It’s all about momentum, really. 1. FC Köln finished the Hinrunde on six points, which historically has been impossible to recover from but now Köln are there, nagging on Werder Bremen, 1.FSV Mainz 05 and VfL Wolfsburg, teams who have been feeling rather comfortable with their situations. Until now.
Köln are back and back with a bang. Their game versus RB Leipzig was special. In some ways you can say that this exact game was representative of their season so far. The game began with them being absolutely pinned back, conceding in the first five minutes to a Jean-Kévin Augustin opener from close range. RB Leipzig attacks kept coming, but they managed to get through to half-time at 1-0. Their defensive performance in the first half was admirable, mainly because they threw themselves in front of the ball to stop themselves from conceding further goals. Leipzig should have had four or five at the break, but Köln somehow coped.
After 40 minutes, Köln started to grow. Stefan Ruthenbeck’s side finally put pressure on the Champions League chasing team. Soon, they produced chances and could easily have had scored a goal before half-time, for they were good enough to produce a goal.
Köln’s defensive performance had also become more valiant towards the end of the half as they started pressing more as a team than they had done before. Köln had looked a lot more dominant in the second half with RB rattled. Köln’s pressing had become much more astute and their defence looked more solid than it had done all game, and all season. They started producing chances and good ones at that. FC soon found themselves on the front foot against a mentally labile RB Leipzig. It did look like Leipzig had consumed a few too many cans of Red Bull at half-time. Their energy had become their biggest enemy, they were all over the place and Köln took advantage.
Leipzig’s complacency basically invited Köln into a game they were never supposed to even be in. Ruthenbeck’s team soon managed to carve out fantastic opportunities and then they finally scored. Vincent Koziello, their January signing from OGC Nice, curled in a beautifully worked goal from 20 yards and the game was levelled. His celebration showed us football is about passion and pure damn joy. Leipzig’s rattled nature continued. The pressing masters were pressed to oblivion and Köln’s aggressiveness and momentum became too much for the Saxony energy-meisters. Leonardo Bittencourt was the man of the moment in the end. The Leipzig-born German has been out injured for some time and scored a perfect and severely important goal for the Billy Goats, a goal that brought them level on points with Hamburger SV, another side that’s been struggling massively of late.
The resurrection of 1. FC Köln can be attributed to an array of things. The appointment of Ruthenbeck did look odd in the beginning, but he has moulded this rather decent foundation into a pressing team, a team that does not allow their opponents a rest. Köln under Peter Stöger was often very good at the back, but often struggled with their attack. Stöger’s defence was his biggest strength so when that faltered during the Hinrunde, Köln were hopeless.
Stöger is a very competent coach in many ways and seems to be a very motivating manager who relies on momentum and passion to win games. Ruthenbeck is the same. However, he does have something that Stöger often neglected, the pressing. As we saw in the second half of Köln’s game at Eintracht Frankfurt and in both of their halves at home against Hannover 96 as well as against Leipzig, Köln possess the abilities needed to be a pressing team.
The acquisition of Simon Terodde was perfect, for he allows his partner to press relentlessly, while Terodde stays back to protect and guard the passing options. Koziello also works just fine in this system as he is a very mobile midfielder with an aggressive nature. His stamina and work rate in the middle of the park has been noticeable. Another key aspect is the return of Jonas Hector. The Germany international has proven to be more important than we could have imagined, and his return has most certainly helped Ruthenbeck. Hector is the definition of flexibility and can play a variety of different positions. In the last few games, he has even played many different positions during the game, even though his starting position has been left back. His relentless pressing from his position sends a clear message to his teammates that Köln does not give up and they do not surrender. They will fight to the end, albeit it won’t be easy.
Ruthenbeck’s Köln has also understood that aesthetics isn’t all. It’s quite acceptable to play rough, and even foul, when relegation is looming. It’s a sign of a team that does not give up and this makes their pressing even harder to avoid. We often see tackles and challenges that may be considered a bit too rough, but we overlook it, for it’s Köln and it’s their way of showing passion and hope. Many find this rather admirable.
In the end, it’s all about momentum. Ruthenbeck might just be lucky. Maybe any coach could have done this with the once so useless 1. FC Köln, perhaps he is just a product of a club snoozing too long and that’s just woken up in panic. Momentum can be so very important in the world of sport and perhaps football is the sport where momentum is the most tangible. Being able to win duels, win tackles and challenges. Maybe some passes reach their target for a change and some refereeing decisions are perhaps in favour of Köln. This, together with luck and the fact that Ruthenbeck seems to have fired up the Billy Goats makes us wonder if they can pull of ‘The Great Escape.’ Perhaps it should be mentioned as ‘The Greatest Escape,’ if it were to happen.
The game against Leipzig on that cold Sunday can and should be seen as the incarnation of Köln’s whole season so far. It started off rocky and they basically had a mountain to climb in the second half. Then something changed, and momentum was gained. They won a few duels, a few decisions went their way and suddenly, they found themselves on the brink of success again. Their system started clicking and when the momentum really kicked in, nothing could stop them from coming away with three beautiful points. Is this the start of something amazing? Or has it already started? Keine Ahnung, but the future will tell. It always does.
1 | Once again Monday night fixtures seemed to be the key talking point of MD24. Last weekend we saw Eintracht Frankfurt protest with thousands of tennis balls being thrown onto the pitch. This time, more than 20,000 Borussia Dortmund fans boycotted their 1-1 draw with Augsburg. Although a boycott may not send much of a statement, a club of Dortmund’s size certainly does. The Westfalenstadion looked empty, it was quiet and it’s away from the norm of a typical Matchday in Dortmund.
It may not seem much, but it fans keep boycotting Monday night fixtures, the DFL may just be forced to rethink their strategy.
2 | Absent from Champions League football since 2014, Schalke 04 made a real statement of intent with a 2-0 away win against Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday evening. They dominated Heiko Herrlich’s side, who have been impressive for most of the season while they sit in third, just one point behind arch rivals Borussia Dortmund. Schalke are a club that deserves Champions League football, while it looks like Domenico Tedesco may be the coach to deliver that.
3 | Martin Schmidt departed VfL Wolfsburg during the week, while club bosses appointed Bruno Labbadia, who had become a coach known for steering teams clear of relegation. Unfortunately, a lacklustre performance against 1. FSV Mainz 05 on Friday night has brought the 2009 Bundesliga winners into the relegation battle. With just one win since December, Wolfsburg’s top-flight status is hanging by a thread, given that 1. FC Köln are finding their form.