Roberto Di Matteo is drawing ever nearer to a game that, for reasons beyond his control, is going to define his early tenure at FC Schalke 04. But he’s not keen on dwelling on those reasons.
“After the game, in the future, I might feel something, but over the past two days I’ve been concentrating on preparing my team for this match,” said Di Matteo at the pre-match press conference, one that began with a barrage of questions about how he felt about facing his old club, Chelsea FC, on Tuesday in the UEFA Champions League. It will be the first time the one-time Blues boss meets his former team since being fired on Nov. 21, 2012 — six months after helping the the Blues to their only European championship.
“At the moment, I haven’t got any time for emotions or sentimentality,” the Swiss-born Italian explained. He’s only been on the new job for seven weeks.
For his part, current Chelsea manager José Mourinho seemed baffled and ultimately dismissive of the hullabaloo. “It is Chelsea against Schalke, it is not me against Di Matteo,” he said.
Mourinho arrived at Stamford Bridge for his first spell at Chelsea in 2004, two years too late to manage Di Matteo the player. It’s a point worth remembering when trying to figure the Italian out. Di Matteo, a midfielder with the Blues from 1996 to 2002, led Chelsea to Champions League glory as an interim coach. It’s also the line on his résumé that probably got him the job in Gelsenkirchen. But the experience he draws from his six years playing in West London, as well as his view on what changed at Chelsea in his nine years away, could prove more important at Schalke.
Back when Di Matteo was prowling the midfield at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea was a good-but-not-great team. It hadn’t won the league in nearly half a century, and it was perhaps best known as a bogey side of then-serial champions Manchester United. In Di Matteo’s six seasons, Chelsea finished sixth, fourth, third, fifth, sixth and sixth.
That sounds an awful lot like today’s Schalke. It’s a club that plays its more illustrious rivals Dortmund tough and has only had two dips out of the top four in the past decade. But the club also hasn’t captured the German title since 1958 – when, to be honest, it wasn’t a league title at all. (Fun fact: prior to the Bundesliga’s establishment in 1963, Germany still handed out the Meisterschaft to the winner of a tournament of regional champions. Yup, playoffs.)
While Di Matteo was away from Chelsea — from his retirement as a player in 2002, to managing West Bromwich Albion back to the first division in 2009-2010, to his taking an assistant coach’s post back at his former club in 2011 — the club won the league three times and underwent a dramatic change in culture. It became the kind of club that demands titles, one which can remorselessly fire a Champions League-winning coach because it started to look like he might not win them another.
Most of the changes at Chelsea were due to owner Roman Abramovich and his geyser-like spending habits, but Mourinho left his mark, to be sure. Chelsea is not many people’s idea of an entertaining team, but it has become a winner. Now, although he missed closing his playing career under the Portuguese’s watch, Di Matteo hopes to emulate the Special One’s defense-first, winning blueprint in Germany.
His hunch: With the kind of attacking quality Schalke has, the serious work will be getting the defense sorted out. When you’ve got an attacking trident of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Kevin-Prince Boateng, and Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting (plus Max Meyer in reserve, as well as Sidney Sam and Julian Draxler, when they get healthy), you can probably trust them to convert chances, few as they may be.
It’s not a new strategy. Huub Stevens used the approach to win two German and a UEFA Cup at Schalke in the past (the fans voted him “coach of the century”), and now he’ll try to employ it again at a troubled Stuttgart. Where Di Matteo hopes to surpass the frumpy Dutchman and build his own unique legacy with a Mourinho-style cool.
Since Di Matteo took over, the talk from Schalke management and players has centered on his Ausstrahlung. It’s a German word that often gets translated as “charisma,” which works well in most contexts, but misses the fact that a person’s Ausstrahlung can be negative just as easily as it can be positive. Schalke learned this lesson the hard way over nearly two seasons under Jens Keller.
The 43-year-old Stuttgart native led the club to more or less exactly what it has come to expect of itself: Champions League-qualifying finishes in the Bundesliga, and knock-out stage soccer in the Champions League. But Keller had a terrible Ausstrahlung. His eyelids droop a bit at the sides, making him look worn out. His brow seems perpetually furrowed. Most shots of Keller on television captured the coach gazing into the distance looking concerned, bemused, or beleaguered.
In Di Matteo, Schalke went out and signed itself a huge Ausstrahlung upgrade. He’s not a press conference entertainer in the Mourinho mold, but he projects an air of stillness and impassibility that works well on camera and seems to impress the squad.
“He’s very to the point, and that’s a good thing. I like that,” Klaas-Jan Huntelaar told me after Schalke’s first match under Di Matteo, a victory in which the Dutchman marksman scored the winner.
“It’s good for the team to know what everybody has to do straight away. This makes everything clear. Everybody knows what to do and can concentrate on football. That’s our target – to concentrate on football and to win games.”
Since that 2-0 win over Hertha BSC, however, Di Matteo hasn’t won enough to justify comparison to his opposite number on Tuesday: three wins and three losses over six competitive fixtures. Saturday’s 3-2 home victory over high-flying Wolfsburg might just prove to be a turning point, though. Di Matteo used the international break to prepare the Royal Blues well for what most expected to be an onslaught from the visitors. Wolfsburg had the Bundesliga’s second-most potent attack, but Schalke were ready – not just with a plan to park the bus, but to land a few punches of its own.
Di Matteo sent Schalke out in a 3-5-2 formation for the first time this season, catching the Wolves by surprise. The host made good use of its added width and found itself 3-0 up after 25 minutes. With a lead secured, Schalke withdrew, defended in numbers, and eventually held on to take three points.
Schalke’s last 60 minutes weren’t pretty, but they were effective – exactly the zone into which Di Matteo hopes to lead them.
He looks good in a suit, keeps his cool in front of the cameras, gets the defense organized and the attack motivated. And as this weekend showed, he’s good for the odd tactical roll of the dice.
That recipe might not be enough to get past Mourinho and Chelsea on Tuesday, but if Di Matteo can keep it up he could be a winner at Schalke, perhaps employing the same approach that now thrives in his former home.