Feature

How Hurzeler can follow in the footsteps of De Zerbi

By Matt Ford 15 Jun 2024
Fabian Hurzeler

German football expert Matt Ford tells the story of how 31-year-old head coach arrived at Brighton

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German football expert Matt Ford takes a closer look at Fabian Hurzeler's journey from a youth player with Bayern Munich to his new role as Brighton & Hove Albion head coach via an incredible spell at St Pauli in the German Bundesliga.

When Brighton beat Tottenham Hotspur 4-2 at the Amex Stadium in December last year, one supporter in attendance was particularly impressed: Fabian Hurzeler.

"It's no secret that I'm a fan of Brighton, of Roberto De Zerbi, of the way in which he plays football," the then St Pauli head coach told Germany's "Kicker meets DAZN" podcast a few months later.

"He's a manager who has achieved a lot with very little. Brighton isn't a club which has spent a lot of money, they don't have quite the same financial possibilities as other Premier League clubs, and yet De Zerbi gets the most out of his squad by playing brave, active football. That's something I can really identify with."

That would appear to bode well because, when Hurzeler next attends a Premier League game at the Amex this August, he'll be managing the Seagulls from the touchline as De Zerbi's successor.

After leading St Pauli to the Bundesliga 2 title and promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time in 13 years, the 31-year-old German has signed a three-year deal with Brighton to make him the youngest permanent manager in Premier League history.

Fabian Hurzeler 2
Hurzeler celebrating with the St Pauli supporters after winning the Bundesliga 2 title last season

But what Hurzeler may lack in terms of experience, he more than makes up in a remarkably mature tactical approach which has already seen him talked about alongside Xabi Alonso (who won the German double with Bayer Leverkusen) and Sebastian Hoeness (whose VfB Stuttgart finished as Bundesliga runners-up) as a key figure at the forefront of modern German coaching.

In a country long dominated by aggressive gegenpressing, quick transitions and rapid counterattacks, Alonso, Hoeness and Hurzeler all achieved success last season with more possession-based football.

Hurzeler: inspired by De Zerbi and Gasperini

For Hurzeler, who was born in Houston, Texas, to a German mother and Swiss father but grew up in southern Germany from the age of two, that approach began as a youth player in Bayern Munich's academy.

"My time at Bayern left the biggest mark on me," he explained. "Because at Bayern, you're expected to win the game with the ball and do so in an attractive manner. I want my teams to have the ball and find solutions. That's in my DNA."

Fabian Hurzeler 3
Hurzeler celebrating a goal when he was a youth player with Bayern Munich

To find those solutions, however, he had to look even further south: across the Alps to Bergamo, in Italy, and Gian Piero Gasperini's Atalanta.

"I'm fascinated by how that team plays," Hurzeler admitted in an interview with German outlet SPOX in 2018, by which point he was already balancing jobs as player-manager at Bavarian regional league (fourth tier) outfit Pipinsried and assistant coach of Germany's Under-20s.

"Gasperini plays three at the back and pushes his central defender into midfield to start his build-up play," he had noticed. "Two midfield sixes, a No 10 and two strikers, thus opening up space out wide from where they can play a pass back into the middle towards the strikers."

At St Pauli, where he was promoted from assistant coach to head coach in January 2023 with the team 15th in Bundesliga 2, just one point off the bottom, that key playmaking centre-back was Eric Smith.

In Hurzeler's 3-4-3 formation, the Swede would step up into midfield to form that double-six alongside captain Jackson Irvine, allowing the Australian's midfield partner Marcel Hartel to push up and add an extra body to the attack - much as Pascal Gross does for Brighton.

"I'm fundamentally an advocate of possession football," said Hurzeler. "But the key question is: how do you get into the final third? After that, it's down to individual players to make the difference with creativity and pace. But it's the job of the coach to get those players into the right positions in the first place."

'Discipline is something I need to work on'

And when things don't work, Hurzeler makes his feelings known. In just three seasons as a player in Pipinsried in Bavaria, he picked up 45 yellow cards, five second yellows and one straight red.

Last season, he was booked seven times on the touchline at St Pauli and was sent to the stands in the cup quarter-final against Fortuna Dusseldorf, where he could later be seen jumping around in celebration at a last-minute equaliser, surrounded by jubilant fans.

"Discipline is something I need to work on," he admitted himself. "On the other hand, I want to remain authentic. I can't completely change who I am and I don't want to create anything artificial. But I do need to keep calm in certain situations. I'm working on it."

Fabian Huerzeler 4
Hurzeler with referee Richard Hempel in a match between St Pauli and Hannover 96

At Christmas, he gave his staff copies of "Atomic Habits" by American author James Clear, translated into German as "The one percent method" or "Every day one percent better."

For Hurzeler, that meant setting off to England to watch De Zerbi's Brighton beat Spurs. Two days later, he was in Manchester watching Pep Guardiola's Manchester City defeat Sheffield United.

"You have to think big and I've set myself one clear goal," he said back in 2018. "I want to coach a team in the UEFA Champions League one day."

Having already tasted UEFA Europa League football, Brighton would take that.

Matt Ford (@‌matt_4d_) is a freelance journalist specialising in German football, fan culture and sports politics.

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