Continuing our series of team previews ahead of the new Bundesliga seasons we profile the “Billy Goats” from Köln. The North-Rhine Westphalia based club has a storied football history but have struggled to make much headway in the league over the last decade. Last year, Köln’s good Rückrunde (2nd half of the season) form helped them to a 10th place finish, their best in 10 years. It was a good turnaround after a dreadful start to the season and saved them the blushes of their 5th relegation in 13 years.
A new manager and a new year has renewed hope about building on their good performances and putting the last couple of disappointing seasons behind them once and for all.
Bringing us this preview is Harvey Burgess, a Köln supporter living in London. Harvey has followed Köln and German football for three years now and can be found on twitter @harveyb1
It has been a relatively quiet summer for FC Köln so far. They have brought in the versatile Sascha Riether from VFL Wolfsburg along with sealing the permanent signing of Mato Jajalo, who spent last season on loan at Köln from Siena. Köln has also seen a few players going the other way with Fabrice Ehret, Stephan Sagler, Reinhold Yabo and Taner Yalcin all going through the exit door, the first two permanently, and the latter two on loan. While these outgoing transfers do not seem all that significant, Ehret making the most starts (16) of all the aforementioned players, Köln often lacked depth in their squad last season and these exits might have leave them short throughout the season.
The most notable signing of course has been Sascha Riether who is a very interesting player, capable of playing in a number of different roles. In fact, he played in five different positions last season but his preference is at right-back, the role he performed more than any other. He will be competing with Miso Brecko for a first-team spot next season but will no doubt be ready if needed elsewhere on the pitch. The German got two goals and two assists to his name last season, showcasing his ability to attack from deep. Another attribute of his game is his passing, which will no doubt help Köln next season and could explain why Köln were so adamant about bringing him in. Riether’s relationship with current Köln sporting director Volker Finke was also key in bringing him in. The two have a history going back nearly 10 years when Finke brought Riether up when he was just 19 at SC Freiburg.
Fans of the Billy Goats will know all about Jajalo, who played in 30 games last season, and looks to be a favourite of new boss Solbakken. He has played out wide on the left in midfield in both pre-season matches so far and looks likely to maintain that role going into the new season.
By far the most interesting story coming out of Köln this summer has been the appointment of Stale Solbakken as their new manager. The former Norwegian midfielder joins from FC Copenhagen, who he had coached (very successfully might I add) for five years. Interestingly enough, Solbakken was due to take over as Norway’s national team coach but passed up the opportunity in order to take over the Bundesliga side. Solbakken is fascinating in more ways than one, as he is probably one of a handful of people worldwide to have been pronounced clinically dead, and yet still be alive. After suffering a heart attacking during a training session in 2001 club doctors failed to find a pulse and pronounced him clinically dead as ambulances arrived on the scene. Seven minutes into the ambulance ride to the hospital Solbakken was revived and is now wearing a pacemaker. He was forced to retire following this episode but still played a big part in Copenhagen’s league title that year.
Without that incident Solbakken may never have started his coaching career like he did. After a successful stint with Norwegian club Hamarkameratene he was appointed manager of former club Copenhagen in 2006. Six years later Solbakken had 5 of 6 Danish league titles to his name as well as the Danish Cup and Manager of the Year Award. Copenhagen also made massive strides in the Champions League, reaching the knockout stage, the first Danish club to have accomplished that. Copenhagen were known last season to be very tactically versatile side, able to take up a number of different formations when needed, something that will no doubt be useful to this Köln side.
Solbakken plans to make Köln competitive in the league first and promised the supporters attractive football and a respectable finish by the end of the season. A more detailed summary on what to expect from Solbakken can be found here.
As far as expectations for the upcoming season are concerned, I haven’t really made up my mind. Milivoje Novakovic is only getting older and we won’t be able to rely on him for goals as we have since he signed from Litex Lovech in 2006. He has been the top goalscorer in the team for the past four seasons, and it will be interesting to see how much new boss Solbakken uses him.
Pedro Geromel was one of the standout defenders throughout the league last season, and saved the side on numerous occasions, even chipping in with a couple of goals. Along with Michael Rensing, who joined in this year’s winter transfer window, they should provide a solid backbone for a few years to come. I am sure they will hope to concede less than the 62 goals which they shipped last season, the third worst in the league after St. Pauli and Borussia Moenchengladbach to give some perspective Geromel will probably be joined by Youssef Mohamad at the back, and either Brecko/Riether along with Christian Eichner will complete the backline. Both Brecko and Eichner provided three assists, which shows how much license they were given to get forward in last year’s 4-2-3-1 formation.
The center of midfield is the area of most contention. Solbakken’s default formation for Copenhagen last season (although they changed it quite frequently) was a 4-2-2-2, with the first ‘2’ providing solid support in front of the defense. Last season these two players were Petit and Martin Lanig, though the former is now 34 years old and may not be able to carry on much longer. Neither of these players, despite starting 47 games between them in the league, had an assist to their name and maybe Solbakken will want to add some creativity in this crucial area of the pitch. Most sides around Europe now field a creative player in this position and Solbakken may very well adjust accordingly.
As for the wingers, Slawomir Peszko and Christian Clemens performed admirably last season. The young 19-year-old Clemens is certainly someone to keep your eye on in the coming season. Players like Adil Chihi and Sebastian Freis will be able to deputize in the wide areas, should either of the first-teamers have an injury or perhaps Solbakken will implement a policy of rotation. Time will tell which direction Köln will go as most new managers usually start off with a clean slate to allow players to compete.
Up front, Lukas Podolski, the captain and the star player, will start alongside Novakovic for yet another season, with the former able to drop deep and help out in midfield if needed. Together, they contributed 37 of Köln’s 47 goals in the league last season, a fantastic achievement that made them one of the most efficient striker pair in the league.
So far in pre-season, Köln have looked promising. They beat Greek side Panathanaikos 2-1 thanks to goals from Podolski and Kevin Pezzoni and Russian side Spartak Moscow 1-0 after a well-taken Adil Chihi finish. In both games Pezzoni and Riether started as the defensive midfielders, showing a good understanding against both sides.
A realistic assessment of the upcoming season would be another mid-table finish and if the new manager is as successful as he was with FC Copenhagen, a top-half finish is perfectly plausible. All in all, the upcoming season promises to be very interesting for FC Köln.
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