Don’t look now, but traditionsverein 1.FC Nürnberg is in prime position for rejoin the Bundesliga for 2016/17. The Bundesliga’s most ever relegated-and-promoted side sits 3rd in 2. Bundesliga with 36 points from 20 matches, just one point behind 2nd place SC Freiburg (remember them?), and seven points behind 1st place RB Leipzig.
Can you taste Bundesliga promotion playoffs?
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Let’s imagine the future. Can you smell that HSV-Nürnberg promotion playoff in May? Der Dino vs. Der Club. Mmmmmm, smells like Bengalos.
In order to learn more about what’s going on in Franconia, I caught up with Glubber and Englishman, Jon Goulding of 1FCNUK fame (see their twitter feed here). We chatted about the current season, the coach, players, and the future.
Bundesliga Fanatic: Jon, so you’ve just returned from a triumphant trip to Munich where Nürnberg dispatched 1860 0-1 on Saturday. What was the highlight of this latest trip to see der Club?
Jon: There were several great moments (including the usual fantastic German hospitality, food and beer) but of a footballing nature the key highlights were:
- The three points. Going into this game, the first since the winter break, there were some who thought the season pause had come at the wrong time for Nürnberg who were on a great run of form, winning the previous five games and being unbeaten in the previous nine. It was vital to continue this run and start the remaining fifteen games with a victory.
- The performance of goalkeeper Raphael Schäfer. With several good stops and couple of outstanding saves, the three points would not have returned to Franconia without the veteran keeper’s contribution. His name was quite rightly sung loud and clear by the travelling fans during and after the game, and his heroics once again reignited the debate about how he will be replaced when he ultimately calls time on his career.
- A winning ‘Traumtor’. The only goal of the game came from a beautifully executed strike from 18 yards. The fact that this strike came from Patrick Erras, a 21-year-old local lad playing in just his tenth game, a run in the team correlating to the unbeaten streak, is even better. The six feet five midfielder’s performances have been more than encouraging and point to a bright future for both Erras and FCN.
- The travelling support. There were over 20,000 Nürnberg fans who made the journey to the Allianz Arena for the game, not only creating a great atmosphere and helping push the team on towards victory but also demonstrating plenty of optimism about the prospect of der Club over the next few months.
Bundesliga Fanatic: Let’s take Nürnberg’s temperature. Obviously, they’re in 3rd place – in the promotion playoff slot – and have been cranking out good results with regularity. What’s Nürnberg status right now?
Jon: They are looking healthy. The team is clearly hard to beat, although their resilience will really be tested by their reaction to the next defeat. All over the pitch there is good organisation and all players put in good shifts every outing. Consistency is a rare thing in 2.Bundesliga and any team who can produce a good run of form can put themselves into the frame for promotion. The key for FCN now will be to keep that form going and hope that at least one of the top two slip up.
Bundesliga Fanatic: How did we get to this point? Nürnberg certainly left much to be desired with their 9th place finish in 2. Bundesliga last season; however, this season 1.FCN seem to mean business.
Jon: When the season started, it seemed like 1.FCN were starting where they had left off the previous May. With just seven points from the first six games, scoring 12 goals, but conceding 14 in the process; there was no consistency in results or performances.
However, by mid-September, the imminent departure of the sporting director, Martin Bader, seemed to herald the start improvement. While it remains, in public at least, unclear how much influence Bader was having over team affairs, there seems to be plenty of mileage in the speculation that there was too much unwelcome interference in team affairs.
Bader’s replacement, Andreas Bornemann, on the contrary appears to be a very welcome addition at the heart of the club and since his arrival he has been an ever-present alongside Rene Weiler on the bench.
It is also no coincidence that the re-emergence of Schäfer as the club’s first choice goalkeeper not only came along with Bader’s exit but has also seen more organised (though not perfect) defensive displays. Like Schäfer, the aforementioned Erras has shown some superb form and, along with the likes of Guido Burgstaller, Dave Bulthuis, Hanno Behrens and Miso Brecko, has given 110% to the cause.
However, much of the credit must go to head coach Rene Weiler. Some of the players have been transformed and the coach has developed a strong outfit, who look capable of hanging around in the top three for the rest of the season, and maybe, just maybe, breaking into the top two and returning to the top flight. This status would represent a huge turnaround and the coach would rightly be heralded for his team selection, tactics and belief.
Bundesliga Fanatic: Let’s break down some specifics. What in particular has Weiler done to get some consistency from the side? Are the changes attributable to tactics and line-up / shape tinkering? Or to general mentality and spirit?
Jon: I think Weiler has finally been able to assume control without anyone telling him, or at least hinting to him, who he should / shouldn’t select. While there doesn’t seem to have been any huge tactical overhaul, there has clearly been a better spirit in the team, and this had bred confidence and a winning mentality. We can only guess at the internal politics, but on the surface it certainly appears that Weiler and Bornemann have a good working relationship, and that this has helped to settle the squad.
Bundesliga Fanatic: Tell us more about names emerging from the squad this season, like Burgstaller, Bulthuis, Erras, etc. Who are these guys? And have they each individually improved, or is there a “sum is greater than the parts” whole unit effect at work?
Jon: While everyone is playing better than they were at the start of the season and, for those who were involved, better than last season, it really is a case of the sum being greater than the parts. The playing squad, or at least the number of players genuinely hoping to get a game each week, has been reduced and it looks like the coach is pretty happy with what he has. Guido Burgstaller is fast becoming a cult figure – his beard, his tattoos, his heart-on-the-sleeve approach and his goals are making him not only very popular but also indispensable.
Much the same, minus the goals could be said for Dave Bulthuis who, in the centre of defence, has improved immensely over recent months. Patrick Erras, Tim Leibold and Niklas Fullkrug are young players who are making a big impact at the moment and are clearly relishing the opportunity and the challenge. These players have not started playing well as a unit by accident – again much of the credit must go to Rene Weiler.
Bundesliga Fanatic: Tell us more about Rene Weiler. From what you’ve watched, what’s his playing philosophy for Der Club? Moreover, what kind of coaching personality does he bring to the sideline? Will a bigger club try to poach him in the summer? (Say NO!)
Jon: He has the team playing a good quality passing game, with patient build-ups but also with the ability to change pace reasonably well. While the team are sometimes happy to sit back and try to play on the counter attack, Weiler is also able to change tactics successfully. For example, against 1860, the Munich side had the best of the first half, made good use of width and had FCN pinned back. In the second half, Weiler change things to something more like a 4-4-2, nullifying the wide play of 1860, pushing them deeper and dominating the opposition.
Players such as Burgstaller and Fullkrug have enough flexibility in their game to play wide, central or even a little deeper, which obviously provides more options, and the running of Burgstaller (only Lars Stindl at BMG has run a greater distance as a striker this season) really supports the team in a variety of formations. With fullbacks who are adept at getting forward, and a very fit midfield, Weiler has a team with plenty of flexibility. Not quite total football but not bad for a club with limited resources.
On the touchline Weiler is calm and studious, but not afraid to challenge decisions – he is clearly passionate without being over the top. Will anyone try to poach him? I hope not but football management is such a carousel I wouldn’t be surprised. Hopefully he’ll stay though.
Bundesliga Fanatic:What did you make of Alessandro Schöpf’s departure (to Schalke)? Huge loss? Or can it be offset?
Jon: Schöpf clearly has talent and it would have been nice if he had at least seen out the season. On his day, he could be very good, but his performances were inconsistent; for example, in some games he would be almost invisible. Having said that, if he was consistently as good as he can be, then he would never have arrived at FCN in the first place and would probably still be at Bayern.
He’s a loss but not a huge one (unless we get lots of injuries). The midfield is strong with the likes or Erras, Behrens and Möhwald. Petrak still has promise and the signing of Zoltan Stieber on loan has brought in reinforcement.
Bundesliga Fanatic: Finally, do you think Nürnberg have a realistic chance of being promoted? What are the biggest obstacles left?
Jon: Ha ha ha. Of course. They could finish first, second or third. But this is FCN. A common phrase in Franconia is “Der Club is ein Depp” (“The club is a fool”), which tells its own story in terms of the historical ups, downs and general mishaps in Nürnberg!
The way the team has played over the last half-dozen games or so suggests that there is more than enough talent, passion and teamwork to be promoted. If they keep playing this way it will happen. The biggest obstacles? Nerves, simply being Der Club, and injuries – in that order!
Bundesliga Fanatic: Jon, we here at the Fanatic wish you and Der Club a merry jolly run of it in earning a promotion spot come May. We’ve missed you guys.
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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U8s 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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