FC St Pauli: a tactical analysis
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.