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The German Football Weekly: Issue #9
Free weekly newsletter highlighting some the biggest news, and headlines, from the beautiful game on German soil
by Adam Khan on October 22
1.FC St. Pauli: Taking the 2nd Bundesliga by Storm
FC Bayern’s 5:1 battering of Leverkusen, and Dortmund's calamitous evening in the Champions League means it is time to revisit the Zweite Bundesliga for hopes of a title challenge.
There, Germany’s second division is living up to its billing as The Greatest Zweite Bundesliga of All Time. The numerous fallen giants aren’t just providing a spectacle of unrivaled terrace culture, but the football on the pitch is as competitive as ever.
Just 6 points separate 1st from 7th, with underdogs St. Pauli and Regensburg leading the promotion charge.
Though Die Jahnelf with just the 12th most expensive roster in the division are more than worthy of a deep dive, it is the table-toppers from Hamburg who grab the headlines in this week’s Newsletter. Timo Schultz’s side have not only overachieved 10 matchdays in, but are doing so with one of the most exciting attacking systems in all of German football.
Today we go deep into the man behind the success and his unprecedented tactics.
Timo Schultz: The Embodiment of Pauli DNA
It doesn’t get more St. Pauli then Timo Schultz, with the 44-year old Wittmund native part of the establishment at the Millerntor-Stadion since 2005.
For 6 seasons Schultz eked out a reputation in the Pauli midfield, but it is his work in the dugout where he truly has the potential to leave an unprecedented legacy on the club.
Gradually climbing his way up from the under 17s to the first team, by 2020 'Schulle’ earned the coveted head coach position in an era where St. Pauli were continuing to trend towards relegation.
Some experience arrived in the summer in the form of Schalke outcast Guido Burgstaller, but it was a squad heavily reliant on academy graduates and the loan market which Schulle had to turn back into a competitive Zweite Bundesliga outfit - something which wasn’t going to come easy.
With just 1 win in his first 13 matches, and a first round Pokal defeat to fourth-tier Elversberg, there was a sense that only a Christmas miracle could keep Timo Schultz in his job over the holiday break.
Director of football Andreas Bornemann continued to hold faith in the work Schultz was doing, but the table provided frightening reading for even the most optimistic St. Pauli supporters.
As December faded into the new year, Schultz laid down a new marker for the longest winless streak in club history (12), and even entered double digits for weeks spent in the relegation zone.
When St. Pauli traveled to the HDI Arena in mid-January there truly loomed a feeling of now or never for the 44-year old in the dugout. 90 minutes against an inform Hannover would decide if Schultz could turn his managerial fate around, or if he would earn the label as yet another youth coach unfit for the big time.
The final whistle sounded, and courtesy of a stoppage time goal St. Pauli was able to breathe again. A 3:2 victory wouldn’t be enough to climb out of the relegation zone just yet, but it was precisely what Timo Schultz needed to kick on for the remainder of the campaign.
13 more wins saw St. Pauli shoot up the table, casting away the thoughts of relegation with inspiring performances and the results to match.
With the creative emergence of Zalazar and Marmoush it would have been easy to pin Pauli’s resurgence on the exploits of individual players, however above all else it was Timo Schultz’s tactical evolution which saw St. Pauli go from a side battling the drop to outside promotion candidates in late Spring.
So what did Schultz tweak to turn a side destined for the third division into one of the most inform sides in all of German football?
Pressure Makes Diamonds
The 4-3-1-2 is not a universally loved formation in modern football, with Porto’s 2004 Champions League triumph, and Massimiliano Allegri’s first spell at Juventus (2014-19) the exception not the norm.
In Timo Schultz though, German football is getting a taste of the diamond midfield’s resurgence.
Following the disastrous hinrunde where St. Pauli flip-flopped between a 3-4-1-2 and 4-2-3-1, Schultz opted for the diamond on MD15 - a match which almost coincided with the club’s soaring uptick in form.
With a compact midfield and space for overlapping fullbacks, the formational tweak has allowed St. Pauli to go from a side exuding doubt and uncertainty to one which looks liberated and free.
As just two centerforwards make up the frontline, the attacking onus is spread evenly across the side.
Late runs from central midfield and attacking overloads from the fullbacks are crucial components of St. Pauli’s game this season - highlighted in how the goals have been spread across the side.
Whilst fellow promotion aspirants Schalke 04 have been heavily reliant on the goalscoring exploits of Simon Terodde - 11 goals, with only one other S04 player scoring more than 1 - the table-toppers from Hamburg have spread the goals fairly evenly across the side.
Guido Burgstaller has been the most prolific element with 9 in 10 games, but 4 other players have registered 2 or more goals. It’s a testament to the fluid attacking system and Schultz’s determination to commit numbers into the final third with quick, penetrating attacks. No other side has played as many deep completions in this season’s Zweite Bundesliga, whilst only Hamburger SV and FC Bayern have made more key passes in Germany’s top two divisions.
St. Pauli football in all its glory (above). Maximilian Dittgen receives possession in midfield and brings the overlapping leftback Leart Paqarada into the game. Paqarada, unmarked due to his deep starting position, is able to pick his head up and find none other than Dittgen advancing into the area. Quick transitions, overlapping fullbacks, and a willingness to make up the hard meters to get into goal scoring positions - it’s transition football at its very finest.
St. Pauli’s emphatic offensive approach doesn’t just start when they have the ball though, instead finding its roots in the Kiezkicker’s willingness out of possession.
Though Schultz’s side aren’t necessarily as gung-ho in their pressing as the likes of HSV and Werder Bremen, the intelligence with which they go into defensive duels has been crucial in creating a structure which has conceded the second-fewest goals (10 in 10 games), and given up the fewest shots on target (33 in 10 games).
For example, St. Pauli engage in only the 13th most defensive duels of any Zweite Bundesliga side, however their win rate of 64.9% is the second best in the division.
Equally important are their interception numbers, a marker of intelligent reading of the game and collective pressure to force the opposition into an errant pass. With 46.13 Timo Schultz’s side lead the Zweite Bundesliga on a per 90 basis.
What this all shows is a side which isn’t necessarily looking to challenge the opponent everywhere on the pitch, but picking and choosing the right moments where they go as an entire unit to convincingly win back possession. This synchronized defensive strategy was highlighted in their opening goal vs Dynamo Dresden over the weekend (below).
Afeez Aremu sees a cue to leave his holding position and convincingly wins a tackle to reestablish St. Pauli possession. Some neat interplay on the top of the box and the Millerntor-Stadion is sent into raptures.
10 matches into the season is when the table begins to take shape, and with St. Pauli at the top of the pile, it’s impossible to not consider them in the running for Bundesliga promotion. Since the start of the calendar year Timo Schultz has convinced with his innovative diamond approach which the Zweite Bundesliga is still yet to find an answer for.
Relying on a bristling crop of young talent, a free-scoring attack, and a well-defined defensive approach, St. Pauli is on their way to achieving the unthinkable prospect of being Hamburg’s sole representative in the 2022/23 Bundesliga.
Will 1.FC St.Pauli return to the Bundesliga this season? Let me know your thoughts on Twitter using #BUNDESLETTER
GAME OF THE WEEK:
Sunday 15:30 (CEST): 1. FC Köln v Bayer Leverkusen
It’s a Rhineland derby between 1.FC Köln and Bayer Leverkusen this weekend, with far more at stake than the bragging rights at the office Monday morning.
Both Köln and Leverkusen are coming off of disastrous gameweek 8 results, with the Billy goats suffering a 5:0 schooling at the hands of TSG Hoffenheim, whilst FC Bayern flexed their might by inflicting a similar beating upon Die Werkself.
On both occasions the absence of a key midfielder was felt, with Köln unable to call upon Ellyes Skhiri, whilst Leverkusen were without a quartet of potential holding midfielders in Robert Andrich, Charles Aránguiz, Julian Baumgartlinger, and Exequiel Palacios.
Though there will always be a looming feeling of ‘what could have been’ had Leverkusen been able to call upon one of their midfield enforcers to restrict Goretzka and Müller’s free movement, but it is Ellyes Skhiri’s absence which has left even greater headaches for Steffen Baumgart.
The Tunisian international is being heralded as one of the players of the season so far, leading his side in distance covered, tackles won, and pass percentage (all per 90). If that wasn't enough, Köln's #28 is even threatening in the final third this season, scoring 3 of Köln’s last 4 Bundesliga goals.
It’s no surprise then when in his post-match press conference Steffen Baumgart compared Skhiri’s absence to that of Lewandowski, stating,
“If we take Skhiri as injured and say we should replace him - that just doesn't work. If we take Lewandowski away from Bayern, they won't be a Champions League winner either”.
With or without one of the most underrated midfielders in Europe, we should still be in for a fascinating encounter.
Leverkusen need a win to reestablish the momentum for a Champions League push, whilst Köln must do the same if they want to achieve their second continental participation this century.
The two have faced off on 66 occasions in the Bundesliga with the record clearly tilting in Leverkusen’s favor. Die Werkself have 26 wins to Köln’s 16, including the last 3 fixtures with a joint-scoreline of 10:1.
Köln will take solace in the fact they are playing at home however.
Of Köln’s 16 wins 11 have come at home, and since 2010 the record reads a fairly even 3 wins, 2 draws, and 3 losses at the RheinEnergieStadion.
2. Bundesliga GOTW: Friday 18:30 (CEST): SC Paderborn v Hamburger SV
3. Bundesliga GOTW: Monday 19.00 (CEST): MSV Duisburg v 1. FC Kaiserslautern