December 11, 2017

What the Hell Were They Doing? 1.FC Nürnberg Gets the Bayern Treatment

Narratives are dangerous, especially when applied to real, living things, like football clubs  wrapping up a campaign. Sure, the campaign resembles what we call a narrative with something like conflict and characters mapped out through rising action, a climax, and a denouement. However, this resemblance isn’t settled until the campaign is finished and the players are taking summer breaks. But we can’t help ourselves.

What I hate most is when I begin to notice a narrative, in media res, pick it up its thread, then watch – BAM! – as the narrative meets a buzz saw, like Bayern Munich. First, I’m a bit sad, because I was rooting for the narrative’s fulfillment, then I’m confused because I’m not sure what happens next. (Nothing is better than a little suspense though, eh?)

The narrative I’m talking about here is, of course, 1.FCN’s cussed and successful run of form in the Rückrunde, as Der Club had become a team nobody can crack open. (Prior to the 0-4 mauling Bayern put on them last weekend, 1.FCN had only lost two matches since December 1st and hadn’t lost a match since January 25th, a 0-3 disaster against Dortmund.) Granted, Der Club weren’t winning games in glamorous or aesthetically pleasing fashion. In fact, they were drawing many games – six in the Rückrunde, for example – and winning downright ugly ones, like their 2-1 win over FC Augsburg. However, prior to the Bayern debacle, their latest wins (over Schalke, then Mainz) were enjoyable, while their 2-2 draw with Wolfsburg was a spectacular golazo fest. Needless to say, I was optimistic that, heading into the Bayern match, Nürnberg might continue developing their Rückrunde narrative. After all, Bayern was just coming off clinching the Bundesliga salad place a weekend prior, and had tidily wrapped up Juventus by a 4-0 aggregate score in the Champions League.  Plus, Bayern rolled out something resembling their B to C team squad.

So what the hell happened to Der Club against Bayern?

I’m not going to rehash the hellish match (for Nürnberg, at least) in a full-fledged match recap; instead, I just want to try to figure out what the hell happened to 1.FCN, as its unbeaten streak came to an embarrassing end.

A Story of Four Goals

But really, how embarrassing is losing 4-0 to Bayern right now? Especially if you are a mid-table club with faint Europa League aspirations, like  Nürnberg? Well, avoiding embarrassment against Bayern seems to be something most Bundesliga clubs obsess about when facing Die Roten. Clubs play to lose not badly, rather than trying out anything proactive against Bayern. Yet they lose badly anyway. Nürnberg was no different. However, I really don’t know what else Der Club is to do, since it plays a defensive, counter-on-flanks, width-happy type of game anyway with their 4-1-4-1 formation:

Bayern 1FCN starting XIs_Capture

As I’ve previously observed, Nürnberg gets good results with this formation: Timmy Simons works effectively as the lone wolf defensive midfielder, while the line of four midfielders allows 1.FCN to clog the central midfield and work the ball around the flanks when in possession (usually through the running and passing of phenom Hiroshi Kiyotake, who against Bayern unsurprisingly led Nürnberg in both touches [67] and passes [39]). 1.FCN’s formation is designed to frustrate an opponents’ passing game, as well as pull extra defenders back around the box. In other words, on paper, Bayern’s B or C team looked like it might have a frustrating derby on its hands.

Yet it didn’t.

Perhaps what I found most amazing about this match was Bayern’s ability to play so fluidly, so easily, and so silkily with a group of mostly bench players (Starke, Contento, Rafinha, Pizarro, Tymoshchuk, even Gomez) and youngsters (Can, Shaqiri, and Højbjerg)) vying for playing time. This ragtag group had the chemistry of a seasoned first  team unit, as they were playing against the tough defensive nut that is 1.FCN. Of course, Bayern’s “ragtag” collection is couture contrasted with the thin benches of most sides.

The match’s story is told through its four goals:

  • Goal 1 (5′): Boateng scores an awkward, yet beautiful goal off his left foot from a Ribéry-delivered  corner via the towering forehead deflection of Pizarro. Boateng has an acre of space to perform his whirling dervish of a kick – where are the defenders? (Sucked into the box from the initial corner.) Already, I feel the collapse of the Nürnberg Rückrunde narrative. Already.
  • Goal 2 (17′): It appears 1.FCN has gone into full “avoid embarrassment” mode – bad sign. In the box, Gomez, looking athletic for a change, dashes off a bit of a genius shot between his defender’s  legs. The shot’s angle is tight geometry as it kisses the corner of the far post. Precise stuff from Mario, all made possible by Jerome Boateng’s raid in the midfield. The centerback intercepts a pass in the midfield, then dribbles straight through the pitch’s center. (Where are the defenders?) Boateng sorta lays off a tight pass to Gomez, who is fairly well marked. But Mario scores anyway. Soul-crusher of a goal.
  • Goal 3 (24′): the “what the hell were they doing?” goal. Rafinha receives a well-placed pass from Pizarro. The Brazilian has just beaten Nürnberg’s disastrously high back four. He receives the ball, drives toward the touchline by the goal posts, then puts in a cheeky shot around the hapless 1.FCN keeper Raphael Schäfer. What the hell, Nürnberg. Rafinha is all alone with ample space for creativity. He dances accordingly for his goal celebration.
  • Goal 4 (56′): Xherdan Shaqiri does a will-to-power a shot from the middle of the box, after cutting in deftly upon receiving a Ribéry corner. Damnit, Alex Esswein. What were you doing? The 1.FCN midfielder is burned for his lazy marking.

Four goals. Arguably, the first two goals can be credited to Bayern’s creativity, technical quality, and a bit of luck. However, the last two goals reflect poorly on Nürnberg’s ability to stay in the game and avoid the embarrassment they seemed so intent on preventing; simply put, these two goals were embarrassing. Of course Timmy Simons botching a penalty (47′) off Tom Starke’s head didn’t help Nürnberg’s spirits either. In all, a glum match for Der Club.

Ugly Data

The numerical and visual data don’t tell a pretty tale for Nürnberg either. Let’s start with the count and rate stats:

  • Shots on goal: Bayern (21) vs. Nürnberg (9).
  • Corners taken: Bayern (12) vs. Nürnberg (4).
  • Crosses: Bayern (11/22) vs. Nürnberg (1/14!).
  • Possession: Bayern (60%) vs. Nürnberg (40%).
  • Passing completion and total passes: Bayern (85%, 461 of 540) vs. Nürnberg (78%, 286 of 368).
  • Successful aerial duels: Bayern (64%) vs. Nürnberg (36%).

Bottom line: Nürnberg had fewer chances to score. Naturally, this problem arises when one’s team is out-possessed, out-cornered, out-crossed, and perhaps even out-aerial-dueled (Bayern had a tall lineup). However, 1.FCN followers will point out that Der Club frequently finds itself in games with similar numbers, because Nürnberg’s game is defense and counter-attack.

Yes, these numbers are somewhat normal for Nürnberg. However, visuals illustrate how the numerical data worked itself on the pitch. First, look at the whole game heatmap for 1.FCN:

FCN heatmap_Capture (1)

Notice the sort of chevron-shape to Nürnberg’s play. This pattern is customary for Der Club, as I’ve observed – the 4-1-4-1 formation gets you a lot of width and flank play –  but notice the big hole around Bayern’s box, contrasted with Nürnberg’s own heavy defensive play on the other side of the pitch. Another image illustrates 1.FCN’s problems around Bayern’s box:

FCN Chalkeboard

This image shows only Nürnberg’s successful passes. Again, look at the absence of anything in Bayern’s box, marked by the black circle. Nothing threatening. No “key passes.” A bare box.

What about 1.FCN’s scoring chances? Well, the picture is almost humorous:

FCN scoring chances against Bayern_Capture

Look at the black box: six of nine Nürnberg scoring chances occured outside Bayern’s box. Ouch. Really only one of these six long-range attempts even mattered: a Kiyotake volley saved by Starke. Quality chances are what Nürnberg lacked. Quality chances can overcome a quantitative gap in scoring chances, as those following the discrepancy in the ratio in scoring chances between Manchester United and Manchester City in the EPL this season might have already observed.

One final image is also telling. Hiroshi Kiyotake is the engine of Nürnberg’s attack. As I stated above, Kiyotake was the most involved of Nürnberg’s players offensively against Bayern. However, even his involvement lacked quality – a microsm of 1.FCN’s fate in this match. For example, here’s Kiyotake’s passing chalkboard:

Hiroshi Kiyotake passing chalkboard_Capture

Notice a pattern? Even Kiyotake couldn’t get the ball into Bayern’s box, as his passing activity took a detour around the box. Of course, Bayern’s centerback pairing of van Buyten and Boateng (my man of the match) were terrific in keeping Nürnberg out of the box area while also bringing the ball up to the midfield. In this regard, Bayern didn’t skip a beat without Danté. Nor did they skip a beat without Lahm and Alaba on the flanks.

A Failed Test

However, I’m still disappointed in Nürnberg. I expected more from the club, given its narrative, even against a Bayern (mostly) bench team. Or at least I saw this match as a crucial litmus test for 1.FCN, who was trying to prove that its Rückrunde form was meaningful and that it was progressing toward something, like an improbable Europa birth. Because, I think, the fear is that narratives are always at least somewhat built on luck, so there’s this search for events (i.e. wins of draws against high profile opponents) brought about by intentional agency (i.e. a well-deserved win), rather than random events. After all, as Linda Hui reminded us in the opening to her piece about Xavi on The Classical, much on the pitch happens by accident, or luck.

Perhaps the Bayern game, then, is a winnowing game, or a game in which we can “distinguish the signal from the noise.” Perhaps not. My fear, however, is that this game was a marker for where this Nürnberg squad really is: a squad that tries to contain teams with defence, width, and Kiyotake-led counters. Clearly, this plan isn’t good enough for the couture bench of Bayern, a feature the Bavarians have been craving for years. Bayern has its depth.

At least Nürnberg potentially has four of five winnable matches ahead (home with Fürth, away at Hoffenheim, home with Leverkusen, away at Düsseldorf, and home with Bremen). So there’s narrative left to craft – enough for 1.FCN to still contest for a Europa spot. So perhaps the Nürnberg’s real litmus test will be the game-after-the-Bayern-game. Anyhow, besides Dortmund and Leverkusen, everyone in the Bundesliga is getting the Bayern treatment these days. Besides, what the hell are you supposed to do against the history that Bayern is setting in the Bundesliga this season?

Header courtesy of Bongarts/Getty Images

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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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