1.FC Nürnberg Was Dead on Arrival, Right?

Not all promoted clubs stand on equal ground. In the Bundesliga, we typically get two new clubs each season (these days the 2.Bundesliga club loses the playoff), one of whom usually has an active summer transfer window, while the other, for whatever reason, does very little. Of the current two promoted clubs, Fortuna Düsseldorf is an example of the former and 1.FC Nürnberg is an example of the latter. The problem for the latter is that an inactive summer looks bad, as in it generates “lazy optics,” as in we create a narrative about said loser club been dead-on-arrival. As in this damn club is d-o-o-m-e-d.

And I swear that it was this lack of transfer market activity that marked Nürnberg as dead-on-arrival in preaseason previews and predictions.

I’m no different. I took one look at that August roster and thought, heilige Scheiße, this is going to be ugly. Despite being a “Der Club” supporter, I had Nürnberg (and Mainz 05) marked for relegation back in August.

I’ve been following the traditional club’s progress from its previous Bundesliga relegation in 2012/13 to its four latest seasons in the 2.Budnesliga, and now to its return to the Bundesliga. Remember, this is German Fußball’s most relegated and promoted club in history. We’re all used to the yo-yo narrative.

The timing of Nürnberg’s Bundesliga return is funny. And unfortunate. Arguably, in the last 5 seasons, this current roster is the weakest the club has had. Any of the past four 2.Bundesliga rosters were arguably stronger, although a pattern has been established that Nürnberg’s roster seemingly gets slightly weaker each season. The key losses read as follows:

  • 2017/18: Kevin Möhwald, Thorsten Kirschbaum, Laszlo Sepsi, Miso Brecko.
  • 2016/17: Abdelhamid Sabiri, Sebastian Kutschke, Cedric Teuchert, Tobias Kempe, David Bulthuis, Raphael Schäfer.
  • 2015/16: Niclas Füllkrug, Guido Burgstaller, Jakub Sylvestr, Danny Blum.
  • 2014/15: Alessandro Schöpf, Niklas Stark.

By no means do these losses, and the other minor losses, add up to a Bundesliga roster that would compete for a Champions League slot. However, this list might form the core of a possibly decent roster, certainly one competing for mid-table or perhaps, just maybe, Europa League torture. Particularly, the names of Möhwald, Kirschbaum (a goalkeeper who would look good now after BVB and RBL gave Der Club two soul-obliterating defeats), Teuchert, Bulthuis, Füllkrug, Burgstaller, Schöpf, and Stark all stand out, and from this list alone one could envision the spine of a solid Bundesliga side. For example, a Füllkrug-Burgstaller forward partnership (yum-yum), backed up by Teuchert as a baby super-sub. This trio would be a massive upgrade over the current Mikael Ishak, Yuya Kubo, and Matheus Pereira boy band. Or take the midfield. Rather than mediocrity at Schalke, Schöpf could have Nürnberg glory as the key play-maker along with Möhwald, a central attacking midfielder, who’s only played 8 minutes at Werder Bremen this season.

My point here is that, although Nürnberg was promoted again, the club was promoted with a seemingly very weak roster, drained of its best talent. Blame Schalke. The S04 itself robbed its “Freundschaft Club” of Schöpf, Burgstaller, and Teuchert. Some friendship.

Making matters worse, it’s not like Der Club made a pile of crash by shipping its talent upmarket to Bundesliga clubs. Rather, it’s the opposite. According to transfermarkt.de, Nürnberg currently carries a -4.85 million € deficit on its transfer balance sheet. 3 million of these Euros were spent on the Dutch winger Virgil Misidjan, who’s made 5 appearances while scoring one goal this season, after his transfer from Ludogorets in Bulgaria. Aside from Misidjan, Nürnberg has little to show for its talent drain either on the current roster or in the bank. Moreover, given the current (albeit small) budget deficit, Nürnberg won’t be spending loads of money to stay in the top flight anytime soon. In this light, Der Club resembles a tiny newly-promoted side, like Darmstadt in recent reasons, rather than one of Germany’s bigger Traditionsvereine.

As the narrative contours of Nürnberg being dead-on-arrival sharpen, you add another element: the ambitious system of coach Michael Köllner. The 48 year old has been coaching for 25 years already with otherwise no experience as a professional footballer. This single-minded pursuit of coaching has translated for Köllner into successful teaching, writing, and publishing efforts. Just take a look at his personal website, which is basically a storefront for his coaching materials. Fundamentally, Köllner is a believer in football clubs as single tightly networked organisms in which all departments (players, coaches, staff, etc.) are all integrated. This holistic approach is increasingly becoming prominent in footballing coaching circles; for example, Rafa Honigstein described Jürgen Klopp’s own tightly holistic framework he brings to each coaching job. Köllner is no different. Prior to coaching the senior team, he coached Nürnberg’s reserve side as well as also acting as the head sports trainer for all youth development at the club, and, before that, he coached Greuther Fürth’s reserves. So the 1.FCN job is his first big gig.

Köllner describes his playing system as sort of hyper-modern anti-system system (I know, this phrasing is clunky). Basically, he takes the logic of flexibility to its conclusion, arguing that players should play everything in all styles—a sort of “cephalopod system” of constant adaptation. Side note: mercifully for his players, he also preaches empathy (shout out to Leo Tolstoy!), a trait which I imagine his squad needed in buckets after those BVB and RBL losses. However, it’s not like his adaptability principle means his footballers stand around, waiting for the opponent to do something. Like many current coaches, Köllner prefers pro-active football in which his players move around to create open channels and passing angles. In this sense, Köllner is part-and-parcel with contemporary footballing ideas, in which space (the use of, exploitation of, creation of, closing of, compressing of, dilating of, etc.) is tantamount. Moreover, it’s here, in slicing space up into angles, that his system is flexible in that his players are asked to adapt to the angle-making possibilities present by each moment in a match. For example, a typical Köllner side might transform its shape multiple times in a single match.

In a Winterpause analysis of Köllner’s Nürnberg from last season, Eduard Schmidt characterized the side as frequently experimenting, but never in an out-of-control or crazy manner. In attack, Köllner’s side prefer to flood to opponent’s box, leaving space in their wake for deeper midfield players to move up into. Related to this trait, Nürnberg uses space between its lines (defense, midfield, attack) to create a free man between the lines. Köllner’s structure requires lots of running to achieve these balls, as well as creating turnovers on defense. In searching for a vocabulary to characterize Köllner’s 1.FCN, Schmidt reverts to the concept of chaos (“chaotischer Situationen”), specifically drumming up chaos in order to wrestle control of a match through it. Defensively, Der Club employs various types of pressing traps and defensive switches to create chaotic pockets on the pitch.

Of the current Nürnberg roster, Schmidt signals out midfielder Eduard Löwen as the squad’s key player. However, the 21 year old has been limited to two appearances this season, as he tries to grow into top flight football. While much is also expected from the centerbacks, Georg Margreiter and Lukas Mühl, as well as forward Mikael Ishak in terms of executing the Köllner system of flexibility, creating space between lines, and slicing out angles on the pitch.

Currently, Der Club sits at 12th in the league table. However, the recent big losses to Dortmund (7-1) and Leipzig (6-0) create the impression that Nürnberg is much worse than its table position and is probably on a downward trajectory. Optically, these losses two looked the kind of games dead-on-arrival relegation fodder lose, because, geez, the manner in which Nürnberg lost was just awful. As the opposing goals rained in, 1.FCN’s defenders looked separated from their own bodies, such was their undoing and shock. And, extending the logic, if this is how Nürnberg faces the big clubs, then surely the current roster just isn’t good enough for the Bundesliga.

Genau gesagt.

Right?

This line of thinking and subsequent interpretation of Nürnberg’s narrative makes sense. However, it’s probably not true. In fact, the 12th place position might actually be accurate. First, if you want to judge Nürnberg by the logic of matchplay “optics,” then Der Club hasn’t looked too bad in its other 5 matches (i.e. aside from the BVB and RBL losses): a tight 1-0 loss at Hertha, a 1-1 draw with Mainz 05, a 1-1 draw at Werder Bremen (!), a 2-0 win over Hannover 96, and a weird 3-0 win over Fortuna Düsseldorf. Basically, these are solid midtable results. Sure, you might be willing to concede this point, but you’ll probably insist that those BVB and RBL are true indicators of just bad this Nürnberg side is. Okay. I gotcha. But let’s look at the Expected Goals numbers for those ugly losses. Most recently against RBL, Nürnberg’s loss was 2.97-0.43, according to understat.com. Furthermore, the ExG timeline for this match clearly shows that something  psychologically might have broke in Nürnberg around the 60th minute (check out the steep line!).

Woah, Der Club lost its mind in a bad away from the 60th minute onward … in a bad way. (Source: understat.com)

In the harsh light of ExG numbers, the loss in Leipzig doesn’t look as bad. I know, an 3-0 loss is still a trouncing, but it’s *better* than 6-0. However, the loss at Dortmund is even stranger. According to understat.com, the ExG score in this match was 2.19-0.15 (!). Remember: the final score was 7-1. BVB clearly got lucky in this one.

Digging deeper in the ExG picture for Nürnberg, the numbers actually put the Der Club even higher than its current 12th place position. For example, in terms of Expected Goals Conceded, Nürnberg’s number is 8.99, good for 6th fewest in the league (in reality, 1.FCN has conceded 16 goals, the biggest discrepancy between ExG Conceded and Goals Conceded in the Bundesliga). All of which means that Nürnberg has been punished with some bad luck and will probably *regress* toward the statistical mean. In attack, Nürnberg has scored 7 goals (woof) with an ExG number of 8.04, so only slightly unlucky on this side of the ball. Adding it all together, understat.com spits out an expected 10 points for Nürnberg, which would be 10th place in the ExG-based table. Currently, Nürnberg sits on 8 points at 12th. So, yes, Der Club has been unlucky so far!

Of course, ExG is just one metric of one dimension of a football match; nevertheless, the stat has become a fairly realiable shorthand for judging where a club stacks up relative to the others in the table. And in Nürnberg’s case, the evaluation is positive: Der Club can certainly escape from the dead-on-arrival narrative and its seemingly inevitable conclusion as the season unfolds. This is good news for Glubber everywhere.

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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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