Over the last two weeks I have been able to witness first hand one of the most disappointing teams in the league this season: FC Köln. After losing Anthony Ujah over the summer it was predicted that the team would struggle, before the announcement of new signings Anthony Modeste from Hoffenheim and Leonardo Bittencourt from Hannover 96 gave renewed optimism. After a reasonable start they have struggled to fire offensively, although the loss of goat-riding Ujah will not be seen as too much of a downside after his failure to settle and score regularly in Bremen.
The issue with Cologne has seemingly been a lack of creativity in the final third of the field. After a woefully dull performance away in Bremen just before Christmas, which ended in a 1-1 draw (and they were assisted by a dreadful Werder Bremen performance) they then proceeded to lose 3-1 at home to VfB Stuttgart on the opening day of the Rückrunde. Although they took the lead through a Modeste penalty they posed very little threat and lacked ideas. Last weekend they came from behind to draw at VfL Wolfsburg and things finally looked like they might be happening for Cologne.
Tactically, Cologne seem to be struggling to find a style that suits them. Many teams play with a holding midfielder who drops between the centre-backs to begin attacks, as it allows the two full-backs to push further up the pitch and provide wide options whilst putting the best ball player in the team in a position to see the whole pitch and potentially play a dangerous forward pass. This can be seen most effectively at Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach, where Xabi Alonso and Granit Xhaka respectively drop between the two centre-backs to dictate play. The problems with Cologne is that no one is performing this role, despite the team being set up to play with this style.
In the defeat to Stuttgart, width was provided by the full-backs and the two wide attacking midfielders, but instead of one of the midfielders dropping in, the centre-backs were often left to play the diagonal balls or dictate the play. It was only ever really at goal kicks that either central midfielder looked to come short or play deeper, with most of the resulting football being long balls towards the head of Modeste or optimistic through-balls in behind. Stuttgart were able to play most of the game with the ball and their opponents in front of them; there is nothing wrong with balls down the channels for a striker to chase, but he needs support if he is to do anything useful with any resulting possession.
The Stuttgart defence is not renowned for its clean sheets but if it weren’t for a controversial looking penalty decision they could well have kept one in the city famed for its beautiful cathedral. A 3-1 score-line certainly flattered them, especially as the Cologne defence looked more frustrated at the lack of assistance they were getting than anything more long term at fault. A stupid lack of concentration at a corner and a piece of poor goalkeeping from usually-reliable Timo Horn were two goals that Cologne would not normally except to concede, but a 1-1 draw against relegation candidates would still not have felt good for the sell out crowd at the Rhein-Energie Stadion.
Cologne are missing out by not getting the most from their two best attacking players, Bittencourt and Modeste, and I would say that the style has much to do with it. Without a clear candidate for the Alonso role and with the current system clearly not suiting the players available, Peter Stöger should perhaps be considering a new tactical approach to get the best from his team. There is a lot of pace and trickery in the team and they are renowned for their defensive solidity, so a counter-attacking approach would maybe suit them better. In Jonas Hector they have an international class left back who can be effective in both halves of the pitch and it is not as though the squad lacks talent.
There is plenty to be positive about in Cologne, particularly after the 1-1 draw against Wolfsburg, but it will take a slight tweak of system and outlook for fans to start to see the full effect that this side is capable of. In Stöger they have a capable and successful manager who has taken them from the 2. Bundesliga to mid-table of the top flight and has the potential to take them into Europe. The Bundesliga is always so open that if they can start finding some offensive fluency at this point then they certainly have the squad ability to achieve big things in the second half of the season. It will take a considerable stroke of genius for that to happen, but to consider them relegation candidates would be to exaggerate their problems.
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