It should be a time to rejoice for FC Köln after getting back into one of the top European competitions for the first time in 25 long years. Instead, the Billy Goats have endured their worst ever start. One that has tarnished an eagerly awaited campaign. Seven games played and only one point says it all.
The 2016/17 season saw Köln take advantage of Schalke’s continuing troubles, as well as those of bitter rivals Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach.
After flirting with top-four for a while, Effzeh managed a 5th placed finish to record their best Bundesliga position since 1991/92, scoring 51 goals in the process.
Struggling to score
Just seven games into 2017/18, however, and Köln have only mustered two goals. One each against Hamburger SV and RB Leipzig. The club have been unable to replace top scorer Anthony Modeste who bagged 25 goals last campaign. The striker accounted for almost half of the team’s full tally.
When the Frenchman left for Chinese Super League side Tianjin Quanjian, Köln brought in Jhon Córdoba from Mainz. The Colombian’s imposing stature and ability to dominate in the air made him an obvious successor.
However, things have not transitioned smoothly. For the most part, manager Peter Stöger plays two-up-front to accommodate the lack of attacking threat. Córdoba is often partnered with Yuya Osaka, but the strikers are frequently cut off from any form of service.
The midfield has perhaps suffered the most. Marco Höger, Leonardo Bittencourt, Miloš Jojić and Marcel Risse all performed admirably last season—particularly the latter—but have been a shadow of themselves this season. Despite averaging 49% possession, cohesion is severely lacking. At the same time, a paltry figure of only 62 chances created has left the forwards feeding off scraps.
So rare have chances been to come by, Köln have resorted to bringing in ex-Bremen and Bayern striker Claudio Pizarro on a free transfer to shore things up. While the Peruvian does bring in experience and has an excellent goal-scoring record, at the age of 39-years-old the move reeks of desperation.
Traditionally, Köln are a defensive side and opt to sit back to make up for the lack of individual quality in the side. Strength in numbers has been the familiar theme for years.
Köln proved to be a stubborn side to break down during last year’s rise to the European spots, but have already conceded 15 league goals this season. Though no key defenders left the club, communication has been a major flaw.
The full introduction of Lukas Klünter was supposed to bolster a defence for the new European front and oust Paweł Olkowski. However, the right-back has looked out of his depth. Still, hope can be taken from how well the 21-year-old performed in his eight league games last season.
While Klünter can be forgiven for his inexperience, the same cannot be said for his teammates in the back-line. Dominique Heintz and Frederik Sørensen were revelations in Effzeh’s top-six finish, but have capitulated in terms of organisation.
In the 0:5 drumming away to Borussia Dortmund, a centre-back duo of Heintz and Jorge Meré was overrun by the home side, albeit the midfield presence left the defence exposed.
Things have fared little better in the Europa League. While fans from the Ruhrpott descended on London in their thousands, their team was outdone by a resurgent Arsenal side. Though a road loss to the Gunners is understandable, the drab performance at home to Red Star Belgrade which followed encapsulates the issues rife at the RheinEnergieStadion.
A familiar road for Köln
It has been made abundantly clear Köln underestimated the challenge ahead to impress on the European stage, whilst trying to avoid the second season blues domestically. The lack of squad depth and quality is already showing its hand, even faster than many expected.
The club are obviously feeling the heavy ramifications of Modeste’s departure, but still do have the personnel to fight relegation. Stöger may be convinced to give prospect Salih Özcan a chance to kickstart a stale midfield, especially with Jonas Hector out until mid-December.
Köln have enjoyed the third worst start in Bundesliga history, with Eintracht Braunschweig claiming ‘top spot’ during the 2013/14 campaign. Unfortunately, the current demise brings a feeling of déjà vu from the 1992/93 season.
That year, after finishing 4th and reaching Europe, the Rhein outfit collapsed and only picked up one point over seven games. Still, some hope can be taken from the fact Köln survived that very dip in form to finish 12th in the table.