A few days before the Bundesliga went on hiatus for its annual winter break, Gertjan Verbeek vowed that he was not going to shave his beard until his side FC Nürnberg won a match. The Franconian club had set a record for futility during the Hinrunde, becoming the first Bundesliga team ever to have gone the entire first half of the season without a single victory, which not surprisingly left them firmly entrenched at the foot of the league table. Considering that the next matchday was a little over 4 weeks away, there was going to be significant whisker build up on the manager’s face by the time FCN even got a chance to break the winless streak.
Well as it happened, FC Nürnberg were runaway winners in their first match of the Rückrunde, defeating Hoffenheim by a score of 4-0 in front of their home crowd. Verbeek, a man of his word, emerged for his post-match press conference all smiles having just shed his beard in the locker room. Finally, with that particular monkey off the club’s back, the manager could get down to focusing on keeping Der Club in the top flight. However, there was, and still is, a lot of work left to be done.
Given this goal, a question naturally arises: how exactly will Verbeek keep the club in the top flight, considering his relatively small budget? Acquiring new players of quality to bolster the squad is, in reality, out of the question, meaning that Verbeek must work within the existing squad in order to avoid the drop.
The squad: familiarity breeds success … hopefully
Only four monthes into the job, Gertjan Verbeek hasn’t had much time to evaluate his squad, let alone tinker with it. In the most recent transfer window, Nürnberg were, perhaps predictably, quiet with only 2 transfers of note. Ondrej Petrak, a defensive midfielder from Slavia Prague, was brought in, while left winger Alexander Esswein, who struggled to get regular playing time this season, was sold to fellow Bundesliga side FC Augsburg. Therefore it’s up to Verbeek to get the best out of his current roster.
In Verbeek’s 11 matches as FC Nürnberg’s coach, the Dutchman has started only 16 different players (a few more have made appearances off the subs bench). In seven matches he’s played a 4-2-3-1, while the remaining 4 matches he used a 4-1-4-1 formation – although in terms of how the formations played out during the matches, they were likely interchangeable.
When playing with a “double 6” Verbeek usually paired the more well-rounded central midfielder Mike Frantz with the much more defensively-minded Makoto Hasebe; Frantz was also Verbeek’s first option as the solitary defensive midfielder in the 4-1-4-1 formation, while Hasebe was used in a more advanced central role next to his countryman Hiroshi Kiyotake. When required, Hasebe can drop deeper to help the back four defend and he can cover for Frantz should the defensive midfielder decide to push forward in attack. Finally, Verbeek has not been shy about giving 18-year-old Niklas Stark some starting time at defensive midfield before the youngster injured his groin.
For the advanced midfielders – regardless of formation – Adam Hlousek and Hiroshi Kiyotake have never lost their starting roles on the left and at central attacking midfield, respectively. In a four-man midfield, Kiyotake has either been paired up with the aforementioned Hasebe or Markus Feulner. On the right side of midfield, Robert Mak lost his slot to both Feulner and Josip Drmic.
Up front, Verbeek has relied on Drmic or Daniel Ginczek, while Tomas Pekhart has been mostly nailed to the bench and has only seen minimal time as a substitute during the Dutchman’s short tenure as coach.
Meanwhile, the back four has remained relatively unchanged with fullbacks Marvin Plattenhardt and Timothy Chandler starting all 11 matches, flanking the two preferred central defenders Emmanuel Pogatetz and last season’s top goal scorer (yes you’re reading that right) Per Nilsson. Javier Pinola and Ondrej Petrak have deputised when either of the centre backs have been out injured. More on that shortly.
Finally, tending goal has been the ever reliable club captain Raphael Schäfer.
Being a club with a smaller player budget, one would assume that a few injuries in key positions would really put FC Nürnberg behind the 8 ball. Well…
As of this writing, no less than 6 players in the aforementioned squad have been injured, including some long-term injuries to both the preferred central defenders Emmanuel Pogatetz and Per Nilsson , although Nilsson may be fit enough to play against Augsburg this weekend. Combining these two injuries with the fact that 3rd choice centre back Marcos Antonio hasn’t played a minute all season and Verbeek is left with using a left back (Pinola) and a defensive midfielder (Petrak) to plug the holes.
Midfielders Hasebe and Stark are also injured, the latter having an unknown timeline to return. Hanno Balitsch, who himself is just returning from injury, could perhaps feature there or at right fullback considering that Timothy Chandler was injured in the latest match vs. Bayern and will not return until April at the earliest.
Finally, in the same match vs. Bayern, striker Daniel Ginczek injured ligaments in his knee and will likely be out for the remainder of the season.
Given this rash of injuries, Nürnberg’s uphill battle against relegation just got a whole lot steeper.
Tactics – a live-in renovation
This kicker article (from just after Verbeek was hired) appears to offer a simplistic overview of just how the Dutchman intends to approach matches from a tactical standpoint. Loosely translated, Verbeek says he doesn’t believe in systems and instead relies on understanding his players’ abilities and then drilling them on playing what he refers to as “attractive football”. This term may seem dangerously ambiguous considering the man is trying to get his team out of the relegation fight and speaking in such generalities may not inspire the strongest of confidences. However, looking more closely at the actual matches it becomes apparent that Verbeek is really attempting to remodel the way FC Nürnberg plays its football.
In recent times, when one thought about the “Nürnberger style” of football, you’d probably imagine a well-organised defensive unit which didn’t create much in terms of offense from open play and relied heavily on creating chances from either the flanks or (more importantly) from set pieces. Watch Nürnberg under Verbeek and you can’t help but notice a gradual change in the way the team not only attacks but also defends.
(The guys over at spielverlagerung.de have incredibly detailed match reports, which aided me immensely in this next section).
As alluded to earlier, Nürnberg’s greatest weakness has been its predictability and inefficiency in attack. All too often the offensive game plan consisted of direct passes to the attackers who would then (usually) either turn to the flanks or hope to win a free kick in areas of some danger. Build up play was scarce and the midfield was generally overlooked.
Verbeek is looking to change this and wants his central midfielders much more involved in the build up play. Part of the problem appears to have stemmed from FCN’s lack of a true ball moving central defender, someone who initiates build up play from the back. So to combat this lack, Verbeek has used the more well-rounded Mike Frantz in the #6 position, allowing his passing defender to drop deeper in accepting the ball. It is no coincidence that Frantz is now one of FCN’s most accurate passers.
The end game for Verbeek’s offense looks to build from the back and be much less static in the midfield so as to exploit open spaces. The fullbacks are encouraged to link up with the wingers, knowing that there will be adequate coverage in case of a quick counter. As things stand, this part of the plan is a work in progress, since direct attacks seem to be Der Club’s preferred fallback option when creativity runs dry.
On the defensive side of the ball, Verbeek has encouraged his side to press hard and in numbers with the hopes of creating turnovers for triggering quick counter-attacks, a plan that’s been relatively successful so far. For example, FCN pressed against Borussia Mönchengladbach and while they lost the match, their failure is attributable to individual errors and bad luck, rather than ineffective pressing. In FCN’s 3-1 win over Hertha Berlin, their pressing nearly got them into trouble, but were bailed out by Hertha’s poor finishing. While in their latest match vs. Bayern, Nürnberg’s frenetic pressing in the first 15 minutes was executed wonderfully, and Der Club was extremely unfortunate not to have taken the lead. After Nürnberg conceded shortly thereafter, the press was mostly abandoned altogether.
Thus far, Verbeek’s modifications to the team tactics have shown some promise, but as always when dealing with a new style of play, it will take time and practice in order for it to be executed correctly, let alone mastered, especially when the players are essentially learning on the job.
The question then begs: will all of this become moot if FC Nürnberg is relegated at the end of this season?
The upcoming month will likely have a significant impact on the fate of Der Club, if not the manager as well. After playing away to Borussia Dortmund on the 1st of March, FCN’s next 5 fixtures are all against opposition who could very well be considered fellow relegation candidates: vs. Werder Bremen, at Hamburg, vs. Eintracht Frankfurt, vs. Stuttgart, and finally closing out the month away to Freiburg.
However, Gertjan Verbeek has shown in the past that he gets the most from teams who would be considered “smaller clubs”, sometimes even overachieving; he’s also got some experience in managing at a lower level of football. However, Verbeek has a rigidity about him that at times can rub people (players and club officials alike) the wrong way, which has led to his dismissal in the past. So it stands to reason that, because of his past experience, if FC Nürnberg are in fact relegated, the club would likely stick with him, at least until either he wanted out or his contract expired (at the end of the 2015 season).
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