Domenico Tedesco is an exciting, progressive appointment for Schalke. However, the young coach would do well not to underestimate the importance of tradition and identity in Gelsenkirchen, says DW's Matt Ford.
Francesco Totti is Benedikt Höwedes' idol.
"I find it so impressive that he has devoted his whole life and every last ounce of energy to one club," Höwedes said of the Roma legend. "Totti stood by his club through the good times and the bad. These days, I think that’s special."
What Totti was to Roma, Höwedes was to Schalke. In an increasingly globalized age of mega-transfers and contracts which appear to be barely worth the paper they are written on, Höwedes dedicated his entire career to his local club. He was one of the last of a dying breed, a one-club-man.
Indeed, his comments about Totti didn't come in an interview with a television channel or national newspaper but rather with the Blauer Brief - the fanzine published by Schalke’s hardcore supporters, the Ultras Gelsenkirchen.
Once, when out injured, Höwedes even traveled to an away game against Mainz and stood in the away end.
"I always wanted to go to an away game with the fans," he said. "I wanted to see how the fans travel, how they prepare and experience the passion. It wasn’t a PR thing; that’s why I put my hood up and tried to stay undercover!"
Since Höwedes joined Schalke as a 13-year-old, the Royal Blues have had 20 head coaches. Some, such as Huub Stevens and Ralf Rangnick, have had multiple spells. But Höwedes, who was made captain in 2011, has been a constant, a source of local identification and pride.
"The coal might go but the miners remain," he said in February 2016 after signing a contract extension "with a throbbing heart." Barely six months later, coach number 21, Domenico Tedesco, had stripped him of the captaincy and dropped him to the bench. Why?
Tactical or personal?
Like Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann, Tedesco favors ball-playing defenders capable of launching rapid transitions from defense to attack after winning possession. In preseason and in the German Cup win over BFC Dynamo, even midfielder Benjamin Strambouli featured in Schalke's defensive line.
But Höwedes is no dinosaur and the record Italian champions clearly think he can play a positive role - "as a right back, center back and leader," according to Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri.
It all makes, Tedesco's handling of Höwedes look like an attempt by an inexperienced coach to assert his authority on the squad.
The 31-year-old belongs to a generation of young coaches who represent a fascinating next stage of Germany’s footballing revolution. After finishing top of a class that included Julian Nagelsmann to obtain his German coaching license, he led second-division side Erzgebirge Aue to safety during just 11 games in charge at the end of last season.
He impressed on his Bundesliga debut too. On the pitch, his side executed a perfect tactical display to beat last season’s runners-up RB Leipzig 2-0. Off the pitch, Tedesco radiated serenity and modesty, deflecting praise onto his players.
But all didn’t go to plan on Sunday when Schalke only registered a single scuffed shot on target in a 1-0 defeat to newly promoted Hannover. It was young defender Thilo Kehrer’s error when attempting to play the ball out of defense that led to Hannover’s winning goal.
Höwedes, who was on the bench, would surely not have committed such a fatal mistake. A player of his experience is vital both on and off the pitch. Asked by German broadcaster Sky on Wednesday whether figures such as Höwedes have a role to play in modern football, Tedesco responded affirmatively, insisting that discussions with Höwedes had been respectful and honest.
The estimated 8,000 Schalke supporters who made the trip to Hannover on Sunday would appear to disagree, as they unveiled a banner in the away end demanding "respectful treatment for a player who has earned it."
Tedesco is a young, exciting and progressive appointment for Schalke but he would do well not to underestimate the importance of tradition and identity.