Schalke has a new coach. That’s nothing new, many new coaches in the past years. But something is different. For the first time in what feels like forever there’s an actual development happening. Schalke is evolving into a ball possession team in order to support their vertical approach. Let’s have a closer look at what Domenico Tedesco achieved in this season so far.

Heidel’s Strategy

Since Christian Heidel arrived in the summer of 2016, he worked towards a clearly defined Schalke Style. The team should be playing aggressively in defense and vertically in offense. The team should be investing a lot, working hard, and hence match the coal mining traditions of the region it is based in. That’s the strategy players are being sought after, if they are not willing to work football, they’re not a match.

Leon Goretzka, arguably the star of the team, is a good example for this. He’s running a lot, he’s straight forward, and he’s always fighting. That’s what makes him so popular. Asides from being an amazing football player of course.

The coach of the previous season, Markus Weinzierl, had his problems. Frankly, I personally think in most cases he was simply not lucky. In the end, the team did not seem to pick up the fight. The supporters were unhappy and the results were not that great (No. 10 in the Bundesliga). So Heidel decided to switch coaches again.

Tedesco rising

On his first day at Schalke, Domenico Tedesco was just 31 years old. The media knew not about him. He finished his coaching license with best grades, took that class together with Hoffenheim Coach Julian Nagelsmann and saved Erzgebirge Aue from relegation to the third division. So everyone was curious as to what would happen…

After several experiments with 3 backs at Schalke in the past couple of years, which never lasted long, Tedesco made it the standard. Already in the pre-season he implemented a 3-4-3 formation. Three backs, three forwards, two midfield players and two wingers. The role of the wingers was to cover the whole wings (duh!), meaning that they support the forwards with crossings, participate in combinations in the midfield, and also join the last line of defense. The latter makes this system sometimes being described as a 5-2-3.

The basic idea was to bring the ball as fast as possible to the front row. Usually from one of the backs directly. Thilo Kehrer for example would play a wide ball across the whole field to Franco Di Santo, who then would run towards the box. The midfield would only be involved in case this wouldn’t work, plan B if you will. If the forward wouldn’t be able to go for the box or if the backs wouldn’t be able to give a long pass to the front row, not until then the midfield would be involved.

Additionally, Tedesco put a focus on strengthening the defense, a common thing for a coach who takes over a new team. Schalke acted with a midfield pressing, not very high and not very aggressive. Not until closer to the own box, Schalke would be very tightly attacking. The result is a good last line of defense. Chances for the opponents became rather scarce.

More importantly, if the team would win the ball, there would be a lot of space ahead to run a counter attack. The goal was hence to be very quick to switch from defense to offense and very fast to get closer to the other goal.

Something had to change

This system worked fine. Opponents were not able to score easily and Schalke were able to get into the dangerous zones. But scoring was a problem. Most goals resulted from set pieces.

Also, the plan to defend well and counter attack is a good one. But half of the teams in the Bundesliga have the same. Both teams trying to sit deep and not keeping the ball is not really an option though. And due to the size of the club and the quality of the squad, Schalke often found themselves in a situation where they had to deal with ball possession, which they were trying to avoid in the first place.

Tedesco needed to come up with an idea what to do with the ball. And so he did. Introducing the ball possession game in October. Everyone understand what ball possession is. But how do you do that? Tedesco came up with a couple of key factors: High pressing, Max Meyer and the pentagon.

High Pressure

Tedesco pulled the pressing line as high up the pitch as possible. The opponent’s last line of defense is being attacked the second they receive the ball from their keeper. And while the pressing worked well from the beginning under the new head-coach, it advanced quite a bit now. The goal was to either steal the ball directly or intercept it, once they try to play a long ball. Schalke would then try to run a counter attack straight away.

The deeper pressing of before tried to stretch the opponent’s formation in order to free spaces. That worked not so great. And many of them were focusing on switching to defense, so that they were faster than Schalke in their back again. That’s their one trick. Attacking early is something most teams are not well prepared for. They try to get out of their half as soon as possible, meaning that Schalke can outnumber them and immediately counter attack.

The counter attack, though being the first choice, has never been followed through without patience. When there’s no way to get into the box, Schalke rather play the ball back and try again. And this is where they improved through keeping the ball and finding smart solutions. The key here is a short blonde youngster from Norbert Elgert’s Knappenschmiede.

Max Meyer

Everyone knows Max Meyer is extremely skilled. He was one of the key players when the German u21 team won the Olympic silver medal in 2016 and the Euro in 2017. His problem at Schalke was his position. He’s a classic No. X, but Schalke haven’t played with a formation that contains this position for years. Many coaches tried to utilize Meyer’s skills, but couldn’t really find a way how.

His ability to find good solutions in closed spaces, his passing and dribbling skills, and his football intelligence is nothing short of amazing. Give him the ball and he will make sure that it’s not getting lost.

But also for players like him it’s not easy creating chances, when the opponents park the bus. Tedesco pulled him far to the back, just in front of the own backs. As a pivot player, Meyer can pull the ropes from the background. His creativity is a major feature this early on the pitch. It provides the option for further combinations, but also leave enough room to initiate counter attacks. And in order to do that he needs choices.

The Schalke Pentagon

Tedesco provided plenty of choices. Meyer is the only player in the defensive midfield. In front of three backs and behind two offensive midfield players, even the two wingers are reachable at times. This gives him plenty of options, which allows his creativity to flow and the opponents to go nuts.

In front of the two offensive midfielders, who position rather wide in the half spaces, there are two strikers, not so wide, but very agile. Both of them keeping the opponent’s defense busy.

So these five players, the defensive midfielder, the offensive ones and the strikers, form a pentagon. And over large parts of the game this remains stable. The benefit is, that each wing, traditionally a weak spot when playing with 3 backs, is covered. Even more so, it is a fundamental part in combinations. With Meyer pulling out, there are 4 players on the wing. Without losing much time or compromising the stability of the system.

And the same goes for the defense. The high pressing is enabled through the pentagon. Both midfield and center is covered. Usually the opponent’s pivot player is in the center, so as soon as he gets the ball, it’s very easy to put him under pressure and intercept the ball.

Variety is King

Plan A remains to counter attack. The ball possession is merely a way to get into positions where a counter attack might be valuable. But keeping the ball costs a lot of energy. It’s quite common for Meyer to run more than 12km per game now, which is plenty. So what Schalke did during most matches recently, is to switch back to the previous system, with two defensive midfielders and the whole team sitting rather deep in defense. Especially after taking the lead they did this.

So Schalke now have two systems they can fluently transition between, without much noise. So far I have not heard a single German commentary even noticing this. The difference is rather big though and comes with a lot of implications for the opposition. It’s difficult to defend 2 different systems.

But then again, it became very foreseeable. It’s quite likely that Schalke will start with one defensive midfielder in the 3-3-2-2 focusing on high pressing and ball possession, to switch eventually to two defensive midfielders in the 3-4-3 focusing on deep defense and counter attacks. No surprises here anymore. Schalke need to add surprising elements to this whole.

Granted, all that jazz with systems and formations is worth nothing if you don’t score. Schalke have a hard time scoring. They generate chances, but forget to use them. Quite often there’s not even a shot in the end.


Schalke evolves under Domenico Tedesco. Big time. The Schalke pentagon is exciting to observe, and the way they use ball possession to lay the foundation for counter attacks is a great way of dealing with the deep sitting counter attack teams in the Bundesliga.

Let’s see what comes next.
I’m excited. 🙂

One last thing…

This is the first English text about Schalke I’ve written in quite some time. Being based in Germany, it’s difficult for me to grasp the level of interest of non-German-speaking people. So if you think that includes you I’d highly appreciate some feedback.
How did get you in touch with Schalke? How did you like this text? Would you like to read more in the same style?

Glück auf, wherever you are!

Find a Russian translation of this text here:

4 Replies to “Tedesco Rising: Introducing Ball-Possession to Schalke 04

  1. Thank you for writing. Always. In english, what a surprise.
    My question: with Leon leaving (he will, right?), will Meyer and Bentaleb the future? There are others too, of course. But what will be heart and brain?

  2. Interesting article. I would love to read more about Schalke in English. As a foreigner fan it’s often hard to find in-depth texts and articles about the team or any info about what’s going on close to the club.

  3. Thank you so much for providing this valuable insight in English. Bundesliga interest and coverage is certainly growing here in the US but there is very little available at this level of detail. Glück auf!

  4. Great read! We have a Schalke North America Fan Club with lots of Schalke Fans, mostly US and Canada, who only speak English! Would love to have your commentary in English posted there as often as possible. With the success for Weston McKennie, interest is growing fast!
    Stop by and join us at Schalke 04 North American Fan Club!

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