1. FC Köln – Coming Back Stronger

If goats could talk, and indeed, used their new-found ability to tell stories – a pretty wild premise, I grant you – the gaze of the world would surely fall upon Kölner Zoo. Hennes VIII, the eighth iteration of 1. FC Köln’s world-famous goat mascot, could take time from his busy schedule of filming for adverts and television series to sit us all down, and tell us a story of Köln’s recent history: an unlikely triumph, followed by the most disconsolate of relegations.

Gilded Successes

After returning to the Bundesliga in 2014, Köln managed two mid-table finishes before their stunning success of the 2016/17 season, where they finished on 49 points and in 5th place, catapulting Köln back onto the European stage after a 25-year absence. They were propelled by the mercurial Anthony Modeste, who was one of the Bundesliga’s star-men, scoring 23 goals in 32 league appearances for Effzeh.

The season was the latest step in Köln’s remarkable rise under Peter Stöger. Köln went from new-boys to European challengers within just a few seasons. The only way, seemingly, was up.

I would say what happened next couldn’t have been written in any Hollywood script, but there’s a film about a gnome-version of Sherlock Holmes, so I won’t.

Köln ended the 2017/18 Bundesliga season with 22 points, fourteen points from safety, nine points from even 17th. Their European adventure finished in ignominy as they finished third in a group of Arsenal, Red Star Belgrade and BATE Borisov. They had spent thirty of the thirty-four matchdays glued to the bottom of the table. Peter Stöger, the manager who had taken Köln from the 2. Liga to 5th place in the Bundesliga proper was let go in December. Modeste had left the club in the summer of for Tianjin Quanjian for around 30m, eschewing Europa League football for, presumably, money. His replacement, Jhon Cordoba, scored zero league goals in a humiliating campaign.

It was the lowest points total of any Bundesliga team since 2013, a gargantuan 27 points deficit from the season before. The side were humiliated 5:0 at Dortmund and 6:0 at Hoffenheim. Their highest scorer was winter signing Simon Terodde with five league goals. The club’s relegation was finally confirmed on matchday 32, thanks to an injury-time defeat at Freiburg. A fitting end.

Precedence

Of the last thirty-five teams to be relegated in Germany, dating back to 2003/04, only 11 have resulted in an immediate return to the German top flight. Big teams have gone down and come back up, including Frankfurt, Monchengladbach, Stuttgart and Hertha. Others, like 1860 Munich, Braunschweig, Duisburg and Kaiserslautern, have gone down and stayed down – occasionally dropping further down the ladder.

The relegation in 2018 was Köln’s third since they were relegated in 2004 – which was the only time they had immediately returned to the Bundesliga upon relegation, earning themselves a reputation for being a yo-yo club. Indeed, the other two times Köln were relegated from the Bundesliga, in 2005/06 and 2011/12, they rose again at only the second attempt.

Despite this precedence for yo-yoing, it seems to me that this year will see Köln return immediately to the Bundesliga, and stay there.

The Only Way to Go Is Up

It began in the jaws of defeat. January had seen the signing of Simon Terodde from VfB Stuttgart, who scored five ultimately futile goals in the fifteen games. In March, it was announced that Köln had picked up St. Pauli centre-back Lasse Sobiech (27) on a free transfer come the end of his contract at the Millerntor-Stadion in June. Though his season has been this far hampered by injury, the German centre-back has proved to be a shrewd acquisition, and perhaps the star defender of the league in its first weeks.

The following month, club vice-captain and icon Jonas Hector signed a new deal, removing both his release clause and any early doubt that he’d jump ship for one of the many top European clubs interested in Germany’s first choice left-back. This was followed by another internal coup: Timo Horn agreed a similar deal, committing to stay at Köln for at least one more year. Horn and Hector were, and still are, the spine of the club – Horn has been the club’s first-team goalkeeper since he was 20 years-old, and at 25, represents a player who could be the first team ‘keeper for legend-status levels of longevity.

On top of this, of the players who played a part in more than half of the 17/18 Bundesliga games, the club managed to keep hold of Frederik Sørensen, Marco Höger, Salih Özcan, Jorge Mére and captain Matthias Lehmann over the summer. They lost Leonardo Bittencourt and Yuya Osako to Bremen to Hoffenheim for around 5m each, while young defenders Lukas Klünter and Dominique Heintz were picked up by Hertha Berlin and SC Freiburg for a few million each, and Milos Jojic left for Basaksehir.

This meant that though die Geißböcke had been pillaged to a degree, as most relegated clubs are, they retained their essential kernel.

This was complimented by a change at the top. Peter Stöger’s mid-term replacement, Stefan Ruthenbeck, was superseded by then Holstein Kiel manager Markus Anfang, a deal agreed before Köln had even been relegated. Anfang had taken Kiel from the 3. Liga to the 2. Liga, and ended up finishing third in their first season there – scoring a league-high 71 goals in the process – only missing out on promotion in the play-offs after defeat to Wolfsburg. It could have transpired that he’d have left Kiel for Köln despite the two swapping leagues, but Anfang committed to the club of his birth city for precisely that reason: he understood what it meant to work for the club – the fourth largest in Germany, based on its membership of over 100,000.

These were the foundations for their success.

Reformation

Effzeh’s early work to consolidate and prepare their squad for the oncoming season in the second division was complimented by a fantastic summer window. They made four key signings who have each helped regenerate a Köln squad in dire need, both defensively and offensively. They concentrated on players who not only had 2. Liga experience and experience playing under Anfang, but a combination of players entering their prime: meaning that they are signings for not only this season, but for the future.

Rafael Czichos (28) was signed from Anfang’s old club Kiel for about 1.5m. He joined Sobiech at the centre of Köln’s defence, but Czichos in particular – who has played every minute of league football for Köln this season – has become the keystone of Köln’s defence next to Spanish under-21 captain Jorge Mére. This abundance of top-class centre-backs at the club has meant Anfang can rotate between formations that rely on two or three centre-backs and allowed for a certain tactical versatility.

Another new signing who has played in every game this season for Köln is Dominik Drexler (28). The most expensive of the summer deals, costing Effzeh 3.5m from FC Midtjylland, Drexler has the second-highest number of assists in the 2. Liga from central midfield. Another player who ‘knew’ the league, Drexler had left Holstein Kiel over the summer of 2018, but was, bizarrely transferred again to Köln in Martin Demichelis-like fashion. Drexler was one of the stand out men in Anfang’s Kiel team who’d challenged for promotion last season, adding a sense of dynamism and quality to his midfields – if anything he has improved his form at the RheinEnergieStadion.

The final key piece of the puzzle was realised upon the 3.15m signing of Louis Schaub (24) from Rapid Vienna. Schaub is the highest assist-giver in the 2. Liga with a total of nine in sixteen appearances, including three against St. Pauli in a virtuoso performance and a 5:3 victory.

Half Way Home

Therefore, Köln entered the 2. Bundesliga with a set of fresh new faces and some determined older ones. Only Czichos and Drexler started the first game of the season as new faces from those who had suffered relegation the season before. It was an away game at Bochum – a tricky away game at last year’s 6th placed team. Köln won 2:0, thanks to a Maxim Leitsch own-goal and a Rafael Czichos debut finish. They have rarely looked back since, losing four times, drawing three, and winning eleven. Despite a rough patch of form in the middle of the Hinründe, when the club drew twice and lost twice, they have the manager and the squad to adjust and begin again. After the loss at Hamburg, Anfang changed his system by utilising his player’s strengths: deploying both full-backs Marcel Risse and Jonas Hector further forward, helping out traditional number 6 Marco Höger in transitions. This solidified Köln’s midfield and released Drexler and Schaub from any defensive duties. Despite these changes, only thirteen players have taken part in more than half the league games this season, creating a small, but strong core group.

Köln, four games without a win, went on to mark the beginning of the Kölner Karneval with a bombastic 8:1 win over Dynamo Dresden. After the Hamburg game, the side won their next five games by an average of 21:2 – a run which came to an end on matchday 18 with a 3:2 defeat at home to Bochum, despite having almost double the number of the away team’s attempts.

Sitting on 36 points at the half way point, Köln are one point off league-leaders and fellow relegated-club Hamburger SV. Draw specialists 1. FC Union Berlin, in fourth, are five points behind, giving Köln a cushion for the upcoming Rückrunde, which interestingly starts with a tricky trip to play Union in Berlin. Die Eisernen haven’t lost a home game in the 2. Liga in almost a year – the last defeat coming in January to eventually promoted 1. FC Nürnberg – and the game will therefore provide a tricky test for Anfang’s men.

However, without sounding too much like the local news journalist that has great respect for you on Football Manager – Köln must know they can outscore any team. They have, in surreal contrast with last season, scored 47 league goals, meaning that they have a goal difference superior by 13 to any other club in the league.

This attacking prowess can be drawn down to two facets in the cathedral city – Anfang’s attacking brand of football, and the Zweite-Liga-Spezialist Simon Terodde.

The attacking football Anfang deploys is instilled within his various formations. If he elects to play one recognised forward, it is complimented by two attacking midfielders and two wingers – who are often, as Serhou Guirassy proves best, strikers playing on the wing, allowing an in-game formation change, if out of necessity rather than choice. Even if they’re not traditional strikers, the midfield purchases of the dynamic Drexler and the mercurial Louis Schaub means that the club has the best attacking repertoire in the league.

Drexler is constantly on the move creating opportunities and has become one of the focal points of the team, while Schaub, who’s ability to play both close to the by-line as well as cutting inside to take a shot or play a decisive pass, has provided both qualitative and quantitative success. Do yourself a favour a Google his goal in the drubbing of Dresden. Worldie. Schaub has been one of the stand out stars and will hope to continue is upwards trajectory in the Bundesliga next season.

Anfang, though, often chooses to play two forwards. The club retained the services of all but Osako – Jhon Cordoba has begun to pay back the 15m fee Köln forked out for him in 2017 by scoring 7 goals in 741 minutes of football – a goal every 106 minutes.

It is Simon Terodde, however, who has truly stolen the show. Terodde has previous in the division: winning the Torjäger title in both 2016 with Bochum and 2017 with Stuttgart. The forward has a simply stunning 22 goals in 18 games, at a rate of a goal every 64 minutes. Terodde is the runaway leader in the race for top-scorer this year, with double the amount of goals as the next scorer, Pascal Testroet of Erzgebirge Aue. Terodde has more goals at this point of the season than 13 of the last 18 top league goal-scorers hit in their entire seasons: and two of those five who outscored his current seasons were Terodde himself. No player has beaten 30 goals in the league in 30 years, and although Rudi Völler holds the record for most goals in one unified 2. Liga season with 37 for 1860 Munich in 1981/82, Terodde is on track to beat that score and then some.

The impressive thing about his goals is that they’re almost evenly split between headers, left and right-footers. Terodde has proved himself to be a 2. Liga specialist, but it is time he had a fair crack as the main man of a Bundesliga attack – after all, he was Köln’s top scorer last year despite signing in January.

Comparisons

It may seem strange that this piece is about Köln and not Hamburg. After all, it is Hamburg, not Köln, who sit top of the league, not to mention Hamburg’s 1:0 victory over Köln at the Volksparkstadion in November. The reality is there’re some similarities. Both are the biggest clubs from two of Germany’s biggest cities and are widely followed. Both suffered immediate relegation last season after scoring very few goals. Both have Bundesliga pedigree, especially Hamburg, who were up until that point the only team to play every Bundesliga season since its inception way back in 1963.

However, Köln, in my opinion, have been just as impressive, if not more so, than the Die Rothosen. Hamburg manager Christian Titz was the early victim of the dense league positions: his sacking occurred after ten games, as Hamburg sat fifth, but only two points behind then leaders Köln. Though they lead the league at the moment, Hamburg have scored only 25 goals, only just outscoring Terodde, and conceding nineteen. A goal difference of six for league leaders after eighteen games is something of an anomaly. This has translated into some of their results: 3:0 and 5:0 home defeats to Holstein Kiel and Jahn Regensburg respectively: but Hamburg have managed to get the points if not always the performances to bring them to the top of league at this point; but will that do for the Bundesliga? The club arguably lost more players of more importance than Köln over the summer, and given their penchant for drama, demonstrated by the sacking of Christian Titz, the foundations aren’t as steady as the ones being built by the river Rhine.

Looking Ahead

It was Anthony Modeste who led the club to European football, before leaving to pursue something new in China. The hole he left in the side was one of the myriad reasons which sent the club down.

The grass was not greener.

Modeste has now returned to his spiritual home. In October, it was announced that the Frenchman would be returning from his adventure in China for Köln. Though he cannot currently be registered for 2. Liga football – his former club, Tianjin, refuse to let him go against the backdrop of financial and legal issues for the club, which have been far from ameliorated by the arrest of the club’s owner, Shu Yuhui, and 17 of the club’s staff members. However, Köln are now hopeful that given the club’s issues, they will not want to continue fighting for Modeste and a resolution can be resolved to allow Modeste to get some game time before a fresh start next season, perhaps in the Bundesliga.

Modeste’s arrival is not the only one, though.

This month, the club have announced the signings of both central-midfielder Johannes Geis (25) from Schalke on a six-month deal, and left-winger Florian Kainz (26) for around 3m. Both fix areas of the squad which were somewhat lacking. Geis comes in with a wealth of Bundesliga experience and should allow Anfang to rotate his midfielders, if not to move beyond a formation which relies on only one sitting midfielder. Kainz, a player whom club-director Armin Veh described as ‘one [Köln] would be looking at even if they were in the Bundesliga’, rebalances the attack. Guirassy had done a good job as a make-shift left winger, but Kainz should provide the left what Schaub brings on the right: Bundesliga-quality wing-play.

The club have also announced the signing of a third player from Holstein Kiel, when his contract is up in the summer: left-winger-cum-forward Kingsley Schindler (25). Schindler has hit five goals in 16 2. Liga appearances this season, though four of those came in the six games he’s played up front rather than on the left.

The club is moving in the right direction to re-establish itself as not only a Bundesliga team, but a club which will stay in the Bundesliga. Though much of the squad should taste their first experiences of Bundesliga football next season, Anfang and his men have avoided the commonly-trodden path of falling further down or panicking, astutely signing players who know the division yet are at the age and of the ability so that they can step up to meet the challenge of the coming years. Köln are thinking beyond this year as clearly as they see the next fixture. The signing of Modeste, who may or may not be the player he was when he took Köln to Europe, is the latest stone in the path to the club’s restitution to the Bundesliga, and Anfang says he even is hoping to try a Cordoba, Terodde and Modeste triumvirate before the season is out. No one can say Effzeh are planning on going steady.

If Hennes VIII could talk, he’d probably take time out of his day promoting Kölsch to tell us about the third act in the tale of Köln’s recent history. Unlikely success, disconsolate defeat, reformative regeneration. The club is on its way back to the Bundesliga and is showing signs of wisdom in both its managerial dealings and player signings, to reinstate itself as a Bundesliga club yet again.

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