October 23, 2017

Short honeymoon – Ståle Solbakken’s teething problems in Cologne.

 You could probably forgive Ståle Solbakken the odd envious glance down south in the last few weeks. While his former charge at FC København, William Kvist, is enjoying a relatively pleasant start to his Bundesliga career at VfB Stuttgart, the new manager of 1. FC Koeln finds himself frantically treading water just two games into his tenure.

The honeymoon period is over at FC for Norwegian coach Solbakken.

Certainly, the former manager of the Danish champions appears to have been struck somewhat fiercely by the culture shock of his new position. From the self-sustaining utopia of success and admiration he had so impressively cultivated for himself in the Danish capital, Solbakken has wandered unwittingly into one of the most volatile jobs in Germany’s top league. Patience is not a virtue that has been in plentiful supply at FC in recent years, and the self-assurance that Solbakken brought with him from his success in Copenhagen has made no impression on the Köln faithful. Far from the honourable and coveted individual who left Stamford Bridge with his head held high six months ago, Solbakken now has the look of a man who has had his five Danish titles forcibly punched out of his stomach.

Why this sudden change of fortune for such an apparently impressive young manager? A lot of lazy and inaccurate conclusions have been bandied around; the most popular being that the Danish Superliga flattered Solbakken to the point of his gaining an undeserved reputation. FC København, the critics say, is an easy club at which to attain domestic success, as they pompously point to the club’s origins as a fusion club and its financial monopoly of the Superliga. Such ignorance should not be paid any heed. Fusion clubs are common throughout Denmark’s domestic leagues, and although FCK’s comparative economic muscle has certainly facilitated their recent success to a great extent, Solbakken’s achievements should not be undervalued as a result. Under his command, the capital club not only won titles, they won them consistently and emphatically, beating large clubs such as OB Odense with points margins of as large as 26. Add the club’s unprecedented success in the Champions League to this and there is no argument to suggest that Solbakken arrived in Cologne with a reputation based on hyperbole and overstatement. His appointment should not have been a risk. The teething problems that he has experienced in his first few months, however, were entirely predictable.

Pragmatism was always the order of the day at Solbakken’s FCK, and it is fair to say that his attempts to immediately instil the same practical and ordered mentality into his new side at FC Köln have failed with notable aplomb. The audacity of his move to strip Lukas Podolski of the captaincy and his complete tactical reorganisation of a club who struggled to find their feet last season were clear assertions of Solbakken’s desire to reject superstar culture and create a culture in which, as he puts it, “everyone knows their roles”.

 

Solbakken's decision to relieve Lukas Podolski of the captaincy caused controversy.

The gambles, however, have failed to pay off thus far. The Podolski decision has been widely condemned as needless and even arrogant, and the attempts to introduce structure and order to Köln’s tactical set up have ostensibly failed. The appalling lack of cohesion in the FC defence has seen them ship eight goals in their first two games, as they have crashed to an ungainly and embarrassing double of defeats against VfL Wolfsburg and FC Schalke. Solbakken has publicly accepted responsibility for the poor start, and in some ways he is quite right. The superstar culture is not as pressing an issue at FC as it perhaps was in Copenhagen, and certainly the Norwegian looks to have been a little unnerved by the new environment, in which he does not have the unequivocal backing of his employers.

His humility, however, is arguably unnecessary. Although his early decisions have been questionable and have failed to bring him immediate success, there is no doubt that the media storm that has surrounded him of late has been unhelpful and unneeded. Target of the week he may be – and the German press certainly appears to be relishing his lack of success – but it is easy to see that Solbakken’s philosophies will take time to flourish at Köln. To apply such a firmly moulded tactical and team psychology to such a brand new environment is no easy task, and not one which the supporters and sympathisers of 1. FC Köln should expect to bring immediate success. The board and players have backed him, and Solbakken would do well to emulate their public confidence, rather than bowing to media pressure. To talk of a parting of the ways this early into his tenure at FC is preposterous, and the unnecessary amount of pressure applied of late by corners of the German press should not be acknowledged as anything but hyperbolic schadenfreude.

His radical overhaul of the team and his determined pragmatism are alien to the Billy Goats, but they are not necessarily a bad thing for a club which has experienced so much turbulence in recent years. If they give him the appropriate chance, the stability and prosperity that Solbakken can bring to 1. FC Köln should not be underestimated.

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KitHolden

Kit Holden is a freelance sports writer, specialising in German football. Alongside his contributions to the Bundesliga Fanatic, he provides regular Bundesliga coverage for The Independent Online, Total Football Magazine, Talking Baws and others. He is based in Cambridge, where he allegedly does an undergraduate degree in French and German.

8 Comments

  1. The way I look at it, the manager coming into a new club should try to get the best out of what’s already at the club instead of making huge sweeping changes straight of the bat. He should try and use Podolski to the best of his abilities instead of coming in and making an example of him.

    If it doesn’t work out as he planned, it’s just another decision the fans will use to complain about his methods.

  2. It’s not unfair to compare FC Koln to a sports team in the US, especially the Cardinals, who have a wide local and regional following because of their success on the field and the wide availability of their games broadcast on radio in the South, Midwest and Southwest. Although fans don’t own American clubs, the emotional investment is as huge here as in Germany, especially for an iconic team like the Cardinals, Yankees, Green Bay Packers, Boston Red Sox, all with lengthy traditions of success that span generations and fans feel quite entitled to “manage” the team from their seats..

    I appreciate your comments, but FC Koln haven’t been successful recently, and if Solbakken, a successful coach elsewhere, felt the need to name another captain for the team, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt if I were a Koln fan.

  3. Nice article. Even though losing successive matches with such scoreline can cause problems, I personally think that they can pull back if Ståle Solbakken can adjust himself with the league. Maybe some more acquisitions, someone like Riether [knows Bundesliga well] for squad depth required. Anyway one thing is certain, having Geromel in the central defense and still concede a lot of goals is hugely surprising.

  4. Köln supporters should perhaps get some perspective and realize it’s the best for the club. Talk about blind loyalty.

  5. “It demotivates Podolski, who IS the most important player on the team, it alienates the fans and it puts a huge amount of unnecessary pressure on Solbakken. Whatever short leash Solbakken had was cut by three quarters with this move.”

    Is absolutely spot on, I’m not sure that the pro’s outweight the con’s of making Geromel the captain while making a big issue out of the clubs captaincy. It might free Podolski up to play with a bit more freedom with less responsibility, however, it was essentially an issue made solely by the manager. It’s added more pressure on to an already difficult job for Solbakken, who has good pedigree from Denmark.

    The Koln board and fans should give him the time to introduce his philosophy throughout the club but I’m not a great believer in rocking the boat simply to make yourself seem in charge. Whether that was the case or not, Solbakken has made an unremarkable start and the captaincy issue is just another stick to beat him with.

    Interesting times ahead.

  6. Well I may not live in Köln but I think it was a good idea. You can’t build your team around a facade and Podolski is no captain or leader. Why force it? It is only counter productive for the team in the long run. If a player like Podolski needs to be captain to be motivated (apart from his record paychecks) then that tells you everything about the club’s problems, doesn’t it? If anything, Solbakken is taking an important step in addressing a huge hurdle.

  7. Yes, denying Poldi the captaincy is Solbakkens prerogative but it is not something that the fans will accept. Even my relatives who don’t get too deep into football or the FC are totally against it. I’ve not heard or read a single person who sees that as a good idea.

    It demotivates Podolski, who IS the most important player on the team, it alienates the fans and it puts a huge amount of unnecessary pressure on Solbakken. Whatever short leash Solbakken had was cut by three quarters with this move.

    No, don’t compare any German club and especially not one like Cologne to a sports team in the US. The fan involvement, entitlement and pressure is far bigger here. The fans own the clubs, they know it and they really really don’t like it when somebody disrepects they favourite player even more so when there was no reason, too.

  8. Thank you for this article, Kit. For further anecdotal evidence, see today’s Champions League….FC Copenhagen 1-3 Viktoria Plzn, played in Copenhagen. With no disrepect to the Czech club, this is not a flattering result for Solbakken’s former club.

    I hope Koln fans and management can be patient with their new trainer. It’s not as if the Billy Goats have been a recent model of success. Stripping Poldi of his captaincy may or may not have been the right move, but it was certainly Solbakken’s perogative to do so, and I imagine that a trainer with his record of success didn’t do so just for the hell of it.

    The situation reminds me a bit of American baseball situation almost 30 years ago. The St. Lous Cardinals had not been in the World Series for 13 years, and were an underachieving if talented team…but the talent tended to be redundant and not spread across the positional spectrum. Incoming manager Whitey Herzog traded the team’s iconic catcher, Ted Simmons, when Simmons wouldn’t accept a move to a different position as Herzog brought in another catcher who was much better defensively. Fans were outraged…..but Herzog led the Cardinals to a World Series title that year and is now in the baseball Hall of Fame, and the trade of the very popular Simmons was soon enough forgiven.

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