Fabian Hürzeler: Who is the former Bayern Munich youth player outdoing Jürgen Klopp and reviving St Pauli's fortunes?
Fabian Hürzeler has only just turned 30, but the St Pauli coach has already outstripped Jürgen Klopp's start to his managerial career and has revived the Hamburg-based club's Bundesliga 2 fortunes so radically this season that a long-awaited return to the top flight is now a possibility.
You have heard all the platitudes before: coach sacked after a first half of the season that has left his club in danger, his unheralded assistant pushed out of the shadows and into the limelight with praise heaped on him.
"In his time as assistant coach and caretaker coach, Fabian has shown he tackles challenges in a very structured way and offers concrete solutions," explained St. Pauli sporting director Andreas Bornemann when Hürzeler replaced the man he had previously been assistant to, Timo Schultz, two days before Christmas 2022. "In the current situation, it's important to give the team fresh impetus. We're convinced Fabian is the right man for the job."
Schultz had looked to be that when he led the team to within just three points of the promotion/relegation play-off spot last season, and the promise of a return to the top flight following a painful 12-season absence burned bright in Hamburg.
Instead, come the midway point of the 2022/23 campaign, Schultz's team were only out of the bottom three on goal difference, and he was on his way out. Enter Hürzeler, initially named interim boss in early December.
At face value, it appeared the easy, convenient choice. No one expected too much of a man who, at 29 years, 11 months and three days old, was the second-youngest ever head coach in German football's second tier. Then again, he was nearly a year-and-a-half older than Julian Nagelsmann when the now Bayern Munich coach was appointed at Hoffenheim…
Like Nagelsmann, who saved Hoffenheim from relegation in his first season, the Texas-born Hürzeler - the son of a Swiss dentist and German mother, who found themselves parents to a future coaching prodigy while working in the USA - has been an instant and runaway success, turning the task of earning promotion to the Bundesliga this season from the impossible to the improbable, and now to the unlikely but somehow still possible.
"We can play bad football," assured Hürzeler as if to try and keep a lid on the emotions bubbling over at the club after seeing his team defeat Greuther Fürth on Matchday 24 to record their seventh straight win since the season restarted. "But the team stuck together and showed the spirit they have."
Watch: St. Pauli smashed five past Sandhausen to make it eight wins on the spin
They made it eight wins in a row, breaking a club record that had stood for 48 years, when they brushed aside Sandhausen 5-0 on Matchday 25. It took them up to fifth with 41 points, still eight off the top three, and nine off the top two. But they still have to play all four teams above them, including a derby away at Hamburg. If the season had started on Matchday 18, Pauli would be seven points clear at the top of the table. They have momentum with a capital 'M'.
How has Hürzeler done it? He might have revolutionised results on the pitch, but there has been no blood-letting off it. "I'm not going to play the big shot and turn everything upside down," stated Hürzeler when he was appointed after two-and-a-half years at the club. "I had visited Timo [Schultz] before in Hamburg. I noticed then that we're on the same wavelength in terms of football."
He has retained the three-man backline, and continued with defensive midfielder Eric Smith as part of the trio, an innovation first introduced by Schultz earlier in the campaign. But the winter addition of the vastly experienced Karol Mets — the 6'3" Estonian with 84 caps for his country — has made Pauli infinitely more difficult to pull apart, and they have conceded just three goals in Hürzeler's eight games. By contrast, Schultz's last match in charge was a 4-4 draw with Karlsruhe.
That solidity has vastly improved their fortunes away from home, and the victory at Nuremberg in Hürzeler's first game in charge was Pauli's first of the season. When that was added to their stoic home form — they're unbeaten at the Millerntor in their first 12 matches this season, winning seven — they were always going to climb the table.
Watch: Pauli get the Hürzeler era off to a winning start
Hürzeler did take the decision to consign Johannes Eggestein to the bench: the Germany U21 international striker has featured in just one of his new boss' games and remains marooned on five league strikes. Instead, Australian international defensive midfielder Connor Metcalfe, Croatian centre-back Jakov Medic and Greek right wing-back Manolis Saliakis have all proven unlikely sources of goals. Left wing-back Leart Paqarada has remained productive, boasting a team-high five assists, despite being replaced as captain by another Australia international, Jackson Irvine, after the pair initially shared responsibilities.
Hürzeler's former teammate at the Bayern youth academy, Borussia Dortmund midfielder Emre Can, predicted "a great career as a coach" even if the Pauli boss did not make it as a player. He appeared for Bayern's reserve team in two spells, either side of a season in Hoffenheim's second string, before joining amateur outfit FC Pipinsried as player-coach in 2016. He juggled that job with the role of assistant coach of the Germany U20 and U18 sides before joining Schultz's staff, all the while studying for his DFB coaching licence. He is due to complete that in April 2023. "I'm working on the basis that I'm not going to fail," said Hürzeler.
Given his work with Pauli, that seems unlikely - even if his squad are keeping their gifted feet on the floor. "The streak gives us a certain self-confidence and security on one hand. On the other hand, I also have the feeling that these have been hard-fought wins," said Paqarada, who will likely be in the top flight next season anyway after agreeing a move to Cologne. "It could have, here and there, gone a different way. But basically we're already very stable, things are working well and everyone is learning from the others and getting to know the coach's ideas better."
That can only bode well for Pauli and Hürzeler, who has already outdone Klopp's feat of going unbeaten in the first seven matches of his coaching career while at Mainz in 2001, with the current Liverpool boss winning 'only' six of them. After after orchestrating that eighth successive victory at Sandhausen, Hürzeler has not only pushed Pauli closer to the Bundesliga, but also equalled the Bundesliga 2 record held by another Jürgen, Jürgen Wähling, who won his first eight games in charge of Hannover in 1986. At the time, Hürzeler was still seven years away from being born in Houston, Texas.
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