This article is part of Get Football’s European Player and Coach of the Season series, as we countdown our top 12 in both categories each day before naming our winner ahead of the Champions League final on May 28. You can read all the profiles and view the ranking here.
“We’re not completely unsexy. Well, I’m relatively unsexy, I’ll admit that, but I mean the club,” uttered Christian Streich when talking about his beloved SC Freiburg. He knew the odds were stacked against them, but that was no reason to be deterred. Something extraordinary has unfolded in Freiburg this season, and there’s one man behind it all.
Becoming head coach back in 2011, Streich quickly transformed Freiburg into a gritty side, one that opposing players would feel uncomfortable playing. From the beginning, Freiburg persistently set-up in the out-of-fashion 4-4-2, with the implementation of an aggressive pressing system and the utilisation of the traditional winger. Joining mid-season and tasked with the unenviable mission of keeping a seemingly sinking ship in the division, Streich ultimately led Freiburg to a credible 12th place finish – a turnaround so impressive that Bundesliga magazine Goal! credited him as Coach of the Year.
The ascent up the table wasn’t to stop there. The following season Streich led Freiburg to a fifth-place finish, qualifying for the Europa League, narrowly missing out on a Champions League place on the final day – a clear indicator of the coaching talents possessed by such a popular figure. Despite relegation to the 2. Bundesliga, the club stuck by him, refusing to be bound by the soulless corporate culture of sacking at the first sign of trouble. They returned to the Bundesliga the following season.
Yet one of Streich’s greatest strengths as a coach, which he has undoubtedly proved in his role at Freiburg, is his innate ability to adapt, his capacity to evolve the side to bring about the progression needed for forward strides to be made. Knowing that teams would cotton on to their rigid 4-4-2, from about 2017, Streich began deploying a back-five, either opting for a lone striker or a two-man partnership up top. This season however, Streich has predominantly opted for a flat back-four, fluctuating between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-1-1, though the back-five has been used on several occasions, highlighting the great flexibility of this incredibly malleable side.
The significance of this is that Christian Streich has built something special. Freiburg’s success this season is the culmination of years of hard, intelligent work, masterminded and carefully crafted by the man himself. On a shoestring budget, Freiburg have steadily climbed the table all season. Whilst wins against the big boys have been hard to come by, despite a 2-1 win over Dortmund, and an astonishing 6-0 win away at Gladbach, it has hardly mattered. Freiburg’s laudable consistency is what has them on the verge of Champions League football, with defeating teams you should or could be beating whilst losing against the few superior teams a seemingly acceptable trade-off.
Streich’s adaptability and wonderful aptness to tailor his side’s tactics specifically to the opposition has given the club great success, and it’s this that has underpinned Freiburg’s fantastic domestic campaign. With the club finishing in sixth-place, a Europa League spot has been achieved. A Champions League place was tangible just two matchdays ago, but back-to-back defeats to Union Berlin and Bayer Leverkusen shattered this unanticipated dream. Though this must not subdue what has been a remarkable domestic season that so few predicted.
And that’s before we’ve even mentioned Freiburg’s cup campaign. After wins against Würzburger, Osnabrück, Hoffenheim, Bochum, and Hamburg, Streich’s side found themselves in the final of the DFB Pokal for the first time in their history, without having played a home game in this season’s competition. They met RB Leipzig, whose inherent essence so assertively violates everything Freiburg and their principled coach stand for. The chasm between winning the ‘proper way’ as opposed to a team winning due to their lucid financial superiority is in no way better encapsulated in this fixture, with the whole of Germany behind the Schwarzwald club in their quest for glory. A cup final capped off a magnificent season for Streich and his team, and despite losing on penalties, Freiburg proved that there is still an element of soul and romanticism in the game. Streich therefore offers something here far deeper than football, and for that we must be thankful.
And perhaps there’s a tendency to overlook what goes deeper than just football. Sometimes, the value of a coach is determined by what happens off the field, aside from the objective on-field achievements. It’s about building a team, building a club that possesses an impenetrably intimate connection with its fanbase. It’s about fulfilling the ambassadorial role, representing your club on a level that goes beyond itself.
Streich cuts an incredibly likeable figure, having talked at length during press conferences about the things that matter. Politics, social issues, climate change, are all major talking points of a man who knows where the real dangers lie. This is a man with heart and soul, putting everything he has into a club of equal measure. Spectacular footballing achievements, establishing a successful club, curating a vigorous bond between fans, and elucidating awareness of society’s most pressing issues, are all tests of which Streich has exceedingly surmounted.
So why should Streich be manager of the season, and what makes Streich’s achievements superior to those who have finished above him? Well, Bayern Munich have of course won their 10th Bundesliga title in a row, but perhaps that says just as much about the previous nine as it does this one. An underwhelming season with disappointment in Europe and the Pokal, Nagelsmann has not delivered on the exceptionally high expectations in Bavaria. The same can certainly be said for Marco Rose, who has guided Dortmund to second place, albeit without a title challenge, an early European and DFB Pokal exit. Leverkusen have enjoyed a solid season, but will it be particularly memorable? And for Leipzig, fourth place, a Europa League semi-final and a DFB Pokal final certainly appears satisfactory, but do we not expect more from them, given the extent to which their very nature has distorted the level of fairness and competition drastically in their favour?
It goes without saying that the likes of Steffen Baumgart, Thomas Reis, and perhaps most compellingly Urs Fischer, whose Union side pipped Freiburg to a fifth-place finish on the final day, are the real coach of the season contenders. But with a sixth-place finish, and their first ever DFB Pokal final, none are quite able to match the achievements of the all-deserving Christian Streich. That’s certainly not to dismiss the work of these incredible coaches, but something special has been brewing down in the Black Forest for a few years now, and this season it has all truly come together.