Once upon a time not so long ago, a father took his son down to the Geissbockheim, literally translated as the Billy Goats’ home. It’s the training ground of 1. FC Köln, the Billy Goats who at this particular moment were in the German second division. The son wanted to watch them train but most importantly he was eagerly hunting the autographs of his heroes.
At Köln, that isn’t a problem. Wait down by the corner of the main training pitch and, after the session is over, all the players will pass by and happily oblige. When the coach Peter Stöger came along, the father noted that his son was overcome with excitement and nerves. The boy couldn’t find Stöger on his team poster for the coach to sign the photo but, amid the faffing, the coach remained relaxed. “Young man, there’s no rush. I’ve got time,” smiled Stöger. “A little tip for you. The coach is always positioned right on the edge of the picture. That way, you can easily cut him out of the poster after six weeks when he’s sacked.”
It’s an anecdote to neatly encapsulate Stöger’s character, but the old saying that ‘it’s funny because it’s true’ doesn’t apply here. He went on to become Köln’s longest-serving coach, steering them back to the Bundesliga, consolidating their top-flight status, and then leading them into Europe in May 2017.
“If you finish fifth with Köln, that’s like becoming champion at one or two big clubs,” said Borussia Dortmund chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke as he sought to justify Stöger’s appointment at the Westfalenstadion in December. That justification was needed tells you just how poorly Stöger’s Köln had performed been this season. When he parted ways with the club at the start of December, they had just three points from 15 games – the worst tally ever recorded at that stage of the season.
Dortmund’s campaign hadn’t quite been that bad, but one win in 13 games saw them replace Peter Bosz a week later. Stöger was the unlikely face sitting next to Watzke, being presented as Dortmund’s new head coach.
“Liverpool didn’t appoint Jürgen Klopp just based on his last season at Dortmund but on his overall performance,” Watzke continued, reminding his audience of Dortmund’s interest in Stöger earlier in 2017. They had met with the 51-year-old in Mallorca in June, but in the end plumped for Bosz who had led Ajax to the Europa League final.
Now though, Watzke was praising the great stability that Stöger’s Köln had shown. “That is what we are lacking most at present. There’s no doubt we can play good football but we lack in particular defensive stability.”
Over the previous three Bundesliga seasons, Köln conceded 124 goals in 102 games, only eight more than Dortmund despite far inferior resources. Sorting out Dortmund’s defence — the fifth worst in the division upon Stöger’s arrival and guilty of several calamitous episodes — is well within his capabilities.
But that hasn’t been the only thing stifling Dortmund’s progress. Accused of lacking a Plan B, it was only towards the end of his reign that Bosz looked to alter his tactics. When he did in the Revierderby it went from masterstroke to disaster, Dortmund blowing a 4-0 half-time lead as arch-rivals Schalke came back to draw 4-4.
Unlike Bosz, Stöger doesn’t have one set philosophy. “I have coached many teams and at all of them, I have looked at what the qualities of the players are and where they feel at their best playing,” he told kicker magazine earlier this month.
He displayed this tactical flexibility at Köln, where he was never afraid to consult his players on such matters. Take the time last season when, 20 minutes or so into Köln’s home game against Ingolstadt, German international left-back Jonas Hector came over to the touchline to talk to Stöger. Köln were enjoying a lot of possession but couldn’t find a way through. A short discussion took place before they switched from a back four to a back three with Hector moving into midfield. Soon after, Köln found the breakthrough, going on to win 2-1.
Stöger’s approachability underlines his authentic qualities. In April, Köln midfielder Konstantin Rausch happened to be in the same restaurant as Stöger, who joined his player for dinner which lasted for another two hours. Then there’s former player Daniel Halfar who left the club two-and-a-half years ago. Stöger prides himself on wanting to improve each of his players and felt he hadn’t done so in Halfar’s case, so he text him to apologise.
He enjoyed an excellent relationship with the press as much for his down-to-earth nature as for his ability to come up with pithy one-liners. Back in 2015, when Köln lost to Hannover, the officials failed to spot that Leon Andreasen had scored the winner with a handball. Stöger responded: “I offered the linesmen my glasses but he didn’t see that either.”
Despite his achievements at Köln, it is difficult to avoid the club’s miserable record this season. Stöger’s training methods were called into question, given the incredible list of injuries, with the players struggling to juggle domestic commitments with European football.
Then again, they weren’t helped by Anthony Modeste’s move to China, a player Stöger moulded into a 25-goal striker. There was also the summer recruitment by sporting director Jorg Schmadtke, who had previously done an exceptional job but saw each of his new signings flop — particularly €18 million forward Jhon Cordoba.
The step up from Köln to Dortmund is significant but at Köln and Austria Vienna before that, Stöger had to deal with great expectations. That may not matter in the long term should Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann become available — although Stöger is casually aware of this. Before the two met in his first Dortmund home game, the Austrian coach told Nagelsmann: “Careful that you don’t go sit on the wrong bench!”
Stöger said when appointed that he would have taken the Dortmund job for two weeks, let alone holding the position until the end of the season. Resolving Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s future may be a lost cause, with the striker strongly linked to Arsenal, but securing Champions League qualification, coupled with convincing performances, is an achievable aim. That is Stöger’s best hope of keeping his job beyond June — if it doesn’t happen then he could soon find himself being cut out of the picture.
Bayern Munich’s 3-1 victory at Bayer Leverkusen on Friday wasn’t quite as straightforward as the scoreline suggests. Lightning-quick Leverkusen winger Leon Bailey caused problems for the champions, skinning each member of the Bayern back four — apart from David Alaba.
The Austrian full-back spoke to The Set Pieces after Bayern made it 15 wins in 17 games since Jupp Heynckes returned (which becomes 16 if you include a cup win on penalties against RB Leipzig).
Alaba talked about how the team had come together midway through the season and how well they are transferring their work on the training pitch into matches.
Alaba was part of Heynckes’ Bayern side that won the treble in 2013 and, given how vocal president Uli Hoeness has been in calling for the coach to stay beyond the summer, the full-back’s view on the situation wasn’t all that surprising.
“We had great years, and now some great weeks together. I think everybody loves him and wants him to be here. Of course, everybody would welcome him if he stayed on.”
Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann were the two frontrunners for the job before Heynckes came back. Tuchel’s ability to keep the peace is questionable given his lack of popularity at Dortmund, while questions linger over whether Nagelsmann has enough experience at Hoffenheim as he approaches his two-year anniversary in the job.