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FC St. Pauli: Europe’s Most In-form Club
Following a 1:0 victory over FC Heidenheim last weekend, FC St. Pauli have extended their domestic winning streak to an incredible 10 matches in a row. Do they have it in them to reach the Bundesliga?
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Situated right next to Hamburg’s red-light district with a history of anti-establishment ethos, FC St. Pauli are defined as a club built to defy norms. Since their inception over a century ago, Die Kiezkicker (Neighbourhood kickers) have regularly gone against the grain with a fanbase that is unashamedly political and diverse.
No club in Europe has more female members, and St. Pauli have regularly used football’s platform to showcase their support on social topics like the immigration crisis and LGBTQ+ rights.
Whereas other clubs in Europe are defined by the last weekend’s result, for the fans who adorn the Jolly Roger on their chest, the performance on the pitch is just one additional factor to aid the community experience of a St. Pauli matchday.
Nevertheless, at the moment it is precisely what is occurring on the field that has all of Germany beginning to take note of the noisy Hamburg outfit.
Following a 1:0 victory over FC Heidenheim last weekend, FC St. Pauli have extended their domestic winning streak to an incredible 10 matches in a row. Since the inception of the national second division in 1981, no club has ever gone more matches in a row without dropping a point!
From dreading relegation ahead of the World Cup, to now climbing within 4 points of the promotion playoff, this is the fascinating rise of FC St. Pauli: Europe’s most in-form club.
The Youngest Manager in Europe is Leading the Charge
If there was just one figure that stood for FC St. Pauli’s fabulous turn-around, it would have to be Fabian Hürzeler.
The former assistant coach took over the main job in December, inheriting a squad slipping into crisis following the forced departure of beloved head coach Timo Schultz.
After narrowly missing out on promotion the previous campaign, St. Pauli had slumped into disarray across the 17 matchdays preceding the World Cup. Die Kiezkicker had won only 3 matches, and the club entered Germany’s long winter break only just outside of the relegation zone via goal difference.
Having lost key personnel in the summer, and now the manager before Christmas, St. Pauli fans feared the worst when the club announced that a fresh-faced 29-year-old would be charged with tackling the notoriously difficult Zweite Bundesliga relegation battle.
As the youngest manager in Germany’s top 3 divisions, it felt only natural for a level of concern to greet Hürzeler’s appointment. However, as the man himself rightly noted during his first press conference, “I am a young person, but not a young coach,”.
This is, in fact, already Hürzeler’s 9th year coaching. He started at the FC Bayern youth academy, before moving into the semi-pro game, followed by an assignment with the German youth national team, and the step to St. Pauli.
What is also clear to see when both watching Hürzeler’s football and hearing him talk, is the fine balance he is able to strike between the obsessive football brain which has allowed him to quickly rise through the ranks, and the more humane elements which are necessary to coach a successful side in the senior game.
His tactical IQ and game intelligence are clearly born from his time at FC Bayern. There, he spent 10 years of his career, rising as a player from the youth ranks into the second team. Hürzeler even captained the U16 outfit along the way, earning frequent comparisons to the great Stefan Effenberg for his ability to make up for any physical limitations with great desire and technique.
While it ultimately wasn’t enough for a step into the professional ranks, being part of Bayern both as a player and as a youth team manager during the tactical revolution under Louis Van Gaal sowed the seeds for his devotion to positive possession and the proactive style of football that are still apparent in his St. Pauli side today.
If at FC Bayern Hürzeler established the necessary football IQ to thrive as a young manager, it was with FC Pipinsried in the amateur 5th tier that the young coach developed his personality and learned how to handle the different characters frequenting a senior dressing room.
As Hubert Fesl, FC Pipinsried’s long-time press officer noted,
“At Pipinsried he [Hürzeler] found his human component. He was suddenly an approachable, amusing guy who stayed in the clubhouse after training and played cards for hours with the players and residents… I thought, now he's out. He is not only the specialist idiot, but also the human catcher."
This combination of being both a tactically-astute student of the game and having the ability to unite a club around his vision is what set Hürzeler apart at such a young age. This special combination allowed him to establish unequaled success in Pipinsried, culminating in the club’s first-ever promotion into the 4th-tier regional Bayern League in 2017.
Though the stakes and level of skepticism are exponentially higher in a second-tier club, Hürzeler’s proven ability to convince with his footballing intelligence and leadership qualities have been the cornerstones of his early success in the professional game, and the catalyst for St. Pauli’s surge up the table.
A Formational Rethink
With Hürzeler inheriting the head-coaching position from a long-time friend and like-minded tactician, it was self-evident that there wouldn’t be any drastic changes from the style of football that Timo Schultz had promoted at the Millerntor over the past 2 ½ seasons.
In fact, the most significant difference between Schultz’s football and that of Hürzeler’s stems from a purely formational point of view.
Whereas Schultz primarily operated with a compact midfield in a 4-1-3-2, Hürzeler has changed into a more flexible outlook with a starting shape best resembling a 3-4-3.
There are two key reasons why this change was both necessary and a key factor in St. Pauli’s new-found success.
Finishing in 5th place last season was a remarkable achievement for a club with a fairly average wage bill, however, over the long run, it also proved itself to be a double-edged sword.
Die Freibeuter had to contend with losing important first-team figures over the summer, as 6 players with over 1000 league minutes ended up leaving the club in the summer window. Particularly in attack, this loss was felt, with the pair of Guido Burgstaller and Daniel Kofi-Kyereh departing for new challenges after combining for a remarkable 30 goals and 17 assists in the previous second-tier campaign.
While St. Pauli tried to replace these two figureheads with an influx of young talent, it was never going to be easy to continue with the same tactical outlook despite losing an attacking duo that had a direct hand in over 50% of the club’s goals last season.
That became all the more evident right up to Schultz’s dismissal. Whereas in the previous season, St. Pauli had scored 37 goals after 17 gameweeks, at the end of this year’s Hinrunde, they had managed only 23 goals.
In the new year, St Pauli are still far from free-scoring - 5 of Hürzeler’s 10 matches in charge have ended 1:0 - but there is at least less of a reliance on an attacking trio to pitch in with goals as more players are getting into dangerous positions.
The 3-4-3 setup has allowed St. Pauli’s wingbacks to push into advanced goalscoring positions, and even the central midfielders are consistently providing a goalscoring outlet with late runs into the opposition’s box.
Jackson Irvine has been a goalscoring revelation in the new year. The Australian midfielder has scored 4 goals since Hürzeler’s appointment, making him the joint-top goalscorer for St. Pauli this season. It isn’t just him pitching in with goals from deeper areas though. The defenders and midfielders in St. Pauli’s setup have actually managed to score one goal more than the front three in the new year.
One of the most valuable elements of Hürzeler’s new tactical setup is how quickly St. Pauli can switch between different outlooks in order to confuse and counter an opponent's strengths.
Two players are key for this, the first being central centerback Eric Smith.
The 26-year-old Swede was signed from IFK Norrköping two seasons ago, and up until Hürzeler’s appointment had played over 80% of his St. Pauli fixtures in defensive midfield.
Now, however, he is positioned in the center of St. Pauli’s defensive line, providing a commanding presence in possession, and an organizing factor against the ball. His ability to regularly step into midfield makes it impossible for opponents to press with conviction, as his presence alone means Die Kiezkicker can easily adjust between the 3-4-3 and a 4-3-3 throughout the game.
Just as Eric Smith has the ability to move forward, center-forward Lukas Daschner is also a key factor in confusing opponents with his ability to make the opposite movement.
Given that Hürzeler relies on two wide forwards who have spent long stretches of their careers in a central position, Daschner is more than happy to drop deeper into attacking midfield and allow the likes of Connor Metcalfe and Oladapo Afolayan to invert into the vacated central spaces to form a strike partnership.
This slight readjustment across the front line can create a 3-5-2 formation for St. Pauli. However, even more powerful is when Daschner's dropping-off is combined with Smith bursting into midfield. This returns St. Pauli to the preferred 4-1-3-2 that worked for long stretches of Timo Schultz’s reign.
With numerous moving parts and an ability to change on the fly, Fabian Hürzeler’s St. Pauli have been incredibly difficult for opponents to adjust to.
Whereas the Zweite Bundesliga eventually had solutions for Timo Schultz’s rigid 4-3-1-2, the fact that Hürzeler’s base formation can quickly convert itself into 3 to 4 different shapes throughout a match makes it almost impossible to completely nullify the various different forms of danger the team can present in possession.
A Renewed Defensive Focus
Beyond Hürzeler’s tactical tweak in midfield, another significant difference for St. Pauli in the new year is the change in play operating out of possession.
After keeping a clean sheet on only 4 occasions before the World Cup, addressing Die Kiezkicker’s defensive fragility was almost as large of an issue as the lack of a goal threat. Hürzeler hasn’t just fixed the problem, but he has even turned what was a relative weakness into an element of strength to rely upon throughout this historic run of success.
One of the key differences is how St. Pauli approaches turnovers. The team is pressing with less intensity - on average allowing their opponent 1 pass more in every possession sequence - but choosing their moments more wisely.
The Hamburg outfit is now winning almost 5 defensive duels more per game, doing so in a system that isn’t as easily pulled apart when an initial pressing sequence fails to create a turnover.
In 2023, St. Pauli have also proven very comfortable at using their flexible formation to drop into a back-5 and soak up pressure. Across this 10-match winning streak, Hürzeler’s side have held a 1-goal advantage for almost 350 minutes. Therefore, being able to close down valuable space and defend in a compact unit has proven vital.
The numbers also reflect this improvement. St. Pauli rarely gives up shots in valuable goalscoring positions. Despite conceding more shots per game than across the 17 matchdays that opened the season, over 45% of the shots Hürzeler’s side face come from outside the penalty area. These are low-probability efforts that Die Kiezkicker are more than happy to allow if it means having more men in position to close the truly dangerous positions inside their own penalty area.
Though still 4 points away from the promotion play-off, it’s truly remarkable to recount St. Pauli’s meteoric rise in 2023.
After entering the World Cup 16 points away from the third-place playoff, a historic 10-match winning streak now sees them within touching distance of playing a leading role in the race for promotion to the top flight.
Sunday’s home fixture versus newly promoted Eintracht Braunschweig has great potential to be the 11th win in a row, leaving the following matchday’s tantalizing Stadtderby versus Hamburger SV as the must-watch affair in the Zweite Bundesliga calendar.
A win for St. Pauli will truly throw the promotion race wide open, potentially even drawing level on points with Die Rothosen from across town depending on how HSV fairs in their own fixture this weekend.
Are St. Pauli a bubble waiting to burst, or do Die Kiezkicker truly have what it takes to return to the Bundesliga next season?