What. Kind. Of. An. Evening! FC St. Pauli wins the DFB Cup against Borussia Dortmund and is through to the quarter-finals. In an intense game, FC St. Pauli managed to keep Dortmund’s high-quality attack in check with a new system and a lot of commitment. The deserved reward is the DFB Cup quarter-finals!
(Cover picture: Peter Böhmer)
With the right kind of honour, the FC St. Pauli team bus was accompanied from Budapester Straße to the stadium with pyrotechnics. Despite the few spectators in the stadium, there was a lot of action from the very first minute, and both in the stands and on the pitch, everyone gave their all for a successful game. There were a few surprises before kick-off:
FC St. Pauli made three changes compared to the match against Erzgebirge Aue. James Lawrence started in central defence in place of Philipp Ziereis. Lawrence also took over the captain’s armband from Ziereis and should be a very unpleasant opponent for Erling Haaland. Very rarely does it fit with the actual starting line-up, which I scrub to myself in the preliminary report, but this time a bit more: In the midfield line-up Finn Ole Becker came in for Christopher Buchtmann. In addition, Etienne Amenyido started alongside Guido Burgstaller in the attack. Missing from the squad was Igor Matanović, who was “slightly ill” according to Schultz. Simon Makienok and Luca Zander returned to the squad (and later to the pitch).
Borussia Dortmund also made a few changes compared to the successful match last weekend: Manuel Akanji replaced the injured Emre Can in central defence. Thomas Meunier was fit in time after all and played on the right side of the defence. In defensive midfield, Axel Witsel replaced Mo Dahoud at short notice, who was not even in the squad due to thigh problems (an enormous weakening, as would become apparent in the game). At the attacking outside position, BVB coach Marco Rose brought in Thorgan Hazard for Donyell Malen at the start.
And again: The early bird
By now, the word should have spread about what happens at the Millerntor shortly after kick-off this season: FC St. Pauli is an early bird. Again and again. What didn’t work against Erzgebirge Aue for once, worked all the better against Dortmund. FCSP took an early lead. Just like this season against Kiel (11th minute), Dresden (2nd minute), Rostock (12th) and also against Schalke (20th) – FC St. Pauli put a big, very big exclamation mark on the game.
It became clear right from the start that Finn Ole Becker was a good idea: He showed what his greatest strength is and played a pass into the final third to Jackson Irvine, who was closely pressed by four Dortmund players. He passed to the right into the depths to Hartel. That’s another change that paid off right at the start: Irvine, according to Schultz, operated offensively in the ten position but kept moving out to the right (which is why I would almost call it more of a 4-3-3, the way FCSP set up offensively). Marcel Hartel also moved out wide and even deeper in that situation. That too, the deep runs of the two eights, is a requirement of the coaching team.
Hartel played the pass in to Etienne Amenyido, who now showed in his second game after the winter break that he can score goals. Timo Schultz said in our podcast “We see an incredible amount in Eti” and yesterday you could see in some situations what he meant by that (and it also showed that the thesis I put up in the podcast that Amenyido is not a goal scorer is pretty much humbug). In any case, Amenyido’s 1-0 was the perfect start to an increasingly exciting cup match. After two minutes played, a nice and cosy cup evening, which FC St. Pauli deserved, suddenly turned into a serious affair. After two minutes, everyone realised that something was possible this evening. Everyone realised that this evening with a game against the defending champions was the reward for two successful games before, but that FCSP’s cup journey could unexpectedly go further. In any case, I had a mighty pulse after two minutes.
Say hello to 4-4-2(flat)!
After this perfect start, however, FC St. Pauli first had to concentrate on its defence. Borussia Dortmund had full control of the action after the goal until around the 25th minute and had some good offensive actions. So it was time to take a look at FC St. Pauli’s defensive behaviour:
For about a year, FCSP had been operating almost exclusively with a midfield diamond, offensively and defensively. This changed with last night’s game. FC St. Pauli changed their system: Offensively it was still a 4-4-2 with a diamond (and with Irvine on the 10), but defensively FC St. Pauli played a clear 4-4-2(flat), i.e. a system with two sixes. Irvine dropped to the level of Eric Smith so that FCSP formed a neat four-man midfield.
This system became more stable from minute to minute but had to survive some difficult moments, especially at the beginning. With two four-man backs, FC St. Pauli stood very compact, especially in the centre, and was thus able to accommodate BVB’s playful central midfield with Bellingham, Brandt and Reus well. However, every system offers spaces somewhere. The flat 4-4-2 offers these on the outer lanes. BVB subsequently looked for exactly these spaces, pushing extremely high on the right side with full-back Thomas Meunier. Raphael Guerreiro did not do that on the left. He mostly moved into the half-space and it was alternately Bellingham, Reus, Brandt or Hazard who gave Dortmund’s game the necessary width by positioning themselves wide on the left. Yes, there were all four players in rotation. The BVB midfield rotated enormously and the players happily changed positions. FC St. Pauli, however, did not let themselves be disturbed by this and solved it with an almost consistent space defence against these rotations. Thus, it only became really dangerous when BVB massively overloaded the sides, i.e. when several players moved to one side. But this was not enough for BVB coach Marco Rose. At the PK after the match, he complained that his team “lacked width“.
What FC St. Pauli lacked in those first 25 minutes was defensive stability on Dortmund’s deep balls, as Timo Schultz told us after the match. Dortmund had great chances when the players on the outer positions went deep, i.e. when they sprinted from their midfield position towards the FCSP goal and were looked for with a long ball (in handball you would shout “run-in”). This is how the great chances of Hazard (7th minute) and Reus (17th) came about. Both times they appeared completely free in front of the FCSP goal. It could have all gone very differently… But it’s Pokal and that means we can finally, more than 18 months after it hit FC St. Pauli, write it out loud: SMARSCH! AHAAAAAA… SAVIOR OF THE UNIVERSE!
It was simply great what Dennis Smarsch showed in the FC St. Pauli goal yesterday. Not only did he save these two great chances, but he also radiated a remarkable calmness. Especially against the background that he is only used in the cup, I found this calmness, which seemed to affect the backline, remarkable. Accordingly, I am very happy for him that he will play (at least!) one more game this season and joyfully note that there seems to be a real luxury situation in goal at FCSP.
From the 25th minute onwards, however, FC St. Pauli became more stable. This did not mean that they had more possession, but they now managed better and better to keep the spaces tight. Even then, when BVB tried to play the width, for example via quick shifts. After the game, Schultz singled out his two eights in particular, who had defended these situations “with a lot of running effort.
Both ensured that the FC St. Pauli formation absorbed Dortmund’s eights Brandt and Bellingham well, without having to sacrifice their full-backs and without there being too many holes in the centre.
Until half-time, the game was more open and FC St. Pauli managed to relieve the pressure again and again. This was possible because the 4-4-2 was a bit higher and did not expect BVB deep in their half so that transitioning moments could be played out as such. Such a transitioning moment then also developed when Jakov Medić defended courageously and uncompromisingly against Marco Reus in the 40th minute and subsequently went forward. Seconds later, Burgstaller brought the ball into the centre, where Axel Witsel unhappily deflected into his own goal. That was almost emblematic of Witsel’s performance. Mo Dahoud’s absence weighed more heavily than many had assumed before the game. In the games before, Dahoud had created many offensive actions from the six-man position. Especially in the first half, little went through Witsel.
BVB adjusts and scores
For the second half, BVB made slight adjustments to their formation. Marco Rose (who seemed visibly annoyed at the press conference) emphasised that Axel Witsel should no longer play in front of FCSP’s first pressing line, but behind it, and that Dortmund generally wanted to occupy the interfaces better and also, where was he in the first half, create “more depth” for Erling Haaland. The change in Witsel’s positioning allowed the central teammates to push a little further up or out.
Rose also said, however, that he had expected FC St. Pauli to play “differently against the ball”. Despite the change in the second half, Borussia Dortmund now rarely managed to become dangerous despite having a kind of visual superiority. FC St. Pauli’s 4-4-2 developed into an impenetrable bulwark. It was almost palpable how the FCSP players trusted this formation more and more, how they improved by the minute and did not lose focus and discipline in difficult phases.
Nevertheless, it was certainly clear to everyone in the stadium and elsewhere that the adrenaline level would increase by the minute in the 2nd half. A cup game is a cup game. Anything is always possible. I first looked at the clock in the 47th minute to see when the game would finally be over. 47TH MINUTE ONLY! The second half already seemed to last forever. Then it dawned on me all the more that I had a very long battle with my emotions ahead of me in the press tribune, between the haggling reporters from Dortmund.
BVB had the first offensive actions after the break, but the first exclamation mark was made by Guido Burgstaller with a header after a Smith standard, which was parried quite strongly by Dortmund’s Kobel (53rd minute). Shortly afterwards, a cry from all Dortmund players: the situation was difficult to perceive, not only for me in the stadium, but at the latest when referee Harm Osmers grabbed his ear and then ran towards the touchline, the Millerntor briefly consisted of a loud sigh – penalty for Dortmund. Erling Haaland, who had been surprisingly pale up to that point and even paler in the aftermath, converted safely in the 58th minute. 35 minutes left. And Dortmund had tied the game up. My mood was at its lowest point. Despite the lead, it was clear to me that things would go their usual course from now on. I had hoped that FCSP would hold on to the 2-0 lead for maybe 20 or even 25 minutes in the second half. Until Dortmund would become nervous and then inaccurate, as we experienced against Aue.
But nobody at FC St. Pauli became nervous. It rather seemed that they played their system even more disciplined after the break. The gaps between the players became even smaller and they managed to relieve the pressure again and again. From minute 60 at the latest, it was what you call a cup fight. However, it seemed to be one-sided. The coaches’ opinions after the game were contradictory: Rose accused his team of “not taking the fight”, while Schultz saw a “great cup fight from my team”.
The longer it took, the more stable FC St. Pauli became.
Despite the “lack of energy” according to Rose, BVB did not remain harmless. In the phase between the 70th and 80th minute, FC St. Pauli let themselves be pushed far, very far, certainly a little too far into their half. In the first 25 minutes, BVB had slightly bigger chances, but those 10 minutes in the middle of the 2nd half were probably the most difficult for FC St. Pauli. But while I was impatiently staring at the clock, the team did not let itself be distracted from its disciplined way of playing, continued to go enormous ways in the defence, thus keeping the distances between each other small and was able to clear one time and another. However, as the team stood very deep, there were also very few relief actions. When FC St. Pauli possessed the ball for long periods, Jackson Irvine didn’t even advance properly and Eric Smith pumped precariously every time the game was stopped.
It was the back four that carried FC St. Pauli through this phase. Actually, every phase of the game can be attributed to players: The start went to the offensive department, Smarsch saved strongly several times after that, and until half-time, it was the well-set midfield chain that took the teeth out of Dortmund’s play. In the middle of the second half, it was the back four with the fantastic Sebastian Ohlsson, who repeatedly faced changing opponents on his side and won a fabulous 11 of 13 duels (also strong: Jackson Irvine won 11 of 15 – and Jakov Medić simply won all(!) his direct duels on the ground…).
FC St. Pauli remained disciplined in their 4-4-2, Dortmund looked increasingly unnerved and also somewhat helpless. From the 80th minute onwards, it was noticeable that BVB somehow seemed a little broken. There were also more relief actions again. Guido Burgstaller now appeared more often, was able to secure many balls in front and win time (it was then his phase – unbelievable how he consistently ran into the opponents in full sprint even shortly before the end). At the very end of the game, when Mats Hummels had already broken up his position and was standing in front (“did it ever help that he was standing in front?!” was the unnerved comment of the reporters next to me), FC St. Pauli had some very good counter-attacking opportunities. They were so good, I would have bitten the table afterwards if BVB had equalised.
But they didn’t. No, they simply didn’t. With an unbelievable will, iron discipline, loud 2,000 spectators behind them and, of course, the necessary portion of luck, FC St. Pauli managed to hold on to the narrow lead – Cup winners, quarter-finalists, already qualified for the World Cup – great cinema!
This performance of FC St. Pauli, how they fought for every metre, how they went every way, makes me proud. I think even if FC St. Pauli had lost this game, this feeling would have remained. That was a masterstroke!
But what also became clear that evening: FC St. Pauli can keep up. It can also score goals against a team like Borussia Dortmund. It can take on a world-class striker and an outstanding midfield. He can keep this powerful offence in check with his resources and still create danger. Yesterday it became clear once again that this team can achieve great things this season.
Keep moving forward!
//Tim (translation by Arne)