0-2 loss), Bayern Munich (3-1 loss) and SC Freiburg (0-0 draw), to get a feel for what Pep Guardiola should expect.
Schalke are managed by Domenico Tedesco, who led the team to a second-place finish and Champions League qualification in the 2017-18 season, his first with the club. But to say this season has been a struggle for the Royal Blues is an understatement, currently sitting in 14th in the Bundesliga table.
For this reason, Manchester City fans were thoroughly satisfied with the knockout round draw, and rightfully so. Despite their struggles however, Schalke are still a team that possess a lot of talent and could give City problems if they are taken lightly.
Tedesco has utilized both three and four-man backlines throughout the season, but has been dedicated to a 4-4-2 formation in recent matches. Schalke usually play two defensively oriented individuals in the central midfield roles while the wide positions are occupied by winger types such as former City player Rabbi Matondo. This often results in a flat midfield line in defense but an “empty bucket” form going forward, with the wide midfielders pushed forward.
Schalke do not regularly implement an aggressive press in the opponent’s half, though do show a willingness to step up their pressure for brief stretches. Generally, they are much more committed of closing down on opposition fullbacks while leaving the center backs unperturbed in possession. Against Freiburg, their concentrated defending upfield on the flanks was evident.
In the play above, not only does right back Weston McKinnie come far forward to close down on the buildup, but so does center back Salif Sane. Freiburg are able to move the ball quickly and exploit these defenders being out of position.
The striker was actually through but Vincenzo Grifo (#32) took one touch too many and missed out on the through ball opportunity for Freiburg. Though the press was reigned in against Mönchengladbach and Bayern, teams of higher quality, this defensive philosophy still existed. Guardiola should be able to manipulate Schalke wide defenders in order create space down the wing or open up the central channel, and City have the players to not miss out on the opportunity like the one above.
When the opposition is able to progress possession into Schalke’s defensive third, Tedesco’s team maintain a solid structure but are often are slow to react, leaving them vulnerable to combination passing and dangerous dribblers. Both Mönchengladbach and Bayern had the talent on the wings to take advantage of this weakness repeatedly.
The plays shown here are the perfect illustration of how Mönchengladbach’s Thorgan Hazard and Bayern’s Kingsley Coman, along with Serge Gnabry, gave the Schalke defense fits throughout the match. Tedesco simply had no answer for them and gives City a clear weakness to attack. It’s difficult to say how Guardiola would put together his starting eleven, but it may be a good idea to put Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling on the wings and unleash them.
If Schalke’s defense can hold up in their own third, they can be quite dangerous on the counter. Much of their offensive flow goes through midfielder Nabil Bentaleb, and that is especially true on counter attacks. The Algerian is a player that City have to keep an eye on, he’s one of the few players on Schalke that has the skill and craft to draw in players, maintain control in tight spaces, and unlock the counter.
Bentaleb has a penchant for wiggling out of small spaces like this and should be the focus of City’s defense. Tedesco made five changes for the Freiburg match (presumably in preparation for the midweek against City), one being holding Bentaleb out of the starting eleven and his absence had a noticeable effect on the attack.
In prolonged bouts of possession, Schalke favor an attacking style that emphasizes passing through the opponent. The German side tends to avoid balls in behind, instead opting for combination play with balls into feet of the attackers. Tedesco likes to rotate the double pivot in midfield and push one of those central players forward into the attack, leaving the other as the primary passing option in advancing the buildup.
The German-Italian manager likes to play a natural midfielder (McKinnie against Mönchengladbach, Bentaleb against Bayern) as the second striker in the 4-4-2 formation. Schalke routinely use simultaneous, alternating movements where the second striker comes into the midfield while a central midfielder runs into the space behind, hoping a defender has been pulled out of position.
Schalke were more direct against Bayern out of necessity, but not as much as you would think. That match is likely the closest parallel to how they will play against City and can be our scouting baseline. Against the defending Bundesliga champions, Schalke maintained their disposition to play through the defense despite the gap in quality between the two sides. Though this can look beautiful when it works out like in the goal scored above, Tedesco’s squad tends to put itself in awful situations against good pressing teams.
Both plays here show Schalke’s dedication to maintaining possession from the back and how they spread out the backline to use the entire pitch. The player distribution in these scenarios leaves them stretched thin if a quick turnover does occur. Schalke simply do not have the skill as a group to always play through teams with even Bentaleb, arguably their best player, capable of mistakes under pressure. Much like Bayern, I expect City to press Schalke into oblivion and create odd man rushes as a result.
If Schalke can progress into the opponent’s attacking third, it is clear they are desperate need of a quality striker. The injury to Breel Embolo has been a massive loss and he certainly won’t return by Wednesday. They have only created 2.66 expected goals (xG) over this three matches, which is a remarkably low number despite second half red cards against both Mönchengladbach and Freiburg.
However, Tedesco’s team has executed a counter press at times that has shown to be one of their more effective ways of creating chances. It leaves them at risk of exposure in transition themselves but has been a necessary risk for a team struggling to create offense otherwise.
It will be interesting to see how aggressive Tedesco is against City, but Guardiola’s team definitely can’t be nonchalant exiting their own third or Schalke will look to jump. The German side will have to take a risk somewhere if they want to get a result on Wednesday and counter pressing may be their best bet.
Domenico Tedesco has the unenviable task of trying to get his struggling team through the odds on Champions League favorite. If Schalke can stop putting themselves in poor positions through their own buildup play and focus on counters out of their own half or the counter press instead, they stand a puncher’s chance. The odds seemed stack against them either way, however.
This team has struggled all season, and their recent form is not any more promising. Since the final Champions League group stage match, Schalke has taken 9 points from 8 games with a -2 goal differential in that time. The underlying metrics are slightly better with a -0.53 expected goal differential, but it’s clear this is just an average Bundesliga side at best.
Their biggest signing last summer was Sebastian Rudy, who came from Bayern and was supposed to fortify their midfield. He was substituted in the 33rd minute against his former team simply due to poor form. The lack of a reliable finisher up top is probably an even more pressing issue for Schalke right now though. Against Bayern, the selection was 18-year old Ahmed Kutucu, and though he did score it’s generally bad practice to play a teenager with 56 minutes of Bundesliga time against one of the best teams in the world. Tedesco is playing a midfielder as a second striker partially out of necessity instead of a tactical strategy.
Tedesco is also still tweaking his lineups extensively from match to match. In just the three games evaluated here, Weston McKinnie played as second striker, central midfielder, and right back. Nabil Bentaleb was the deepest midfielder against Mönchengladbach but the second striker against Bayern. Though this could create some headaches for Pep Guardiola’s own planning, but is primarily a clear indication that Tedesco is still struggling to figure out what his best team is.
Through and through, Schalke seem to be a good matchup for Manchester City, not only due to the difference quality, but also because of their style. A lot of the things that City do well are things Schalke have a hard time coping with. Unless Tedesco has his team play more directly and conservatively, they will have no chance of stopping Guardiola’s squad from dismantling them. It’s a possibility but certainly not one I would bet on. Manchester City may be able to take care of this tie in the first leg if Schalke’s play over the past three matches is any indication.