One look at the Bundesliga table tells you all you really need to know about the season so far. Bayern are dominating, Fürth can’t quite work out where the goal is and there is no such thing as mid-table. Despite there being a seven-point gap between the relegation play-off spot and the team above, the clubs occupying the safety zone aren’t quite sure whether they should be looking behind them or in front. One of those sides is 1. FC Nürnberg, back in the top flight since 2009, although their past three campaigns don’t give the greatest idea as to what will happen this year.16th, 6th and 10th-placed finishes make them as inconsistent as the weather. With them sitting just above the drop zone during the winter break, the management felt the need to bolster their squad in the transfer window, although it’s a new face behind the helm that has seen them through those changes since Dieter Hecking’s departure in December. Most people’s attention has been caught by the signing of Japanese international Mu Kanazaki, but will he be the one to help FCN cross the finish line?
Fortunately for Nürnberg, three teams have been pretty woeful so far this season. Hoffenheim, Augsburg and Greuther Fürth all sit comfortably within the relegation places, but a change in fortune could be on the horizon. All three of those sides picked up points last weekend against difficult opposition in Freiburg, Wolfsburg and Schalke respectively, but Nürnberg responded brilliantly by beating Borussia Mönchengladbach 2-1. The win even takes them to within just five points of a Europa League spot, despite sitting 14th overall in the table. New manager Michael Wiesinger won’t be getting carried away though: “The win gives us a lot of self-confidence and morale. Nevertheless, we know there are things that we need to improve on.” These improvements mostly lie in front of goal. FCN have the third-lowest goal tally in the Bundesliga, ahead of only the bottom two clubs. Arguably, that could be put down to strikers Tomas Pekhart and Sebastian Polter who have managed just six goals between them in a combined 35 appearances, but based on their standard 4-2-3-1 formation, Nürnberg need more goals to come from those attacking midfielders, an area Mu Kanazaki will be hoping to make an impact in.
This is a part of the squad that is well stocked however. Players like Timo Gebhart, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Mike Frantz, Markus Feulner, Alexander Esswein and Robert Mak have all made a number of appearances on the wings and behind the striker. Yet they too have failed to produce the goods with just seven goals amongst them – barely one per player. Nürnberg’s failure to find goals lies however in their inability to produce enough chances. It is not a question of clinical finishing not being applied, as this was well demonstrated in the win over Gladbach, but merely a lack of forward momentum that is brought about by not having enough players who are comfortable running with the ball at their feet. The nucleus of FCN’s side is by far and away Hiroshi Kiyotake and when he is at his best, so are Nürnberg. The Japanese maestro has been the driving force behind three of the six wins for ‘Der Club’ this campaign, scoring three and assisting six. Nürnberg struggle to get him into the game as much as they would like to though, leaving him to make his mark from set-piece situations. Should ‘Kiyo’ have more support in attack, someone to play those smart passes into his runs and give the defenders someone else to worry about so that it opens up the space, these poor goalscoring statistics might just start improving.
At 5’11’’, Mu Kanazaki is a good four inches more daunting that his new Japanese teammate Kiyotake, but he is no less skilled with the ball at his feet, nor does he lack the pace required from an attacking winger. Perhaps his best attribute is his vision; he is able to pick out the right cross or pass at the right time, but is just as capable of holding onto the ball or taking on the defender himself. His ability to use both feet also adds an extra something and will keep defences on their toes. Although his senior goalscoring record isn’t top class (16 goals in 151 games), having him on the pitch alongside Kiyotake will surely be beneficial for FCN, especially considering they were at the same J-League club together between 2008 and 2009. Manager Wiesinger’s only issue in selecting Kanazaki is deciding who will complete that attacking trio alongside the Japanese pairing. The stats would argue that it should be Timo Gebhart, but the recent performances of both Mike Frantz and Markus Feulner cannot be ignored either. Feulner adds the danger of a long shot, while Frantz epitomises the hard-working employee. His face couldn’t have been much redder when he was substituted off on Sunday after giving absolutely everything to help FCN win their first match of 2013. Whatever Wiesinger decides, he has to be consistent in his selection, otherwise Nürnberg will continue to look out of ideas in their opponents’ half. Chopping and changing the starting line-up, which has been a theme in attack for a lot of this campaign, cannot be helpful to the lone striker, nor the attacking midfielders themselves. If the players are going to start creating some chemistry, something that feels missing from the team in attack, they need time to gel and get used to their playing partners.
Mu wasn’t Nürnberg’s only signing during the transfer window, but the low-key arrivals of defender Berkay Dabanli and midfielder Muhammed Ildiz are only meant to bulk out the squad. These players are also in positions that don’t really provide much cause for concern for Michael Wiesinger. The defensive side of his team has a substantial amount of experience, whereas that quality is something that is lacking among the strikers. Pekhart, 23, and Polter, 21, can be forgiven for not making the greatest impact at their ages, but perhaps FCN should have dipped into the transfer market for a more experienced front man, especially with that role generally being supported by young players as well. Not only could they help build on the goals tally, but they would also help the less experienced strikers in the squad improve their game too. While young talent can thrive on its own, such as 22-year-old Timothy Chandler at right back, it can be useful to find the right balance in the squad, something the Nürnberg management have failed to do sufficiently in the January transfer window.
Nevertheless, the rest of the season holds some promise for 1. FC Nürnberg. They already have their second encounter with defending champions Borussia Dortmund behind them, and sit a healthy eight points above a relegation place. It remains to be seen as to whether one of those bottom three sides can in fact haul their way out, but FCN have enough about them to ensure they secure a fifth consecutive season of Bundesliga football. Mu Kanazaki’s signing might not be the keystone to that success, but he could certainly help them on their way to claiming what would be an impressive top-half finish – something that is hardly beyond their reach.
By Guest Author Matt Hardy
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