November 21, 2017

Season Preview – 1. FC Nürnberg – A New Set of Challenges for Der Club

As the 2011-2012 Fußball Bundesliga winded down to its conclusion, FC Nürnberg found itself in an all too familiar position near the bottom of the table and fighting to stay in the German football’s top flight. However a 4-1 thrashing of Schalke meant that Der Club, who were looking to avoid becoming the sole holder of the title of the Bundesliga’s most relegated squad had managed to beat the drop and would once again play amongst Germany’s best clubs for at least one more season. Will it be another season of fighting for survival or can the club attempt a loftier goal and contend for a spot in the UEFA Europa League?

Transfers

So far this summer Nürnberg has seen several of their key contributors from last season leave the Stadion Nürnberg to ply their trade elsewhere. The biggest loss, one could argue, was that of central defender Philipp Wollscheid to Bayer Leverkusen. Having already struck a deal in November of last year to move to the BayArena the inevitability of his departure this past June does little to console the hearts of the Nürnberg faithful. Wollscheid, an ever-present force, missed only one league encounter all of last year and was one of the first names that coach Dieter Hecking jotted down on the team sheet week in and week out. To make matters worse Wollscheid’s most frequent partner in central defence Dominic Maroh also left the Bavarian outfit for the newly relegated FC Köln, leaving the club without its preferred central defence pairing.

If not Wollscheid, then the other of the arguably biggest losses for Nürnberg this summer would be attacking midfielder Daniel Didavi, who returned to VfB Stuttgart after his season long loan deal expired. Didavi was instrumental in Nürnberg’s late season surge to safety, scoring 6 of his 9 Bundesliga goals in the final 6 matches of the season, including a brace in the aforementioned match vs. Schalke. Incidentally the player himself was quite keen on extending the loan until the end of the 2012-2013 season, citing a greater opportunity for first team minutes.  Stuttgart, however, had no intention of allowing him to stay with Der Club another year and have subsequently extended his contract until 2016.

Other players leaving the club include on-loan midfield all-rounder Jens Hegeler, who returns to Bayer Leverkusen, defender Juri Judt who is off to Red Bull Leipzig, winger Christoph Sauter who has left for Karlsruhe and a trio of strikers Rubin Okotie, Albert Bunjaku and Christian Eigler. Okotie, a native Austrian, is heading back to his homeland to play for Sturm Graz, while both Bunjaku and Eigler are headed to the 2-Bundesliga to suit up for Kaiserslautern and Ingolstadt respectively.

It hasn’t been all doom and gloom in the transfer window, though, as Nürnberg has completed several inbound transfers of their own with the main focus being on bolstering their attack. Two key signings should help in attack.  The first is 22-year-old attacking midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake from Cerezo Osaka, a signing which seemingly conforms to the current Bundesliga trend of signing a player from Japan. Kiyotake had played in 16 matches, all at right wing, and scored twice in Cerezo’s season thus far before featuring in all of Japan’s 6 matches at the 2012 Summer Olympics.  Joining Kiyotake at Nürnberg is 23-year-old winger Timo Gebhart from VfB Stuttgart. Gebhart frequently found himself on the outside looking in at Stuttgart making only 12 league appearances last season and scoring no goals. He’ll no doubt be looking to play a bigger role at Nürnberg and will definitely contend for a spot in the midfield.

Smaller transactions have included the signing of a couple of young strikers in the form of VfL Wolfsburg’s Sebastian Polter and Roussel Ngankam from the Hertha U-19 team; Polter’s deal is actually a season long loan. In addition central defenders Noah Korczowski from Schalke U-19 and Brazilian Marcos António from Romanian club Rapid Bucharest have been brought in to compete for spots in the starting 11.

Tactics – Shuffling the Deck and the Feulner Conundrum

Last season coach Dieter Hecking sent his team out in a 4-2-3-1 formation in 25 of the 34 league matches, and judging from his team selection in Nürnberg’s pre-season matches he will likely employ the same formation heading into the season. While there are some areas in which Hecking has an abundance of choices for filling out his team sheet, there are definitely some spots on the pitch where the selections are rather limited. Here now is a breakdown of FC Nürnberg by position.

In goal the choice is rather simple. Veteran Raphael Schäfer will in all likeliness be the starting goalkeeper. Should there be an injury or suspension, Alexander Stephan, who deputized rather well in 8 appearances last season, would be called upon to act as Schäfer’s replacement.  Nineteen year old Patrick Rakovsky is the third choice keeper and would only likely see first team action if there was a goalkeeping emergency.

At defender the choices are significantly more limited. At left back it is almost certain that the starting job is Javier Pinola’s to lose. Backing up the Argentine veteran then would be either young German Marvin Plattenhardt or Czech International Adam Hlousek, although the latter will be sidelined indefinitely with a knee ligament injury suffered late last season. At right back the obvious first choice is American Timothy Chandler but Hecking has decided in the past to push Chandler to right wing and instead use Markus Feulner there instead. It is in the centre of defence where things get a little interesting and not necessarily for the right reasons. Swiss International Timm Klose (no relation to Miroslav) will likely start but who will be there beside him remains to be determined. The race is really down to either Swede Per Nilsson or Brazilian Marcos António, with youngster Noah Korczowski likely spending most of his time with the reserve team.

While the defence may be described as famine, in the midfield the opportune word is feast. The defensive midfield pairing, barring injury or suspension, will be Hanno Balitsch and Timmy Simons. The Belgian Simons started all 34 matches for Nürnberg last season and formed a solid partnership with the German Baltisch after the latter’s arrival from Bayer Leverkusen in the winter transfer window. Backups here would be Israeli international Almog Cohen, the ever-present Markus Feulner, and Congolese International Wilson Kamavuaka. Kamavuaka can also be deployed in the centre of defence, which is something that coach Hecking has done in the pre-season.

The options for the attacking midfield trio are even greater. Alexander Esswein will most likely fill the spot at left wing with Mike Frantz and Adam Hlousek (when healthy) as backup but the other spots are truly ripe for anyone’s taking, especially the central role now that it has been vacated by the departure of Daniel Didavi. Hiroshi Kiyotake is an excellent candidate for this position but Timo Gebhart, normally a right winger, has seen some playing time there in the pre-season as well to say nothing of Frantz and Feulner who logged minutes in that position last season . On the right Hecking has the option to use one of Robert Mak, Timo Gebhart, or Timothy Chandler. Clearly there is real depth here.

As for the lone striker, the odds on favourite to be the first choice centre forward is Tomas Pekhart; however Hecking has given loanee Sebastian Polter a solid look in the pre-season and could be called upon in the event Pekhart loses his scoring touch.

Something interesting to note is the utility of Markus Feulner. A central midfielder by trade, Feulner was used in several different capacities throughout the previous season which greatly underscores his versatility. At times Feulner was called upon to play at right fullback allowing Timothy Chandler to move up to right wing and the distinct possibility of making overlapping runs and getting crosses into the box. Feulner was also used next to Timmy Simons in defensive midfield until Balitsch came along and as well just behind the striker until Daniel Didavi staked the position for himself. This kind of adaptability and versatility will ensure that while he’ll not likely play in his preferred position there is definitely a spot for Markus Feulner on the team.

With all that said, here’s how FC Nürnberg could line up on Saturday away to Hamburg:

Verdict – Well Oiled Machine or Franken-stadion’s Monster?

So just what can we expect from Hecking and his team this season? After a relatively successful pre-season campaign, highlighted by big wins over Borussia Dortmund and Sivasspor of the Turkish Super League, reality hit FC Nürnberg squarely in the face as they were surprisingly knocked out of the DFB Pokal in the first round by TSV Havelse of the Regionalliga Nord. Taking a glass half full approach, without having to worry about European or domestic cup competitions the club should be able focus on the Bundesliga and the ultimate goal of keeping themselves safe from relegation.

Of course this is much easier said than done and the first few fixtures could have Nürnberg in a significant hole before the end of September. The season opens with a tricky fixture away to HSV which is then followed by the home opener against the 2 time defending champions Borussia Dortmund. It doesn’t get any easier as matchday 3 offers up an away encounter at Borussia Park to take on Mönchengladbach before returning to Bavaria to take on newly promoted Eintracht Frankfurt. Realistically it wouldn’t be crazy to think that Nürnberg could manage 4 points from these games, but one would have to think that would be the minimum amount they would need to have in order to consider it a successful start. The optimist in me thinks that the club will finish around mid-table, but a lot will have to go right for this to happen.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the two very important dates on the Nürnberg calendar; November 24th, 2012 and April 20th, 2013. These are the two matchdays which feature Nürnberg squaring off against local rivals SpVgg Greuther Fürth. Fixtures between the two typically end in draws as there has been nothing to separate the sides in 6 of the 11 matches they’ve played against each other (stats covering the Bundesliga era starting in 1963) however when the teams last met in last year’s DFB Pokal round of 16 and it was the visitors Fürth that took the match 1-0 in a very scrappy affair. Here’s hoping for more of the same.

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Born in Toronto, Adrian is a first generation Canadian by way of Bavaria and the Black Forest. After some intense football soul searching he's now a fully fledged member of the Church of Streich. Follow @AdrianSertl

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