Hinrunde Review – Will the real FC Nürnberg please stand up?

by Adrian Sertl

A look back at FC Nürnberg’s Hinrunde does not paint Der Club in the most flattering light. The Franconians currently sit 14th in the league table with a 5-5-7 record after the first 17 matches, which included a 6 match winless streak, and the club was unceremoniously ousted from the DFB Pokal in the 1st round by 4th tiered side TSV Havelse. To make matters worse, on the 22nd of December it was announced that manager Dieter Hecking would be leaving immediately to take up the head coaching position at VfL Wolfsburg, the team directly beneath Nürnberg in the Bundesliga table.

But it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. In spite of their lowly league position, Nürnberg have accumulated a respectable amount of points (20) from the first half of the season, and because of the sheer competitiveness of the league only find themselves 5 points from one of the Europa League spots. In addition to being are one of the better defensive teams in terms of goals against (22 GA), Nürnberg have produced a few surprising results against some of the best teams in the league, offsetting some of the more disappointing results against sides they might have fancied beating.

League Results – Peaks and Valleys

Shaking off the shock Cup exit, Nürnberg started the Bundesliga campaign off very strongly with a 1-0 away win at Hamburg. They followed that performance up with a 1-1 draw vs. reigning champions Borussia Dortmund and then winning a 5 goal thriller a week later at Borussia Mönchengladbach. It was at that point that the wheels started to fall off. It began with a 2-1 home defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt, followed by a 4-1 hammering at the hands of Hannover 96. Der Club was then kept off the score sheet for 4 consecutive matches losing 2-0 to Stuttgart, 3-0 to Freiburg, drawing 0-0 with lowly Augsburg, and then falling 1-0 to Schalke. This 6 match skid saw Nürnberg plummet from 6th to 15th in the league table, making their brilliant start completely moot.

Now finding themselves mired in a fight for Bundesliga survival, Nürnberg managed to grab a 1-0 win over Wolfsburg only to follow that up with a 2-1 loss away to Mainz. Continuing the trend of yo-yo results they then earned spirited 1-1 draw against high-flying Bayern, which preceded a dreadful 0-0 draw with basement dwellers Fürth. Nürnberg then blasted Hoffenheim 4-2, were beaten 1-0 by an in form Bayer Leverkusen before ending the Hinrunde with a 2-0 win over Fortuna Düsseldorf and a 1-1 draw at Werder Bremen.

Formation and Tactics – Stable Defence and Set Piece Success

For the majority of the matches, manager Hecking lined up his squad in an unsurprising 4-2-3-1 formation, which seemingly fit well given the squad’s overall makeup, but only managed mixed results. Nearer to the end of the Hinrunde the manager opted for a 4-1-4-1 formation which did yield some relative success.

Regardless of formation Hecking appeared to have settled on a back four of Javier Pinola at left fullback, Timm Klose and Per Nilsson playing centrally, and Timothy Chandler at right fullback. This is less to do with preference as to sheer necessity as the options for Nürnberg at the back are practically non-existent. New centre back Marcos Antonio inspired no confidence; his only appearance came in the 2-0 loss to Stuttgart, a match in which the Brazilian started but was substituted after 16 dreadful minutes. The back four are therefore heavily reliant on their defensive midfielders (mainly Timmy Simons and Hanno Balitsch) to help shoulder some of the responsibility. With all that being said, Nürnberg are rather good defensively; in spite being ranked 14th in total chances against with 225, they rank 6th in both goals against (22) and total chances per goal against, with the opposition scoring a goal every 10.23 chances.

In terms of personnel the attack is significantly more varied, the major exception being at striker where Hecking has flipped between Tomas Pekhart and Sebastian Polter, the latter getting the majority of the playing time in the 2nd half of the Hinrunde. Out wide is where Hecking had the bulk of his options. After being unable to solidify his place in the squad, left winger Alexander Esswein found himself on the bench in favour of Timo Gebhart while on the right side the duties were mainly split between Robert Mak, Mike Frantz, and occasionally Hiroshi Kiyotake but only when playing with a 4 man midfield. Kiyotake was played almost exclusively behind the striker in the 3 man midfield; when playing wide Kiyotake’s central position was filled in by Frantz, Balitsch, and utility man Markus Feulner.

All of these attacking options however didn’t lead to a plethora of goals. Nürnberg ranked at or near the bottom in goals for (15th with 17), total chances created (16th with 180), and passing completion (18th with 77.14% success). Their chances mainly came in the form of set pieces and crosses, and the majority of their attacks came from the right hand side, which isn’t surprising as their Japanese offensive dynamo Kiyotake tended to drift wide right when playing centrally. Perhaps the most startling statistic is how much Nürnberg relied on set pieces (i.e. Kiyotake) to get their goals. 8 out of the 17 goals scored came directly from a set piece opportunity, which was tops in the league. All of Kiyotake’s 5 assists came from set piece deliveries and one of his goals was scored from a direct free kick. It is not a stretch then to suggest as Kiyotake went, so did Nürnberg’s offence.

Change at the Helm – Get the Heck(ing) out!

On December 22nd 2012, exactly 3 years after joining Nürnberg, manager Dieter Hecking left  and went north to join VfL Wolfsburg after the Volkswagen outfit took advantage of a release clause in his contract. The club wasted very little time naming 2nd team coach Michael Wiesinger was selected as Hecking’s replacement two days later. It is the hope of the board that Wiesinger’s familiarity with the club and its philosophy will allow for a relatively seamless transition as Nürnberg look to put some daylight between themselves and the relegation spots.

The Road Ahead – Survival by Default?

Looking to the upcoming Rückrunde, what lies in store for Nürnberg? Will they be drawn once again into a relegation battle or will they seize the initiative and contend for a place in Europe? Realistically unless Nürnberg can find a way to score goals more often they will likely finish closer to the bottom of the table than the top. Also, the defence is one long-term injury away from being really stretched to the limit, and so far this transfer window the club has done nothing to address their paper-thin defensive depth. However all things considered Der Club could be rescued from relegation not by their own merits but by the sheer fact that their Bavarian neighbours Augsburg and Fürth, along with massively underachieving Hoffenheim, are in dire straits. While this is not the preferred method of survival, there won’t be too many complaints if Nürnberg are able to stay another season in Germany’s top flight

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