It took until Matchday 20 last season for St. Pauli to amass 17 points – the current total after Matchday 8 which sees them 2nd in the 2.Bundesliga. St. Pauli had only picked up 4 wins by Matchday 20, a tally already surpassed this season with today’s 1-0 victory over Heidenheim. Thankfully last season St. Pauli picked up a further 5 wins in their final 11 matches to survive the drop under the guidance of Ewald Lienen, and it’s Lienen that has to be credited with the huge turn-around in the club’s fortunes.
Lienen has very much done more with less this season. St. Pauli lost 11 players from last season’s squad, notably Halstenberg to Leipzig for a club record fee, as well as Daube, Schachten, Tschauner and Koch amongst others. Such change could have unsettled the club, but it hasn’t. It wouldn’t have been surprising if St. Pauli’s rejuvenation under Lienen had subsided this season, but instead he’s continued the transformation of the club. The first team hasn’t changed drastically from that which played last year, there’s been no massive spending spree, but what has changed is the confidence of the players and the team balance.
St. Pauli didn’t have one problem area last season prior to Lienen’s arrival – they had three. Defensively they were weak, unstable and were likely to throw away a goal at any moment. They conceded 15 goals in the opening 8 games of the season. In midfield they lacked any defensive midfielder, and the attacking midfielders was ineffective. And upfront? No chances and no clinical striker meant the team averaged just a goal per game.
Lienen has found a way to make the team tick, to get them playing to their qualities. The team has only conceded 4 goals in the opening 8 matches of the current campaign, the best defensive record in the league. Sobiech, a key signing in the summer from HSV, and Ziereis have looked assured and comfortable. Buballa and Hornschuh have looked solid defensively, yet hugely effective when the team are on the attack – pushing forward and causing problems. Alushi, somewhat of an player on the periphery last year, is suddenly a key element to the passing and structure of the team. The biggest transformation though is saved for Marc Rzatkowski – the diminutive winger who had so often frustrated since joining from Bochum due to his many tricks and lack of end product. In a stroke of genius, Lienen has transformed him into the no.6 role – a defensive midfielder to break up the play, link the passing between defence and midfield and start attacks. I imagine it was like asking your big bulky striker in your local pub team to go play left back because your teammate is running late. What do you mean i’m playing there, boss?
But Rzatkowski has been the player of the season so far for me. He’s been brilliant in breaking up opposition attacks, he’s linked played brilliantly from the back, and he’s also got himself into some excellent attacking positions and scored goals. Between him and Alushi, they’ve allowed the other midfielders to shine. Maier has scored goals, Sobota looks dangerous whenever he goes forward and new signing Dudziak looks like he’ll be a danger to the opposition too. Lennart Thy upfront is a nuisance, who works hard for the team and has the ability to score goals when given the service.
Today’s 1-0 win was symbolic of the change under Lienen. Last season St. Pauli lost this fixture 3-0. Heidenheim were clinical, solid and the better team. St. Pauli simply couldn’t cope with them defensively, and couldn’t offer anything in attack. Today, the opposite was true. It was St. Pauli who were solid and professional. Heidenheim struggled to create a chance against the St. Pauli defence, and when the boys in brown got the ball they looked dangerous.
It’s too early to dream of the Bundesliga, and many St. Pauli fans don’t even hold the riches and the commercialism of Bundesliga in their dreams. But thanks to Ewald Lienen, we can enjoy the football again.