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FC St Pauli: a tactical analysis

July 20, 2010


“The core of the FC St. Pauli team has been the same for around five years now” states Timo Schultz, he continues, “At the end of each season, the five players who have made the fewest appearances leave the club, and five new ones replace them. And they are completely integrated.”

It is this continuity and stability in the squad throughout previous seasons that has led to FC St. Pauli being in the Bundesliga for the first time in eight years and it is a policy that is continuing into this season, with manager Holger Stanislawski bringing Carlos Zambrano from Schalke 04, Thomas Kessler from 1. FC Köln, the experienced Gerald Asamoah on a free after ten years at Schalke 04 as well as Moritz Volz on a free transfer.

Much may have been written about the culture of the club, which is undoubtedly unique and exceptional as well as the financial problems it faced after its relegation from the German top division in 2002. This problem resulted in a tear-jerking national campaign to save the club (which climaxed when Uli Hoeness ran around the Mellerntor stadium with a ‘Save St. Pauli’ t-shirt on during a friendly against Bayern Munich) and was ultimately successful.

However, this piece is not waxing lyrical about their ‘cult’ status nor reciting things from Wikipedia (shame on you BBC) but with little turnover in players, you can expect FC St. Pauli to start next season with the same principles and rumbustious philosophy that has brought them this promotion. So how exactly do they play? Well, I examined the games against Kaiserslautern and Augsburg, the two teams who are joining them in Bundesliga next season.

St. Pauli’s 4-2-3-1

To start off, they mainly play a clear 4-2-3-1 system with the attacking midfielders all looking to run beyond the centre of the oppositions’ defence. This makes a subtle change to the dynamic of the 4-2-3-1 shown for example, by the Germans at the 2010 World Cup. Theoretically, the runs made by the attacking midfielders cause the opposition full-backs to tuck-inside, which (a) creates little space in the middle and (b) Stops the opposition full-backs pushing forward as their starting positions are more central. St. Pauli however look to use their full-backs in a way that will provide more space for their on-rushing midfielders to run into that will be talked about later on. They’re also not afraid to change to a 4-4-2 in games too albeit without much success, this tactical flexibility was shown against Kaiserslautern.

Illustrated here is their obvious 4-2-3-1 shape

Pressing high up the pitch

The most striking feature of their play is how hard their midfielders work, always looking to track back and press in all areas of the pitch. This is accompanied with a high-line played by the defence, unafraid to push up and press forwards who have dropped deep, as well as pressing the opposition’s defence when they have the ball. In particular, Charles Takyi is physically fit, able to press full-backs down throughout the ninety minutes, looking to rush them into long-balls which they can defend easily. Takyi is not just there for attacking reasons, but he also plays an important defensive role in this team.

Following a clearance from a corner, Takyi and Naki have pressed past their half-way line to put pressure on the Augsburg defender, he hoists a long-ball up and St. Pauli win back possession.

Naki and Lehmann here are pressing the full-backs.

This high-pressing was always evident in the game against Augsburg (a three-nil win) whilst against Kaiserslautern (a two-nil loss), they did not press well whatsoever and struggled.

Defensive problems

Nevertheless, there are problems with the high-line / pressing high approach shown against Augsburg and in parts against Kaiserslautern, it leaves a lot of space behind the defence and if the opposition get time on the ball, it’s easy to successfully play a ball behind the defence for attackers to run onto. This is not helped by how St. Pauli’s full-backs like to get forward, leaving plenty of space in the channels, meaning the centre-backs get split and leave huge spaces between them.

St. Pauli’s full-backs have been caught up-field meaning the Augsburg forward has drifted wide taking St. Pauli captain Morena wide leaving huge spaces between him and his centre-back partner who has drifted left with the other Augsburg forward. By playing such a high-line, there is possibility for teams to run beyond defences and get a shot on goal.


The ball has been played and it results in a goal-scoring chance for Augsburg.


Note how far the full-backs are pushed forward here, leaving the two central defenders very isolated. Augsburg score but the goal is disallowed (incorrectly) for offside.

The central midfielders look to sit deep and win the ball-back as well as getting forward to support attacks. This requires fantastic fitness levels and from the games examined, this was to be the case. Both Boll, Bruns and Lehmann (the central midfielders in both games) showed good decision-making is when to get forward, even though it is only really Lehmann who showed himself to be technically better-than-average and can shoot from long-distance.

St. Pauli’s attacking style – direct and dangerous

There is a definite trend in their attacking style. They are not afraid to hit a long-ball to their lone-front man Marius Ebbers who drops deep, pushing the defence forward with him (1). He is good in the air and has great control of the ball. His movement deep allows the attacking trio, who all play narrow, to run beyond the defence (2). This would be easy to defend against if it was just this attacking quartet in attack, but the full-backs provide the width that is needed to find space in the attacking third. The full-backs therefore spread the opposition defence across the pitch, leaving gaps between the full-backs and centre-backs – this is where the pace of the attacking trio is needed, to breach the defensive line and score goals.

Illustrating how St. Pauli attacks. Ebbers (blue) drops deep, looking for Takyi (pink) and the wide attacking midfielders (yellow) to make runs from deep beyond the defence. Note how narrow the quartet are.

Ebbers is able to play delicate through-balls and the pace of Takyi and Naki is used to reach them. Ebbers is fundamental to their attacking style and everybody looks to give the ball to him for him to create something. He has exceptional footwork and confidence on the ball, more often than not looking for back-heels rather than the simple pass; he’s a talented deep-lying forward with good vision with his back to goal. Ebbers is the creative outlet for the team, everything good about FC. St. Pauli emanates from Ebbers’ movement and creativity. He is also versatile, able to play behind the striker in a more ‘trequartista’ type role, using his creative ability to manufacture chances.

He is not only there for creating goals, he can finish too. For his first goal against Augsburg, from a floated cross from Takyi, he brought the ball down with his chest and volleyed it home on the half-volley – a truly top-class piece of control and finishing. For his second goal, he received the ball in the right hand-side channel facing one defender, he stops with the ball, then as the midfielder chases back, cuts inside with his right-foot before touching it with his left, taking him through the gap. He then out-muscles the midfielder before powering it past the Goalkeepers right shoulder to complete a great goal. Now in these two games he was impressive and I would invite anyone who has seen him more regularly to comment and tell me whether he just had too impressive games here (particularly against Augsburg).

Ebbers second goal against Augsburg.

Their attacking style is definitely in keeping with their nickname, it is extraordinarily swash-buckling – every time they receive the ball, and they look to score in the quickest means possible, making for very quick passes and equally quick runs from deep. The forward players are all quick and can pass comfortably, these skills combined with Ebbers’ movement and passing results in an impressive front-line who will definitely cause trouble to opposition defences next season.

Kaiserslautern illustrate St. Pauli’s defensive frailties

Against Kaiserslautern however, where they lost two-nil, St. Pauli struggled against a team who were more patient and composed on the ball. Kaiserslautern also hassled their midfield and defence, forcing them to play unmeasured long-balls which were poor and just handed the ball back to Kaiserslautern.

Kaiserslautern recognised St. Pauli’s defensive weaknesses, especially in the full-back areas and this led to their first goal. A simple long-ball from the full-back placed between centre-back and full-back resulted in a goal, it is these type of balls that often led to goal-scoring opportunities for St. Pauli’s opposition and will definitely be a concern going into next season. The second goal for Kaiserslautern was exactly the same, a long-ball from the goalkeeper, flicked on from the forward behind the defence concluded in a second goal.

The forward drops deep, where nobody is picking him up. The other forward starts his run beyond St. Pauli's defence.


The St. Pauli defence are left static and Kaiserslautern go on to score a second goal. The same defensive problems keep on cropping up in both games.

Throughout the Kaiserslautern game, St. Pauli looked like they had dropped deeper and deeper and changed their pressing techniques, looking to stand-off and give the opposition more time on the ball. This gave the opposition time and space in dangerous positions of the pitch, particularly between midfield and defence. St. Pauli may find themselves struggling next season if they do not look to put pressure on players in these dangerous areas as the Bundesliga has quality footballers who work in these areas of the pitch. They need to find a balance otherwise teams will just adapt to the way they play and exploit the obvious problems.

FC St. Pauli also looked to swap between their 4-2-3-1 system and a 4-4-2 system which was less impressive. As I’ve talked about before, it dwindles your chances of dominating midfield and controlling the game and this was the case in this game. Kaiserslautern dictated the game as they had better central midfielders who could keep possession better and move the ball with composure and precision, this was a bad change for St. Pauli as they would have been better sticking with their 4-2-3-1 system and flooding the midfield.

So what for St. Pauli next year?

Overall, FC St. Pauli’s game is very direct and the use of full-backs to create the width produces weaknesses in the defence which can be exploited if the opposition plan correctly. Augsburg and Kaiserslautern found themselves with many goal-scoring opportunities from direct balls over the top and down the channels in the match, only for Kaiserslautern to have the finishing the make them pay off.

In the Bundesliga, these weaknesses may be exploited easier and I would be worried for St. Pauli next year if they are not able to sort these problems out. The good thing is that manager Holger Stanislawski has brought in full-back Moritz Volz as well as a new younger goalkeeper that could help in clearing up long-balls over the top, taking on a more sweeper style role. There are definite positives in the approach they are taking this summer.

Another positive to take is that they scored the most goals last season, which was to be expected given their very gung-ho approach to the game. They were also impressive away from home, winning the same amount (10) away as home which could provide confidence travelling away next season, as well as only scoring one less goal away. The romantic within me wants St. Pauli to do well and stay-up whilst playing their brand of football; direct and cavalier in attack whilst very loose at the back – but I fear that their defensive frailties will be exploited by the better teams and they may sadly struggle next year.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Dave permalink
    July 20, 2010 6:24 pm

    A great analysis Tim. This is the first quality English-language article I’ve seen on this team and it’s great to get a breakdown of how they play. I’ve been following them for several years now and I’m looking forward to this season in the top flight.

    I, too, am worried about them trying to play their same style against organized teams (West Brom anyone?). Kaiserslautern were highly organized all season last year, and they never seemed to lose a step in the 2.Bundesliga. I felt like they were in first place almost the entire season. It definitely showed whenever St. pauli played them – their defensive weaknesses were exposed against a better opponent. They were lucky Kaiserslautern were the only other really quality team last season because they hit some rough slumps a couple of times and no other team made them pay for it.

    Keep up the great writing!

    • July 20, 2010 7:00 pm

      I liked your comparison with West Brom, they seem extremely stuck with their philosophy and like West Brom, I hope they stick with it. It makes for entertaining football and plenty of goals.

      I must admit, I didn’t see any of the games last season so I had to catch up and watch a couple of matches to really get a picture of how they played but against Kaiserslautern they were pretty poor. Kaiserslautern seemed looked a lot more like a team with Bundesliga quality, they were composed and measured in possession and were not throwing men forward in unpromising situations – which could prove to be St. Pauli’s downfall I feel.

      • Dave permalink
        July 21, 2010 2:19 am

        Yeah both times they played Kaiserslautern it didn’t go well. I just felt like St. Pauli were wildly inconsistent all season. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that it didn’t seem to make a difference whether they were playing at home or away.

        One week they’d dismantle Hansa Rostock and celebrate on the field while looking like the Bundesliga side they are now, the next a team like Kaiserslautern – only about 2-3 points ahead of them in the table – would completely dismantle them.

        I wonder if West Brom had a similar situation this year in the championship. There seem to be a lot of parallels. Newcastle was the obvious organized side that trounced the opposition in route to automatic promotion (just like Kaiserslautern) while West Brom played the “beautiful” football and secured a second place a lot further away from first than the points suggest. In fact, they even had similar home/away records to St. Pauli.

      • July 21, 2010 12:18 pm

        They seem a bit like West Brom defensively. West Brom conceded the most goals home and away throughout the top six spots whilst scoring the most by a long way away from home.

        Against Kaiserslautern they reverted to a 4-4-2 for parts of the match with their full-backs not looking to get forward. This resulted in them dropping deeper and deeper, leaving spaces where they weren’t in the high-pressing 4-2-3-1 game – which gave Kaiserslautern lots of time and space on the ball. They’ll get slaughtered if they play like that in the Bundesliga.

        I just hope, in their own individual way, that they stay up, they really add something to the league they play in.

  2. July 20, 2010 6:24 pm

    Wow, this was really in-depth, I feel like I know the whole team inside-out now. Brilliant work.

    I recently came across your blog via Zonal Marking and I’ve enjoyed reading through the older posts. Do you have a preference for any league in particular?

    • July 20, 2010 6:57 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, it was an enjoyable piece to do.

      I don’t really have a preference for leagues I write about, I really just write about what I find interesting, as selfish as it sounds. I enjoy the Bundesliga a lot because they get many things right regarding the way they treat fans and ownership issues. I’ll still find myself predominantly watching the Premier League though when the season restarts with a sprinkling from Italy, German, Spain and sometimes France however.

  3. July 21, 2010 2:31 pm

    A brilliant analysis, and one that’ll save me time trying to work out what St. Pauli plan to do next season!
    I’ve watched the Bundesliga for years, and write about it too, Alas, in a bid to watch as many leagues as possible, I have neglected the second division.
    Therefore, I’ve only seen St. Pauli once before and that was in a pre-season friendly against Celtic. Then, I interpreted their formation as a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1, Sukuta-Pasu the wasp behind a towering chap called Sako. Of the widemen, Bruns had something of a free-role, and neither full-back was particularly enterprising. This reading would therefore indicate not to take too much from friendlies, as you pinpointed their frailties in this area!
    Nevertheless, Beaulieu-Bourgault was easily identified as screening the centre-backs, while Schultz was all over the shop.
    An interesting characteristic of the defence was revealed when Scott Brown ran at them. Rather than the clumsy backwards waddle most back-fours do, St. Pauli’s elected to run at Brown – Mel Gibson & co. in Braveheart, eat your heart out!
    It’ll be interesting to see how Volz does in the Bundesliga. Perhaps he’ll emulate Felix Bastians, another full-back who floated around England’s lower-reaches before finding first-team football in Germany’s highest-tier!

    • July 21, 2010 7:10 pm

      The 4-4-2 they played throughout parts of the game against Kaiserslautern was very unimpressive. The full-backs were not providing support and it was reliant on the wide players to create something, which didn’t really happen.

      You mention the Braveheart run at attackers , they’re very aggressive and do look to get stuck in don’t they? They’re also aggressive and quick with their passing and extremely direct. They certainly have a very individual way of playing.

      I hope Volz does well, I always liked him at Fulham and his blog is something worth reading too.

    • astro permalink
      July 22, 2010 9:59 pm

      The friendly against Celtic didn’t reveal much – loads of players on the pitch that either left us by now or got a small amount of matches during the season. And the core of the team was still drunk from their trip to Mallorca to celebrate promotion…
      I’d rather like to see those teams as part of the pre-season matches.

      The analysis is a brilliant read, better than anything I’ve read about our tactics in German as well.

  4. July 22, 2010 7:04 am

    Great read Tim, looking forward to seeing how they line up in the coming season, a team like St. Pauli can guarentee that it won’t be dull, keep up the good work.

  5. July 22, 2010 12:10 pm

    Don’t really have anything to add that hasn’t been said already.

    Where did you get the video that I presume you got the screenshots from if you don’t mind?

    • Carlton permalink
      July 22, 2010 4:53 pm

      You can download the full matches from certain football forums, they’re uploaded to file-sharing websites like mediafire, rapidshare, megaupload etc.

  6. July 23, 2010 5:54 am

    Hey, this is a wonderful article, encapsulates St Pauli’s offense quite well. Just a couple of things to ad from a New Yorker who may not have the best tactical mind but went quite far to see the majority of matches last season:

    -Normally Bruns isn’t one of the ball-winning midfielders, he’s more likely to be seen as one of the wide attacking style. I would look for the Hansa Rostock refugee Fin Bartels to play a similar role to Bruns this year, as Florian sadly isn’t getting much younger. That said, it’s possible you saw him there, but the normal Boll-Lehman partnership was quite strong, and you’d more likely see Kruse here than Bruns, in my view.

    – Another of St Pauli’s strengths that wasn’t touched on here was set pieces, particularly direct free kicks. This was one of the reasons for the Lehmann finding the net so often was his prowess at these, most often taken with a lay up pass and a hard, knuckling shot from Lehmann. Add this to St Pauli’s ability to draw fouls with speed, good runs, and maybe a little antagonism from Naki (haha), this was one of the highlights of this past season, a welcome break from being rather poor on both sides of set pieces.

    This season certainly doesn’t come without questions- With a nearly record amount of goals scored last campaign, how will this change? Gerald Asamoah certainly will see a lot of the field, but where does he fit? Will he play the role Ebbers found success in last year, or will he be used from one of the attacking midfield roles? Or, will St Pauli rather just adjust to a system of two strikers supported by two attacking midfielders, a sort of 4-2-2-2? And the bigger problem is the suspect defense. The addition of Zambrano on loan from Schalke and the signing of Volz helps, but will not solve the problems in the back. St Pauli wont be able to survive slugfests against well drilled 1st division teams, they will have to play well defensively.

    I fear I agree with your outlook. Barring a vast improvement in defense, St Pauli will not be able to keep the opponents out of the net often enough to breathe comfortably in the 1st division. That said, St Pauli probably wasn’t one of the teams picked for promotion last season, so who knows what is possible. The promotion is appropriate for the 100th season celebrations, but ultimately St Pauli likely belongs in the 2nd division, at least for the time being. As long as St Pauli avoids spending too much, and another trip to “hell” (aka the the 3rd division), I think the majority of the fans will be fine with any outcome of this season.

    • July 24, 2010 12:11 pm

      Thanks for your detailed reply, it’s good to get a fan’s view of what has been said.

      I’ll try and watch a few games next season so I’m able to see where things might have changed in preparation for the Bundesliga.

  7. August 12, 2010 4:36 pm

    Brilliant article again. I will be reading your blog all the time from now on. Nice work
    I read many human interest pieces about this team but no one seems to care how they actually play. Thanks for the education.

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