Well-organised and clinical Schalke caught an error-strewn and lethargic Nuremberg side cold on four occasions to take all three points and move up to third in the table. The visitors, admittedly injury-hit in the striking department, looked shorn of confidence and unsure as to what was required of them tactically for the majority of the match. These problems, coupled with several out-of-form defenders, meant that Huub Stevens’ counter-attacking style worked perfectly: His side’s performance really was a masterclass in how to capitalise on your opponent’s weaknesses. Selection wise, the Dutchman got it spot on too – picking the creative but often work-shy Alexander Baumjohann, for instance, was a bold move. But, it paid off, as the right-sided midfielder played a blinder and the home side took all three points; leaving Nuremberg – without a win in eight – looking over their collective shoulder.
Both sides made bright starts to the match, with no nerves apparent, and several little give-and-go moves attempted. However, the two best chances in the opening stages were as a result of more direct tactics – first Mike Frantz chasing a long punt upfield but seeing his shot on the spin blocked, before Kyriakos Papadopoulos headed over at the other end after a hanging cross from the right. With both his first-choice strikers missing and Christian Eigler deployed on the right wing, several of Dieter Hecking’s attacking-midfielders seemed to be taking it in turns to lead the line in a 4-4-2 early on. With the hosts seeing more of the ball in the match’s first ten minutes, Nuremberg switched between lightening-quick carry-the-ball counter-attacks upfield, and some side-to-side-and-going-nowhere-but-forcing-the-opposition-back melina.
And, it was the visitors who created themselves a chance-on-a-plate moment in the tenth minute; Frantz burning down the left and squaring first-time for Eigler’s run from the right strip of chalk to the left-hand side of the six-yard box. Although his subsequent attempt at a tap-in was blocked, the fact that Christian Fuchs was left eating his dust illustrated the thinking behind Hecking’s offensively-fluid tactical plan – how were Schalke to know who’d be making that attack’s timed ghost forward to have a turn at being the fox-in-the-box?
Yet, despite feeling their way into the game with their confident and speedy one-two football on the break, Nuremberg were undone by some sloppy defensive discipline in the 13th minute. Standing on the halfway line as one of their side’s attacks broke down, the defence retreated far too slowly as the ball was dribbled by Lewis Holtby towards the visitors’ half. Not only that, there was a huge gap between the two centre-backs, and seemingly no communication among any player in maroon. Thus, a perfectly-weighted pass was slipped between the gap, and the ball was taken on by Raúl, who’d timed his run to perfection. Raphael Schäfer was off his line in a flash and parried the Spaniard’s shot, but, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was on hand to tap in the loose ball for 1-0!
The lead in the bag, Stevens had his side ease off a bit in the possession stakes. Positionally, his centre-backs tended to err on the side of caution, hanging deep-ish (presumably to nullify Hecking’s idea of running-to-get-on-the-end-of-a-cross turn-taking), and therefore leaving a bit of a gap between themselves and the centre of midfield (in which Jermaine Jones was bobbing from left to right, up and down, snapping into challenges – an approach to defending also adopted by Joël Matip, much to the disgust of Hecking).
However, 1-0 down and without a win in their last seven games, Nuremberg looked sapped of confidence, and this affected their invention and movement. You could also put the lack of that latter pair of qualities down to the fact that they had no canny, experienced and burly centre-forward leading the line – thus, the Schalke centre-backs followed Alexander Esswein and Daniel Didavi’s sprint-drops out and won the duel each and every time. So, the chance to exploit this hole in the middle of the pitch was not seized upon, and Hecking’s tactics and personnel choices were now backfiring big-time.
Where and when Nuremberg did occasionally look dangerous between the quarter-hour and half-hour mark, though, was in making the pitch big and stretching their hosts. The full-backs were not shy in coming forward, and although Schalke looked to spread out in their off-ball banks as much as they could, Timothy Chandler and Marvin Plattenhardt often found space anyway thanks to a series of disguised through-balls and infield decoy runs from the nominal wingers. However, Schalke defended the majority of balls into the box extremely well, and with their guests stretched, wasted no time in bringing the ball upfield. One such break very nearly saw Huntelaar double the home side’s lead in the 27th minute, but he headed Baumjohann’s invitingly floated cross at the ‘keeper.
As we approached the 35-minute mark, things had gone a bit stale from Nuremberg, who seemed to be unsure as to which tactic was best – wing-based overlaps, or pass-and-move football in the centre. Resultantly, they had half-cracks at both, taking the urgency, surprise-element and effectiveness out of their own attacks. At the other end, Raúl had gone close with two volleys from outside the box, although he had to wait until his third attempt with a bouncing ball in the 39th minute to strike gold. Sluggish Nuremberg were caught in two mindsets and possession in the Schalke half, and the hosts wasted no time in getting the ball out of their own half. With the visitors positionally all over the place at the back and those who weren’t there helping a bit too slow in coming to help, the ball landed to the left of the D for the former Real Madrid hitman (with Timm Klose’s weak tackle accidentally stopping Baumjohann – fed by a Raúl through-pass – but allowing the ball to roll to a more dangerous attacker), who placed a left-footed slide-volley into the bottom right-hand corner for 2-0!
In the closing stages of the first half, Schalke were extremely comfortable and, despite the likes of Phillip Wollscheid now showing up more in the final-third of the pitch than the first-third, were in control when out of possession. Although Stevens had allowed his full-backs to occasionally bomb on before they took the lead, now, they were primarily stationed quite deeper and nearer to their central-defence colleagues, and this ensured that the effectiveness of Nuremberg’s offensive interchangeability was diluted to the point of being more of a water-based drink than the glass of fruity squash Hecking desired. Thus, Schalke held onto their 2-0 lead with ease, ensuring that Stevens and his players could enjoy a peaceful and jubilant 15-minute interval.
Neither coach elected to make a change personnel wise for the second half, although Esswein started the second batch of 45 minutes on the left wing, with Frantz having moved over to the right and Eigler to the centre-forward slot (Didavi playing just behind him). Jens Hegeler seemed more eager to get involved with proceedings in the opening five minutes, as the former Bayer Leverkusen man either bobbed near to the left chalk, or carried the ball in that direction. Nuremberg were back, primarily, to trying to make the pitch big and get in behind Schalke with Esswein (exploiting Baumjohann’s sometimes lax approach to tracking back). Despite winning two corner-kicks with their initial attempts at this tactic, Schalke remained relatively untroubled. In fact, from one of the set-pieces, they broke via a route-one pass. From this ball, they had a three-on-three, but Baumjohann tried to be too clever by going to trap the ball then showing his efforts were a dummy by walking away at the last moment. However, the pass was too slow, and Nuremberg got away scot-free.
As we neared the hour mark, Nurember’s movement had become non-existent again. During one phase of play, Timmy Simons stood with the ball, hands on hips; perhaps exasperated at the fact that four of his colleagues were on the box-edge and marked, but none of them were making an attempt to break free. Thus, the Belgian scooped over to Plattenhardt’s dart down the chalk. Although the full-back’s initial burst of acceleration saw him skip past the visibly tiring Baumjohann, the deep and narrow Atsuto Uchida used his experience to marshal the youngster – and the ball – out of play. Two minutes later, Didavi popped up on the left flank and did manage to get a cross into the six-yard box. Yet, surprise surprise, Papadopoulos, nigh-on standing-on Lars Unnerstall, headed clear under no pressure.
Schalke sealed the win in the 66th minute after yet another super-fast break. Again, the ball came towards the back-pedalling defence in the air, and again, nobody took responsibility. Simons’ header, under no pressure, was weak and poor, and landed at the feet of Julian Draxler. With at least three players ball-watching, the youngster waited and steadied himself before slipping a pass through for the undisguised run of Huntelaar. The lethal Dutchman made no mistake, burying at the first attempt for 3-0.
Thereafter, Nuremberg trudged forward and held possession, looking as feeble as ever, while Schalke continued to seek more goals on the break. Three substitutions were made in the 72nd minute, with Didavi being replaced by Róbert Mak, and Jones and Draxler having their places on the pitch taken by Finnish striker Teemu Pukki and young German defender Marco Höger. A few minutes later, Hecking made another change, taking off Hegeler for Almog Cohen. The combative Israeli went to the right-sided centre-midfield berth, instantly making his presence felt with some thunderous challenges. Mak, meanwhile, went out onto the right wing, with Frantz and Eigler leading the line. Pukki initially went up front alongside Huntelaar, before the Dutchman was replaced with seven minutes to go. Thereafter, Ciprian Marica stood alongside the Finn, as the lively Baumjohann – now a right-sided centre midfielder in Schalke’s 4-3-1-2, with Höger playing the piano-carrier role – strived to keep the duo fed.
By this stage of the game, though, Nuremberg were dead and buried, and Uchida and Fuchs had started to burst forward once again. Schalke added to their lead in the 85th minute, with Nuremberg showing themselves up at the back for the umpteenth time. A free-kick nearer to the halfway line than the goal was taken quickly, and despite being caught cold, the visitors looked stodgy even when they realised that the ball was back in play. Simons, however, tried to take charge, and rushed out to make a clearing header. In keeping with he and his colleagues’ shambolic line-clearing showing, Simons missed the ball, and Holtby trapped it in the Belgian’s vacated space. Skipping past some lunging, thought-free challenges, the youngster kept a cool head before blasting past Schäfer for 4-0! That was how it finished, and if Hamburg beat Hoffenheim tomorrow afternoon, Nuremberg will end the weekend in the relegation zone.