How Schalke can upset holders Real Madrid in the Champions League
With the two teams having met at this stage of the Champions League last term, Schalke vs Real Madrid in the last 16 has more than a slight sense of déjà vu about it. Having been beaten 9-2 on aggregate a year ago, Schalke will be looking to give a much better account of themselves this time around.
There's plenty to suggest that the result might not be as lopsided. Schalke, for one, have a new manager in Roberto Di Matteo, who is no stranger to the latter stages of this competition having won it with Chelsea in 2012.
Two, the hallowed Cristiano Ronaldo is suffering a dip in form that has seen his goal tally this year drop off remarkably in comparison to 2014. Three, with 23 goals conceded over 21 Bundesliga matches, Die Konigsblauen are coming into the match with one of the best defensive records in Germany.
It's a defensive record they're going to need to upkeep against Real Madrid, because their scoring statistics are nowhere near as reassuring. With only three goals scored in their previous five matches, Di Matteo is surely going to be relying on his backline to see them through this tie.
Defensive solidarity is made all the more important when you consider that 19-year old goalkeeper Timon Wellenreuther will be making just his third start of the season in the absence of Ralf Fahrmann.
Time to get physical
How, then, do you stop Real scoring? Potentially comforting for Di Matteo are the patterns that have emerged from the two La Liga defeats they have suffered in 2015, against Valencia and Atletico Madrid.
Perhaps the most startling of these is just how effective a physical approach can be when employed across all areas of the pitch. By pressing high and putting pressure on Real's defenders, both Valencia and Atletico enjoyed enormous success by breaking up attacks before they began, limiting the opportunities for the likes of Gareth Bale and Ronaldo to receive the ball in their preferred positions. The number of tackles attempted by both teams was impressive, with Atletico Madrid's success rate particularly notable.
Equally impressive was the work-rate of each side, as demonstrated by the number of times they managed to win the ball back cleanly through interceptions.
Further, there's something to be said for the results that both teams found when it came to committing fouls. Schalke are a team with much less individual talent than Real, so any advantage they can gain – cynical or otherwise – should be used to full effect.
Fouls in the opponent's half are commonly used by most top-level teams, but the audacity and dedication with which Atletico and Valencia utilised them severely limited the possibility of free-flowing games. A quick look down the Real Madrid team-sheet tells you that is the last thing that you want.
Breaking up play regularly and applying significant pressure high up the pitch seems to have a serious effect on Real's shape, and prevents their frontmen from working in tandem.
The result of this is that neither Bale nor Ronaldo can link up with their team-mates when they do eventually achieve possession; the rest of the team is pulled out of shape by their opponents' aggression.
Against Atletico, neither forward player managed to connect with a single pass in the box. Schalke would do well to take a leaf out of the Diego Simeone coaching manual by playing as physically as they can.
Exploit the flanks
Not conceding only gets you so far, though. To progress you're going to have to score or put your faith in a penalty shootout. With Real assigning almost zero defensive responsibility to Bale and Ronaldo it makes sense to try to exploit them in wide areas, something that Atletico did brilliantly two weeks ago. It's an approach that Schalke are well versed in, too, having employed the tactic in a 1-1 draw at Bayern Munich.
Ronaldo's defensive output against Atletico Madrid amounted to a few fouls, while Bale's one successful clearance and two failed tackles hardly make him Paolo Maldini.
The duo's absence from the defensive phase means they remain an ever-present danger on the counter-attack, but the payoff is that full-backs Marcelo and Dani Carvajal are frequently isolated.
Speed is of the essence, then. Winning the ball back and quickly working it towards the flanks should provide Schalke with an opportunity to regularly gain excellent field position and place their wingers in one-on-one situations against Real Madrid's full-backs.
Despite the negative connotations it has in England, the quickest way to get the ball into threatening areas is to adopt a 'long ball' approach. When employed smartly, this form of direct play can be devastatingly effective when you're looking to exploit space between full-backs and midfielders/attackers.
From deep inside their own half, including distribution from the goalkeeper, Atletico were able to consistently connect with long balls to their wide players. Not only did this bypass Real's formidable midfield, but it gave Atletico's attackers the best possible chance to take their central markers by surprise.
Raphael Varane and Nacho have occupied Real's central defence in recent games, and the partnership has looked far from secure. Carlo Ancelotti has suggested that Pepe will be available tonight to replace Nacho, but questions remain over his ability to slot back in quickly after injury. Quick balls to the flanks, followed by crosses into the box, should put Real's defenders under pressure.
The holders have looked awkward defending an aerial threat, a weakness painfully highlighted by Atletico. Seven of the nine crosses into the box were won by Rojiblancos players, and shots followed as a result.
If Schalke can provide tall strikers Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Eric Choupo-Moting a similar service, then there's every reason to believe that Di Matteo's unit can get on the scoresheet.
Should they be able to combine that with a high-tempo, physical defensive approach then Real Madrid might just find this trip to Gelsenkirchen a lot less enjoyable than the last.