November 19, 2017

2017-18 Season Preview: 1. FC Köln in Europe . . . Now what?!

Basics

nicknames: Geißböcke (Billy Goats), FC, ‘effzeh’ (local dialect for ‘FC’), Rut un Wiess (red and white)
founded: 13 February 1948
club colors: white and red
primary rivals: Borussia Mönchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen, Fortuna Düsseldorf
fan friendship: Borussia Dortmund

Stadium

RheinEnergieStadion (formerly Müngersdorfer) opened in 1923 (renovated 2001-2004)

capacity: 50,000
2016-17 attendance: 833,182 (49,010 per match)

Trophies

Bundesliga champion(2): 1963-64, 1977-78
DFB Cup winner(4): 1967-68, 1976-77, 1977-78, 1982-83
Florida Cup winner: 2015

2016-17 Finishes

Bundesliga: 5th with 49 points (51 goals scored, 42 goals conceded)
DFB Pokal: 3rd round (2-0 loss at Hamburger SV)

Number of Matches won by 2 or more goals7
Number of Matches won by 1 goal: 5
Number of Matches drawn: 13
Number of Matches lost by 1 goal: 6
Number of Matches lost by 2 or more goals: 3
Number of matches in which a lead was blown, resulting in loss: 0
Number of matches in which a lead was blown, resulting in draw:  6
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn a draw:  3
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn victory:  2

Top 2016-17 Scorers

Anthony Modeste: 25
Yuya Osako: 7
Milos Jojic: 4

Summer Test Results

Record: 1-5-0
Goals Scored: 16
Goals Allowed: 7

Grazer AK                               10:1
KFC Uerdingen 05                  0:0
Eintracht Braunschweig        2:2 
FC Bologna  (in Kitzbühel)    1:1 
Linzer ASK (in Kitzbühel)      2:2   
TSV Steinbach                          1:1

Transfer Action

IN: 

  • Jhon Córdoba (1. FSV Mainz)
  • Jorge Meré (Sporting Gijón)
  • Jannes Horn (VfL Wolfsburg)
  • João Queirós (SC Braga)
  • Tim Handwerker (Bayer Leverkusen 04)

OUT:

  • Anthony Modeste (Tianjin Quanjian)
  • Marcel Hartel (Union Berlin)
  • Neven Subotic (end of loan from Borussia Dortmund)

Questions with a Club Fan:

Arne Steinberg (follow on Twitter @arnepuyol) started following the club during the “bad years” at the end of 90s. The two left-footed legends Dirk Lottner and Lukas Podolski were his first idols, although the rest of the team at that time did nothing to inspire big dreams of glory. While he has been through more bad times than good with the club, 2017 (hopefully) begins an entirely new chapter.

Arne is, of course, very happy about the development of the club, but ss managing editor of online magazine effzeh.com, he also is mindful of many critical aspects to discuss about the club: Is effzeh really going to leave Müngersdorf? Is the board planning on selling parts of the club?

With a new English-language section of effzeh.com in the works, topics such as Bundesliga fan culture, sports politics, and of course content on the best club in the world are now going to be available to a much wider international audience.

Keep an eye out for . . .

Young gun Nikolas Nartey. The 17-year-old Danish central midfielder has been training with the professional squad for a couple of months now and is expected to be a back-up for Lehmann, Höger, and Hector. Despite his young age, Stöger praises him a lot – he doesn’t do that normally. Nartey physically seems to be ready for the Bundesliga challenge; he already plays like a grown-up. I’m looking forward to his first performances.

Terrace favorite . . .

He doesn’t like to be a star, but Jonas Hector definitely is the most-shining player in Cologne squad. A now-experienced international for Germany, Hector epitomizes the development of both club and team – silent, continuous, and with the right attitude. With Modeste leaving at the beginning of the season, fans now project their love on the central midfielder.

All Cologne-born players are loved by everyone as well, the likes of Horn, Risse, Kessler, Höger, Klünter, Özcan, and Müller are all Kölsche Jungs (Cologne Boys) and therefore everybody’s darlings.

Player you’d happily drive to another club . . .

I am happy with the signings and I will never forget what the squad did last year (European competition, FFS!). So basically, everybody has to stay; they deserve it. There are certainly players I would like to get rid of, but right now, my heart isn’t ready to say ‘Goodbye’.

Advice you’d give your manager . . .

Same applies here, I guess. Peter Stöger led us back to glory so I think he doesn’t need advice. I would recommend taking more short corners though, because the rate of successful corners last year was disastrous. It basically meant handing the ball directly over to the opposition.

Opposition player you secretly admire . . .

Tough question. I really admire Ousmane Dembélé’s way of playing because it is the way we all used to play on the football ground when we were young. Just take the ball, dribble, and try to score a goal – it’s so brilliant because it’s simple!

Opposition player you despise . . .

Thiago Alcantara. It is just unfair to have a player in your squad who is this good.

What will opposing sides underestimate?

I hope that Cologne will be able to feature a team that can play four days after a Europa League match. Last year we had the smallest squad in the league, so the opposition could think that playing Cologne after a mid-week game becomes an easy task. But beware!

What are fans overestimating?

Last year’s fifth place was an absolutely lucky shot. It will not happen again in the foreseeable future, so Cologne’s primary concern has to be the 40-point mark. Gladbach, Leverkusen, Schalke, and others will not be as bad as last season. The competition doesn’t sleep. Admittedly, I’d be happy with 45 points and a quite unspectacular season, if you don’t count the six magical nights we’ll have in the Europa League.

Tip you’d give foreign fans visiting RheinEnergie for the first time  . . .

Leave your smartphones at home and enjoy it just the way it is.

Where will you finish? . . .

Europa League triumph, Bundesliga relegation – it has to be this way, otherwise it would be boring.

What is your all-time favorite 1. FC Köln memory?

I started following the club in 1997/1998, when Cologne got relegated for the first time. Okay, we got promoted a couple of times, but nothing will ever come close to the celebrations of May 20th, when we beat Mainz 2-0 to secure a spot in the Europa League. Every time I see Yuya Osako making the run before the second goal, I abruptly start to cry. Best. Day. Ever.

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When last we saw them

The final match day of the 2016-17 season was one that will not soon be forgotten in Köln.  The city’s beloved FC delivered a 2:0 home win over 1. FSV Mainz and got help elsewhere to leapfrog SC Freiburg and Hertha Berlin in the table to secure a spot in Europa League for the coming season, the first time the FC has earned a bid into Europe in a quarter-century.

Aspiration

Since returning to the top flight three years ago, the goals have consistently aligned with “steady improvement.” Even the most-optimistic observer would likely have to admit that the heights achieved last season came much more quickly than anticipated.

Everyone recognizes that last season was special and that it would be unreasonable to expect improvement on fifth place, especially with the loss of Anthony Modeste’s 25 goals while adding, at minimum, the six Europa League group matches to the schedule.

According to trainer Peter Stöger, the players are determined to advance to the knockout round in Europe while pursuing a top-ten finish, the same season-end goal for the table as was publicly shared last summer.

Reality

You cannot really discuss a season forecast for this club without questioning how it will replace the goal production of Modeste.

Of the nearly €35 million said to have been secured in the sale of last year’s 25-goal man, €17 million went to Mainz in exchange for Jhon Córdoba. Paying nearly half the money for someone who had just one-fifth the production seems like a very bad bit of business.

On the other side of that, however, is the fact that when Modeste arrived from Hoffenheim, the €4.5 million paid was the same amount brought in by the sale of top-scorer Anthony Ujah and ultimately put Jörg Schmadtke’s name in every discussion about Germany’s top sporting directors.

Even so, the goal-production is going to be a question mark when the season starts until someone takes the lead as the primary goal-scorer for the FC.

The Boss

What will likely be reinforced is the notion that Stöger is a highly defensive tactician. Before the Modeste outbreak last year, Stöger’s FC had been known for a tightly organized team-spirit, the likes of which had not been seen in Köln in ages. Even when charged with playing “boring” football (“What’s that, Arjen Robben? Did  we bore you? Well, NOT SORRY!”)

Stöger is known for his measured demeanor and ability to navigate the media swirl around the club without any visible sign of distress. He has precisely the temperament needed in Köln and has integrated himself quite seamlessly into the local customs and culture, even making fun of the idea of taking his “Karneval Troop” to Europe in a club-produced promotional video.

Philosophy

The summer transfer action in Köln would lead one to believe they can expect a re-emphasis on defensive football this season.  Four of the five newcomers to the club are defenders, despite the biggest hole being the one left by Modeste. The evidence points to the club relying on defensive depth to manage the demands of a busier schedule, even should Córdoba provide sufficient cover up top.

The fact of the matter is that Köln conceded 42 goals in consecutive seasons and only 40 their first year back from 2. Bundesliga. In that season, they managed only 32 goals, but still finished a respectable 12th. Whatever happens in attack, it will be build on the foundation of star keeper Timo Horn and a defense anchored by German national team player Jonas Hector.

Personnel Changes 

The biggest change will necessarily be the one at the center of the attack. Until the FC finds its answer to how it will replace, even if only in part, the production of Anthony Modeste, there is almost no point in discussing other roster and squad alterations.

Almost . . .

We know that Jhon Córdoba is, at least by financial figures, is the primary hope for the continued offensive success in Köln. Last summer’s transfer of Sehrou Guirassy was largely thought to be a move to provide backfill for the future loss of Modeste, but injury prevented anyone from getting much of a look at what the younger Frenchman is capable of providing.

Perhaps the best news with regard to “change” comes in the midfield, with the hopes of a return of health on both flanks. Leonardo Bittencourt and Marcel Risse both missed large chunks of the season through injury. Both provide expanded potential for the FC attack through dynamic play in possession, high-quality passing, and even in delivery of dangerous set-pieces. Add to that mix a fitter-than-ever Milos Jojic who came on strong at the tail-end of last season, and the answers Köln needs may turn out to come from greatly improved midfield play than just who’s doing the finishing.

At the back, the addition of Jannes Horn from Wolfsburg will likely provide depth as Stöger expands use of Jonas Hector in the defensive midfield. The arrival of Jorge Meré, though, may turn out to be the big purchase of the summer, if early appearances of the young Spanish central defender are indicative of what he has to offer.

Strengths

Despite the scene-stealing capabilities of the guys who score the goals, the story of Peter Stöger-era Köln is one of highly organized defending among all ten outfield players powered by a genuine team spirit. And when the opposition manages to best the defensive work, there is budding superstar Timo Horn between the ball and the goal.

Call it dull if you must, but deny its efficacy at your own peril. They marked their return to Bundesliga play with four consecutive clean sheets on their way to surrendering just 40 goals, tied for fifth-fewest allowed in that 2014-15 season.

Weaknesses

Depth is going to be an issue for this club. In fact, with injuries to Osako and Serou Guirassy in their final test of the summer, Stöger was already forced to consider secondary plans for the DFB Cup opener last weekend. Once the season is in full-swing, expect to see the strain of the six additional match days to test the team’s ability to maintain their tight-knit defending on the weekends.

And who is going to score the goals? The absence of the big French target man will be exacerbated by the continued lack of a creative central midfielder to help with any build-up in attack. There is hope that a slimmed-down Milos Jojic is ready to (finally) star in that role, but until he (or young stud Nikolas Nartey) proves to have the goods, teams are not going to fear the FC in front of the goal.

Crucial Stretch in Schedule

The FC can already circle mid-October as the stretch of matches that could define the rest of the season and the club’s goals.

A matchday 8 trip to Stuttgart will be followed five days later by the third matchday of Europa League, the round by which you have a pretty good idea of how you rate among your group competition. If the FC catch a break with the draw and can get a home match on that Thursday, it will help alleviate the stress of the three matches in nine days that will follow. A mid-week cup match would be squeezed between a visit from Werder Bremen and a trip to the city’s outskirts to face Leverkusen.

Verdict

It took an unlikely series of fortunate events to lift Köln into the Europa League for this season. They were a solidly mid-table outfit that took advantage of a fairly middling Bundesliga middle class. A finish outside the European spots is virtually a certainty, but don’t be surprised if they don’t drop all the way into the second half of the table. The team-oriented approach with strong defensive principles remains, even without the threat of a Modeste-like target man at the tip of the spear. Table placement will always be contingent on what the neighbors do, but expect this club to clear 40 points again and celebrate modest European progress like it were Karneval all autumn long.

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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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