Season Preview – 1. F.C. Köln – Life After Podolski

Relegated!

Generally, that word would suffice as a summary of any team suffering the burden of having it associated with the results of a season’s work.

Yet, it hardly does justice to just how large a disaster the 2011-12 campaign was for 1. FC Köln both on and off the field. Long-time club president Wolfgang Overath resigned in mid-November, only two months before sporting director Volker Finke and the club decided to sever ties. That left the axe wanting just one more name, which was that of head coach Stale Solbakken, who’d been on shaky ground almost immediately once his new-look squad surrendered eight goals in the first two matches under his direction.

All the while, the worst-kept secret in the Cathedral City was that home-town hero Lukas Podolski was considering leaving his beloved club for the bright lights of London to join Arsenal.

And if you don’t know about the love held by the fans of the Billy Goats for “Prinz Poldi,” watch and see how his season at Arsenal is covered concurrently with the coming Bundesliga 2 campaign. Poldi has already hinted he would consider returning to Köln in the future and saying that it “will always be my club,” the result of which is that he remains the most-popular player among the fan base of a team for which he no longer plays.

Podolski may be the most-popular player departing, but he’s far from the only regular player departing.

Pedro Geromel, who had risen to prominence as a top-flight central defender since joining Köln in 2008, has gone from being the team captain a year ago to being left out of the team’s plans altogether. Same for Milivoje Novakovic, who scored 82 times and appeared in 176 games for the Billy Goats, keeper Michael Rensing, and wing midfielder Slawomir Peszko. Though, as July nears its end and the August 5 season opener approaches, none of those former regulars have secured transfer to a new club.

Top it all off with some run-ins with the law by a few players during the heights of the relegation battle and the smoke bombs and the ugly publicity that came with it when the final whistle blew on a season which saw Köln surrender the most goals, suffer the most losses, own the worst goal differential, and ultimately settle into a direct relegation spot and you have the understatement of the year when interim head coach Frank Schaefer said, “It’s a dark hour.”

The New Signings

Perhaps the most-significant change is the arrival of new head coach Holger Stanislawski, who made his reputation as a coach exclusively on helping pull FC St. Pauli from among the third-tier leagues in 2006-07 to the Bundesliga in 2010-11. Having spent 18 years with the club as player, vice-president, and coach, it was an emotional announcement when “Stani” said he was leaving, reportedly for Hoffenheim.

His stay with Hoffenheim, however, lasted less than one full season; middling results by the squad in the Bundesliga campaign had put Stanislawski on the hot seat by the winter break, but bowing out in the Pokal quarterfinals to second-league SpVgg Greuther Fürth and rumblings of displeasure among players seemed to mean a quick end to the Stanislawski era in Hoffenheim.

A pair of Austrians join the club: Midfielder Daniel Royer comes on loan from Hannover after appearing in only three matches for the Reds, and defender Kevin Wimmer from Austrian side LASK Linz where he scored four goals in 28 matches as a regular in central defense.

Defenders Dominic Maroh from Nürnburg (21 appearances), Konstantinos Giannoulis from Greek side Atrimotos Athens (25 appearances), Bienvenue Basala-Mazana from SV Ried (20 appearances) all come to Köln with the knowledge there could be job opportunities in a unit that yielded 75 goals in 34 matches last year. Maroh seems a sure-fire entry to the starting eleven from week one.

Whether the defense improves or not, the FC will need to, at minimum, replace the production of Podolski who had 18 of Köln’s 39 goals. To that end, Frank Schaefer snagged Thomas Bröker, who scored 8 goals in 31 matches during Fortuna Düsseldorf’s season, helping his team reach the promotion/relegation playoff spot and scoring a goal at Hertha Berlin to help seal the promotion for Düsseldorf.

The only other newcomer with much in the way of experience is Matthias Lehmann, who appeared in 26 games last season for Eintracht Frankfurt in their quick single-season 2. Bundesliga visit.

Strengths

The most positive aspects for the EffZeh coming into the season have less to do with the talent on the field than with the overall commitment to rebuilding the team entirely rather than just try to patch the (oh, so many) holes in an effort to quickly boomerang themselves back into the Bundesliga.

The message from management is to rebuild through youth, which is something for which many among the Billy Goats’ faithful fan base have been clamoring for a while now.

20-year-old Christian Clemens will be the most-familiar young face on the field. By the end of last season, Clemens had become a regular player, alternating between attack and midfield positions out on the flanks. Adil Chihi seems ready to return to action after recovering from an ACL rupture that sidelined him since October and could play regularly across the field from Clemens.

While Chong Tese was the lone starting striker in a recent test match with Dukla Prague, many believe 19-year-old Mikael Ishak will emerge as the more lethal offensive threat and hope he will find a regular place in the squad. Those thoughts were bolstered in the match with the Czech side when Ishak entered after halftime and accounted for both Köln goals in a 2:0 victory. Though Bröker has been inserted on the wing, he should also see some time as a central striker.

Stanislawski likes to play with two holding midfielders.  The pairing of Adam Matuschyk and Matthias Lehmann in the defensive midfield has the potential to be a large step toward reducing the numbers of goals allowed, though Mato Jajalo is versatile enough to be asked to occasionally man one of the defensive-midfield positions.

Weaknesses

Surrendering 75 goals in 34 matches is all the information you need to know that keeping the ball out of their own net will need to be priority number one in the rebuilding process.

The back line could look disturbingly similar to last year’s struggling bunch. Miso Brecko, Christian Eichner, and Kevin McKenna were all regular players in the defense last season and remain. The only real added experience appears to be the arrival of Dominic Maroh, who appeared in 21 matches last year for 1. FC Nürnberg. Youngsters Kevin Wimmer and Lukas Kübler will likely be given opportunity to supplant their elder (and more-expsenive) teammates in the squad, but not at the expense of improving the defensive performance of the team.

This will be particularly important as the Billy Goats appear ready to test their talented 19-year-old keeper Timo Horn to see whether he can become the sort of young star their rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach found in Marc-André ter Stegen, when their young keeper became a key element in helping the Fohlen move from sure-fire relegation squad to Champions League qualifier. There is a very good chance this potential weakness reveals itself to be among the team’s biggest strengths by the mid-season break; Horn is a highly-regarded prospect.

How will Stani’s team look on the pitch?

In training camp test matches with Dukla Prague and Jahn Regensburg, Stani sent his squad out in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which is the formation he seemed to prefer in his brief time at Hoffenheim. The two holding midfielders are certainly meant to address defensive inefficiencies seen under the Stale Solbakken regime and potentially help offset the lack of a proven scoring threat in the squad.

Occasionally, Stani will put a more offensive-minded game plan into play and go with a 4-3-3.  The flexibility of midfielders performing on the flanks (Clemens, Chihi, Royer, and Bröker) on the flanks will go a long way in determining what will be the more-effective strategy as the season progresses.

Typically, the Köln starting eleven could look like this:

Will these be the eleven men to take the field against Braunschweig?

Prediction

Certainly, the expectations of the fans of 1. FC Köln would be an immediate return to Bundesliga competition after a season in which the Billy Goats finish among the top two in 2. Bundesliga.

Stanislawski has been very deliberate in tempering those expectations while not ruling them out. His focus is on getting the most out of a team that will see a lot of playing time for a lot of younger players. The second league is as strong and deep as it has ever been, which could prove a challenge for a squad laden with so many untested players.

Ultimately, the team’s fortunes will largely rest on how well the extra defense in the midfield keeps Horn from being overwhelmed in goal. Additionally, someone is going to have to emerge as a true scoring threat for Köln to be a serious contender to do what Eintracht Frankfurt managed last year and comfortably secure a direct promotion spot weeks before season’s end.

Still, there is enough talent and experience left in this team where they should be challenging for one of those top three slots well after the winter break. Stanislawski has show proficiency in guiding young clubs up through the ranks of the Bundesliga system, and this team is arguably at least as talented as the St. Pauli team he delivered to the Bundesliga just a few years ago.

As an unabashed fan, I’d like to say they’ll simply run through competition to a first-place finish, but I will try to be less completely blinded by allegiance and say:

3rd place with 63 points

Köln fans…..check out the selection of vintage shirts here and rep your Billy Goats in style !!!

 

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Randall Hauk is a freelance writer living in the United States while covering German football. He is currently the publisher of Planet Effzeh, an English-language site covering 1. FC Köln. He wrote about the German national team for the Telegraph as part of their World Cup Nation coverage.

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