May 27, 2017

For 1.FC Nürnberg, This Season Becomes Next Season

1.FC Nürnberg’s Rückrunde has been punishing. Prior to Sunday’s droll 1-0 win against cellar-dweller Arminia Bielefeld in new coach Michael Köllner’s debut, Der Club had lost four (including three in a row), drawn one, and won one match since the New Year. This depressing string of results culminated in the firing of head coach Alois Schwartz last week. After Sunday’s win, Nürnberg sits at 9th place on 32 points — a depressing 13 points off the promotion playoff spot currently occupied by drama queen Hannover 96. It appears that German Fußball’s “yo-yo club” (Fahrstuhlmannschaft) will not be returning to the Bundesliga in the near future.

What a mess. From my scant reading in German and perusing social media, I get the impression that many supporters are quite frustrated with their beloved Nurnberg, who, on the surface, seem poorly administered and managed — a trend that’s persisted for about a decade now at this old club. There seems to be little trust in the club’s leaders to steer the Traditionsverein back to the big lights.

Poor coach Schwartz: he only survived just over half a season in Nürnberg with a record of 8 wins, 6 draws, and 11 losses — obviously not good enough for a club with promotion aspirations, especially on the heel of last season’s promotion playoff loss to Eintracht Frankfurt. Damningly for Der Club, Schwartz was its 7th coach since Dieter Hecking left for VfL Wolfsburg in December 2012. During this stretch, the club has lacked stability, identity, and consistency ever since the farmer-coach left.

Back in the summer, Schwartz seemed like a great fit for Nürnberg after his remarkable work in turning SV Sandhausen into a mid-table club. Der Club needed a shrewd coaching signing after losing René Weiler to Anderlecht this summer. The charismatic Weiler brought 1.FCN to the brink of promotion after a successful, but short run in Nurnberg. Replacing Weiler’s results immediately was never going to happen, especially as some of 1.FCN’s roster depth from a season ago (e.g. Nicklas Füllkrug) transferred out. So after his surprisingly successful run at SVS, Schwartz seemed like the perfect guy for stabilizing this club with its attendant high expectations and working with relatively meager funds (contrasted to, say, VfB Stuttgart).

However, die Winterpause loss of striker Guido Burgstaller to Schalke 04 complicated matters. At the time, Burgstaller was the 2.Bundesliga’s leading scorer (he’s still the league’s 2nd-leading scorer this season at 14 goals!). A couple months ago, I posed the question about Nürnberg being able to survive without the Austrian striker — and his almost 50% of Der Club’s goals. Obviously, the answer so far has been “no.”

If anything, losing Burgstaller has revealed the extent to which Nurnberg’s “plans” (heh) revolved around using the physically-aggressive striker as a blunt-instrument target man, or relying on him to clean up rebounds inside the 6 yard box for goals. Old school stuff.

Before losing Burgstaller, Nürnberg had scored 30 goals and conceded 29. After losing Burgstaller, and seven matches later, Nürnberg have only scored 6 goals, while conceding 9. Minus Burgstaller, Der Club’s leading goal scorers are Tim Matavz (5 goals), then Abdelhamid Sabiri (3 goals), and Kevin Möhwald (3 goals), whose collective output is about 67% of Burgstaller’s goal scoring total. Yeesh. Although Sabiri (20 years old) is promising and Möhwald’s (22 years old) 9 assists and 2.2 Key Passes per match are signs of a happy future, they are not getting Der Club promoted right now.

Aside from Burgstaller’s loss, Schwartz was dealt the unlucky “injury card” during his tenure:

The tracks of Schwartz’s poor Rueckrunde record was greased by key injuries. Source: Transfermarkt.com.

With many of his young attackers being injured before, during, and after the Burgstaller transfer, Schwartz didn’t really have opportunities to build up his new attacking core. Moreover, recent injuries to defenders meant that Schwartz was left scrambling to cobble together a decent backline; indeed, Nürnberg continued to concede gobs of shots (14.3 per match — 2nd most in the 2.Bundesliga). It’s no wonder that Nürnberg have scored few goals since Burgstaller, while conceding more than normal.

Yet, I don’t know about you, but I find little about Schwartz’s tenure to blame. Sure, his club’s inability to score goals beyond Burgstaller haunted his short coaching reign, but — come on, be honest — if you had an aggressive target man, like Burgstaller, to chuck the ball at continuously, would you do anything differently? Especially if your goal was immediate promotion? Leaning heavily on a consistent target man (and his 3.6 shots per match) is a standard method for catapulting yourself out of a second division. I imagine the strategy this season had been to ride Burgstaller to promotion, while providing young players with enough experience to take over once Burgstaller transferred out at season’s end.

Which makes me wonder about the timing of Burgstaller’s transfer.

Bear with me: while Burgstaller would have left on a free transfer at season’s end, I have to wonder if someone decided that parting ways with the Austrian now both for the sake of making money and for the sake of breaking Nürnberg’s over-reliance on him. Thus, the new strategy became admitting failure this season, in order to gain half a season for training up (i.e. this current Rückrunde) of a new attacking core.

I wish I knew.

In other words: screw this season, since promotion was looking pretty remote by die Winterpause. Meanwhile, use the next four months to train next season’s attacking core. Okay. Makes sense. But then why fire Schwartz?

I wish I knew.

The hiring of Michael Köllner as the new coach corroborates my musing in one sense. I’ll be honest, I know next to nothing about him. Nichts. (But he’s got a website and book to peddle! Ergo, he’s an f-ing writer! I love him already!) Except that he was Der Club’s U21s coach before being promoting to the head coach job. Thus, Köllner follows the fairly successful Bundesliga trend of clubs promoting from within: Martin Schmidt at Mainz, Andre Schubert at Gladbach, Viktor Skripnik at Werder, etc. Doesn’t this move mean that Nürnberg is hiring the guy who knows its youth core the best? Not quite. Köllner had only been with the U21s since 2016; prior to this stint, he coached the U17s at Greuther Fürth, which makes Köllner a Frankenderby crossover. Or perhaps double-crosser? Just kidding, I jest. However, Köllner’s pedigree does mean he’s a teacher and skilled at working with young players. Curiously, Köllner doesn’t seem to have any experience as a professional player, an omission I have no problem with, mind you. To use an American sporting analogy, perhaps we can say that Köllner is jumping from high school football straight to the NFL. This jump could be brilliant. Or it could be a disaster. At least, within the framework of my interpretation of the Burgstaller transfer, it appears that Köllner has been given an expectations-free time period too try stuff out at Nürnberg. So think about this Rückrunde as an extended training session for Der Club, at least if we’re all being totally honest, since promotion is long gone. In other words, this season has become next season for 1.FCN.

Anyhow, Köllner’s squad won 1-0 in his debut — not that the jejune coach had anything to do with result on such a short notice. However, Der Club did generate 18 shots (6 on target, one on woodwork) with only 16 Key Passes. Möwhald was excellent on the day, playing as the inside-left attacking midfielder. And yet Bielefeld’s league-worst goals conceded defense can make any side look sharp.

However, we’ll learn much more this upcoming Monday when Nürnberg will travel to 2nd place Union Berlin and its quartet of Sebastian Polter, Kristian Pedersen, Felix Kroos, and Damir Kreilach. I can’t think of more challenging match for Der Club at this point.

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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!

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