Köln 2 – 0 Hoffenheim – Solbakken gets the best of Stanislawski

After a disastrous start to the season it looks like Solbakken’s ideas are finally taking a firm hold in the minds of the Köln players after yet another impressive performance and result against the in form Hoffenheim.  Goals from Jajalo in the first half and Podolski in the second gave Köln their first ever Bundesliga win against Hoffenheim but more importantly, Köln kept a clean sheet and were able to thoroughly outplay their opponents.  It proved that last week’s emphatic win in Leverkusen was not a fluke and that the team is finally heading in the right direction.

Solbakken was forced to make changes to his defense after injuries to captain Geromel and the on loan Jemal.  Eichner and Andrezinho stepped in instead.  The rest remained the same.  Stanislawski made just one change from the side that convincingly beat Wolfbsurg last week, starting Mlapa instead of Obasi.  They were still without the absent Ibisevic and Salihovic but were riding high after a terrific start to the season.

Formations and key movement

How Köln neutralized Hoffenheim’s attack 

Questions still remained about Köln and Solbakken despite their impressive win last week and whether they would be able to perform as well against a dynamic and quick side like Hoffenheim.  Moreover, how would their makeshift defense fare against the pace and power of Babel, Firmino, Mlapa and Sigurdsson.  The answer was more surprising than many likely expected.  Hoffenheim’s front four were all but neutralized and Solbakken’s system effectively shut out their typically fast ground game.

As alluded to last week after their win in Leverkusen, Solbakken’s system effectively relies on the players understanding of each other and the space around them.  As he did with Copenhagen, Solbakken plays a standing backline of four that is in sync with the midfield in front of it.  They contract and expand given the circumstances in a match.  Without the ball, both the backline four and the midfield four are flat and play behind the ball, giving Köln two lines of defense and the ability to squeeze opponents attackers should they exploit the channels in front of the goal. Vital to its success is each player’s ability to stay positionally disciplined and not leave his zone of operation, making collective movement and individual reaction to player movement more effective. Köln was thus able to stifle Hoffenheim’s interchangeable attack by occupying the space they usually operate in and removing all possible passing options.

Won tackles by Köln's backline and central midfielders, many made in key areas out wide.

That “squeezing effect” was evident in Hoffenheim’s wide play.  Babel on the left found it difficult to deal with Andrezinho in front of him and Chihi coming from behind.  Similarly, Mlapa was double teamed by Eichner and Peszko on the right.  The Köln fullbacks won 28 tackles between them while Babel was continually frustrated (giving the ball away 7 times) and Mlapa eventually replaced by Obasi.  The key was also going to be how Köln dealt with Firmino, who has been one of the standout players this season and almost impossible to deal with for opposing teams.  The 19-year old Brazilian had his worst outing against Köln, expected of a player his age, but also as a result of Köln’s impressive defensive display.  Hoffenheim outpassed Köln 444 to 208 but had trouble finding their target due to Köln’s smart and patient play.  Firmino gave the ball away more than any other player bar Rudy, evident of the player’s frustration and inability to link up as well as he has all season.   Basically, Köln forced Hoffenheim to play at a slower pace at times, taking their time to pick out players and finding gaps that just did not seem to appear.  In turn, it reinforced Köln’s defensive stronghold and made it easier to win back the ball. (Köln won 54% of the duels against Hoffenheim)

Köln quick to get forward 

Köln are not a counter attacking side per say, not like Hannover are distinctly anyways, although that is certainly part of Solbakken’s palette and was used to great effect against Hoffenheim.  Köln caught Hoffenheim on the break several times and were in certain phases of the game content to let their opponent have the ball, knowing how vulnerable Hoffenheim would be on the counter.  Solbakken seems to have drilled his side quite well in the art of exploiting an opponent’s advanced line of attack, having the best conversion rate in the league (44%) and confident in his side going forward. The first goal was a display of these lightning quick attacks after Jajalo robbed Rudy of the ball, sent Podolski storming forward, and made a tracking run to meet the pass and put it past Starke.  Similarly, their second goal later in the game was another example of these quick attacks.  Eichner picked up the ball around the half way line and saw a surging Podolski running behind the advanced Hoffenheim backline and played the German international through for the deciding goal.

Podolski's springs vs. Hoffenheim show his "free" role.

Solbakken seems to have given Podolski a free role in the team and after a slow start the player has found his form again.  Against Hoffenheim, Podolski was at the center of every Köln attack and involved in 8 of their 9 shots on goal.  Podolski’s movement and energy was key in unsettling Hoffenehim’s midfield and defense.  Rudy in particular had a poor first half (gave the ball away more than any other player on the day) precisely because of that movement.  Moreover, Jajalo was given license to come forward and again Hoffenheim’s players, Rudy and Kaiser in this case, were “squeezed out” of the ball. Köln’s wide play was also very effective, both sets of wingers and fullbacks having very good games.  Eichner and Andrezinho in particular were involved more than most players on the pitch and Peszko and Chihi did well to keep Beck and Braafheid out of the game.   Solbakken is more traditional in his use of wingers, instructing them to stay out wide more often than not but that almost always ensures that the opposing fullbacks will have difficulties using the space that is so widely available nowadays.

Final Verdict

It was not as much a poor showing from Hoffenheim as as it was a consummate performance from a Köln side who did everything right.  Their disciplined and patient defensive play frustrated and rendered Hoffenheim’s attack useless.  Going forward they utilized the width well while the in form Podolski was difficult to contain.  Solbakken’s players finally seem in tune with his methods and confidence is high in Köln.

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

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