Nuremberg - Any team fresh from setting a new Bundesliga worst-mark by going the entire first season-half without winning a single game would find it difficult not to be apprehensive about what the second half might hold in store. 1. FC Nürnberg went into their post-winter break campaign reopener against 1899 Hoffenheim in just that position on 25 January and dealt with it in the best possible manner, with a thumping 4-0 victory.
Pep talk does the trick
The result precipitated the hasty removal of the whiskers Gertjan Verbeek had pledged to keep growing until his charges finally managed to break their duck and the head coach turned up smooth-jowled once again for the post-match press conference on the back of his first shave in three long months. Pronouncing himself generally satisfied with the afternoon's proceedings, Verbeek nonetheless noted that, the comprehensive scoreline notwithstanding, “we've played better than that, only we didn't win”.
It was a typically succinct analysis from a man very familiar to football fans in his native Netherlands but, until now at least, altogether less so to followers of the game in Germany. All that is changing now, however, with Nürnberg in the process of making up for their extended barren streak in double-quick time. The Franconians have won three of their four subsequent outings since getting off the mark against Hoffenheim and in the one they lost, they gave all-conquering Bayern München a distinctly tough time of it before going down 2-0 on Matchday 20.
The latest success, 2-1 at home to cellar-dwellers Eintracht Braunschweig, hardly met with the coach's unqualified approbation either. In a remarkable contest which included three saved penalties - another little slice of Bundesliga history - ten-man Nürnberg came from behind to take the points courtesy of back-to-back strikes from Hiroshi Kiyotake and Tomas Pekhart at the start of the second half. “I think the team realised during the break that I wasn't happy,” Verbeek drily commented after the encounter, which took the team's 2014 points tally to 12 from a possible 15, one more than they managed over the entire pre-winter break campaign.
Kiyotake confirmed the 51-year-old Dutch tactician was, in fact, “furious at half time, mainly I think because we hadn't been executing our game plan”. Expanding on the theme, the Japanese playmaker, whose third goal of the campaign got the hosts back on level terms only a minute after the restart, said: “It's very important to the coach that we always impose our own game on the contest. If we can't do that, he gets angry, but if we do manage it, he's satisfied. Today, we only really woke up after the coach bawled us out during the break.” Evidently with immediate effect, as Pekhart, himself fresh off the bench for the start of the second 45, sank what would prove to be the winning goal a further minute after Kiyotake's leveller.
The Verbeek effect has taken hold and Club fans are now confident that the unconventional coach will lead them clear of the relegation zone many were already resigned to seeing their favourites continue to occupy through to the end of a cheerless campaign. Taking over a side languishing on five points from their opening eight games and palpably lacking in confidence, the new man in the hot seat went on the offensive from the off. Dispensing with the two-man defensive midfield shield in place, he instead tasked the forward-thinking Mike Frantz with the deepest-lying berth in a flexible new 4-3-3 system. In terms of performance, Nürnberg were a team transformed but the rub of the green continued to elude them – so much so that, by the end of the first season-half, they had hit the bar or post a division-high 16 times in 17 outings.
Now, they are hitting the net instead as Verbeek's high-pressing tactical pro-action starts to bear fruit. Nürnberg sporting director Martin Bader recently gave an insight into the new coach's influence on the day-to-day proceedings at the club, noting that, “The players respect him not only for the quality of his training but also for his aura of natural authority. When Verbeek steps onto the pitch, you stand to attention,” Bader added at least half-jokingly.
Man of many parts
Obsessively competitive he may be, but Verbeek is no 24-hour football fanatic for all that. A third dan black belt in judo and one-time amateur boxer, he says he is “not a city person. I've got people around me all the time at work. In private I don't need so many”. To that end, he is happy to use a day off for a 12-hour round-trip back to the Netherlands, where he is building a cabin in the woods on his own farm, some 40 kilometres away from his home town of Deventer.
In summer, the all-round man of action and a group of friends climb onto their motorbikes – his is a Harley-Davidson – and hit the road. “We've been through Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and the US so far,” he revealed. Old-school hard rock is the fitting accompaniment and Verbeek counts Deep Purple and Pink Floyd among his favourite bands. In short, he fits in well at the more colourful end of the Bundesliga coaching spectrum. All of which is, of course, peripheral to the main event in the cut-throat environment of the top-end professional game. And as far as that goes, Gertjan Verbeek is clearly cutting the mustard at 1. FC Nürnberg. “He knows how to keep the mood positive,” Kiyotake summarised. “He doesn't tend to say much before a game or in training. But the few words he speaks go straight to the heart.”
Relive Nürnberg's penalty drama against Braunschweig courtesy of the Bundesliga's official YouTube channel: