The Prince and his City – A Look Back at Köln’s Hinrunde

A year ago Köln were floundering in the relegation zone with few prospects of avoiding the drop by season’s end.  Albeit a few bumps in the road, Köln are sitting in 10th place a year later with more positives to speak off than last season along with a certain sense of optimism and opportunism pervading the Carnival City.  The arrival of new coach Stale Solbakken and the upturn in form form local darling Lukas Podolski helped the club to their best Hinrunde finish in a decade. Customary to the ongoings in Köln though, none of the changes were without their share of conflict, controversy and drama.  Suffice to say, it has been a roller-coaster ride for Köln on and off the pitch in the first half of the 2011/12 campaign.

 From Schäfer to Solbakken

It took the familiar face of Frank Schäfer and a second half resurgence to secure Köln’s place in the Bundesliga last year but internal tensions led to his eventual departure, much to the dismay of the Köln supporters.  In came Bundesliga tyro Stale Solbakken to bring some much needed consistency to a club who have not managed a better finish than 10th place in some twenty years.

Solbakken: "Köln is a club with a lot of tradition and potential I am proud that they have decided to appoint me."

The acquisition of the Norwegian manager was quite a coup for Köln.  With Solbakken at the helm, Danish club Copenhagen qualified for the Champions League knockout stage for the first time in club history and did so in style.  With a feat like that and several domestic titles under his belt a move to a bigger club was seemingly inevitable, making Köln’s acquirement an even bigger achievement and one that would hopefully finally steer the club in the right direction.

But as any, or most, managerial transitions go, it took time for the players and the supporters to warm up to the Norwegian’s methods and philosophy.  Sure enough, Solbakken did not do himself any favors after stripping Lukas Podolski of the captaincy with one of his first moves as Köln coach but it was a move that would prove quite successful in hindsight.  Admitting to the steep learning curve of his approach, Solbakken said at the onset of the season that it would take time for results to to pour in and for the players to familiarize themselves with a style of play most footballers in Germany are unaccustomed to.

Solbakken’s methodology meant a change in player psychology and tactics, something meant to get the most out of individual players as well as the collective.  Part of that tactical transformation is a more synchronized backline, a more astute manipulation of space and a free role given to Podolski.  As demanding as it might seem, the changes did lead to some impressive results and performances so far but not without some disappointments along the way.

Consistently inconsistent

Considering that transition and its learning curve, Köln’s lacked consistency above all in the Hinrunde and started rather slow. They managed only one win in their first five matches, conceding 14 goals in the process. All the while, Solbakken had to do with a fresh slough of injuries every week.  Slovenian striker and Köln’s top goalscorer in the last three seasons, Milivoje Novakovic, played the full 90 minutes on only five occasions this season and is currently out with injury.  Furthermore, newly appointed captain and defensive leader, Geromel, missed 5 crucial weeks in the middle of the Hinrunde during which Köln conceded 8 goals in two matches. When they did manage a result, they were unable to follow it up and have yet to earn more than two consecutive wins.

Köln's brighest moment of the season came on Matchday 6 when they beat Leverkusen 4-1 away.

Their best spell came towards the end of September when they impressively beat Leverkusen (4-1), Hoffenheim (2-0) and Hannover (2-0), signaling the potential of the squad and their newfound system.  But constant changes to their backline and an undesirable record on the road (winning only 2 of 8 matches) never allowed them to settle into a groove and lead to heavy defeats against the league’s top three sides.  Their 5-0 loss to Dortmund and 3-0 losses to Gladbach and Bayern showed that work remains to be done and that their system requires a little more tweaking to compete against the better players in the league.

Köln defend deep and rely on quick transitions to score.  At times they can be difficult to break down and with their game catering to the in form Podolski it can be quite effective but against quality opposition it can backfire.  Several times this season Köln’s strategy has been exposed, primarily by the league’s top sides, but also by teams like Mainz and Bremen who don’t shy away from getting forward in numbers and attacking from all angles.  The ability to implement their strategy against attack heavy sides is one of Solbakken’s biggest tasks in 2012.

All roads lead to Podolski

Podolski has been one of the league's best performers this season.

With all the pressure Lukas Podolski faces, be it from his detractors, the media or even certain segments of the club’s supporters, Solbakken may be the best thing to have happened to the 26-year old.  Never before has a coach been able to get as much out of the striker.  Halfway through the season, Podolski has already bested his record of goals scored in a single season, so much so that many have quickly labeled Köln a one man team but that is testament more to his improved form rather than the club’s own shortcomings. With 14 goals and 5 assists to his name, Podolski has contributed to 76% of Köln’s goals this season.  Needless to say, Podolski has been at the heart of all good things for Köln this season and it is difficult to imagine how Solbakken’s project had gone without him.

Podolski’s upturn in form naturally spurred several transfer rumors and interest from abroad, most notably Arsenal, where Podolski’s Germany teammate Per Mertesacker recently endorsed a bid for the Köln player.  The other side of the argument is the over-reliance on a single player, in which case cashing in on Podolski while the chance presents itself may be Köln’s best option going forward.  It would preempt potential complications down the road and provide Solbakken with the necessary capital to build on the foundation he laid so far.

Off pitch drama

With heavy heart, Overath announced his resignation in November.

Living up to its colorful carnival reputation, Köln did not disappoint to deliver a healthy dose of entertainment, although it was far removed from the gregarious nature of the festivities.  The overnight resignation of club legend and president Wolfgang Overath shed light on the deep turmoil at the club and the off pitch drama that has been holding them back for years. Pressures from members of the board and various supporters groups culminated in Overath’s abdication at the annual meeting of the club members.  Things became so heated at the meeting between different factions that security had to intervene to prevent further escalation.

Despite on field improvements, the club remains seemingly split and only time will tell how the departure of a man so influential and imbedded into the fabric of Köln will affect them.  Overath was a key in bringing Podolski back to the club and with many vultures hovering above Köln waiting to pick up the player the decision could prove costly.

What to expect in 2012?

Köln’s Hinrunde is best summed up by their 2-0 win over Hannover followed by the 5-0 hammering from Dortmund, highlighting the best and worst of the club this season.  If Solbakken and Köln can get past their jeckyl and hyde personality and hang on to Podolski there is no reason why they should not better their current 10th place standing. That in itself would be a success all things considered.

More importantly though is the construction of an identity at Köln paired with a clear direction.  Solbakken is already busy in the transfer market, allowing Sebastian Freis to leave and purchasing 18 year old striking prospect Mikael Ishak from Sweden’s second division.  Only time will tell though if Köln’s off pitch problems will engulf Solbakken’s project and cast another victim aside or if the club is finally ready to put aside its differences for the greater good.

Images courtesy of spox.com and bundesliga.de

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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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