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FEATURE | Steffen Baumgart & FC Köln can become the real deal as feel-good factor returns

“Steffen Baumgart will be Chancellor,” sang FC Köln fans midway through the second-half after Sebastian Andersson’s equaliser and an Ellyes Skhiri brace overturned a 1-0 deficit to send 40,000 loyal supporters into euphoria. On a week where elections took place in Germany, there was only one person on the lips of the locals in Köln as Steffen Baumgart guided the Billy Goats to joint fourth on Friday evening before the remaining Bundesliga games. After relegation in 2018, promotion and a relegation play-off appearance last season, suddenly the feel-good factor is back amongst fans under Baumgart.

Following a dismal campaign with just eight wins and 34 goals in 34 games last season under Markus Gisdol and then Friedhelm Funkel, the Köln management focussed their resources into bringing Paderborn head coach Baumgart to the club. The 49-year-old remains true to his principles and favours a high-octane style of football: pressing high up the pitch and being quick in transitions – partly the reason Paderborn were so fun to watch in the Bundesliga in 2019/20. It’s a philosophy that sits well with Köln fans, who returned to the Müngersdorfer on Friday after local Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, allowing 100 percent of seats to be filled and a return to 50 percent capacity in the standing terrace.

Baumgart and Köln opened their Bundesliga campaign with a 3-1 win against Hertha Berlin after going 1-0 down. Their only defeat this season has come at Bayern Munich and even then, their performance and never say die attitude was lauded. 2-0 down, the Billy Goats fought back to 2-2 with two goals in as many minutes before Serge Gnabry’s winner 20 minutes from time. Four 1-1 draws against Freiburg, RB Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt preceded their win against Greuther Fürth on Friday.

A return to European football is on the lips of Köln fans again. With 12 points from their opening seven games, this season is their best start since the 2016/17 campaign where they had 15 points at the same stage. That year, they would qualify for the Europa League with Anthony Modeste scoring an impressive 25 league goals and a sea of 20,000 Köln fans touring Europe. Modeste would leave that summer for Tianjin Quanjian before returning in 2018. Failure to replicate his 2016/17 form, Modeste was loaned to Ligue 1 outfit Saint-Étienne in January before returning to the RheinEnergieStadion. And now, the Frenchman has become a talisman under Baumgart.

Four goals in his first five games under Baumgart, Modeste has a relationship with the German tactician that he is fond of: “I love him! We have a great coach,” he told ZDF after his equaliser against RB Leipzig. Wearing his distinctive flat cap, Baumgart has an incredible relationship with each of his players and staff. The energy that Baumgart gives on the sidelines is reminiscent of Jürgen Klopp, even so that he told Sport Bild that he would like to become the “Klopp of Köln.”

Owing to Covid-19, finances have been tight and usually with a new coach comes a player overhaul, but not under Baumgart. Central defenders Timo Hübers and Luca Kilian would arrive at the club and Mark Uth would join after his contract with Schalke 04 expired – the latter would be the only new arrival that would start against Greuther Fürth – but he already knows the club given he was born in the city, came through their youth team and spent six months on loan at the club in 2019/20.

Operating a 4-4-2 diamond, Baumgart has changed the look of this Köln side merely by changing their strategy. Uth played behind Andersson and Modeste with Florian Kainz and Ondrej Duda operating as No. 8s. Captain Jonas Hector has returned to left-back and is becoming a defensive stalwart alongside Rafael Czichos. After numerous individual errors last season, a change of goalkeeping coach has seen Timo Horn regain his confidence and play some of his best football this season after numerous individual errors last year. Defensively, Ellyes Skhiri is one of the best central midfielders in the league, posting impressive numbers against Fürth: 12.6km distance, 90 percent pass completion and 78 percent successful tackles.

It usually takes new coaches around seven games before we start seeing a change but in such a short period, Baumgart has had a positive impact on the club. Not only in factors he can control, as in the squad and tactics, but also external factors such as understanding the people of Köln, their desires and passion towards their football club. Habitants of the city are invested in Baumgart, so much so that his iconic flat cap is seen in its thousands around the stadium.

When Sebastian Andersson equalised on Friday, there was a sense of belief returning to this club. That they could go 1-0 down and that they would fight to the absolute end. The Swede has struggled with knee injuries, but Baumgart believes in his players, and they’re playing knowing that their coach has faith in them. Skhiri’s double capped off a remarkable evening for the Billy Goats with them sitting seventh as they head into the international break.

Baumgart is absolutely deserving of his praise and has already been tipped for a big club in the future. But for Baumgart, his eyes are only on one job at the minute: “Name me three bigger clubs than FC Köln. There are only three: one’s in the second division, the second are always champions and third try to be champions.” Köln have often been the yo-yo club but Germany is finally realising that Baumgart and Köln can become the real deal.

Talking Points

1 | Marco Reus recorded his 100 assist at Borussia Dortmund on Saturday afternoon, becoming the first player in black and yellow to record 100+ goals and 100 assists. After opting to miss Germany’s European championship campaign to focus on his fitness after an enduring 2020/21 campaign, Reus is enjoying an excellent start to this season’s campaign. Five assists in six Bundesliga games this season, Reus has cemented his legacy at the Westfalenstadion when he could quite easily have looked for pastures anew in search of trophies. An exceptional player, Reus has just two major trophies to his name, both the DFB Pokal. Missing a Bundesliga title, it would be fitting for Reus to lift the Meisterschale at Borussia Dortmund.

2 | Christopher Nkunku scored a brace during Saturday’s Topspiel against VfL Bochum. The Frenchman, despite having his best season to date, hasn’t been included in Didier Deschamps’ France squad. The star of this RB Leipzig team, Nkunku has scored nine and created three in 10 games for Jesse Marsch’s side this season. Before their Champions League defeat midweek, Marsch was full of praise of the Frenchman: “Christopher has no weaknesses. He’s young and still want a lot more. It’s always a good thing when a young player listens to the things we say and also wants to implement them. Working with him is a lot of fun as he’s really intelligent and has a lot of potential.”

3 | Game of the weekend belongs to Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach. A frantic opening seven minutes, Breel Embolo gave Die Fohlen the lead after five minutes with a superb bicycle kick before the Switzerland international was involved two minutes later, assisting Jonas Hofmann after showcasing his bullish physique and finding his teammate with a perfectly weighted pass. Luca Waldschmidt scored his first goal in Wolfsburg green but that’s as good as their afternoon got. In a moment of chaos, Frenchman Maxence Lacroix was sent off for a foul inside the penalty area, of which Lars Stindl missed his second spot kick of the season before Wolfsburg left-back Jérôme Roussillon was also sent off minutes later, only for it to be overturned by VAR. 18-year-old American defender Joe Scally scored his maiden goal in professional football, adding a third for Gladbach in stoppage time. That’s only their third win of the season but Adi Hütter’s side are starting to become good.

4 | Eintracht Frankfurt dealt Bayern Munich their first defeat of the season on Sunday afternoon, the first time that Bayern have dropped points since the opening weekend. Leon Goretzka gave Bayern the lead before Martin Hinteregger equalised moments later. Eintracht Frankfurt goalkeeper Kevin Trapp pulled off several incredible saves, fitting after his omission from the German national team, before Filip Kostic scored Eintracht’s winner eight minutes from time. Eintracht head coach Oliver Glasner had never beaten Bayern in his four games, until Sunday.

Daniel Pinder

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