Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Fabian Hurzeler: Why Brighton look set to appoint the 31-year-old as Roberto De Zerbi’s replacement

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At 31 years old, Fabian Hurzeler will make history as the youngest manager appointed to a permanent post in the Premier League if, as expected, he is named as Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton successor.

It’s probably not the first time you’ve seen his age mentioned and it definitely won’t be the last. That is to be expected considering the seven-year gap between Hurzeler and the next-youngest manager in the league, Kieran McKenna.

Hurzeler had never been in charge of a first-team side until he took the St Pauli job in December 2022. With only 18 months of management under his belt, he may look like a fledgling in the game, but his coaching exploits began in his early 20s before his retirement at 23.

A midfielder during his playing days, the Houston-born manager also has a German and Swiss passport on top of his US citizenship. As a player, he was schooled at Bayern Munich II under the tutelage of Hermann Hummels, father of Mats.

During his time in Bavaria he shared a dressing room with Tottenham’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Borussia Dortmund’s Emre Can, with the latter even foreseeing Hurzeler’s coaching proficiency.

Spells with Hoffenheim and 1860 Munich’s reserves and a player/coach stint in Germany’s amateur ranks followed before he hung up his boots in 2016. In 2020, St Pauli’s then-head coach Timo Schultz took a huge risk in appointing two 27-year-olds – Loic Fave and Hurzeler – as his assistant coaches.

Saving St Pauli

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Fabian Hurzeler (right) was former St Pauli boss Timo Schultz ‘s (left) Assistant Coach for two years

After two years as Schultz’s No 2, Hurzeler received a call to take over the first team and replace the St Pauli legend. Schultz had been part of the furniture at St Pauli, having signed in 2005, and was a part of the last side to have been promoted in 2010. Schultz was a popular option to take the job in 2020 after taking up roles as a coach for the youth and first teams.

However, a run of four wins in 17 games at the beginning of the 2022/23 season prompted the club to respond to what they called a consequence of “the negative on-pitch development”. The decision was unpopular among fans.

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Who is Fabian Hurzeler? Sky Sport Germany reporter Florian Plettenberg calls him ‘one of Germany’s hottest coaches’

“Others and I were disappointed with the club,” chair of London St Pauli fan club Malcolm Hirst told Sky Sports.

“Schultz was a hero at the club, he’d been through the club’s ranks and had been there for many, many years. We felt he had an opportunity to do more and should have been given more of a chance.”

Tears for Schultz were soon dried by an emphatic run of 10 straight victories from Hurzeler’s first 10 games in charge – a run that saw a club on the brink of the relegation zone in Bundesliga 2 race up the standings to six points off automatic promotion.

“Football moves on incredibly quickly,” Hirst said. “You just had to give him a chance and by three straight wins, we were saying the changes that were made were the right changes even if the way it was done wasn’t totally right.

“It became clear very quickly he was a special guy and that he had his own way he wanted to play football.”

St Pauli missed out on promotion, finishing in fifth at the end of that season, but the initial signs of progress were there.

Hurzeler’s managerial style

St. Pauli coach Fabian H..rzeler is lifted by fans who invaded the field after their team won 3-1 during a second division, Bundesliga soccer match between St. Pauli and VfL Osnabr..ck, at the Millerntor Stadium, in Hamburg, Germany, Sunday, May 12, 2024. (Christian Charisius/dpa via AP)
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St Pauli set a new club record with 69 points in a season in the single tier second division and is promoted from there to the Bundesliga as champions for the first time

A return to Germany’s top flight wasn’t too far away as in the 2023/24 season, St Pauli were able to achieve promotion with a game to spare. Admirers of Hurzeler have likened him to Germany’s national team coach Julian Nagelsmann, who also excelled at a tender age. Other onlookers had previously drawn comparisons between him and the former Brighton boss De Zerbi.

St Pauli didn’t just achieve promotion – they did it in style. When Hurzeler took over at St Pauli, he was tasked with ensuring the team could find a nice balance between defence and attack.

Their previous issue was that when they attacked, their defence was porous, and when they took a defensive approach in games, goals were a lot harder to come by. St Pauli’s identity crisis prior to Hurzeler’s appointment as manager was perhaps best reflected in their previous two results that saw the club part ways with Schultz.

A goalless draw against Holstein Klein was followed by a 4-4 goal fest as St Pauli struggled for a happy medium to win games.

As far as the 23/24 season was concerned – Hurzeler had found a winning formula for St Pauli but it wasn’t instant. Hurzeler’s 3-4-3 formation was an evolution of their previous shape. Not only did the new formation provide greater flexibility but with a middle-of-the-park budget in Germany’s second tier, the adaptation allowed Hurzeler to maximise the personnel he had at his disposal. An exodus of a number of important squad members meant that Hurzeler had to think on his feet.

The figures behind Fabian Hurzeler and St Pauli's promotion
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The figures behind Fabian Hurzeler and St Pauli’s promotion

“At the beginning of this season, we just couldn’t seem to score. We had a number of scoreless draws early on.” Hirst said. “But then there was a switch and suddenly the parts seemed to move.

“He spotted what he needed to change to allow those goals to come and for the team then to start winning again. In my years of following the club, I’ve never seen such good play. It’s not only all the values that I love about St Pauli, but actually the play itself has been so dynamic and so enjoyable to watch.

“It is truly amazing to think that a manager who came in, was 29, now 31, has been able to do that within the club. It just shows how good his skills are and the way that he has managed the squad, he has raised the level of the players themselves and developed them.

“We were top of the league for most of the season in terms of the number of game weeks. So in the end it was a deserved promotion.”

Hurzeler’s approach to the game has been influenced by his time at Bayern Munich. Possession and proactivity is the name of the game for Hurzeler who hopes to be ball-dominant. The 31-year-old believes that the positioning of his players is imperative when wanting to win the ball back quickly and maintain an overload in numbers in key areas.

St Pauli registered the most attempts on goal during their 23/24 league campaign but crucially they had the best defensive record in their division last season, conceding 36 goals in 34 games.

Alongside that, Hurzeler’s St Pauli led the league in terms of successful passes from open play and intensive runs and set a second-division record for distance covered.

Speaking the language of the players

Hurzeler is a fascinating character to watch on the touchline. His outbursts on the sidelines meant St Pauli fans watched fearfully, hoping that their manager wouldn’t be consigned to the stands for their potential final day celebrations as he was at risk of suspension.

“His passion is controlled on the sideline, but he will definitely be in the ear of the officials,” Hirst predicts.

“I can’t see him changing, so expect him to be in the stands a couple of times throughout the season, that seems to be part of who he is, his nature, but I wouldn’t swap that for the success that he’s had and it wasn’t detrimental to St Pauli’s season.

“The players know exactly what they need to do, Brighton fans can be assured that he’ll want the best from the players and for the fans, maybe not so demonstratively, or quite so blatantly, but it’s a quieter passion.

“His calmness and his analysis of the game is just unbelievable. His knowledge and determination are probably what comes out [the most]. I’ve never viewed him as arrogant but he’s obviously got a huge self-belief in terms of his own ability and where he wants to take that.”

Hurzeler believes his age gives him the advantage when it comes to building player-coach relationships. He’s able to empathise with members of his squad to get the best out of them. One of those success stories was Dapo Afolayan who was playing at League One Bolton before he moved to St Pauli in January 2023.

Once I spoke to the manager my mind was set, especially how he wanted me to play and how he said wanted the team to play.

Dapo Afolayan speaking to Sky Sports in May

Afolayan was one of the shining stars in St Pauli’s promotion campaign, scoring 10 and setting up three including a brace and an assist in the game that ultimately saw them promoted.

‘Hurzeler will need time’

It’s not hard to see the similarities between Hurzerler’s approach to the game and that of De Zerbi. But more interestingly, Hurzeler also fits the profile of boss the south-coast club have opted for in the past and isn’t far detached from another coach previously linked with the position – Ipswich’s McKenna.

Just as De Zerbi was able to build on the foundations laid by Graham Potter, without any major surgery to the squad or friction, Brighton supporters will hope for a similar transition to an equally forward-thinking unknown quantity in Hurzeler to continue their journey, but it may take time.

“It might take a while for the players to get used to Hurzeler,” Hirst told Sky Sports.

“My fear for him is whether there’s enough time in the Premier League to develop and to move forward.

“Premier League clubs are not the best in terms of having patience with their managers but Brighton is maybe one of the ones where Hurzeler should get a good shot at that.

“He’s dealing with a higher quality player in the Premier League, but obviously the opposition are of a higher quality too. So, my hope for him would be that he hits the ground running. But if it doesn’t work straight away, I think both the fans and the chairman need a bit of a little bit of patience.

“Hopefully, they’ll see what he’s about very quickly and the players will adapt and buy into the way he wants to play the football.”

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