St Pauli’s year of Hürzeler – now also playing the best football in the 2. Bundesliga

German football expert Abel Meszaros looks at everyone’s favourite left-wing club and argues that this season, they’re more than just a cult classic

There is something odd about St. Pauli. No, it is not what you think, although this article does not wish to dispute the cult club’s legendary status – quite the contrary – as the author thoroughly enjoyed all that a day at Millerntor had to offer on a lovely August afternoon earlier this season. 

The odd thing here is literally about the years: you see, in 2021, Pauli under Timo Schultz won 25/42 games and picked up 75 points in the league! 

The problem was the 13 game winless streak in the fall of 2020, and only 10 wins from 37 matches in the even year, 2022. It was almost fitting that the Kiezkicker ended the pre-World Cup mad dash with a 0-0 and a 4-4 in mid November, having won just four of 17 games and avoided the bottom three on goal difference. The chaos culminated in a delayed departure of Schultz, two days before Christmas. Letting a club legend go was not easy: “Schulle” had been at the club since 2005 and enjoyed a stellar time with two promotions (also the last time Pauli were in the top flight) before retiring.  A year as player/coach with the U23s led to joining the coaching staff of Andre Schubert, then five seasons as head coach at the U17/19 level prior to becoming the head coach in July, 2020. 

His successor became none other than  his assistant coach, responsible for opponent analysis and video analysis. Meet the Houston, Texas-born Fabian Hürzeler, who at age 29 and due to his Bavarian links was immediately drawing the Julian Nagelsmann comparisons. It was easy: he spent 10 years at Bayern having been discovered by longtime talent scout Hermann Hummels, father of one Mats Hummels.

“I joined Bayern when I was twelve and I remember very well that I was probably the worst player ever at Bayern until I was 14,” Hürzeler said of himself. He became a key offensive midfielder and captain at U17 level, with teammate and best friend Emre Can – who predicted he would have “a great career as a coach” – in the squad. Hürzeler didn’t think about a career in coaching and wanted to make it as a number six at the U19s, but injuries and coaches (unsurprisingly, Markus Gisdol at Hoffenheim couldn’t use him) and a tough spell at 1860’s second team eventually led to him becoming a 24 year old player/coach at 5th division FC Pipinsried in 2016. Fast forward 103 games and a couple stints with the U18 and U20 Germany teams while working on his Fussball Lehrer badges, and he became Schultz’s assistant in the summer of 2020. 

Since taking over as head coach late last year, he immediately began with ten wins in a row and only an epic seven goal thriller vs city arch-rivals HSV stood in the way of the improbable promotion. This season, they have still not lost in the league, so his – 2023, again the odd year! – record with Pauli is better than Nagelsmann at any senior level: 30 games, 70 points, 21 wins, 7 draws and 2 losses, with a 61:24 GD. 

Yet, Hürzeler is not only winning matches but doing it in style: his St. Pauli is playing the most appealing football, with three different opposing coaches and staff members all assuring the author that “St. Pauli have by far been the best team we faced.” On top of all that, they are doing it despite a middle-of-the-league budget and massive sales of key performers in the last two seasons: Jakov Medic went to Ajax, Lukas Daschner, Leart Paqarada, and Daniel Kofi Kyereh were all picked up by Bundesliga teams, while Guido Burgstaller went back to Austria.

But just how is Hürzeler doing all of this? Let’s take a more in depth look at his and St. Pauli’s tactics…

Controlled possession with intent, manipulating tempo and playing through pressing via the centre – de Zerbian inspiration and the best buildup in 2. BL

Over the last several seasons, there have been three elite, innovative possession coaches in/around the Zweite Liga: 

1. Walterball aka Tim Walter’s manic rotational buildup (especially with CBs) with dynamical occupation of the six space leading to massive presence in the last line and total control

2. Christian Titz’s enormous possession numbers with the legendary GK chain innovation. This again intends to exert more control by taking more risk, e.g. at times 5-6 attackers test the last line, thus they always keep opponents back

3. Lukas Kwasniok’s deep build up with a chameleon-esque opponent specific adaptivity when it comes to lineups, player profiles and roles, like using 10s as wingbacks, while maintaining the most effective buildup in the league

Now we can add Fabian Hürzeler of St. Pauli to this list, with his efficient deep circulation, de Zerbian progression and flexible offensive execution, which this piece will show.

The most immediate thing you notice when watching St. Pauli is the measured control with which they approach the games. This includes the manipulation of tempo with the ball (slowing down), with the ability to speed it up once they have baited the press. Data provider Impect has them as the most effective buildup team at 325, with the 2nd placed Magdeburg team at 290. It all begins with being able to keep the ball: per Fbref, the 54.7% possession (3rd behind Titz/Magdeburg’s 61 and Walter/HSV’s 58) and is pretty much the only metric where they are third with a bit of distance, as they are second in live ball, medium passes and middle third touches  to Magdeburg. Although HSV pip them in short pass attempts and completions, the Boys in Brown have a staggering 90.5 % rate, leading the league.

Unlike Magdeburg, where the preeminent “Torwartkette” GK Dominik Reimann reigns, Pauli play the fewest long passes (Magdeburg attempts 917 passes of 30+ yards vs Pauli’s 719), but complete them at the best rate at 61%. In other words, they circulate short – even with the GK – but the long passes are more opportunistic and even surgical.

The base formation is a 343 that almost never materializes on the pitch, but has the GK as an extra possession player in theory vs a man-oriented pressing. Such an out of possession approach is prevalent at 2. Liga, hence why many aforementioned coaches use a ball-playing GK.

The goal kick a’la Brighton in 7 v 6 opening all the underneath receptions with Eggestein and Hartel

At Pauli they do so almost in spite of limitations of Bosnian GK Nikola Vaslij, who’s been successfully pressed for goal-ending high turnovers/errors by Hertha and Nürnberg just in recent weeks. Despite the mistakes, like most smart coaches, Hürzeler understands the positive tradeoffs (extra buildup player, ability to beat pressure, maintaining possession and control) and uses him when needed. But to his credit Vasilj, has been absolutely able to keep his cool and calmly manipulate or dribble on-rushing strikers.

So it’s not the GK that makes the buildup special, but then who does?

Well that would be the three CBs standing at 1.9m and all approaching thirty. Three remarkable actors in the buildup that Hürzeler uses in quite different ways:

  • Aged 30, Estonian CB Karol Mets has played in Norway, Holland, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, and Switzerland. He joined on loan in January and now permanently in the summer, providing an absolutely elite left sided ball progresser: nobody has more passes into the final 3rd (69), he is 3rd in progressive distance, top 5 in short, top 3 in medium completions and is by his own admission having the time of his life under Hürzeler.
  • Hamburg native Hauke Wahl is no stranger to progressive passing and coaches – he was perhaps the key to Walterball at Kiel, playing a 2. BL mix of Busquets and Hummels to the point of getting his own Spielverlagerung profile. At 1.89m he’s actually not good in the air or at some aspects of traditional defending, or accurate long passes. He is amazingly intelligent in counterpressing and rest defense, and almost a one man ball magnet/playmaker. Wahl is a bona fide genius when it comes to short/medium passing (completed 298/306 this season at 97% 343/367 medium 93.5%) and certified press-baiting provocateur – he even puts his sole on the ball like a de Zerbian CB. Moreover, at 29 he has become a leader and as a summer signing from Kiel, Pauli’s most indispensable player. 
  • Much like Mets, Eric Smith (27 in January), a Halmstad, Sweden native was a virtual unknown DM prior to arriving on loan in 2021, with his 2018 move to Gent characterised by loans (back to Norrköping) and injury problems. While those maladies persisted in Hamburg, it was in the Stadtderby vs HSV last October that Timo Schulz fielded him as a CB and he has stuck there.

Like Mets and Wahl, Smith is also in the top 20 in progressive passes, but his hybrid role as an in possession DM, out of possession CB (Nagelsmann used Florian Grillitsch and Kevin Vogt in this way) is what makes him unique. 

In this typical buildup example vs Hertha’s 442, GK Vasilj joins the 1st line with CBs Mets and Wahl split wide. The central CB Smith is pushed up to DM/CM, acting as a passing/receiving option (he can “bounce” the side CBs free once Vasilj hits him) beyond the opponent’s 1st line and potentially engaging the opposition DMs. Were they to jump, Pauli can reach the two options beyond them as one of the CMs, Marcel Hartel, moves up with the centre-forward Johannes Eggestein dropping. Coupled with the Pauli wingers moving into half-spaces, essentially pinning Hertha’s fullbacks and thus the whole backline, this creates an issue in terms of Hertha’s CBs not wanting to step vs allowing two creative attacking players like Hartel and Eggestein to turn and receive.

One option that teams with back four have successfully used is to press up on the Smith/Metcalfe duo with angled pressing on Vasilj, hoping he makes a mistake on the short pass. When opponents drop their wide midfielder onto Hartel, this opens the pass to the wingback.

Beyond buildup: use of wingbacks inside, de Zerbian 2-3-2-3

With them, Pauli stretch the 2nd line wide as well: the two wingbacks/fullbacks get pushed up so either they can receive and carry into open space, when a team with a back four like Nürnberg or Hertha defends narrow/forces outside.

When the opposing winger is late pressing Mets and Hertha want to jump the wide pass to the wingback, Saad’s inside positioning and the Estonian’s passing ability (he also completes the 7th most 30+ yard passes at a whopping 73.3 clip!) can easily create chances. 

Another tweak is Saad actually showing to the ball and pulling out his man, while Hartel   – who played as a winger last season and at Union Berlin in their promotion-ending season – makes the seam run. Note how the opponents, Paderborn played their GK on the edge of the box to prevent these!

These wide combinations/actions also can also take place on the other side with Wahl, Afolayan and Jackson Irvine or Connor Metcalfe, albeit with less frequency, but still more than enough to keep teams honest. In addition, all the CBs can hit the diagonal deep ball to 1v1 wingers as well.

Back on the left side Lars Ritzka’s technical, playmaking skills, and tactical intelligence (at times you can see Hürzeler instructing him when he should move inside, etc) are clearly lacking behind Manolis Saliakas on the right. Saliakas is an excellent long ball passer (only 10 outfield players completed more) has excellent timing and understanding with passes to his winger and Hartel and knows when to make a diagonal seam run, synced with Hartel coming deep on the other side and Eggestein pinning the CB.

One interesting tactical item – which seems to be irrespective of opponents formation, but rather takes place vs pressure – is how Hürzeler moves the fullback/wingbacks inside. This again creates a dilemma because Pauli achieves a 3v2 or 4v3 (see below) centrally. Teams lately adapted an approach in which they somewhat ignore Ritzka, the weakest link. 

Schalke keep their DM shaded way towards Hartel in last week’s cup match which went to extra time
Kiel employ a 5-3-1-1 with the striker cutting the pitch in two, while the ball side DM anticipates he pass to fullback, the far side DM sits deeper with side CBs able to push up on Hartel and Metcalfe

Last but not least, another aim of moving fullbacks inside is to open the wings to their 1v1 players, in particular to the rising star Elias Saad and veteran Marcel Hartel.

Saad, Hartel, and final third Z’s

So, as we have seen, Hürzeler’s team present the opponents with a slew of tough choices. Press them and it’s what Pauli want, with intelligent and secure CBs who can pass, carry and move into open space, deep-coming central players and inside-rotating wingbacks.

Sit off, and you are vulnerable to two relatively new and different, but dangerous wingers with tremendous stories! On the right is Oladapo Afolayan, an ex-teammate of Tammy Abraham who had never played higher than League One with Bolton. Having chosen his studies over moving to Chelsea’s academy at age 14 and then university in Toronto, Canada, he has worked his way up the ladder. “Dapo” can come inside and combine, but is a rightie with a high defensive workrate and the 7th most take-ons attempted, succeeding at a subpar 32.5 %. While he only has 1G+1A and his per 90 G+A has halved to 0.22 vs last season, he is 7th in opponent box touches, he follows and executes the matchplan well. 

On the left is an inverted winger in Elias Saad, one of this season’s breakout players. Saad has attempted the most take-ons in the division and is, alongside Hertha’s Fabian Reese and Magdeburg’s Baris Atik, its best winger by all relevant metrics. At Italian Data provider Soccerment, Saad, who they classify as a 1v1 explorer, is no. 1 at xT via carries, 2nd in xT overall and at one-twos, showing his combination play with the likes of Saliakas and Marcel Hartel. 

He will be 24 in December, yet a year ago he had not played higher than the 4th division. But you see, he is something of a quick learner: at age 19 he was breaking another record, as he became Germany’s youngest debutant at futsal. Which is doubly remarkable considering that evidently he had only started playing six months before!

Eggestein and Hartel provide the finishing, but defense and effort is consistent

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention two additional game changing players: perhaps the 2. Liga’s player of the season in Marcel Hartel, who has 6G+ 5A, the most chances (37) created, 2nd most shot creating actions but also provides a constant overload option in the final third, a wide receiving option in buildup and the chance to run behind. In addition, when Pauli invite pressure and are able to bypass it, the speed and dribbling of Saad and the telepathetic understanding between Hartel and Eggestein – see the 3rd goal vs Nürnberg – is breathtaking.

vs Paderborn where it almost became a 2-2-6 vs the back 5

Looking at this team in the last two months, it’s almost unfathomable, but St. Pauli actually had massive issues scoring in the early parts of this season, with three goalless draws in the opening four games. The game I attended against Magdeburg was a shining example regarding the bluntness: 28 shots, 12 on target (Reimann making multiple big stops, 12 in total on an incredibly low 0.8 PSxG) but just a 1.3 total xG. Then yet another Hürzeler masterstroke: on MD 6, the static Andreas Albers was replaced at centre-forward by the mobile, combinative Johannes Eggestein. “Jojo” was a hugely prolific striker in the Werder Bremen and Germany youth teams about 5-6 years ago, who never really made it (five goals in five years at Werder) at the German Bundesliga level (he did have a good spell at LASK) and at age 25 was something of a forgotten man even at Pauli. Well, now he’s a man on fire: six league goals  in just 525 minutes, with goals in six consecutive outings and 25 shot creating actions to boot. With his holdup ability, as well as coming deep to link play, interact with Hartel as well as attack the 1st post, Hürzeler’s attack is clicking. 

So, three goalless draws and three goals on 5.9 xG in the opening five matches with Albers, but once they started Eggestein, Pauli started dominating: winning 7/8 (including Schalke in the Pokal), with 23 goals on 10.25 xG. Clearly there have been some massive long range outliers (two vs Kiel early, Amenyido vs Nürnberg) but maybe none more dramatic than this epic game winning goal last week by Phillipp Treu vs KSC:

Due to the limitations and focus of this piece, we will not get to talk about St. Pauli’s super fun kickoffs where they line up in a 3-0-7. On a much more glaring note, we don’t get to analyze the league best defence, which in principle is inspired by: 

  • the man-orientated intensity of Gian Piero Gasperini, 
  • the 523-3313 pressing and counterpressing of Oliver Glasner (changed games vs Paderborn and Nürnberg) 
  • a non-negotiable willingness, work-rate and against the ball solidity that Diego Simeone teams embody 
  • Pauli also cover the most distance, are 2nd in intensive runs and are 3rd in counterpressing intensity

Hürzeler’s out of possession idols were one source of inspiration, but with the then-player/coach amassing an incredible 45 yellow cards, five yellow-red cards and one red card in 87 games for Pipinsried, something tells us he didn’t necessarily need that much help…

Much like how de Zerbi and his 2. Bundesliga colleagues have inspired his in possession ideas, Hürzeler has been open about studying those three coaches above, and these ideas have become the foundation of his team’s defence on which all the creative in possession ideas rest.  

Given how much tactical innovation/inspiration the Zweite Liga’s provided to the absolute elite end of football (Tim Walter’s buildup rotations, Christian Titz’s use of GKs, Lukas Kwasniok’s adaptability with wide playmakers) it’s not hard to see Hürzeler being next in line. But I’ll go even further: based on what is now almost an entire season (30 games), we have good evidence that he’s taking a number of things to the next level. At St. Pauli in 2023 Hürzeler’s been able to combine dominant, innovative and adaptive in possession ideas with generated counterattacks, extremely good transition play and the league’s pre-eminent defence. Thus it seems like this just 30-year-old coach has in one calendar year managed to achieve what perhaps Walter, Titz and Kwasniok are yet to, which is to excel in all phases.

The fact that he and Andreas Bornemann are doing this with the 8th most valuable squad with personnel costs at a yearly 25million, in the same class as Hannover, Düsseldorf and Fürth, is spectacular.

In light of this outstanding 2023 season, that St. Pauli – a brilliant club that is world-renowned for the atmosphere, values and other intangible, life and death off-the-pitch factors – is all of sudden playing the most exciting football, perhaps in all of Germany, is making 30-year old Fabian Hürzeler perhaps the most outstanding coach you may not have heard of.  

Header image copyright IMAGO / eu-images

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