In his debut season in charge at Schalke 04, 32-year-old manager Domenico Tedesco has Schalke on course to finish second behind Bayern Munich and return to the Champions League after a three-year absence. It's a remarkable success story, but not nearly as remarkable as the fact that Tedesco was appointed to coach Germany's third richest club in the first place.
Even by the standards of upwardly-mobile German football, where young coaches are regularly given a chance to prove themselves, Tedesco's rise from total obscurity to the Bundesliga elite could not have been much more rapid. A mere year ago, almost no one had heard of the engineering graduate who had worked on passenger comfort and sound design for a Mercedes subcontractor before trying his hand in football management.
The son of an Italian immigrant from Calabria who had found work as a printer at a local newspaper in Esslingen, a small town to the west of Stuttgart, had never played football at any decent level, unlike fellow whizz-kids Thomas Tuchel (Stuttgarter Kickers, SSV Ulm) or Julian Nagelsmann (TSV 1860 Munich), whose careers were cut short due to injury. In an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung just before Christmas, Tedesco recalled scoring an own goal -- with a back-heel, no less -- in his first ever training session as a young boy with the Under-7s of ASV Aichwald, his local village team. He went on to play for the ASV seniors in Kreisklasse, the lowest tier of organised football, and coached the U7s in his spare time.
During his engineering studies, Tedesco wrote a letter to VfB Stuttgart, asking if he could watch a U9s coaching session at the Bundesliga club. VfB youth coordinator Thomas Albeck invited him to a meeting and was impressed enough to let Tedesco take training. He devised a series of smart but fun exercises to improve the collective and individual playing capabilities of the kids and was duly appointed assistant coach of VfB's U9s. "I felt a bit of pressure for the first time," Tedesco recalled, "because you cannot go to a team in the country-side and win only 1-0 as VfB. You had to win 5-0." His teams did do just that, however, often enough for him to get repeatedly promoted to coaching older sides. At 28, he left his day job in the automobile industry to go full-time as Stuttgart's U17 coach before succeeding Nagelsmann as Hoffenheim's U19 coach in the summer of 2016. (Both had recently graduated from the German FA's pro coaching course, with Tedesco finishing as best in class.)
In March 2017, Erzgebirge Aue made him an offer that wasn't too good to refuse. The perennial Bundesliga 2 relegation-fighters, based in a former GDR mining town on the eastern fringes of Germany, were bottom of the table with 11 games to go and in need of a saviour. Tedesco hesitated. "The risk seemed somewhat bigger than the opportunity," he said, but a visit to the Erzgebirgsstadion swayed Tedesco's mind. He took the job, rectified an inability to defend set pieces, and Aue stayed up.
Christian Heidel, the Schalke sporting director, had seen enough in those 11 games to appoint Tedesco as S04's youngest-ever manager at the beginning of this season. Under his guidance, the Miners haven't always played the prettiest of football but they've become very hard to beat and incredibly efficient. A new-found grittiness and ability to edge tight contests, such as the two-shots-on-goal, 1-0 win at Mainz last Friday night, has replaced the meekness that had dogged the team in recent years.
Along with other coaches of his generation, Tedesco has been caricatured as a "laptop coach" (Mehmet Scholl) in some quarters, as one of those tactics nerds who compensate for their lack of a playing career with the use of pseudo-scientific lingo and over-complicated playing patterns. The truth is both more prosaic and impressive: Tedesco's most important asset, Schalke players have revealed are his extraordinary man-management abilities. "He has a god-given talent for motivating and explaining," S04 keeper Ralf Fahrmann told Bundesliga magazine two months ago.
Tedesco's trick is to make players part of his decision-making process. He listens to their views and ideas before games, encourages participation and thus ensures that they are fully invested in the whatever system or style they are playing in any given game. "A team believes more strongly in a plan if they feel that they have had a hand in conceiving it," he said. They believe in him, too. Some players have started watching back their own games and asking him to correct their mistakes. "We try to transform things that annoy us into positive energy the next day, by talking, video analysis and individual training," Tedesco said describing his collaborative methods to Bild.
Right now, much of Schalke's game is still reactive in nature, an exercise in avoiding mistakes and wrong-footing the opposition. But Tedesco is not one of football's dogmatics. More individual quality, by way of the Champions League millions at Schalke's disposal next season, will enable him to play in a more expansive way. This remarkable success story has only just begun.