No irony intended: I was excited about covering this match. Augsburg (FCA) was hot off two close wins, while Nürnberg (1.FCN) has secretly become one of the Bundesliga’s hardest teams to beat since early December. Indeed, 1.FCN might be the only team outside of Bayern and Dortmund that other Bundesliga clubs should be wary of breaking down.
Besides, let’s face it: the season’s big narratives are over. All hail Bayern. So it’s time to look for the intriguing little narratives budding below the surface of Bayern’s historic domination of everything green and grassy. Hence 1.FCN’s stubborn streak of results and the question of whether FCA will avoid the drop to 2.Bundesliga.
I’m a believer in these little narratives, since the uncertainty of playoff runs don’t exist in Euro footy leagues, which makes it all the more compelling to consider what drives the “working class” teams in the mid-lower section of the table.
Well, it turns out that 1.FCN suddenly finds itself within striking distance of Europa League money next year. Attention must be paid to such a team.
Man-wise, both teams changed very little from last week. Augsburg boss Markus Weinzierl played the hulking Andreas Ottl in defensive midfield instead of Daniel Baier. Meanwhile, new Nürnberg boss Michael Wiesinger made one change from last week’s surprising 1-1 draw against Freiburg, inserting Timmy Chandler back into his rightback slot, which sent Hanno Balitsch from rightback to his more customary defensive midfield slot. Smartly, Wiesinger still started the young Marvin Plattenhardt at leftback instead of the emeritus Javier Pinola. Outside of a yellowcard on a stupid challenge from behind, the youngster played a decent half defensively, as he continues to get experience as 1.FCN’s possible long term solution at rightback.
As the game evolved, the formation slots were not very meaningful, given 1.FCN’s ball chasing, FCA’s passing circulation, and constant counter-attacking transitions for both sides. All these movements resulted in a pretty edgy and unsettled match. Fun stuff.
Immediately the game’s narrative framework was established: FCA enjoyed fruitless possession (60ish %), while 1.FCN tried to hit counters up the flanks with longballs. (Indeed, 1.FCN seems allergic to the short passing game.)
Notice the pattern: longballs on the flanks, which didn’t flatter Nürnberg’s pass completion rate of 57%. Basically, coin flip stuff. Of course it’s fun to watch the speed of play during these longball gambles.
Meanwhile, FCA gorged themselves on possessions and passes. However, most of their passing was contained to their centerbacks and defensive midfielders, who led the team in touches and passes throughout the entire game. Nürnberg declared “Thou Shall Not Pass” in the central midfield by choking passing lanes and challenging everything that moved. Notice FCA’s tropical storm-like blob of activity in their own right corner as they worked around the central midfield during the first half:
When FCA managed to get the ball forward, it was along their right flank with Koo Ja-Cheol, but especially the feisty Kevin Vogt.
Despite being out passed and possessed, you got the feeling that Nürnberg was the better team in the first half. They pressed the ball, not in a frantic way, but in a steady way. Their defensive midfield and back four moved together beautifully when FCA managed to penetrate the area around the box. In sports cliché parlance, 1.FCN play “team ball.” They are a unit. They don’t aspire for more. And it works – FCA rushed their goal shot opportunities. Nürnberg plays defense with seeming joy, as if football were made for it.
1.FCN, the water torture of the Bundesliga.
I say all this to set the context of Nürnberg’s well-deserved goal at 20′ in an iconic hoofing-the-ball-up-the-pitch sequence, which was fittingly sparked by keeper Raphael Schäfer (who led 1.FCN in ball touches for the match!). Schäfer collected the ball in the box, then hoofed it up the pitch toward the vicinity of Timothy Simmons, who won his aerial challenge around the box, then headed the ball toward Alexander Esswein, who received the ball and dribbled down the flank. Esswein crossed the ball back toward the middle of the box. I thought it was a mistake – until Hiroshi Kiyotake’s left foot volleyed in a goal. No one marked Kiyotake, as Augburg’s defenders were never able to settle in place, given the stunning speed of 1.FCN’s counter. FCA’s defenders collectively got tangled on FCA’s right side as they chased down Esswein. Kiyotake was abandoned and made FCA regret it. Meanwhile the Bayerns, Chelseas, Inters, and Real Madrids of Europe drool over the Japanese starlet.
FCA’s Koo almost bent a goal in at 24′ off a freekick in something resembling a slider in baseball. However, hilarity struck at 35′. Nürnberg abandoned André Hahn, who was deep in their left corner. Hahn received the ball, then crossed into Tobias Werner, who headed a harmless looking shot from the top of the box into the arms of Schäfer. The 1.FCN keeper bobbled the ball and, in the words of Ives Galarcep, nutmegged himself and the balled trickled into the goal to level the match at 1-1.
The game remained tied at halftime. The stats story was this:
- Possession: FCA (60%) vs. 1.FCN (40%)
- Passing: FCA (163 passes, 83% completed) vs. 1.FCN (55 passes, 57% completed)
- Shots on Goal: FCA (7) vs. 1.FCN (2)
- Fouls Committed: 26 total
Javier Pinola came on for Plattenhardt to start the half. The first real chance of the half was Dong-Won Ji’s right footed ground shot at 48′ that just missed the box. Four minutes later, however, the game was decided: Kiyotake made a lovely run through the midfield toward the box, forcing Jan-Ingwer Callsen-Bracker to trip him up, probably saving a goal. The tripping didn’t matter anyway, as Esswein took the freekick, which he kept on the ground. The FCA wall of defenders swerved right – opening up a crack in the wall that the ball took toward the goal. A groundball howler goal.
Now protecting a 2-1 lead, Nürnberg stuck to their same plan of blocking the midfield, forcing Augsburg into fruitless possession. Torsten Oehrl came on for Werner at 63′ and Jan Moravek came on for Koo at 71′. Meanwhile, Nürnberg put Berkay Dabanli on for Balitsch at 76′. During this stretch, both sides took two shots on goal. FCA’s Aristide Bancé came on to replace Ji at 82′. Finally, Nürnberg’s Muhammed Ildiz came on for Kiyotake at 84′. Although we only got 10 minutes of Ildiz, I’m excited to catch more of the Turkish Austrian in the future; he’s pacy and skilled.
For the last 25 minutes, FCA coudn’t get a shot on goal, as 1.FCN stubbornly defended their slim lead. Indeed, Nürnberg had the only real chances in the last 25 minutes, especially Pekhart’s chance off a Kiyotake freekick at 83′. After three minutes of stoppage time, the whistle blew. Nürnberg’s squad looked ecstatic, as if they’d advanced a round in DFP. Hugs and jumping around were had by all. Der Club’s joy was palpable and well-earned given their consistent and disciplined defensive performance.
- Possession: FCA (60%) vs. 1.FCN (40%)
- Passing: FCA (339 passes, 80% completed) vs. 1.FCN (114 passes, 57% completed)
- Shots on Goal: FCA (12) vs. 1.FCN (6)
- Fouls Committed: FCA (24) vs. 1.FCN (20)
- Yellowcards: FCA (5) vs. 1.FCN (2)
- Distance Covered: FCA (117 km) vs. 1.FCN (116 km)
Open Your Hearts to the Water Torture
What happened? Nürnberg played its game, Augburg didn’t. Both sides are accustomed to enjoying under 50% possession of the ball, so they’re not built to retain possession and score through build up play. It’s little wonder, then, that 1.FCN allowed FCA so much possession; the former played its defensive game, while the latter didn’t know what to do with the ball and found itself defending the counter-attack, something FCA didn’t seem used to doing.
What’s indicative is who was most involved in FCA’s offense. With the exception of Koo, its players with the most touches and passes were defensive midfielders and centerbacks:
- Callsen-Bracker (98 touches, 69 passes)
- Ragnar Klavan (94 touches, 64 passes)
- Koo (84 touches, 48 passes)
- Ottl (60 touches, 35 passes)
As a result, their default passing sequence was circulating the ball around the back. Callen-Bracker’s passing distribution illustrates this pattern:
Meanwhile, hot thing Sascha Mölders was battered to the ground all game by brutish challenges and constant marking. In a heavy possession game for FCA, he only had 27 touches on 19 received passes. A shadow by the match’s end.
On the other hand, 1.FCN know who they are. They play into a coherent identity that Wiesinger seems to have really clarified for this squad. The players know their parts and stick to them. It’s not sexy, but somehow it’s lovely to watch, especially if you enjoy watching football for the team-interplay necessary to make everything work.
And working it is.
Nürnberg is quietly one of the hottest teams in the Bundesliga, having only lost two matches since December 1st. Indeed, Der Club might even crash the European party by nabbing a Europa spot, as it’s only 5 points off one right now. Something that seemed inconceivable before the Rückrunde. So come on. Jump aboard the Bundesliga’s most unglamorous bandwagon while there’s still some narrative left.
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