Nuremberg defeated Hertha Berlin to ruin Michael Skibbe’s first game in charge of the capital city club. Alexander Esswein and Dominic Maroh were the match-winners for the struggling Franconian side in a game low on quality and chances: a situation caused primarily by the Frankenstadion’s terrible pitch. With his side not only losing, but also failing to impress with their new negative tactics and showing little in the way of creativity or goal threat, this really was a poor start to life for Skibbe at Hertha. Dieter Hecking’s team, who played the better football, leapfrog the capital city side as a result of this win, leaving Hertha just four points clear of the drop-zone (with Kaiserslautern and Mainz, two of the sides below them, still to play this weekend).
Nuremberg (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Raphael Schäfer; Jens Hegeler, Maroh, Philipp Wollscheid, Adam Hloušek; Almog Cohen, Timmy Simons; Daniel Didavi, Christian Eigler, Esswein; Tomáš Pekhart
Hertha Berlin (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Thomas Kraft; Christian Lell, Roman Hubník, Christoph Janker, Levan Kobiashvili; Andreas Ottl, Peter Niemeyer; Patrick Ebert, Adrián Ramos, Ronny; Pierre-Michel Lasogga
Both sides were relatively cautious in the opening stages, with the game getting bogged down in midfield. That wasn’t the only part of the pitch where it was appropriate to use the word bogged, unfortunately – pigs would have turned up their noses at the goalmouths at either end, which played havoc with the players’ balance and the direction and pace of the ball throughout the match. Back to the opening stages, and the player looking most likely to make things was happen was Didavi, who was mucking in when his side were out of possession, and taking the game to Hertha when the ball was at his feet. In the fifth minute, he drew a panicky hack from Niemeyer, winning a free-kick. The ball was floated into the box, but only half-cleared. Near to the penalty spot, Wollscheid volleyed it back at goal, yet watched on in disbelief as the ball hit one post, before rolling across the line and hitting the other!
Despite not handing Hecking’s side the lead, the chance did give Nuremberg confidence and belief, and they saw most of the ball in the few minutes following it. Hertha sought to take the sting out of the game in the 11th minute, with the centre-backs – a partnership almost as makeshift as Nuremberg’s at the other end, with both sides suffering a number of absences in defence – keeping possession among themselves. When they finally pushed the ball forward in this particular instance, Ottl managed to win a free-kick off a clumsy Simons tackle. Ronny’s left-footed curl into the box was underhit, though, and Nuremberg broke. Didavi, however, seemed swamped, yet through sheer determination, energy and pace, he overcame a three-against-one situation to take the ball and home in on Kraft’s goal. Alas, the eventual left-shooted strike was tame, and easily palmed to safety by the former Bayern Munich goalkeeper.
As the half wore on, Hecking tried to get his full-backs – both of whom normally play in midfield – up the pitch a more. He did this by instructing Pekhart to drop into the midfield, and getting the wingers to veer inside, thereby generating space for the surprise overlap. However, the final ball provided by both Hegeler – who wasted space and the chance to utilise other options in the 25th minute by dragging a 20-yard vanity shot well wide – and Hloušek was too poor to threaten Hertha with initially. Still, at least the hosts were breaching the final-third – Skibbe’s negative pass-the-ball-at-the-back-and-invite-the-pressing tactics ensured that when his side had had possession, the vast bulk of it was in the first-third of the pitch.
When the visitors did attack, though, they occasionally showed the same willingness as Nuremberg for interchangability: Ronny and Ramos, in particular. But, the visiting side’s use of the ball wasn’t as cute or intricate as that of Nuremberg, who created a clever goal-scoring chance via a one-two move in the 21st minute which released Pekhart in the box. Unfortunately for the former Tottenham Hotspur striker, the experienced Hubník was alert to the danger, putting in a last-ditch slide-tackle as the trigger was about to be pulled. As the ball rolled out towards the corner flag and the clutches of Kobiashvili, Pekhart took out his frustration by sliding in on the Georgian, and earning himself a booking.
As we approached the half-hour mark, the visitors seemed to have settled upon what their best tactic for scoring a goal was – drawing panicky hacks in the second-third area of the pitch, and then floating a crossed free-kick into the box. With Hecking’s side giving far too many fouls of this kind away, a team better at delivering – Ebert and Ronny were the culprits – or finishing off set-pieces than Hertha could have grabbed themselves a couple of goals to take into the half-time break. They were nearly handed one on a plate on the 30-minute mark, too. Esswein, who had been a little quiet, passed a slow ball across the shadow of his own’s side D without even looking. Surprise, surprise, the ball was intercepted by a player in blue and white, and a through-ball was slipped in to Lasogga. The young striker dropped a shoulder, throwing Wollscheid off balance, before sending a shot not too far over Schäfer’s bar.
For a three or four-minute spell after this chance, Hertha were on top. They passed the ball with slickness, pace and invention, moved with more intelligence and embraced new ways of attempting to splice the maroon-shirted rearguard. With Kobiashivili providing good width down the left, Hertha opened up their hosts on at least two occasions during this spell. The first time saw Wollscheid just about get back to shield a clever through-ball intended for either Ramos or Lasogga, while the second time saw the latter fed down the right wing to win a corner. Ebert, unsurprisingly, underhit the set-piece, wasting yet another opening.
Didavi, who had floated out of the game a little, burst back onto centre-stage again in the 40th minute. The on-loan Stuttgart midfielder cut in from the right strip of chalk, leaving several away side players in his dust. The left-footed shot he smashed towards goal on the turn looked fierce enough and was on target, but Cohen, charging towards the box, didn’t have enough time to get off the way. The ball smashed off his back and out for a throw. One wondered if that might be that for the first half, but three minutes later, the home side won a free-kick on the right-hand side of the second-third. In keeping with every other set-piece taker on the pitch, Hloušek underhit the effort.
However, Hertha failed to clear their lines, resulting in Esswein picking the ball up on the left wing, just off the joint of the box. He skipped inside far too easily past the tame challenges of both Ebert and Ramos, before firing a shot across goal. Lell got his head onto the shot on its way, but only succeeded in helping the ball go even further from Kraft’s reach, and into the back of the net! Despite one scare a few minutes after that (caused by Schäfer electing to punch rather than catch a cross from the right), Nuremberg went in at the interval 1-0 ahead.
Second half starting formations
Nuremberg (4-4-2, from right to left): Schäfer; Hegeler, Maroh, Wollscheid, Hloušek; Didavi, Cohen, Simons, Esswein; Eigler, Pekhart
Hertha Berlin (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Kraft; Lell, Hubník, Janker, Kobiashvili; Ottl, Niemeyer; Ebert, Änis Ben-Hatira, Ramos; Lasogga
Desperately seeking creativity, Skibbe made one change for the second half, taking off Ronny – who had shown why he was ignored by ex-coach Markus Babbel during the first half of the season – for Berlin-born Änis Ben-Hatira in a like-for-like alteration. The home side began the half with a delightful passage of play; one which ended with them thinking they had added to their lead. It started when Esswein took possession on the chalk near to the halfway line. Scanning around the park for options, Esswein took full advantage of a lung-punishing sprint down the flank from Hloušek, allowing him to drift inside with the ball. The midfielder passed towards the D, allowing Pekhart and Eigler to play a little one-two; resulting in the latter being free to blast the ball home for 2-0… or so he thought. Correctly, the linesman ruled out the effort for offside.
Ten minutes into the new half, and things were far more open than they had been during the first 45 minutes. Nuremberg, now with Eigler playing alongside Pekhart, were having to share possession with their guests, who no longer wasted time indulging in melina at the back. It wouldn’t be true to say that Hecking had instructed his side to batten down the hatches at this stage, but a sense of caution was definitely pervading the mindset of the midfielders, now playing in a flat bank of four. Nevertheless, there was space to exploit on the break, and on the hour, Pekhart really should have made it 2-0. About seven yards out from goal and practically in a one-on-one situation, the Czech Republic international hit his shot at Kraft’s feet.
In the 65th minute, the mud did a sterling job in preserving Nuremberg’s lead. A good corner delivery from Ebert resulted in a header being cleared off the line, but the loose ball got stuck in the sludge. Niemeyer pounced on it, but, due to the heaviness of the ground, couldn’t adjust his feet quickly enough to get any power on his strike. As a result, Nuremberg’s defenders threw themselves in to make a block, and the danger was cleared.
Between the 70-minute and 75-minute mark, the game reverted back to being bogged down in midfield. Looking to get their opponents running, both sides were spraying the ball about from channel to channel, resulting in the team out of possession focusing on sitting off and keeping things tight. Eager to get himself involved, Lasogga raced back to the halfway line to take the to feet in the 72nd minute. But, Wollscheid followed him out, and showed strength, determination, intelligence and a cool head to first dispossess his man, who had been shielding him off, and then to carry the ball forward.
At this stage of the game, the visitors were pressing hard: a little too hard in some cases, the best examples both coming from Marco Djuricin in first the 77th and then the 80th minute. The young striker had only just been brought on as part of an interesting formational shift made by Skibbe. It saw Djuricin replace defensive-midfielder Niemeyer, with Hertha – kitchen sinks at the ready – now setting themselves up in a 4-1-3-2 system. With nine minutes to play, Hecking turned to his bench to freshen things up, replacing Pekhart with Swiss striker Albert Bunjaku in a like-for-like substitution. And then, a minute later, Skibbe made yet another ambitious change, replacing Lell with Tunay Torun.
But, it was someone who had been on the pitch since the very beginning who put the game to bed. Didavi won a free-kick in the final-third on the right-hand side after drawing a foul from Kobiashvili. Hloušek, whose delivery had been poor all match, finally swung in a decent left-footed cross, which managed to evade everyone – including Kraft, who dived too late and left himself exposed – bar Dominic Maroh at the back-post. The centre-back walked the ball in, before racing off behind the hoardings to celebrate putting his side 2-0 ahead with just six minutes left on the clock!
Thereafter, Nuremberg really did batten down the hatches, and looked to be making a good fist of it too; clearing a number of decent Hertha free-kicks and corner-kicks. But, after counter-attacking from one such effort, Nuremberg very nearly shot themselves in the foot. With Esswein sprawled on the floor, the home side’s players seemed to be expecting the ref to whistle, thereby ignoring Kobiashvili’s scoop over the top. However, the man in the middle had no desire to halt play, meaning that Hubník was totally isolated in the D with the ball at his feet and Schäfer – halfway between his line and the penalty spot – stranded. Alas, the last person any coach wants to see in that position is his rugged centre-back, and Hubník duly obliged to fit the criteria of that cruel stereotype by chipping the ball over the bar. It was the best chance Hertha had created all match, and it was no surprise that it was basically a lucky fluke.
Mike Frantz and Per Nilsson came on for Didavi and Cohen respectively as Hecking sought to wind the clock down in the dying seconds of the game, although the ref barely played injury-time, and the three points were all Nuremberg’s! They now sit in 12th place, with Hertha Berlin moving down to 13th.
The formations that finished the game
Nuremberg (5-3-2, from right to left): Schäfer; Hegeler, Maroh, Nilsson, Wollscheid, Hloušek; Frantz, Simons, Esswein; Eigler, Bunjaku
Hertha Berlin (4-1-3-2, from right to left): Kraft; Ebert, Hubník, Janker, Kobiashvili; Ottl; Torun, Ben-Hatira, Ramos; Lasogga, Djuricin