Season Preview: 1.FC Nürnberg in Mid-Table Purgatory

Given 1.FC  Nürnberg’s (1.FCN) current mediocre run through the Bundesliga, it’s easy to forget that the club is arguably Germany’s charter oak , a role made clear by the Der Club (simply “The Club”) nickname Nürnberg bears as a burden of its own glorious history. After WWI, Der Club won 5 German championships and went on a 104 match unbeaten streak from 1918 to 1922. The stuff of high modernism itself. This splendid early history – and relative lack of success in subsequent decades – earned the club another nickname: Der Altmeister (i.e. “The past master”).

After all, 1.FCN have been relegated seven times. A Bundesliga record.

The Current Narrative

In the current iteration of Der Club’s Bundesliga story, 1.FCN have been in a sort of lower-mid table purgatory. Last season was no different, as the club finished 10th in the Bundesliga with 11 wins, 11 draws, and 12 losses – a more balanced pie chart of results than you will find anywhere. This “balanced” set of results was accompanied by a -8 goal differential (39 goals scored, 47 goals conceded). The negative goal difference can be used to summarize Nürnberg’s 2012/13 in a sentence: Der Club couldn’t score enough goals.

Moreover, Nürnberg’s solid 10th place finish masked a season of  inconsistency. During the Hinrunde, 1.FCN dwelt in the relegation zone (losing 6 of 8 at one point), only to rebound during the Rückrunde and, briefly, look like a dark horse Europa League candidate. However, the Europa League threat evaporated as 1.FCN promptly lost four in a row (to Bayern, Fürth [!]), Hoffenheim [!], and Leverkusen), backsliding its way toward Bundesliga table mediocrity.

So who is this club?

It’s offensively-challenged. The 39 goals scored was 4th worst in the Bundesliga last season. Of these goals, Nürnberg only scored 28% from open play (worst in the league); by contrast, it scored 46% of its goal from set pieces play (best in the league). Additionally, 18% of its goals were scored on counter-attacks (6th best in the league). 1.FCN’s scoring woes were only underscored by the fact that center back (yes, CENTER BACK!) Per Nilsson led the club in scoring (6 goals).What do these numbers tell us (if anything)? First, that 1.FCN struggles to create goals when in possession of the ball. Second, that Nürnberg scores opportunistic goals by reacting to opponents via counter-attacks or from the “coin flip” situations provided by set pieces.

Drilling down into the numbers a bit more reveals more offensive problems. For example, 1.FCN had the Bundesliga’s lowest rate of goals scored inside the 6 yard box (merely 3%). Random effect? The sign of a club not creating sure-fire chances or nabbing rebounding balls? Regardless, missing out on these higher percentage scoring chances will necessarily drive down one’s goal-scoring tally. Furthermore, 1.FCN average 11 shots on goal each match, averaging only 4 shots on target (5th lowest tally in the league). Additionally, Nürnberg wasn’t helped by its passing game. As a defensive-counterattacking side, Der Club possessed the ball only 46% of the time (3rd lowest % in the league), and completed only 76% of its passes (4th lowest % in the league).

Given this context, the biggest issue facing boss Michael Wiesinger and the club in 2013/14 seems to be whether Der Club has upgraded its scoring options enough. Simply put, 1.FCN needs to create more chances on goal.

Who’s Out?

Here’s the list with the key names on top:

  • Timm Klose, centerback (to VfL Wolfsburg).*
  • Timmy Simons, defensive midfielder (to FC Brügge).*
  • Manuel Zeitz, central midfielder (to SC Paderborn 07).
  • Julian Wiessmeier, forward (on loan to SV Wehen Wiesbaden).
  • Sebastian Polter, forward (to VfL Wolfsburg).

Klose and Simons are easily the biggest losses. After the phenom Hiroshi Kiyotake, I thought Klose was the next most valuable player for Nürnberg last season, because of his defensive positioning and timing, as well as his ability to distribute the ball up the pitch to begin counter-attacks. With his height, he was also a set piece threat (an absolutely vital skill on the goal-parched side). Plus, he’s fairly young (25). However, former Nürnberg boss (and current VfL boss) Dieter Hecking poached him away from 1.FCN.

Simons was the lone pivot as a defensive midfielder when 1.FCN used a 4-1-4-1 formation, which it did about half the time last season.  An indefatigable runner, Simons was the glue holding Nürnberg together, shuttling between defensive and offensive duties. However, at 36, Simons was a mercenary temporary holding down the defensive midfield for Nürnberg, not a long-term solution. Nevertheless, the seasoned veteran will definitely be missed along with his work rate and grizzled wisdom. His loss begs the question of whether 1.FCN have suitable defensive midfield replacements.

So two key positions (center back and defensive midfield) are up for grabs. However, Nürnberg doesn’t merely want to replace its parts; the club also needs to upgrade the one of the Bundesliga’s most tepid attacks.

Who’s In?

Here’s the list with the three key signings at the top:

  • Daniel Ginczek, forward (from Borussia Dortmund via St. Pauli).*
  • Emanuel Pogatetz, centerback (from VfL Wolfsburg).*
  • Josip Drmic, left midfielder (from FC Zurich).*
  • Nick Weber, forward (Borussia Dortmund U19).
  • Martin Angha, rightback (Arsenal FC).
  • Mariusz Stepinski, forward (Widzew Lodz).

Clearly, the well-traveled Austrian, Pogatetz, is Klose’s replacement. Pogatetz spent time at Hannover and VfL (plus a brief loan stint at West Ham United in the EPL last season) before joining Der Club. The 30 year-old has been slotted into Klose’s left centerback slot during preseason friendlies. In baseball terms, Pogatetz is just a slight cut above a replacement-level player. In other words, he’s serviceable, but don’t expect the same kind of defensive dominance from him that we saw from Klose last season.

Emanuel Pogatetz bleeds for his clubs.

Josip Drmic, Swiss of Croatian descent, adds depth to 1.FCN’s attacking midfield. Tall with long legs, Drmic is a lanky right-footed trickster . He’s young (20) and has played on the Swiss national sides for age groups. Get excited! (But turn down the music):

Drmic started some during the preseason, but also came off the bench. He was used mainly on 1.FCN’s right side (the Timmy Chandler side). Expect him to play in this area both from the bench and sometimes in the starting XI. Drmic is a relatively unknown face, so it’ll be fun to see what unfolds with him on the pitch. Besides, his height will also be an asset to Nürnberg’s aerial/set-pieces attack.

But the big new name is the Wunderkind from Borussia Dortmund – via St. Pauli – Daniel Ginczek. The youngster signed a three-year deal with Der Club after a loan stint with St. Pauli. As a striker, Ginczek is a goal scorer. He netted 18 times in 31 appearances for 2.Bundesliga cult side, St. Pauli, last season. He’s tall (6′ 2″) and young (22). Many of his goals took place inside the 6 yard box, so surely Nürnberg will have more of a scoring presence in this area:

However, if the wise Talking Fußball boys are to be believed, Ginczek’s goal-scoring numbers last season might be a bit of an illusion, given his Mario Gomez-like opportunism and poaching. Besides, the former BVB youth prospect will face his first full season in top flight play. However, surely even an opportunistic nose sniffing around goal for 1.FCN will be an improvement from last season. Yet you can still wonder if Ginczek is enough of an upgrade to help Nürnberg move up the table significantly. Regardless, his 4 preseason goals have activated Der Glubb saliva glands.

Moving along the pitch, too many questions currently surround the crop of new young midfielders brought in to upgrade the midfield, specifically Niklas Stark (18), Josip Drmic (20), Martin Angha (19), and Mariusz Stepinski (18). Stark made 3 appearances for Der Club last season – his highlight was earning a penalty – he could be valuable, since he’s a defensive midfielder, but we just don’t know enough about him right now. Drmic didn’t have the smoothest of transitions during the preseason, while Angha and Stepinski are intriguing, but unknown (Stepinski has already appeared for the Polish national side; some wonder if he’s been like a baseball prospect, who too much is asked of, too soon).

However, even with the new signings, Nürnberg will still be totally dependent on the performance of Japanese phenom Hiroshi Kiyotake – one of the Bundesliga’s assist and key pass leaders last season. Kiyotake is arguably the only creative spark on this club, who, when combined with his blazing speed on the ball, is exciting to watch. And don’t forget his magic foot on free kicks. Unfortunately for Nürnberg, the league now knows that Kiyotake is one of the league’s most exciting players, and can plan accordingly to contain and mark him. However, Ginczek’s arrival might relieve Kiyotake, since the new striker at least acts as a more dynamic target in the box, contrasted with the disappointing Czech, Tomas Pekhart. Kiyotake will be even happier if Ginczek can generate just a bit of creative play, but don’t expect this effect if Ginczek really is more like a classic poacher striker. So watch closely to see what transpires between the Kiyotake/Ginczek pairing.

Formation Ideas

At the season’s beginning, Nürnberg will be fielding a starting XI similar to what we saw last season. And if the club’s preseason play is any indicator, a 4-2-3-1 formation will be the scheme Wiesinger adopts. Although I thought of Nürnberg as mostly 4-1-4-1 club last season, Der Club actually used a 4-2-3-1 formation 17 times (however, with slightly worse results – random effect? significant?).

Barring any last day injuries, 1.FCN will probably trot out a lineup like this on match day 1:

1.FCN's probable starting XI.
1.FCN’s probable starting XI.

A few positions merit attention for discussion. First, Pinola at left back. The Spaniard is 30 and provides more offensive adventuring along the flank than possible replacement Marvin Plattenhardt. However, don’t be surprised to see Plattenhardt to start over Pinola sometimes, while the latter is used off the bench as the season wears on.

Second, the Hanno Balitsch and (likely) Markus Feulner partnership as the double pivots. Balitsch lacks the pitch range and mobility you’d like in a DMF, so Feulner will have to do more of the offensive work. Although Balitsch and Feulner are a serviceable pairing, they’re certainly pedestrian, so it will be intriguing to see if Niklas Stark or Mike Frantz cracks into one of the pivot roles.

Third, the central attacking midfielder is the slot most up in air. Currently, Gebhart is probably the best choice here; however, Robert Mak, Stepinski, and Drmic could also make appearances in this slot. At least Der Club has some options in this position. Sure, not glamorous options, but the whiff of hope always clings to such possibilities in fußball. Expect a revolving door here.  Oh, and Kiyotake has also played in this central attacking role when 1.FCN trotted out their 4-2-3-1 last season.

Finally, expect this formation to change to a 4-1-4-1, according to the situation, with Balitsch as the lone pivot and Feulner moving up to an attacking midfield role. This setup plays into Nürnberg’s strength as a flank-running side with width across the pitch – a setup that might serve this particular squad well in bricking up a defensive wall in front of the box, only to spring a counter along the flanks when opportunity arises.

Prediction

The visit in table purgatory will continue. At best, this side might scratch a bit at a Europa slot, but ultimately finish in the dead middle of the table. At worst, Kiyotake is injured and the club’s goal production grinds to a deathly halt as a relegation battle  looms during the Rückrunde.

My money is on the “best” scenario: this club is (still) too solid defensively and, assuming Kiyotake’s health, will score enough goals to stay in Purgatory, even if Ginczek is nothing more than a starved poacher as striker. Besides, at the very least, there’s a youth movement to watch unfold at Der Club, as far removed as 1.FCN currently is from its glorious past.

My prediction: 9th Place (47 points)

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website, as well as The Short Pass where he covers the USL and other topics. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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