Fabian Hurzeler, set to be Brighton’s new head coach, is a fiery 31-year-old plucked from Germany’s second tier

Brighton & Hove Albion are set to name Fabian Hurzeler, the 31-year-old American-born German who has just led St Pauli to Bundesliga promotion, as their new head coach.

Hurzeler will become the youngest permanent manager in Premier League history (Ryan Mason was 29 when he took temporary charge of Tottenham Hotspur in 2021). There is a nice symmetry to that. When St Pauli appointed him in December 2022, he was — at 29 years, 11 months and three days — the second-youngest head coach in 2.Bundesliga history, too.

Ultimately, he proved that age was just a number. In the 18 months after, he turned St Pauli into a well-balanced, optimistic, but emotionally tough team. During the 2023-24 season, they remained unbeaten between July and August, and finished as 2.Bundesliga champions, despite having only the seventh-highest wage spend in the division.

Hurzeler’s football is patient and attractive. His teams prefer to build up from the back, using pass-orientated defenders who are willing to take risks with the ball. They vary their rhythm smartly, too, mixing short, sharp passes with driven diagonals, and are extremely good at working their match-winning players into space.

Most impressively, St Pauli evolved under Hurzeler without spending heavily. Instead, they depended on tight matchcraft, previously unheralded players, and emerging potential.

His suitability to Brighton as Robert De Zerbi’s successor, both in tactical approach and philosophy, is self-evident. Despite his age, Hurzeler is already one of the most highly regarded coaches in Germany. Nevertheless, the Premier League will be a step further, a quantum leap even, in a career which is moving forward extremely quickly.


Brighton edge towards appointing Fabian Hurzeler of St Pauli as new head coach

Hurzeler has already covered a lot of ground.

St Pauli’s promotion was the result of progress beginning in 2022. Hurzeler inherited a team who had squandered a similar opportunity the year before. They had been top of the 2.Bundesliga at the end of 2022 but had fallen away badly at the end of the season. Important players left and their morale caved in. By autumn, they were in deep trouble and when club football broke for the 2022 World Cup, St Pauli were outside the relegation places on goal difference alone. Timo Schultz, the coach — a former player and a local hero — paid the price with his job. Hurzeler, one of his assistants, replaced him.

The Athletic went to meet Hurzeler for the first time shortly afterwards, in January 2023. He was facing all sorts of challenges. He was replacing someone to whom he owed his opportunity. His relationship with the players was also changing, with Hurzeler going from confidant to head coach. When he was given the opportunity to take the job, he gathered a council of senior players and spoke frankly with them, asking whether they were supportive.

“In the first meeting I had with the team, I told them I wouldn’t change — that I’m still Fabian — but that I will make tough decisions and decisions which might be hurtful,” he said.

Fabian Hurzeler, Brighton

Hurzeler took charge off of St Pauli in 2022 (Selim Sudheimer/Getty Images)

“Something changes in the way you communicate. I said to myself: ‘OK, now you’re the friendly authority. I’m young and some players may be older than me, so I’m not going to be someone who shouts at them and treats them like children. I’m on their level and I want to convince them through ideas, through my hard work’.

“I told them I knew it was strange but I was open about it — I wanted their thoughts and I wanted to talk to them about it.”

They moved forward together.

Hurzeler is a compelling character. A coach who will talk about the finer points of the game openly — about rest defence, the need to attack responsibly and tiny facets of his job. During the course of the conversation, he spoke too of convincing a young player to move to Germany to join St Pauli, and how he gently assuaged his doubts about coming to a new country.

He did not have a typical upbringing. Born in Texas, his family left the U.S. when he was just a few years old. He is one of four children to a mother and father who worked in dentistry, and who moved from Zurich to Freiburg and, finally, to Munich, all the while bouncing back stateside on family camper-van holidays.

His football career never quite got going. He played for Bayern Munich II but never rose above the Regionalliga, the fourth level in Germany. He was a combative and sometimes combustible midfielder, according to former team-mates, but a player of clear intelligence. He was a player-coach by 23, an assistant with the German Football Association’s age group sides by 25, and he became Schulz’s assistant at St Pauli at 27.

His time at Bayern shaped his coaching beliefs but just a few weeks into the job, much of what he knew was already being adapted.

“I spent 10 years at Bayern, so it’s in my DNA to want possession and to dictate the game,“ he said.

“That belief is still deep inside me but I’ve learned so much in the second division, which is a lot about long balls and set pieces, and that you have to be very intense against the ball. You need to be able to defend deep and to defend high.”

Fabian Hurzeler, Brighton

Hurzeler is lauded by St Pauli fans celebrating promotion to the Bundesliga in May (Selim Sudheimer/Getty Images)

No doubt, the data describing his growth has helped to attract Brighton. St Pauli played some of the prettiest football on their way to promotion but they were also among its most effective set-piece teams. They scored the fourth-most goals from dead-ball situations in 2023-24 and conceded the fewest.

Hurzeler made little micro-changes, too. When he took the job permanently, he disliked the lack of energy that players were bringing to afternoon training. He changed the sessions to the morning and ratcheted up the intensity. Everybody responded. Between January and April, the new St Pauli won 10 straight games. Had the season lasted another month, Hurzeler might have won them promotion immediately.

As it was, they had to wait a year — but during that time, his coaching personality emerged further.

He is no wallflower. The wildness Hurzeler once had as a player is still there in the technical area. He had been yellow-carded seven times by February last season and when St Pauli scored a last-minute equaliser against Fortuna Dusseldorf in the DFB-Pokal quarter-finals, he was left celebrating among supporters, having been banished to the stands. Supporters love him and embrace him for his passion. Opponents tend to be ruffled by him, though. As do rival coaches.

But the most compelling account of his impact has been the form of his players. They are few household names at the Millerntor, St Pauli’s stadium, but almost every player under his charge played the best football of their career in 2023-24.

Dapo Afolayan, once of West Ham United and Bolton Wanderers, developed into a winger who truly merits the chance to play in the Bundesliga. Eric Smith, a nomadic midfielder, recently won his first call-up to the Swedish national squad after an outstanding year. Hurzeler makes players of all ages better, like Jackson Irvine, Marcel Hartel and Jojo Eggestein.

Sometimes, his work is dramatic. In January 2023, Hamburg-born winger Elias Saad joined St Pauli from fourth-division Eintracht Norderstedt. A year and a half on, Saad is now a Bundesliga player and Tunisia international.

No wonder Hurzeler caught Brighton’s eye. There are doubts, clearly. St Pauli’s training ground is so close to Hamburg airport that it was prohibited for his staff to fly drones during training sessions. The ultra-slick world of the Premier League it is not. And while Hurzeler’s age is no barrier, his temperament and fiery disposition will have to be curbed.

It is not a surprise that he is getting this opportunity. It was not expected to arrive so soon, though, or to come at such a high level. But that has been said before.



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(Top photo: Selim Sudheimer/Getty Images)

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