A recently as early November, Schalke were over the moon. They topped their Champions League group after an emphatic win over Arsenal at the Emirates, and were second in the Bundesliga following a victory against two-time reigning champions and archrivals Dortmund.
Huub Stevens had the Gelsenkirchen side playing inspired football. With one of Lewis Holtby, Julian Draxler, Ibrahim Afellay and Jefferson Farfan forced to sit on the bench, their attacking midfield was oozing with class. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who scored 48 goals last season, could not have asked for a better situation.
All that Schalke had built has since burned to the ground, and done so in the most confusing of ways.
Stevens is gone, and S04 haven't won a game in any competition since Nov. 21. These days, Huntelaar can barely get a goal. Holtby is a shadow of the virtuoso he seemed to have developed into in the early stages of the campaign, and after a spell in which he looked like a proper footballer, Jermaine Jones is once again little more than a hit-man. Even captain Benedikt Hoewedes is well short of his best form.
The finger of blame has been pointed in many directions, but truth be told, the reason for Schalke's implosion is elusive and has been kept out of the public eye. Some speculated that uncertainty over the future of Huntelaar and Holtby at the Veltins-Arena created unrest, while others blamed Stevens.
With the whole club out of form and playing emotionless, lethargic football, club management ultimately gave the the trainer the axe, leaving Jens Keller in charge for the time being.
In the aftermath, Mainz coach Thomas Tuchel was the first name to be mentioned as a possible replacement. After FSV manager Christian Heidel flatly rejected releasing the trainer, Roberto Di Matteo came up as another serious option. The ex-Chelsea trainer attended a recent Schalke match and, according to Bild, met with the S04 bosses to discuss a possible contract.
But is Di Matteo the right man for the job?
Although Di Matteo has spent most of the last 20 years in Italy and England, he is a native of Schaffhausen and speaks fluent German. He may have never coached in the Bundesliga, but his hometown borders a German enclave and is almost fully surrounded by the Baden-Wuerttemberg region.
Suffice to say, he is fully familiar with German culture.
The first thing that comes to mind with Di Matteo is his Champions League victory with Chelsea last season; the second is his "park the bus" tactics.
On the whole, his credentials are very limited. The ex-Italy international relied on two missed penalties and good fortune in a shootout for CFC to lift the Champions League in May, and his record in the Premier League was shambolic at the time. He had a limited squad to work with, but it's not as though his success was something of a coaching masterpiece.
On the whole, Di Matteo is an inexperienced trainer. He earned promotion with West Brom in the Championship, but was sacked half way through his first season in the Premier League. And at Chelsea, he only lasted about eight months.
He would therefore be somewhat of a risk: As of yet, there isn't any reason to believe he's not another Armin Veh, capable of pushing a team to success for six months before bringing them to unprecedented lows shortly thereafter.
Stylistically, Di Matteo would bring an altogether different feel to Schalke. The club's illustrious attacking talents suggest a forward-minded game is the best option, but one could just as easily make the case that the likes of Hoewedes, Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Roman Neustaedter offer enough class to make Schalke a very strong team in defense. They just need the right tactics; tactics that Felix Magath provided in 2009-10 as S04 had the joint-best defensive record in Germany.
Defensive tactics are especially useful in tournaments, and Di Matteo could perhaps work wonders with Schalke; he hardly had a better squad at Chelsea last season.
On the other hand, a conservative S04 would struggle in the Bundesliga. Huntelaar is not best suited to counterattacking, and low-table teams in the Bundesliga are used to defending aggressively and chasing down quick-passing opponents. If Schalke don't go for the win from the onset, they'll suffer from too many low-scoring draws against weak teams.
Is Di Matteo the right man for the Schalke job?
For the Champions League, yes; for the Bundesliga, no. And with S04 set to fight to the very end for a top-four finish, that could be enough to make the trainer a poor choice. Schalke need a man of more experience, versatility and familiarity with the players.
Ralf Rangnick would be a perfect choice.
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