Defensive naivety cost St Pauli dearly in this relegation six-pointer against a resurgent Stuttgart side.
The stakes couldn’t have been much higher going into this game, as 17th placed Suttgart knew a win at the Millerntor would take them out of the relegation zone at the expense of St Pauli. The home side were hammered 5-0 by in-form Nuremberg last weekend, whereas Stuttgart beat Champions League quarter-finalists Schalke. There was no Carlos Zambrano at the back or Matthias Lehmann in midfield for St Pauli, and no Khalid Boulahrouz or Cacau for Stuttgart.
Both sides immediately looked to press high, get compact, and force their opponents into aimless long punts upfield. Formation-wise, they were nigh-on matched – 4-2-3-1 systems that occasionally turned into 4-4-2 when pressing. With defences pushing high, both sides looked to play several long-diagonals; but the quality was lacking. Bruno Labbadia and Holger Stanislawski stuck rigorously to getting their players to make the pitch as big as possible when on the ball, and as small as was feasible off it. Thus, it took a while for the tactics to be mixed up, and the game opened. The moment arrived in the 12th minute, when Martin Harnik darted from the right flank to the left corner flag, looking to get on the end of a scooped Christian Molinaro pass (alas, the Austrian was followed all the way). Two minutes later, Gerald Asamoah showed deep, trying to instigate a first-time triangle piece of play, but unfortunately, Pauli’s rugged players don’t possess the necessary finesse to pull such moves off. A minute later, the game’s first real chance came about – Zdravko Kuzmanović blasting a centrally-located free-kick not too far wide.
St Pauli were enjoying the lion’s share of possession, aided by their command in the air against Stuttgart’s long goal-kicks. It was easy to identify the relegation fear inherent in the home side’s squad by the way they pressed the ball in their own half in packs – that 5-0 drubbing no doubt fresh in their minds too. Unsurprisingly, this occasionally headless chicken approach to squashing the space allowed Stuttgart the chance to get Shinji Okazaki in behind the defence a few times, but these openings didn’t immediately amount to anything.
But just as Stuttgart began to creep into a relative position of power, they fell behind in the 19th minute. Fin Bartels was given time and space to scoop a second ball into the box, and the defence, already holding a wonky shape, followed Asamoah out having played him onside, obviously considering him the target for the scoop. But it was Fabian Boll who’d made a brilliantly timed arrow-dart into the box and acres of space, and, trapping well, he steadied himself before poking under Sven Ulreich for 1-0! Serdar Tasci, meanwhile, had been flailing in Boll’s dust after starting from a hopeless, clueless position.
In the immediate aftermath of the goal, St Pauli had a few nervy moments of their own in defence, and Stuttgart had two decent chances to equalize immediately courtesy of mix-ups. But while they spurned those opportunities, they did equalize in the 23rd minute thanks to some inexperienced defending from Stanislawski’s side. Tamás Hajnal crouched over a free-kick near the left corner flag, shaping up to curl a shot-cum-cross towards goal. The home side crowded all 11 players in the box, despite Kuzmanović walking in menacingly from the halfway line. Unsurprisingly, the swing-in was a dummy, the pass to the Serb obvious, and the long-range thunderbolt which snuck in for 1-1 is now fast becoming his trademark.
At 1-1, the defences began to sit deeper. This allowed more use of the ball along the ground from both teams, despite the same amount of vigorous pressing continuing to ensure chances remained few and far between. The closest we came to another goal was in the 32nd minute, when a free-kick floated in by Pavel Pogrebnyak towards the back post saw Georg Niedermeier cleverly position himself for a header across goal, before swivelling to head downwards at the near post: unfortunately for him, Thomas Kessler got down well to parry the effort. Asamoah then went even closer three minutes later, after Bartels showed a great burst of acceleration to put in a sharp and accurate pull-back. The former Germany international swung at the ball immediately, volleying off the underside of the bar, but despite his pleas that it went over the line, the ball had actually bounced on it and away.
The difference in style became more noticeable – the measured and ponderous Stuttgart taking their time, and looking for the perfect through-ball, while the hosts just ran the ball forwards, heads-down, not getting bogged down by trivialities such as what they might do with the ball when reaching the final third of the pitch. Charles Takyi, in a desperate bid to get involved, was now in his own half more than the opposition’s. He got stuck in, to his credit, even if this unselfish act was the prelude to his more characteristic solo dribble upfield. Neither he or any other player could make much of an impact in the last ten minutes of the half though, and it petered out.
The defences continued to stand deeper in the second half, but with the energy levels immediately higher, neither side was hiding their desire to attack and go for the three points. There had been no personnel changes at the interval, although Molinaro was replaced in a like-for-like switch by Stefano Celozzi in the 51st minute. It was clear Labbadia had drilled defensive discipline into the minds of his rearguard at half time – they now stepped up in tandem, often as a unit of six, sometimes rendering several brown-shirted players offside at once. Both sides seemed nervous in possession, and this was where the best chances for the opposition derived from. Unfortunately, the same gargantuan attempts at closing the ball down were still being enacted, maintaining the match’s paucity of clear-cut chances. The early intent and energy that greeted the start of the half had long since evaporated as we approached the hour mark, the only haste coming when chasing errant passes or closing the man in that player’s zone down.
With Celozzi more of a calming presence at full-back, there were no attacks coming down that channel any longer – Bartels was himself now more guarded in response to the eradication of Molinaro leaving chinks. Even when advances were made into the final-third by the attackers from either Stuttgart or St Pauli, the tempo had reduced so much that the passes were out of sync with the players’ movement. Given what was at stake, the unwillingness of either team to show their hand was somewhat understandable.
In a bid to inject life into at least one of the wings, Labbadia took Pogrebnyak off in the 62nd minute, bringing Timo Gebhart on to right wing, and moving Harnik up front. With less numbers being committed on counter-attacks, the movement and freshness of those in the final-third was becoming crucial, hence the switch. The change seemed to do the trick, giving Stuttgart the upper-hand. Gebhart was drawing fouls, scores of would-be tacklers, and really testing the St Pauli rearguard. Of course, this left Gebhart’s side open to a counter-attack too, encapsulated when Max Kruse skipped through the box, before being let down and slide tackled thanks to a poor touch. Despite looking ever more dangerous, Stuttgart still retained a degree of caution – on their own goal kicks, for instance, they kept their banks as close together as possible, kicking shorter, and more concerned with plugging holes than winning the aerial balls.
Looking to inject more oomph into his own attack, Stanislawski made a double change. Off went Takyi and Florian Bruns, replaced by 2007 U17 World Cup star Richard Sukuta-Pasu, Deniz Naki, and a new 4-1-4-1 system (Dennis Daube and Boll exchanging turns moving higher up the pitch and sitting alongside Max Kruse). Although the idea of pushing more midfielders into the faces of the occasionally clumsy and tactical free kick-gifting Stuttgart defence was a good idea, the away side’s backline were still maintaining an impenetrable shape. Desperate to forge a gap between his side and the drop zone (and perhaps spurred on by Stuttgart beginning to settle for a point, save for the occasional free kick-drawing darts and shimmies infield, always infield, by Okazaki), Stanislawski replaced Kruse with Marius Ebbers, and played a 4-2-3-1 with a huge gap between the two midfield banks.
But with the final balls still leaving a lot to be desired, St Pauli were never going to make the breakthrough, even though they eventually morphed into a 4-2-1-3. It was this formation which resulted in them conceding a late goal too. With acres of space in front of the home side’s back four, Sven Schipplock, on for Okazaki, had time to run and ponder; he was stood off, and not tracked from behind. He shot right-footed into the bottom left corner from the right side of the D in the 88th minute for 1-2, silencing the usually raucous home support, and denying their team even a single point! St Pauli now face another six-pointer next weekend against fellow strugglers Eintracht Frankfurt. Before then, one imagines there’ll be a fair bit of defensive work on the training ground.