St. Pauli Season Preview: Will the Boys in Brown blow hot or cold in 2017-18?

After an emphatic escape from relegation danger last season, what is Olaf Janßen's team capable of this season?

St. Pauli Season Preview: Will the Boys in Brown blow hot or cold in 2017-18?
St. Pauli's 2017-18 team photo. | Photo: Getty/Oliver Hardt.

On Friday night, 2. Bundesliga cult club FC St. Pauli begin their campaign away at VfL Bochum with a sense of trepidation.

Last year, a much fancied side at the beginning of the season had a horror opening four months that left them deep in the mire of a relegation battle. Yet they then rebounded superbly, escaping danger in the last few weeks and even winding up in the top half of the table.

With the addition of a few new faces, it remains largely the same team this year, albeit under new management with Olaf Janßen taking charge. But just what can be expected of die Kiezkicker this season?

A rollercoaster of a season

After an unexpected fourth-placed finish the season before, many had tipped St. Pauli to be amongst the promotion contenders last season. They couldn’t have been more wrong. They were perhaps unlucky to lose their first match to VfB Stuttgart, but the defeats kept on coming, with just one win in their first 15 matches leaving them rock bottom.

With enough credit in the bank from the past two seasons, Ewald Lienen remained in charge, and the club’s faith was eventually rewarded. Signs of a recovery through an unbeaten December blossomed into an incredible resurgence after Christmas, with just three defeats in the second half of the campaign.

Six wins in their last seven matches ensured they finally broke clear of relegation danger, and they wound up finishing seventh. In fact, from the start of December through to the end of the campaign, only promoted duo Stuttgart and Hannover 96 had a better record.

Their failure to adequately replace departed stars like Marc Rzatkowski and Lennart Thy (who had an unsuccessful return on loan) in the summer had been cited as a big reason for their struggles, yet whilst January arrivals like Mats Möller Daehli rejuvenated the squad, it was Aziz Bouhaddouz and Cenk Sahin, signed before the start of the season, who emphatically stamped their places in the team with some talismanic performances.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

On the pitch, there will be only minor changes to the personnel this season. Former captain Sören Gonther is the only significant departure, as he heads to Dynamo Dresden. He has been replaced as captain by Bernd Nehrig, with Lasse Sobiech remaining as vice-captain.

Clemens Schoppenhauer arrives from Würzburger Kickers to fill the void left by Gonther in defence, Sami Allagui is set to team-up with Bouhaddouz up front after leaving Hertha BSC and Luca Zander joins on loan from Werder Bremen as another option at right-back. However arguably the most important bits of business have been to sign Sahin permanently from Istanbul Basaksehir F.K. and to extend Daehli’s loan from SC Freiburg.

Off the field, there have been some major alterations, most notably Lienen stepping aside as head coach to take on the role of technical director. Janßen, his assistant since last November, is his replacement as head coach. Despite having plenty of coaching experience, it is just his second time in charge of a team permanently, following a disappointing spell in charge of Dresden a few years ago which ended in their relegation.

Speaking upon his appointment in May, Janßen said he was “delighted the club has given me the trust and the opportunity to serve as head coach.” He added that he is keen to “ensure we don’t have another jittery season like the one we’ve just had.” He has also spoken on the sort of manager he will be, suggesting he will take more of a back seat compared to his predecessor.

Lienen’s other former assistant Abder Ramdane has left following the changes, however former SC Paderborn 07 head coach Markus Gellhaus and Patrick Glöckner have been brought into to work alongside Janßen. In a joint interview with the Hamburger Morgenpost, Gellhaus said that they saw themselves and Janßen as “a whole team, suggesting they could take as much of the responsibility themselves as the head coach will.

The club have also confirmed that Uwe Stöver will replace Andreas Rettig as director of sport, allowing him to focus on his role as business manager, having replaced Thomas Meggle after he left last year. Stöver will only start on the 1 October though, with president Oke Göttlich confirming that, as well as allowing Rettig time to manage the handover, this was because “our squad is already complete” – meaning they are not expecting any new players before the transfer window closes.

Promising pre-season, despite another Miyaichi blow

St. Pauli suffered a big blow in the first two weeks of pre-season training when Ryo Miyaichi tore an anterior cruciate ligament. It has since been operated on, and he won’t be back for many months, however the injury-prone winger has already missed so much football since joining from Arsenal two years ago that he is not a major loss.

On the pitch though things have been much more positive, with victories in every friendly. They started with an 11-0 thrashing of lower league side Buxtehuder SV, whilst 3. Liga sides Sportfreunde Lotte and VfL Osnabrück were beaten 1-0 and 3-0 respectively, and that was followed up with a 2-1 win against fourth-tier team VfB Oldenburg.

They then went on a training camp in Maria Alm, Austria. Along with Miyaichi, Philipp Ziereis and Joel Keller did not travel with the rest of the squad, although Ziereis did join the camp for a few days as he recovers from an injury picked up in the final game against Bochum in May. Under-23 squad members Sirlord Conteh and Seung-Won Lee went along after impressing in the earlier matches.

The wins kept on coming on the pitch, as they beat FC Pinzgau 2-1 after coming from behind, before a stunning strike from Nehrig sent them on their way to yet another 2-1 in against FC Wil, managed by former Kaiserslautern coach Konrad Fünfstuck.

Speaking as the trip came to an end, Janßen felt that it had been a “positive” experience for the team, with the players “focused on football almost 24 hours a day” and everyone “pulling their weight” in the training sessions and matches. He also praised the team’s spirit, saying that “the interaction in the squad is extraordinary,” and that it had been “further intensified by the three new guys,” who had slotted into the team “like pieces in a jigsaw.”

Bouhaddouz, Sahin and the central spine key to success

As two of the key men in their revival last season, much will be expected this year from Bouhaddouz and Sahin. Although Bouhaddouz did find the net five times before Christmas, he found another gear after returning from representing Morocco at the African Cup of Nations in Gabon. He scored ten more times after that, not to mention his five assists, to help fire the side up the table.

After a slow start, Sahin proved to be a revelation on the wing later in the campaign, setting up three goals in the 5-0 thrashing of Karlsruher SC and he proved a menace whoever the opposition. Now a permanent part of the club, the pressure will be on for him to deliver the goods again.

Further back, the players who make up the spine of the side will also be key if St. Pauli are to have a successful season. In Nehrig and Christopher Buchtmann they already have their pivot players at the heart of midfielder. Nehrig is perhaps the closest thing they have to former fan hero Fabian Boll, a no-nonsense midfielder who has earned the responsibility of captaincy. Buchtmann meanwhile has the ability to charge forward and contribute vital goals.

The defence was a big weak point as they struggled early on last season, although Lienen seemed to get the balance right later in the campaign, especially with the full-backs. Whilst there’s no certainty Sobiech and Schoppenhauer will be the main centre-back pairing this year, how they gel will be vital to the stability of the side.

How Janßen may line his team up

Another option next to Sobiech could be Marc Hornschuh, who is also one of four players seemingly competing to play at right-back. Jeremy Dudziak was the man in possession last season but is recovering from shoulder surgery in May, whilst new arrival Zander and the club’s longest-serving player Jan-Philipp Kalla are also options. Daniel Buballa seems a safe bet at left-back.

Behind the defence, Philipp Heerwagen and Robin Himmelmann remain in battle for the goalkeeping gloves. Heerwagen never relinquished his place after replacing an injured Himmelmann against Kaiserslautern in December, which was potentially a big turning point in the campaign, however Himmelmann’s abilities mean he is still a par with his rival, and he had a final chance to stake his claim in the final friendly against Bremen on Saturday.

Last season St. Pauli generally played in a 4-2-3-1, which remains an option for Janßen this season, however the new coach appears to be favouring a 4-4-2 with two up front. That allows Allagui and Bouhaddouz to lead the line together, with support where required from Kyoung-Rok Choi and Jan-Marc Schneider – it would be interesting to see who would be preferred as a lone front man.

A 4-2-3-1 on the other hand would give greater opportunities to Daehli in the number 10 role, although he could also theoretically cover Sahin or Waldemar Sobota on the wings. When one considers Johannes Flum and Richard Neudecker, it is fair to say they have enough midfielder options to take either path.

In their final match before the start of the season, at the Millerntor against Bremen, they did indeed play as a 4-4-2, with Bouhaddouz, playing alongside Allagui, scoring twice in the 2-1 win. As well as Himmelmann, Zander and Daehli were given chances from the start, with Hornschuh alongside Sobiech and Buchtmann out wide. Whether that is a true indication of Janßen’s thinking for the Bochum game remains to be seen.

How St. Pauli could line up against Bochum. | Source: LineupBuilder.com
How St. Pauli could line up against Bochum. | Source: LineupBuilder.com

A tough run of fixtures to start the season

However they line-up, they will be keen to get off to a much better start to this campaign, but their opening fixtures couldn’t be much tougher. After sharing the opening night spotlight with Bochum, they then have ten days before hosting Dresden in the first competitive match of the season at the Millerntor.

Following a trip to Paderborn in the DFB-Pokal, they go to relegated SV Darmstadt 98 before playing traditional strong-starters 1. FC Heidenheim. After the first international break there’s a trip to 1. FC Nürnberg – although they had a poor record at home last year – before promotion favourites FC Ingolstadt 04 visit the Millerntor.

Later in the year, they face two other big promotion contenders – 1. FC Union Berlin and SpVgg Greuther Fürth – in the space of three matches, both away, although there is also an international break in between. After that Arminia Bielefeld and MSV Duisburg could be easier games, before the return against Bochum just before Christmas, with those earlier games then forming the run-in at the end of the campaign.

It is worth bearing in mind that Bielefeld were one of four teams still in the league that St. Pauli didn’t beat last season, along with Union Berlin, Erzgebirge Aue and SV Sandhausen. The latter two of those will, as last season, come back-to-back in late October – Sandhausen away and Aue at home – with the reverse matches at the beginning of April.

After nine wins at the Millerntor the year before, St. Pauli won just five times at home last year, with seven draws, and will need to put that right if they are to have a more consistent season. Their away record, with seven victories, was much better though, so if they can get both right, they’ll be quietly confident of pushing for a top-three berth.

Difficult to know what this team is capable of

Janßen has said that the club are pleased to have kept the majority of the team together, but that he’s conscious it is not clear what to expect. “We know this team were still bottom of the table a few months ago,” he said, whilst by contrast “this team also picked up 34 points in the second half of the season.”

With that in mind, he feels “it makes no sense to start dreaming” about what they could achieve this year, and instead “we should concentrate on what we can influence and that’s the next game.”

In the first instance, that’s Bochum, and then Dresden, and so on. If they come through the first six games relatively unscathed, then there’s no reason, on paper, why this team couldn’t be right amongst the promotion challengers.

Janßen himself has said though that as many as 15 teams could harbour hopes of competing at the top end of the 2. Bundesliga this year, so ultimately it’s a question of whether have the fire power and experience needed to break from the pack.

If the likes of Sahin, Bouhaddouz and Allagui can fire, then they might just have a cutting edge, and whilst they might not have the recent Bundesliga experience that sides like Ingolstadt and Darmstadt have, their team does contain a lot of second tier know-how, used to fighting at both ends of the table.

They’re by no means the favourites, but with this team, anything could be possible.

Quotes via FC St. Pauli and Hamburger Morgenpost.

Germany - Bundesliga