Is Zvonimir Soldo the new Claudio Ranieri? Cologne’s Croatian manager loves to tinker, amending his side’s personnel and tactical layout each week.
Such excess is in part borne from necessity – clubs of Cologne’s middling, relegation-flirting size have to adopt straitjackets when Bayern & co. come to town.
Inevitably, such variety equates leads to vastly contrasting results. Despite corking Bayern and at-the-time table-topping Bayer Leverkusen, the North Rhine-Westphalian side were hammered by both Stuttgart and Hoffenheim last season.
Such thrashings were odd given that Cologne’s inability to score was matched by an ability to render opponents equally impotent. However, the aforecited defeats were at RheinEnergieStadion – their unhappy home hunting-ground.
With more holes to exploit in away games, Soldo’s counter-attack-constructed side were fluid and rampant on their travels. But as hosts, Die Geißböcke couldn’t adjust accordingly.
Embarking on a third successive top-flight campaign, Soldo’s soldiers must achieve mid-table anonymity at a far earlier stage – the 62-year-old club only survived *comfortably* last time out due to the failings of others.
A number of average players still remain on the payroll, although two significant departures include left-back Pierre Womé, and talismanic central-midfielder Maniche.
The Portuguese international’s 2009/10 stats don’t make for impressive reading (two goals and two assists in 26 appearances), but his presence and energy in the right-sided central midfield or attacking midfield positions was often useful.
However, the pockets of space he sought were often invaded by an inside-out winger. While Lukas Podolski was stationed on the left-hand flank (save for the 1-1 home draw against former employers, Bayern Munich), the right side of the midfield also housed a left-footer.
Resultantly, the area behind roving lone centre-forward Milivoje Novakovič was too frequently congested. Thus, Köln narrowed their own angles and failed to invade the box.
Compounded by the large stretches Cologne spend without the ball in games, Maniche often tucked nearer the defence in order to get his foot on the ball. This pulled the other attackers back too, and made territory difficult to gain/maintain on the counter-attack.
With an array of right-sided wizards trying to carry the ball towards the D on their left foot, most of the side’s end product tended to consist solely of shots.
Primarily, the carrying-infield wideman took the strike. Failing that, Maniche and equally hard-running midfield colleague Petit would ghost towards a lay-off and rifle in a long-ranger.
Compounding Maniche’s miserly tally, Petit only managed a single goal all season. Both he and his fellow countryman had a similar number of attempts to Novakovič, the Slovenian topping the scoring charts at the club with a mere six strikes.
Box-to-box midfielder Petit has more to his game than shooting, however. He fuses graceless wave-breaks with graceful through-passes. Adam Matuszczyk will be his 2010/11 sparring partner, compensating for Maniche’s departure.
The Pole boasts incredible technique and accuracy, as well as composure when running with the ball at pace. To increase his appearances in the first XI, Matuszczyk needs to shoot more often, and improve on set-piece marking.
The most frequent shooter in Soldo’s side was left-sided midfielder-cum-striker Lukas Podolski. The World Cup bronze medallist took the greedy option 55 times last year, scoring twice, and adding a mere four assists to that tally. In comparison, he was booked seven times.
Podolski played in 27 out of the team’s 34 Bundesliga games, and intriguingly, one match in which he was nominally positioned up front saw Die Geißböcke beat Nürnberg 3-0.
Soldo opted to use two inside-out wingers that day in right-footer Taner Yalçın, and leftie Adil Chihi. The Moroccan is a marvellous little player; hungry, energetic, tricky, and direct.
However, the star performer on Cologne’s right was Zoran Tošić. The Serb appeared just 13 times during a loan spell from Manchester United, but the left-footer’s goals, tricks and assists helped his adopted side avoid demotion.
CSKA Moscow were rich enough to take him off Manchester United’s hands, and Soldo now turns to a fellow Croatian to compensate for his loss.
Mato Jajalo is the man in question, arriving on loan from Italy’s recently-relegated Siena. Jajolo can play on either side, but is right-footed – a boot deadly at delivering right-sided corners.
By no means the world’s best or most willing defender (or as technique-laden as Tošić), the 22-year-old is designed to play on the counter-attack.
Siena’s launches involved Jajalo and Reginaldo interchanging sharply ahead of Albin Ekdal or Massimo Maccarone; either of whom were carrying the recovered ball from near their own box.
If Soldo deploys his countryman on the left, Chihi on the right, and Podolski alongside Novakovič, a Hamburg-esque 4-4-2 with inside-out wingers could be used to make Cologne more threatening.
Jajalo may have to be patient initially, as Sebastian Freis looked comfortable in his debut season after switching from Karlsruher. The right-footed pest is a bundle of final-third energy.
Another reason the 4-4-2 triumphed against Nuremberg was because the Cologne full-backs actively sought to add width when the wingers weaved infield.
Despite one midfielder generally screening the defence (usually centre-back Kevin McKenna, or the technically-abject but no-nonsense Kevin Pezzoni), Soldo keeps his back four deep and narrow.
Although the rigidity of this snuggly system means Cologne try and pass it on the floor, Maniche and Petit’s fading stamina, Pezzoni’s cumbersomeness, and Novakovič’s height meant they all too keenly sought the punt last term.
However, the width Fabrice Ehret and Mišo Brečko offered versus Der Altmeister allowed home fans to enjoy some rare keep-ball from their team.
Some good news for the club is that it appears highly-touted right-sided centre-back Pedro Geromel will remain in the Bundesliga – meaning Soldo retains his reliable central defensive base. Christoph Daum’s successor must begin to trust it enough in order to grant his full-backs freedom this season, however.
Club captain Youssef Mohamad is as archetypal a centre-back as they come, whereas the in-demand Brazilian reads the game superbly.
Geromel didn’t allow Steffan Kießling or Mario Gómez an inch of space in his side’s penalty-box last season, interpreting and intercepting their every move.
Meanwhile, Mainz hotshot Aristide Bancé grew so frustrated by the effortless marshalling of him by Geromel, he lashed out at the towering 24-year-old!
But Geromel isn’t the complete package yet – he’s still far too rash in clearing his lines, often slicing or misplacing reckless attempts at tidying.
Geromel arrived two seasons ago from Liga Sagres outfit Vitória Guimarães SC, and this summer, the Germans have again raided the Portuguese side in a bid to construct a more positive Bundesliga XI.
The acquisition is another Brazilian, 28-year-old right-back Andrézinho. Like McKenna, the newbie has an incredible long-throw. Vitória entrusted him with most of their set-pieces too, which included curling right-footed free-kicks, and even penalties.
He takes the latter with assured, samba-drenched swagger, and might convince Soldo to take some of the responsibility from Podolski’s all-too-often lacklustre shoulders.
Free-kicks are an area in which the Brazilian can only provide marked improvement. In 2009/10, too many players blasted them into the wall, or sent over skew-whiff crosses for the tall trio of Pezzoni, Mohamad and Geromel.
Replacing Womé at left-back will be Konstantinos Giannoulis. Sporting director Michael Meier beat Kaiserslautern to his signature, with both sides looking to take advantage of Greek club Iraklis’s perilous financial situation.
Colombian goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón may be ropey with the ball at his feet, but his reflexes and reactions remain as sharp as ever.
Nevertheless, youngster Miro Varvodić will be expected to step up to the plate sooner rather than later, and former Stuttgart playing-legend Soldo has signalled this by agreeing to send Thomas Kessler out on loan to St. Pauli.
On the subject of back-up players, it looks as if Novakovič may at last have some adequate competition for the position of striker. Because, easily queue-jumping ahead of the bumbling, profligate Nigerian Manasseh Ishiaku is Alexandru Ioniţă.
The Romanian is only 21-years-old, but fans of București-based Rapid adored him. He’ll spend most of 2010/11 on the bench, acclimatising to the step up in quality – a step up he himself can hasten by not insisting the referee blows his whistle every time he falls over.
Ioniţă isn’t a typical centre-forward despite his impressive stature. He’ll offer snippets of the sublime that the hard-working but technically limited Novakovič cannot, as well as ambidextrously running down either channel.
With the squad still too similar to last season’s mediocre mob, it’d be ludicrous to suggest that Zvonimir Soldo can bring European football to the RheinEnergieStadion.
Nevertheless, itt’s incredible that his side struggled so spectacularly at home last season given the intimidating atmosphere the Cologne fans and stadium’s architecture combine to generate.
Perhaps the pressure got to them: because despite having some experienced figureheads, Soldo is still learning, and seemingly hasn’t yet found a way of instilling the means to handle the expectations of a vociferous crowd into his players.
Ironically, their biggest failing of the campaign actually came away from home. Cologne had a great chance to reach the DFB-Pokal final, and attain a berth in Europe, but lost in the last-eight at Augsburg.
Pressure is a word that Podolski clearly didn’t experience last season. His lackadaisical performances were embarrassing, and I’d be surprised if the fans who worship him accept another year of such sheer ineptness.
Therefore, a more permanent station up top in a 4-4-2 could be just what he and the squad need. Expect few Bremen-esque thrillers from Cologne, however – Soldo, the former centre-back, has transferred that defensive nous into his coaching style.