2. Bundesliga Season Preview: 1. FC Köln and “Project Promotion”

Viva Colonia!

The 2012-13 version of 1. FC Köln managed only two points from their first six matches before going on a run in which they lost only once over the following 21 times out, threatening a run on the relegation/promotion play-off spot before running out of steam and settling into a top five finish, but distinctly not in a promotion place.

In the wake of the failure to return to the first league, first-year coach Holger Stanislawski tendered his resignation and top talent Christian Clemens made his way north to Gelsenkirchen and to the Bundesliga without his teammates, joining FC Schalke 04.

Yet, the spirits of Effzeh fans are somewhat high, thanks to the hiring of a new coach who brings a more-offensive style to the cathedral city, a handful of player acquisitions, and some off-field moves that could have long-term benefits for a club with a history of front-office instability.

The New Signings

As was the case last year, the biggest changes for the club came off the pitch this summer.

Seven weeks elapsed between the surprise announcement of Holgar Stanislawski’s resignation and that of the hiring of his replacement, Peter Stöger.

Stöger’s new red-and-white eyeglasses recently replaced a purple pair.

Stöger arrives in Köln only weeks removed from celebrating a league championship in his second season in charge of FK Austria Wien. Whatever it was that ultimately made Stöger the primary target after a protracted search, it had to help that he led a squad considered to be also-rans (when the season started) to a title by playing an exciting offensive style, as his team finished with an 82-point season and a plus-53 goal differential. With these results, Stöger has certainly caught the attention of a fan base, who sat through six full matches before celebrating the first non-penalty score during the Stanislawski era.

A bit further away from the pitch is the arrival of Jörg Schmadtke to take over the vacant sporting-director job. Schmadtke most recently was in charge of Hannover 96, taking over a mid-table club and leading them back into European competition for the first time since their Bundesliga title in 2001-02. Schmadtke’s arrival has caused some to remark that 1. FC Köln currently has their most-competent leadership in memory.

The most-celebrated newcomer of this off-season, however, is technically no newcomer.

Anthony Ujah return to the Effzeh after a breakout 2012-13 season in Köln during which the Nigerian national scored 13 goals in 28 matches while on loan from FSV Mainz. Ujah became a fan favorite during his loan in the Cathedral City and made no secret of his desire to make a permanent move to Köln. Despite having had only a few days working with the team under Stöger’s direction, Ujah celebrated his return by scoring a late equalizer in a friendly match with RCD Mallorca last weekend.

Anthony Ujah making peace with Köln mascot Hennes.

Completely new to the team is central defender Roman Golobart, most recently of Wigan Athletic, though he played only eight  matches for the English side. The six-foot-three Spaniard spent last season on loan in the Scottish Premier League to Inverness Caledonian Thistle FC (say that three times fast!), where he was voted the club’s “player of the season” by fans of the fourth-place finisher.

Then there’s Daniel Halfar, who made known his desire to part ways with 1860 München before entering the final year of his deal with the Lions. The offensive-minded midfielder has long been known for his talent, though not necessarily for results. With 170 matches between the top two leagues under his belt, Halfar brings as much experience as any 25-year-old player could be hoped to have. Of course, Halfar is certainly going to be expected to provide more than just “experience.”

Cult Duisburg figure Maurice Exslager surprised many fans of the Zebras when he took advantage of the freedom granted MSV players when the team was relegated from 2. Bundesliga and signed with 1 FC Köln on a free transfer. Exslager was labelled a “traitor” by some of the more-vocal critics of Exslager’s decision to find a better situation for his playing career, as the 22-year-old striker from neighboring Bocholt had been a highly visual participant in Duisburg’s “Show Your Stripes” campaign to rally fan support as the club fought legal battles to keep from dropping through the football league system and into obscurity.

Yet another offensive addition was actually the first transfer of the summer. Left wing Maxi Thiel moved to Köln from 3-Liga club Wacker Burghausen, even before Stöger’s name had arisen in the coaching search. The 20-year-old had already logged 76 matches for his former club, scoring 14 times. Being left-footed and scoring twice in his debut test match in the red and white instantly brought the name “Podolski” to many a conversation, though, fortunately for the development of young Thiel, he won’t be burdened with expectations of  replacing such a local legend…yet (I kid! I kid!).

Strengths

With the emergence of Jonas Hector as a solid left back, the Köln back line became as strong a unit as any in the second league last season. While Miso Brecko will return on the opposite side and Dominic Maroh remains in the middle, Kevin McKenna suffered a serious knee injury, keeping him out through at least December, with some saying it may spur McKenna to end his playing career and join the coaching ranks.

Golobart and Bruno Nascimento are in line for McKenna’s spot, though neither has laid solid claim to the job. The emergence of McKenna’s replacement will be vital to the continuation of the back line being the team’s most-dependable unit.

Golobart’s aerial prowess reminds some of former captain Pedro Geromel.

Behind that unit will be Timo Horn, who performed well enough in his debut season with the top club last year to be considered among the best the 2. Bundesliga had to offer goalkeeping-wise. Horn’s 11 clean sheets in 33 matches last season was tied for third-most in the league.

Weaknesses

Despite the return of Ujah, the fact that so many offensive players were brought into the club from outside to play for a new coach known for his offensive style should tell you what the potential weak spot of this team will be.

Christian Clemens, who now wears the royal blue of Schalke, and the injured (not to mention, a defender!) McKenna accounted for 11 of Köln’s 30 goals not scored by Ujah last season. Moving down the list of goal-scoring leaders, you find Adil Chihi, who also is injured until at least December, and Daniel Royer, who was with the club on loan last year and is now at Stöger’s former club in Wien. This leaves Thomas Bröker as the next-biggest returning scoring threat, until you remember that two of his three goals came from the penalty spot.

How Will Stöger’s Team Look on the Pitch?

Though the new coach has mentioned the 4-1-4-1 in interviews, Stöger relied heavily on the 4-3-3 to dominate the Austrian Bundesliga last season. Stöger has repeatedly said in interviews it is his job to make sure he uses formations and system’s that best allow his players to succeed. The current roster would seem to indicate the 4-1-4-1 would be preferred, but that has not been the case in the test matches this season.

When the whistle blows in Dresden Saturday, this could be Stöger’s first Effzeh eleven.

As mentioned earlier, it appears to be a toss-up between Nascimento and Golobart for the one open job on the defensive back line. It would be a huge upset if any of Hector, Maroh, or Brecko were not among the starting eleven.

Horn has already been announced as the number one heading into the season, which should come as no surprise to Thomas Kessler, who knew he was likely going to get only spot duty when he came to Köln last summer.

Midfield is a bit of a puzzle, whichever formation is played. It appeared from the start that Stöger wanted Matthias Lehmann to seize the Sechser position as the stalwart at defensive midfield, but failed to dazzle in the test matches and ultimately made some very poor decisions in Saturday’s final test against Mallorca. While Adam Matuschyk was always going to be a better option at the six, he theoretically would be a better match for one of the other midfield positions, assuming Lehmann’s success. Putting Matuschyk in the defensive spot makes both of the remaining midfield spots a bit unclear.

Mato Jajalo, after being relegated to the bench for much of last season, has been given a nice, long look this summer and acquitted himself quite nicely, making his appearance in the team’s early starting XIs a strong possibility. Also making his mark in the test matches this summer has been silver Fritz-Walter-Medal winner Yannick Gerhardt, who, at just 19-years-0ld, could supplant Horn(20) as the team’s youngest player.

Ujah was always going to be the man front and center in attack. Stöger’s announcement earlier this week that Thomas Bröker had earned a starting role has raised some eyebrows, but the aggressive style of Bröker’s play might offer the sort of disruption among opposing defenses off of which Stöger’s offensive system thrives. On Ujah’s other side will be another former Mainz player in Risse, who has seemed energized by his return to his home city, as he spoke of finally playing in the “right jersey,” potentially setting himself up as Köln’s version of Dortmund’s Kevin Großkreutz – considered to be the fan who came from the stands to play for his boyhood favorite club. Certainly, Risse’s tattoo saluting his Kölner neighborhood of Kalk will not harm his popularity among the fiercely proud Köln fan base.

Loosely translated: “What will be, will be” below the Kalk coat of arms.

Prediction

Last year, my prediction of 63 points was pretty far from the 54 that landed the Billy Goats in fifth place. Yet, I’m actually compelled to go a bit higher this season than that, as well as move them higher in the table than the third-place finish I called for last summer.

Clearly, much of my confidence is predicated on what Stöger’s philosophy will bring to the team. I simply believe the scoring issues, particularly early in the season, will not be the barrier to points they were last year.

Further, I believe the 3/4 of the back line that has been solid will be enough to keep some consistency in defense, despite the change to a more-aggressive attack. And, frankly, between promotions, transfers, and injuries, the offensive talent in this year’s edition of the 2. Bundesliga does not appear it will be as explosive as even last season, which was not quite as dynamic as recent years in the second league.

Ultimately, however, I am a fan and have a blind spot to short-comings among my club, so you are certainly free to dismiss me as being overly optimistic. But…

League winners on 77 points, because I’m feeling a bit “go big or go home!”

Da simmer dabei. Dat is prima!
(
Count us in! That’s great! from famous Karneval song “Viva Colonia” by Höhner)

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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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