Game Preview: 1. FC Köln at VfB Stuttgart

1. FC Köln at VfB Stuttgart
Mercedes-Benz Arena
Sunday, August 16, 2015
11:30 a.m. EST

The Bundesliga schedule makers saved the best for last.

The final game of the first match day of the 2015-16 season will feature 1. FC Köln at VfB Stuttgart’s Mercendes-Benz Arena. Here is Planet Effzeh’s preview of how the two clubs stack-up.

Goalkeeper

Depending on your perspective, Timo Horn might have been the most-important piece of the effzehs over-achievement in the Bundesliga last year. With the club making no secret of their plan to focus first and foremost on keeping a zero in the opposition

Timo Horn is among the brightest stars in Köln

scoring column, many of Horn’s saves can be said to have been point-saving, especially as the offensive segment of Köln’s game never really developed into something that would inspire confidence in that the team could make up a deficit.

Essentially, Horn is a rising star among young keepers in a nation known to have incredible depth at the position. Last season, he showed he can be effective at the highest levels of competition and started to draw attention from bigger clubs.

Sven Ulreich abandoned his post this summer, after 220 appearances for VfB Stuttgart, to take a back-up role at FC Bayern. Sporting Director Robin Dutt hit the market, snagging Mitchell Langerak from Borussia Dortmund and Polish national keeper Przemysław Tytoń to compete for the opening. Due at least in part to an injury to the young Australian, Tyton will get the nod Sunday.

While on loan from PSV Eindhoven last season to Eiche CF of La Liga, Tyton surrendered 52 goals in 35 matches.

Horn allowed 40 in 36.

More recently, Horn made all the saves he needed to Saturday in Köln’s 4:0 win at SV Meppen in the DFB Cup, while Tyton was generally unimpressive in Stuttgart’s 2:1 win over Holstein Kiel.

There is a reason Tyton’s Dutch club was happy to loan him out and ultimately recoup the price they paid to get him, while Horn is certain to be inspiring big-money offers in the near future.

Strong Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Defense

Peter Stöger arrived to Germany with a reputation as an offensive-oriented coach from his 2012-13 championship run at FK Austria Wien, in which his team found the net 84 time in 36 matches.

Those unfamiliar with Stöger’s pre-Köln work, however, think of him as a defense-first, second, and third coach, with the Billy Goats riding well-organized defenses to a 2. Bundesliga title and a mid-table Bundesliga finish as a promoted side.

How will Stöger’s defense look this weekend, though, with both of his mainstays in the central defense gone? Kevin Wimmer transferred to England’s Tottenham Hotspur, and Dominic Maroh has been missing for weeks with an injury. With Mergim Mavraj also unavailable due to injury, the effzeh will open the season with two brand-new faces in the middle of the chain-of-four. Dominique Heintz (Kaiserslautern) and Frederik Sørensen have both looked very capable in the summer test matches, but both will see their first Bundesliga action this weekend.

Fortunately for Stöger, he has Pawel Olkowski back from a late-season injury at right back and rising star Jonas Hector reliably slotted on the left and playing with as much confidence as ever.

Alexander Zorniger will make his Bundesliga coaching debut also with a somewhat-patchwork back line.

Florian Klein is the one sure-bet for the VfB, returning to his right back slot as the only Stuttgarter to have played in all 34 matches last season. His opposite, Emiliano Ensúa, makes his Bundesliga debut with an impressive resume from stints at Boca Juniors, Galatasaray, and Liverpool, though also arrives on a free after costing his most-recent club, Atletico Madrid, €10 million just three years ago.

The central defense features a once-discarded Adam Hlousek and the young talent Timo Baumgartl. Hlousek lost his job last season, but has worked hard over the summer to win his new coach over. Baumgartl showed promise last year, but also had a few bad moments, as might be expected of a teenager playing on such a large stage.

As Zorniger says, “The toughest job falls to the defense; they have to secure the system.”

Slight Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Midfield

The biggest question mark of last season is also the biggest question mark heading into this season for 1. FC Köln, though for different reasons.

Last year, the lack of consistent midfield play moving the ball from the defensive end into attack played a huge role in the anemic offensive production. While the defensive effort from Matthias Lehmann and Kevin Vogt was generally rock-solid, Stöger could never find the right trio to make last season’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation as effective going forward as it was in defending behind.

Early indications are that Stöger is so confident in his new personnel options, that he’s moving toward a 4-1-4-1, leveraging the midfield in a more-attacking capacity. Marcel Risse, perhaps the most-reliable offensive weapon in last-year’s midfield, has looked very impressive on the right flank in summer test matches. Former Hannover and Dortmund prospect Leonardo Bittencourt has also shown promise on the left, despite his late arrival to Köln. Even Simon Zoller has gotten time on the left flank and made good use of it.

It’s the middle of the field that will leave room for debate entering Sunday.

Newly appointed captain Lehmann will be the lone defensive-mid between the two rows of four in midfield and defense. Stöger has said he can juggle the personnel to effect different styles of play without necessarily changing formation or tactics. Between Milos Jojic, Yannick Gerhardt, Yuya Osako, and Kevin Vogt, neither of the two spots have been officially claimed thus far, at least according to the coach, but you’ll know the overall game plan based largely on whose names are in those two slots on the team sheet.

With Zorniger deploying pressing and counter-pressing as the primary characteristics of his game plan, the loss of Serey Dié to injury has weakened an important component of the defensive midfield. Carlos Gruezo showed in Kiel why he’s not a threat to the Ivory Coast national player’s job just yet. Fortunately for the new coach, captain Christian Gentner provides plenty of leadership and stability as the other holding midfield in his preferred 4-2-3-1.

The rest of the midfield has the potential to be the difference-maker for VfB Stuttgart this year. Zorniger believes that Daniel Didavi is ready for a big season in the middle of the attacking midfield. Stuttgart also has emerging star Timo Werner, who has already made 62 Bundesliga appearances despite having turned 19 earlier this year.

On the left flank, Serbian Filip Kostic may find Zorniger’s pressing style more to his liking as an offensive-minded player, though he may also simply find himself watching with Martin Harnik reportedly ready to return to action.

Set-piece master Alexandru Maxim, who recently extended his contract with the club, has played all across the midfield for Stuttgart and offers Zorniger plenty of flexibility.

Slight Advantage: VfB Stuttgart

Attack

When Anthony Ujah departed for Bremen over the summer, Köln’s only proven scoring threat went with him. With Yuya Osako showing promise only late in the season and Zoller asking to return to Kaiserslautern on loan after struggling the first half of the season, Jörg Schmadtke was looking at filling a hole that might have just as well been described as a “crater.”

Anthony Modeste already making nice with Hennes at the season-opening party

Anthony Modeste already making nice with Hennes at the season-opening party

Enter Anthony Modeste from Hoffenheim and things suddenly seemed a lot less grim. Though Hoffenheim fans tend to describe him as haveing been a liability in the penalty area during his time there, the big Frenchman made effzeh fans quickly forget their formerly favorite Anthony with three goals last weekend in Meppen.

But, in fairness to the TSG critics, Big Mo’ also showed he can be frustrating with his conversion rate. Considering how many chances came his way Saturday, he might have had half-a-dozen goals, rather than the hat trick, which was bolstered by a successful trip to the penalty spot. The chances will not, of course, come as frequently against Bundsliga defenses as they did against their regional-league cup opponent.

Assuming no late moves, Daniel Ginczek will be playing consecutive seasons for the same team for the first time since leaving the Borussia Dortmund system in which he developed. Perhaps the stability will help the central-forward deliver on the promise he showed for St. Pauli in the 2. Bundesliga, for whom he scored 19 goals in 32 matches. Ginczek will at least enter Sunday with a fair amount of confidence, having scored twice in the VfB’s 4:2 test-match win at English power Manchester City and then scoring the game-winning goal in Kiel after having set-up Didavi for the 1:1.

Vedad Ibisevic, who had 13 goals in 29 matches for Stuttgart two years ago, managed none last season and appears to be out of the mix for Zorniger.

Advantage: Push

Coach

Peter Stöger has won two league titles his last three seasons, albeit in the Austrian Bundesliga and the 2. Bundesliga.

Alexander Zorniger guided RB Leipzig to consecutive promotions from Regionalliga Nordost (Regional League Northeast), through the 3. Liga in a single season, and into the 2. Bundesliga. His first season in the second division was cut short at 20 matches when Leipzig’s downward trend from a hot early start was punctuated with a 2:0 loss at local rival and eventually relegated FC Erzgebirge Aue. For Leipzig’s parent company, the money being funneled to the RB football operations was too much for the team to not be challenging for another promotion, and Zorniger was, hence, let go.

Zorniger is unproven at a level as high as the Bundesliga, much less doing it for a club that does not flaunt a significant payroll advantage.

Strong Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Form

Köln had a very successful summer, with the highlight probably being the pair of Colonia Cup victories two weeks ago over Premiership side Stoke City and La Liga’s Valencia CF, in which Stöger’s new philosophies were both successful and appealing.

Though the effzeh could have shown much more last weekend, a 4:0 win in the first competitive match of the season is at least a positive result. Köln dominated their fourth-division side in a style one would expect in a match with such a gap in talent between sides. The final score was indicative both of the lopsided possession numbers and a huge advantage in shots.

Stuttgart was riding into their DFB Cup opener on a high note, having not yet come down from the euphoria of beating Manchester City, the highlight on a summer in

Alexandru Maxim getting one-on-one instruction from new coach Alexander Zorniger

Alexandru Maxim getting one-on-one instruction from new coach Alexander Zorniger

which Stuttgart scored 40 goals in their tests. But, as the VfB boss said of the victory, “It may be that the game against Manchester went too well.”

The 3. Liga side from Kiel played their Bundesliga visitors fairly evenly and even had took a lead, albeit briefly. Ultimately, they were unfortunate to not get an equalizer on a huge late chance.

Zorniger was able to see both the positive and negative in Stuttgart’s struggles against lesser competition, saying that the match may have given teams an idea of how to successfully play against them, but also that it may have benefited his players to see that the pressing style of play does not necessarily yield the “fireworks” that it did in England.

Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Health

The absence of Maroh and Mavraj puts Köln at a disadvantage, depth-wise, but because the pair have been absent for some time, the team has benefited from preparing without them for much of the summer. Injuries are, otherwise, not a factor heading to Stuttgart.

Austrian national player Martin Harnik is back and available after missing the cup match with a cold. Antonio Rüdiger continues to be unavailable during recovery from surgery, but is also the center of many a transfer rumor, meaning the Hlousek-Baumgartl pairing might be the long-term answer in the middle of the back line.

Serey Die, out since early August with a muscle pull, will not be available until at least next week.

Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Intangibles

The 1. FC Köln last lost at Mercedes-Benz Arena in the third round of the DFB Pokal in 2012.

In league action, however, the unbeaten streak in Stuttgart dates back to September of 1996. The VfB coach for that match? None other than the man who led Germany to a World Cup title last summer, Joachim Löw.

The home side in this match-up has failed to come out the winner in any of the last 17 meetings between the two clubs, with eight draws and nine road wins. That is the longest such streak in Bundesliga history.

As a club rich in history and tradition, the VfB Stuttgart enjoys great home support, particularly from the organization in the Cannstatter Kurve. Part of Zorniger’s plan for his time at Stuttgart is to provide a more-entertaining style of play than what’s been on display in Stuttgart in recent years. More offense from the home team naturally fuels a more-supporting atmosphere.

Slight Advantage: 1. FC Köln, if you believe in bogey-teams, and VfB Stuttgart (if you think crowd support trumps streaks . . . as does Zorniger, who says to questions about the streak, “I don’t give a shit about that.”

Prediction

Boosted by some defensive errors on the part of their hosts, Köln got its first victory of last season on match day 2, downing VfB Stuttgart 2:0. Both teams will have some major differences from the two that faced one another in that late-August fixture, but it can be said that Köln is looking to continue to build on the progress shown over the last few seasons, while Stuttgart is just now starting on the latest in a series of rebuilding projects.

While many believe that Zorniger is going to help make Stuttgart one of the surprise sides of the season, it usually takes a new coach time to get his system and team in tune.

 1. FC Köln         2
VfB Suttgart     0

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