A Lukas Podolski brace helped Cologne comfortably defeat last season’s second-division runners-up Augsburg 3-0 on Sunday afternoon. The win moves Cologne eight points away from the relegation zone, ensuring that they can now start looking up the table rather than down it. But, the hosts had it easy here really, as a confidence-lacking and mistake-laden performance from the visitors encapsulated the gulf in class between the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga. Tactically, technically and clinically, Cologne operated on an entirely different level to Augsburg, and in truth, they barely even got or needed to get out of third gear to win this game.
Augsburg started at pace and with purpose, making direct passes and having an attempt in the first minute through Axel Bellinghausen. However, the hosts used the restart from that wasted effort to get Mato Jajalo on the ball, and he slipped it out to Sławomir Peszko, who jinxed at Hajime Hosogai and won a corner. Played short, a chance was eventually set up for Lukas Podolski, who had time to do a semi-circle run from the byline to the right-sided joint of the box edge, before firing a left-footed shot into the side-netting.
The key man for Augsburg in the opening five minutes was centre-forward Sascha Mölders. His hold-up play not only drew defenders across, but also exposed them on one or two occasions with his canny lay-offs. Of course, this meant that Augsburg’s only striker was left outside of the box with a ball about to be put in there. However, it was almost as if this was what Jos Luhukay intended, because at least two midfielders were always ghosting to the shadow of the D in the early stages, waiting to smash the second ball or a pull-back at goal. The visitors’ coach received a setback in the fifth minute, though, when Uwe Möhrle limped off injured. Gibril Sankoh took his place at the heart of defence. One minute later, the game was delayed again, this time by 90 or so seconds as Jajalo nursed an injury.
Although I expected these stoppages to take some of the sting out of the game, nothing of the sort happened. Augsburg continued their direct attacking tactics – balls going upfield as quickly and as aerially as possible, with the likes of Lorenzo Davids up and down, up and down. Both black-shirted wingers were heavily involved during this period of the match, and Cologne were certainly feeling the heat. But, in a four-minute spell of being totally on top, the away side only had a Mölders effort to show for their attacking intentions and territory.
Cologne woke up and hit back in the tenth minute, as Podolski was fed to run at Simon Jentzch though the left-hand side of the box. However, the Germany international slowed down, and looked to play a square across the box. This, accidentally, collided with Sankoh’s hand, causing Podolski to neglect putting the nervy centre-back under pressure in favour of standing there expectantly, waiting for a penalty that Peter Gagelmann was never going to give.
Between the tenth and 15th minute, Cologne set about removing the sting from the game by indulging in some melina. Luhukay stood his midfield high, and had Mölders and Davids sprint-pressing anyone in white on the ball within ten metres of the halfway line. Being the calmer and technically more accomplished side on the ball (Augsburg had wasted most of their early forays forward by rushing, and too often wasted the chance to wave-break by doing it in a manner akin to a headless chicken), Cologne grew into a position of possession-monopolising authority, and gradually began to pin their guests back. As a result, when Augsburg got the chance to counter in the 15th minute, they had to wait until there were options in the opposition half before making the forward pass, and this only served to help Cologne flood back in numbers and pressurise the ball-holding Davids, who panicked and punted the ball straight to the grateful Michael Rensing.
Three minutes later, Cologne capped their dominance with the game’s opening goal. Peszko, who’d now switched to the left flank with Christian Clemens going out to the right, started a dribble from the halfway line, before letting Podolski take the ball off his feet in an infield position on the edge of the final-third of the pitch. With Dominik Reinhardt following the Polish winger’s curved off-ball run towards the penalty spot, Podolski took advantage of the right-back’s vacated space and Sankoh’s bizarre decision to stand still ten feet away from his man, and burned into the box before firing a left-footed thunderbolt back across goal – with Jentzsch’s palms doing nothing to alter the direction of the ball – and into the bottom right-hand corner for 1-0!
Augsburg looked as if they had the weight of the world on their shoulders over the course of the next five minutes, as Cologne indulged in long stretches of possession-keeping football. The hosts now had the luxury of deciding to attack only when it suited them, and in the 23rd minute, they played the ball into the final-third. It found its way to Clemens on the right-strip of chalk, before he came infield and made a one-two with Podolski, who’d hopped away from Sebastian Langkamp to a pocket of space that ensured his return pass was played with the perfect weight and precision. Clemens, knowing where his colleague was going to play the ball, had already started his run to that specific zone, catching Hosogai on his heels. Before Clemens could make the square, Hosogai got himself into a – soft – collision, and a penalty was awarded. Podolski made no mistake from the spot, and Cologne had a 2-0 lead!
Ståle Solbakken must take credit for the way his side had seized control of the game. Playing Podolski as a lone forward was a canny move, because the 26-year-old loves to drop deep and make play. As a result, Augsburg’s defenders were made to feel redundant unless they tracked his dropping, and this created space for the wingers and Jajalo to run into. Luhukay’s side were seeing more of the ball as we approached the half-hour mark, but their final ball was still conspicuous only by its absence, and the defence continued to make it look like they were standing in bowls of syrup whenever Cologne’s attackers instigated a triangle in and around the box.
Another factor which kept Cologne in control of proceedings was the fact that they exploited Augsburg’s narrow off-ball formation. The home side’s players made the pitch big in both their own-half melina, as well as the balls they used to end this tactic; namely, cross-field formation-stretching passes. The latter style of distribution really harmed Augsburg’s defensive shape, as it took them too long to get comfortable into their positions again once the ball had been switched by Cologne from one side of the pitch to the other.
In attack, the lung-busting midfield support for Mölders was now a distant memory, and when one of the deep-standing five midfielders or a centre-back got on the ball, the movement ahead of him was pretty much non-existent. The only thing of note one of the away side’s midfielders did in the ten-minute period up to the 40-minute mark was pick up a yellow card – the man in question being Jan-Ingwer Callsen Bracker, booked for a frustration-illustrating hack at a going-nowhere Jajalo on the right wing.
Save for the imagination-deprived duo of Daniel Baier and Mölders skying long-range efforts over the bar, neither side had a chance of note in the first half’s final 15 minutes. It was as if we were approaching the end of the game rather than the interval, and although Luhukay will have walked into the tunnel fully aware that his side lacked Cologne’s quality, he will have been seething at seeing his players so easily lose their appetite for the battle once they had fallen behind.
Sankoh was given the news every pro footballer dreads during the break – he, the sub, was being subbed. In the Sierra Leonnian centre-back’s place came a winger, Akaki Gogia. As a result of the change, Callsen-Bracker went to left-sided centre-back, Gogia to the left wing, and Bellinghausen to the left-sided defensive-midfielder position. However, Luhukay also switched the positions of two players who had already been on the pitch – Davids moving to left-back, and Hosogai taking his place in the right-sided defensive-midfielder berth. The visitors made an energetic start to the second half, perhaps unsurprisingly given Cologne’s willingness to sit off and conserve their energy. This tactic was what Luhukay was looking to exploit by moving Hosogai into the centre of midfield, as the Japanese international prefers to get on the ball and pass it about, as opposed to Davids, who is more hasty and direct in both his movement and distribution.
Yet, despite dominating possession in the first ten minutes of the second half, just as they had done in the first half, Augsburg barely troubled the underworked Rensing, who actually spent most of the half-time interval on the pitch in a bid to get/keep warm. In the 55th minute, the ‘keeper went long from a restart looking to exploit the massive gap between Augsburg’s attacking players (over the halfway line in a ‘4-1’) and the defensive ones (also in a ‘4-1’, but standing far too many metres away from their colleagues). Cologne got the ball down in the gap, and spread it out to the advancing Christian Eichner who had no trouble in reaching the final-third and putting a ball into the box. Augsburg failed to clear it adequately, and, standing just off the left-side of the six-yard box, Peszko gratefully lapped up the loose ball. Somehow, the Pole had time to drop a shoulder, before steadying himself to pass into the net on his left foot for 3-0!
Luhukay made another change in the 63rd minute, replacing the ineffectual centrally-stationed attacking-midfielder Daniel Brinkmann with a striker, Torsten Oehrl. Three minutes later, Solbakken replaced Clemens and Martin Lanig with two other midfielders, Adam Matuszczyk and Odise Roshi. The former was heavily involved in the five minutes played after his introduction – linking to good effect with Jajalo, both players showing their class, skill and passing range on the ball. On Cologne’s right and Augsburg’s left, it was a battle between the two number 28s. Whereas the dynamic Gogia was showing good character and hunger, mucking in and showing no fear when it came to running at Cologne, Roshi was a bit more timid, and gave the ball away with his passing attempts on several occasions in his opening ten minutes on the pitch.
In the 73rd minute, Solbakken made the match’s final change, bringing on Kevin Pezzoni for Jajalo. The next two minutes were action-packed, commencing with Oehrl peeling to the left, and pulling in an inviting cross across the box, only to find that not one black-shirted player bar the near-post-going Mölders had bothered to make a run into the box. Gogia decided to take matters into his hand 30 seconds later, zooming down the chalk, before skipping infield and firing a shot that smashed Rensing’s right-hand post. With Augsburg seemingly gaining confidence from this moment of magic, Oehrl then went and ruined it all by sliding into Sascha Riether – now operating on the right-side of centre-midfield alongside Pezzoni, with Matuszczyk having slotted in behind Podolski – from behind, and earning himself a red card!
If the experienced striker’s team had it tough when it was eleven against eleven, they were never going to pull a goal back when one man down. Nevertheless, Cologne were content at 3-0, and luckily for the visitors, that’s how it ended. Things don’t get any easier for top-flight newbies Augsburg, however, because they host Bayern Munich next weekend. Cologne, meanwhile, must be relishing the chance to show that they have what it takes to be a top-eight Bundesliga side, as they take on Werder Bremen.