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.
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”.
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.