July 26, 2017

2016-17 Season Preview: Can 1.FC Nürnberg Survive Last Season’s Letdown?

Basics

Nickname: “Der Club.”

Founded: 1900.

Club Colors: claret and white.

Primary Rivals: Greuther Fürth.

Fan Friendship: Schalke 04.

Stadium

Grundig-Stadion.

Capacity: 50,000.

2015-16 Attendance: 522,053 (30,709 per match).

Trophies

Bundesliga (“National”, pre-Bundesliga) Champion: 9 (1919-20, 1920-21, 1923-24, 1924-25, 1926-27, 1935-36, 1947-48, 1960-61, 1967-68).

DFB Cups: 4 (1935, 1939, 1962, 2007).

2015-16 Finishes

Bundesliga 2: 3rd (65 points, 19-8-7, +27 GD).

DFB Pokal: 3rd round (0-2 loss to Hertha Berlin)

I’m still exhausted. An emotionally-depleting season. Really, a season of plateaus.

By the time it all ended, Nürnberg lost the “relegation” playoff against Eintracht Frankfurt, damning 1.FCN to another season in Bundesliga 2 purgatory. Thus became the curse of trying to gain promotion during the Bundesliga 2’s arguably strongest season ever with the awesomely terrific SC Freiburg and RB Leipzig running away with the guaranteed promotion spots.

For Nürnberg, the season was defined by being stuck at 3rd place for half the campaign on a sort of a plateau, thanks to SCF and RB Leipzig’s dominance:

Der Club's match to 3rd place in Bundesliga 2 during the 2015-16 season. (Courtesy of kicker.de)
Der Club’s match to a 3rd place plateau in Bundesliga 2 during the 2015-16 season. (Courtesy of kicker.de)

Honestly, Nürnberg’s 3rd place finish was a fairly big surprise, especially given the tumultuous Hinrunde. Last year, I predicted a 7th place finish of mediocrity. I was wrong. In my defense, Der Club was easy to underestimate. However, a gang of unsung heroes emerged, such as Alessandro Schöpf (during Hinrunde), Guido Burgstaller, Dave Bulthuis, and Niclas Füllkrug.

Twice, Der Club won six matches in a row and went unbeaten in 18 (!) consecutive matches from Matchday 11 to 28. To succeed in Bundesliga 2, consistency is paramount, which Nürnberg mostly exhibited during 2015-16. However, when it mattered most and in typical modern 1.FCN fashion, Der Club inexplicably lost back-to-back matches to Karlsruher SC (MD 29) and MSV Duisburg (MD 30), which pretty much made the top 2 spots in the table unattainable. Then the relegation playoff happened.

Simply put, Nürnberg were soda flat against a slightly less flat Eintracht Frankfurt by a final 1:2 score. Yuck. After which all that battling for 3rd place seemed futile. Why did we even bother?

During 2015-16, Der Club had one of the Bundesliga 2’s most potent attacks, while their defense over-performed. Then coach Rene Weiler (now at Anderlecht) had 1.FCN playing a solid style that relied on defensive shape, counters, and moments of brilliance from the likes of Burgstaller and Füllkrug. Accordingly, Nürnberg could break down low-mid table sides with their newfound consistency, yet at times lacked enough skill against the best sides.

Club Reputation

Of course, historically, Nürnberg was the club in Germany during the interregnum years (1920-1939), winning 6 of their 9 championships during this run and earning their “Der Club” moniker. Later, striker Max Morlock steered Nürnberg to more glory in the 1950s and 60s. However, those glorious days are looooong behind Nürnberg, who have since become the Bundesliga’s most often relegated and promoted side.

In recent times, Der Club is at best a high mid-table side, but more often dwells in the bottom third of the Bundesliga table. As a second division side, however, Der Club punches high and eventually always seems to gain promotion back to the top flight. This club knows how to keep the faith in the Bundesliga 2 with grit ‘n grind.

Stylistically, Nürnberg has been a stodgy side in recent years, relying on stubborn defense and counter attacks. They usually seem to possess zero midfield, but occasionally bag a nice winger or deep-lying player. Hiroshi Kiyotaki was the biggest name at Der Club in recent seasons. Last season’s outburst of 68 goals (2nd best in Bundesliga 2) was uncharacteristic for a side otherwise known somewhat for mucking up the pitch.

Culturally, Nürnberg is one of Germany’s proud Traditionsverein, boasting deep roots, passionate, colorful, and loud ultras. What else would you expect from an outfit nicknamed “Der Club”?

Reality

With the promotions of SC Freiburg and RB Leipzig last season and Nürnberg’s lofty 3rd place finish, you’d expect Nürnberg to be a clear promotion favorite this upcoming season. Not so fast. Giant weight VfB Stuttgart and smaller giant Hannover 96 were relegated last season. And with the likes of traditional powers like Kaiserslautern, St. Pauli, and VfL Bochum stamping around, Nürnberg must somehow replicate last season’s over-performance and earn some luck along the way.

Oh, did I mention that leading goal scorer Niclas “Gap Tooth” Füllkrug (curses upon him and his endearing charm!), assist machine Alessandro Schöpf, stalwart Jan Polak, head coach Rene Weiler, and others departed?

At most, Nürnberg is a dark horse promotion candidate.

Philosophy

Last season, Der Club cast aside their grit ‘n grind style and scored buckets of goals. However, with the departures of Füllkrug, Schöpf, Danny Blum, Robert Koch, and Sebastian Kerk, it’s highly unlikely they’ll do the same this upcoming season. Moreover, with seven new players joining the squad, who knows how the soup will turn out.

Nevertheless, new coach Alois Schwartz (from SV Sandhausen) promises aggressive play, rather than defensive reaction. In Burgstaller, Schwartz has a talisman to build his attack on, and hopefully loan returnee (from Paderborn) Jakub Sylvestr has one more chance to fulfill expectations about being Der Club’s featured striker. Much rides on him if Schwartz’s plan will succeed. Moreover, 30 year old midfielder Enis Alushi (from St. Pauli and Kaiserslautern before that) hopes to revive his career by stabilizing and mobilizing the central midfield – something 1.FCN hasn’t had in a long time. Finally, Schwartz hopes new transfers Edgar Salli (winger, from AC Monaco), Tobias Kempe (winger, from Darmstadt 98), and Willi Eseev (midfielder, loan return from Holstein Kiel) will meld together to fulfill the coach’s promise for attacking play.

Plan B

Picture this – it isn’t far-fetched: by six matchdays into the new season Der Club’s attack is a hot mess. No cohesion. No smart ball movement. Time to revert to classic Nürnberg form. Something like a 4-1-4-1 shape organized around tight defense and counters. Burgstaller scores 20 goals. No one else contributes much. But results are consistent, as club after club is broken down by Nürnberg.

Strengths

Three immediately come to mind: 1) Burgstaller on top, 2) Schäfer in goal, and 3) the backline with Bulthuis and old man Miso Brecko organizing the defense. Burgstaller will be one of Bundesliga 2’s biggest names this season, while Schäfer will only cement his legendary status, and Bulthuis will attract transfer attention. How Der Club forms itself around these three nodes is the key to the season.

Weaknesses

The midfield. Although Alushi’s transfer is an attempt to actually create a central midfield, his supporting cast of Hanno Behrens and youngster Patrick Erras isn’t top of the table worthy.

Less significantly, Nürnberg’s wings seem weaker than a season ago – at least these crucial corridors are where Der Club has suffered heavy turnover, and given the necessity and technical complexity required from the wings in modern football, 1.FCN could suffer as their new crop struggles to develop coordination.

Trivia

It’s old hat, but Nürnberg is the most relegated and promoted club in Bundesliga history (8 times!). Paradoxical consistency.

Verdict

Der Club is a promotion dark horse. Although the likes of Burgstaller makes Nürnberg dangerous, there is too much uncertainty with all the squad turnover and the relegation of VfB Stuttgart and Hannover 96 into the Bundesliga 2 will make promotion harder than ever to achieve.

The Boss

Alois Schwartz is the new guy from SV Sandhausen. The 49 year old coach from Nürtingen takes over from Rene Weiler. Schwartz coached Sandhausen from 2013-16 and before this manned the Kaiserslautern reserves. At Sandhausen, Schwartz won 34 matches, drew 27 matches, and lost 41 matches. Not an inspiring record; however, you could argue that Sandhausen successfully punched above its small club weight during Schwartz’s tenure. The hope is that Schwartz can do more with relative more resources at Nürnberg – a big step up in terms of resources and prestige from Sandhausen.

However, given Der Club’s proud history and expectations of top flight play, Schwartz will be under immense pressure at a club known to cycle through coaches.

“60-second dossier”

Number of Matches won by 2 or more goals:  9 (!)

Number of Matches won by 1 goal: 10

Number of Matches drawn:  8

Number of Matches lost by 1 goal: 5

Number of Matches lost by 2 or more goals:  2

Number of matches in which a led was blown, resulting in loss:  3

Number of matches in which a led was blown, resulting in draw: 3

Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn a draw:  4

Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn victory:  3

Top Scorers

Niclas Füllkrug: 14

Guido Burgstaller: 13

Alessandro Schöpf: 6

Questions with a Club Fan:

For this segment, I turned to Jon Goulding, of the FCN UK supporter group. Jon’s been a Glubber for awhile now and even wrote a book about the experience, For Better or for Wurst.

Keep an eye out for . . .

“It seems crazy that the player to keep an eye out for is a goalkeeper, and even more crazy when that goalkeeper is a 37 year old. It’s not so crazy when you consider that Raphael Schäfer is still the best goalkeeper at the club and, had he not been temporarily replaced (club politics the most likely cause) at the beginning of last season, and then suffered an injury that caused him to miss the run-in, FCN would probably have been promoted in second place. His command of his defence, his passion for the club and his superb goalkeeping ability will once again be needed.”

Terrace favorite . . .

Guido Burgstaller will command this role if he stays at the club, although with that far from guaranteed at the moment, Dave Bulthuis, the big Dutch centre-back plays with his heart on his sleeve and likes to join the fans on the terrace when not playing is likely to be the darling of the lads (and ladies) on the terraces.”

Player you’d happily drive to another club . . .

“At this point in time we’ll happily accept anybody who wants to play. The fans will quickly lose patience with anybody who wants to leave, or fails to put in a decent shift every game.”

Advice you’d give your manager . . .

“Keep your eye open for other jobs, as you might not have yours for too long.

This is not a critique of the credentials of Alois Schwartz, or his ability as a coach, more of a statement of the fact that since winning the DfB Pokal in 2007, the most successful season in a long, long time, he is the ninth man to be at the helm. FCN are not only damned as notorious under-achievers but also suffer from being labelled over-achievers when things go well. It is not a secure job!”

Opposition player you secretly admire . . .

Daniel Ginczek of Stuttgart. Loved him in the half season he played for us –  he wanted to stay but had a far more lucrative offer from Stuttgart when we were relegated. He’ll score a lot of goals in 2. Bundesliga next season”

Opposition player you despise . . .

“I don’t really despise anyone but I’ve not got much love for Niclas Füllkrug at the moment after he abandoned us for bigger money at Hannover. A jump to the Bundesliga would have been more acceptable but going to a team who we hop to be battling for promotion, leaves a bad taste.

What will opposing sides underestimate?

“The passion of players such as Schäfer and Bulthuis. FCN will need this, along with the huge team spirit of last season, if they are to be successful.”

What are fans overestimating?

“I don’t think they do really anymore. Once there was a reliance on the club’s history – ‘we’re a big club, we’ll be ok’ sort of attitude. That has largely faded now although, of course, there will be those who start believing again very quickly if the club get a few early wins.  Many however will still refuse to be fooled until the final table is seen in May.”

Tip you’d give foreign fans visiting Grundig-Stadion for the first time  . . .

“Enjoy the city, and enjoy the choreography from the Nuremberg Ultras in the Nordkurve (opposite the away fans) – a true spectacle of hardcore fan support.”

Where will you finish?

“My heart says top 3, my head says top 5. A good start will be vital. Last season we were playing catch-up and were left in a position where we could not afford the nervous performances during the last few weeks of the season. The players, the coach and the fans will all need the confidence a good start should provide. As usual, with a small pool of players suitable for the 2. Bundesliga, injuries (or hopefully the lack of them) will also be a crucial factor.

Fixture list

August

  • 6 Dynamo Dresden (A)
  • 12 FC Heidenheim (H)
  • 28 Eintracht Braunschweig (A)

September

  • 12 1860 Munich (H)
  • 16 VfL Bochum (A)
  • 20 SpVgg Greuther Fürth (H)
  • 25 Arminia Bielefeld (A)

October

  • 2 Union Berlin (H)
  • 16 Karlsruher SC (A)
  • 23 Hannover 96 (H)
  • 30 FC St. Pauli (A)

November

  • 6 Erzgebirge Aue (A)
  • 20 Würzburger Kickers (H)
  • 27 VfB Stuttgart (A)

December

  • 04 SV Sandhausen (H)
  • 11 Fortuna Düsseldorf (A)
  • 18 1.FC Kaiserslautern (H)

January

  • 29 Dynamo Dresden (H)

February

  • 05 FC Heidenheim (A)
  • 12 Eintracht Braunschweig (H)
  • 19 1860 Munich (A)
  • 26 VfL Bochum (H)

March

  • 05 SpVgg Greuther Fürth (A)
  • 12 Arminia Bielefeld (H)
  • 19 Union Berlin (A)

April

  • 02  Karlsruher SC (H)
  • 05  Hannover 96 (A)
  • 09  FC St. Pauli (H)
  • 16  Erzgebirge Aue (H)
  • 23  Würzburger Kickers (A)
  • 30 VfB Stuttgart (H)

May

  • 05 SV Sandhausen (A)
  • 14 Fortuna Düsseldorf (H)
  • 21 1.FC Kaiserslautern (A)

Crucial Stretch in Schedule

Aside from the month of April, Nürnberg’s schedule is evenly distributed in terms of opponent strength, which means that consistency will define Der Club’s final table standing this season, rather than feast and famine cycles in the schedule.

However, April is a tricky month. First, 1.FCN plays six matches. Second, the stretch of KSC, H96, and St. Pauli is difficult, while giant VfB Stuttgart closes out the month.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U6s 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!