Seven years ago, Roger Schmidt worked in a machine shop. He was an automotive engineer. In his spare time, he managed Delbrücker SC, a semi-pro team in the Fußball-Oberliga Westfalen, then one of Germany’s regional fourth divisions. This past Tuesday, he stood on the sidelines as his team, Bayer Leverkusen, took on Monaco in the Champions League. Not a bad career move, right? From the machine shop to the Champions League in under a decade.
That Leverkusen was favored to win is a testament the team’s excellent squad–Lars Bender, Stefan Kießling, et. al–as much as it is to the work of Schmidt, who has them playing a high-tempo, attacking game that German tabloid Bild has dubbed “Blitz-Bayer.” But here’s the thing: while Leverkusen’s players have Champions League experience, having made it into the knockout rounds last season (where they were promptly pulverized by Paris St. Germain), Schmidt had never managed a Champions League game before. In fact, before the start of this season, he hadn’t ever managed in the Bundesliga either.
Thanks to a second-half sucker punch, Leverkusen went on to lose the Monaco match, Schmidt’s first loss as Leverkusen’s coach. And although things didn’t go to plan in the principality, Leverkusen fans will no doubt see it as a minor blip on a trajectory that, if it keeps up, will have Leverkusen orbiting the moon by sometime in mid November. In Schmidt, Leverkusen has finally found a coach who looks capable of presiding over the team’s next step, moving them from a team expected to finish in the European places to one that might have a chance to actually win something.
If you think that’s too optimistic, just look at Borussia Dortmund. In 2008, BvB finished 13th in the Bundesliga. In May of that year, Jurgan Klopp took charge. Klopp was a young coach full of fresh ideas who had shown promise at a smaller club (Mainz). In the next two season, BvB renewed its squad. In 2010, Klopp won the Bundesliga with a high pressing, fast-breaking team so full of young talent you wondered how many of them still lived at home.
Given Klopp’s example, it’s hard to see Schmidt actually failing. The two coaches have a similar pedigree, although Schmidt’s big chance took a little longer to materialize. After Delbrücker SC, he managed Preußen Münster into a fourth division regional league before spending the 2011-12 season with Paderborn in the 2nd Bundesliga. At little Paderborn, Schmidt earned a reputation for his forward thinking tactical approach, and the team finished just one point south of playoff contention.
This is when things really started to happen for Schmidt. Red Bull Salzburg came calling. In his first year in Austria, Red Bull lost the league by five points. In his second, Schmidt’s team won the league by 18 points, once again establishing the Austrian Bundesliga as Red Bull’s dominion. In European play, Red Bull went to Amsterdam and made Ajax look dumb at home, and then even worse when they came to Austria. (Just for good measure, in a winter friendly, Salzburg also did this to Bayern Munich.)
On offense, Schmidt’s players were free flowing and unpredictable. On defense, they played an ultra-high-tempo “geggenpress” in the style of Klopp’s Dortmund, the idea being to run hard and harass the shit out of the opposition in order to win the ball back as soon as possible. It worked so well, and the players ran so much, that some observers wondered if the players might be doping.
The last similarity between Schmidt and Klopp might be the most important: their players seem to love playing for them. Here’s Karim Bellarabi, talking to Bild about the atmosphere at Leverkusen: “We celebrate [our goals] with the coach, because everything fits with him. The team and the trainer understand each other. I’m grateful because it gives me confidence.”
This is a refreshing thing to see in German soccer, where renowned assholes like Felix Magath once made their names. (It also dispels the stereotype that, in Germany, fun and work don’t mix.) One of the traits people admire about Klopp is that his players all look ready to jump on a grenade for him. Schmidt has that same kind of charisma, and he’s a better dresser too.
The speed with which Schmidt got Leverkusen set up surprised just about everyone. In Schmidt’s first Bundesliga match, his Leverkusen team actually beat Dortmund in Dortmund. But as the Monico result shows, Schmidt isn’t going to win them all. How the Leverkusen powers at be handle an inevitable dip in form will be interesting to see. In a league where managers seem to start jobs with their days already numbered–Hamburg just fired Mirko Slomka after less than a year–let’s hope Leverkusen gives Schmidt all the time he needs.
If the Bundesliga really wants to compete against the Premier League for the hearts of soccer fans the world over, it needs to get more competitive at the top. Bayern has won nearly half of all the titles in the Bundesliga’s history. The most recent challenge to that hegemony is Dortmund. By the end of this season, or maybe the next, Leverkusen might be on that list. Assuming Schmidt can engineer a continued career rise like he has for the past seven seasons.