FEATURE | The factors behind Freiburg’s impressive season as they chase Champions League football

Freiburg find themselves third in the Bundesliga, only five points off of second placed Borussia Dortmund and even after having won only two of their last five fixtures. Building on last season’s solid 10th place finish the side who hail from the southwest of Germany, perhaps most notable for being the home to the scenic black forest and boast a population of under a quarter of a million find themselves well above sides such as RB Leipzig, Wolfsburg and Borussia Monchengladbach – all sides with champions league pedigree at various points in the last five years. Freiburg’s 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen meant they would stay in third before Christmas, cementing themselves as one of the biggest surprise packages in European domestic football this season, let alone within Germany.  An emphatic 6-0 win over underachieving Monchengladbach on the December 5th really cemented Freiburg as serious candidates for European football as they look to compete in Europe for just the fifth time in their 117 year history.

Like any overachieving side an expert coach is key, and Christian Streich is no exception.  An ex player who had a brief spell in midfield in the late 80’s,  Streich is the Bundesliga’s current longest serving manager having been at the helm since 2011. A native of southwestern Germany, Streich has been working with Freiburg since 1995 where he served as u19 coach right through to his appointment as head coach, as well as being assistant manager since 2007. Few managers can say they have a 26 year affiliation coaching within a club.

In his first season Streich came in after Christmas to steer Freiburg from bottom to 12th, having a stretch of 10 matches unbeaten. The 2012/13 season that followed was remarkable, with Freiburg finishing fifth and therefore qualifying for the Europa League, and only being four points shy of qualifying for the Champions League for the very first time. A true credit to Streich’s managerial prowess is that he managed to win coach of the season ahead of Jurgen Klopp and Jupp Heynckes, who had won a treble with league winners Bayern Munich. The 2013-14 season was underwhelming with Freiburg struggling to have the depth to cope with midweek European football and thus finished 14th. In 2014-15, disaster struck and Freiburg were narrowly relegated following a terrible run of form in the second season.

Despite relegation Freiburg stuck by Streich and were right to do so as they comfortably won promotion back to the Bundesliga at the first time of asking finishing top of the league, ahead of bankrolled RB Leipzig. Freiburg bounced back with an impressive seventh placed finish and again qualified for the Europa League, although they failed to progress beyond the third qualifying round.  A 15th place finish in 2017-18 and a 13th place finish in 2018-19 followed before finishing 8th in 2019-20 and 10th in the season just gone in which they were solid if not unspectacular.

Streich’s style  has obviously varied having been manager for 10 years, but in recent years he has favoured a back three, which is well catered to Freiburg’s personnel in particular with the talent in wide areas which they possess. Despite this, Freiburg have lined up differently on many occasions this season, using a 3-4-2-1, 4-4-1-1 and 3-4-3 in multiple matches. Streich set up with a 4-2-3-1 in the recent 2-1 home win over Bayer Leverkusen. Freiburg are direct with over half their passes against Leverkusen coming from long balls, and they outworked Leverkusen at times make far more interceptions and defensive actions, despite being the more dangerous side and taking eight more shots than Leverkusen, with 10 0f their 15 shots coming inside the box.

What do Freiburg excel at as a team?

Freiburg are pretty outstanding defensively, having conceded just 16 times at this point in this season, the joint best record with Bayern Munich. Centre back Nico Schlotterbeck is the jewel in the crown of the defence and will be courted by a host of sides in the summer, if not this January.  Physically Freiburg are dominant, averaging 20 aerials won per game, the second highest in the league furthermore despite being a direct side Freiburg are still just outside the top half of teams in terms of average % of possession.

86 of Freiburg’s 230 shots this season have come from set pieces, reflecting how effective they are at fashioning chances with their resources and again reinforcing how they are a physically imposing as a team and a threat from corners.  Freiburg have the eighth lowest number of attempted passes with 16% of those coming from long balls of which 44% are accurate, it is evident Freiburg are not a possession based side. They have completed 89 accurate crosses this season, the fifth highest which indicates their wing backs and wide players fashion a good amount of Freiburg’s overall chances, 40% of all their attacks come from the left side of the pitch where attacking wingback and German international Christian Gunter plays.

In summary, Freiburg excel at embracing what they are, a direct and physical side. They are happy to let the opposition have possession as Freiburg are threatening off the ball. They’ve scored 12 goals from set pieces, more than they have from open play. Streich must take plenty of credit for his work on the training ground, as being this prolific from set pieces is no coincidence. Freiburg are not goal shy having outscored 10 other teams in the Bundesliga so far this season, and they are armed with some clinical if not totally prolific forwards. Freiburg stand out more for their defensive prowess as they are well organised and have real talent in defence. The numbers show that they win a lot of their duels and are aggressive and proactive in the right ways when defending.

Key players

Mark Flekken: As you’d expect for a team with such a stellar defence, the goalkeeper has to be competent. Mark Flekken has impressed in net with a save percentage of 79% putting him in the top tier of goalkeepers for this metric, additionally he has conceded 16 despite xG suggesting he should’ve conceded 19. Flekken is in the top 5% for average length of goal kicks, suggesting that he is important in Freiburg’s direct style of play and starting attacks by getting the ball deep into the opposition half. As well as this, Flekken takes 44 touches per 90, meaning he is just as comfortable receiving the ball in possession on the rare occasions in which Freiburg look to keep possession. The Dutchman is an able shot stop and decent on the ball and a reliable figure behind an already sturdy defence.

Nico Schlotterbeck: The younger brother of Kevin Schlotterbeck who also plays centre back for Freiburg, Nico is the jewel in the crown for this Freiburg team. Schlotterbeck is 22-years-old yet defends with the maturity of a expert veteran centre back, top teams are predictably keen on signing the U21 German international who is valued at £18million by Transfermarkt, although this fee will skyrocket if Schlotterbeck is to see this season out and keep his current level of performance up, before departing in the summer. Schlotterbeck seems destined to play at the highest level, he is outstanding in multiple areas. 2.4 tackles and 2.6 interceptions per 90 are very healthy defensive numbers, but Schlotterbeck also excels in less orthodox areas for his position, making 1.51. shot creating actions per 90 and averaging 1.44 shots per 90. 4 progressive passes, 4.6 progressive carries and 0.7 dribbles completed per 90 also highlights Schlotterbeck’s ability on the ball and how he would be just as impressive for sides that like to keep the ball more. Schlotterbeck is very sound defensively for his age, and is also a real weapon going forward, and from set pieces which Freiburg love to utilise.

Christian Gunter: Gunter has been with Freiburg his whole career and has been a stalwart in those 10 years. With four caps for Germany’s senior side (3 of which came in 2021), Gunter is a very productive left back/left wing back. Gunter has contributed 16 goals and assists in the past two seasons, and already has four assists to his name this season.  With an xA of 0.2 per 90 and 3.32 shot creating actions made per 90, Gunter is a huge creative asset on the left hand side and has now established himself as one of the Bundesliga’s most creative wingbacks.

Vincenzo Grifo: Grifo is Undoubtedly Freiburg’s most technically gifted player. The midfielder who is German born but represents the Italian national team has been renowned for his technical ability from dead ball situations and in open play in both his spells with Freiburg. Grifo scored nine and assisted 10 last season, his best season since a remarkable 14 goals and 11 assists in 2015/16 with his first spell in the Black Forest. Grifo has continued to produce excellent output so far this season with four goals and six assists so far, although we are still yet to see the best of him despite his 10 goal contributions, as his four goals have come three penalties and a freekick. Grifo is not far off averaging a mightily impressive 0.5 assists per 90 and as expected, he also contributes defensively for Christian Streich, averaging 1.5 interceptions per 90 as well as 0.82 clearances.

Kevin Schade: Schade has broken on to the scene very recently, however he could already be the man to provide some of the goals from open play which Freiburg are crying out for. No one has scored more than four goals for Freiburg this season, and as aforementioned a huge chunk of these goals come from set pieces. Schade has just turned 20 and mostly plays on the right but can play across the frontline, including as a centre forward. The forward impressed for the second team and already has three goals in four games for Germany’s U21s and adds an injection of pace to Freiburg’s offence. He may only have two goals and an assist to his name from 14 appearances so far but Schade looks to have bright future ahead of him. He is willing to press and try things. He averages 4.35 aerials won a game which puts him in the top 1% for this metric vs other forwards. The 6ft mobile forward, has the physical attributes to produce under Streich, and it may only be a short matter of time before he starts scoring and assisting more regularly.

Honourable mentions must also go out to Austrian centre back Philip Lienhart who has scored four goals from centre back, South Korean Jeong Woo-Yeong who has a high ceiling and can be a real threat on his day, winger Roland Sallai who impressed for Hungary at Euro 2020, promising Bosnian forward Ermedin Demirovic who really caught the eye last season but has struggled to kick on this season and fellow striker Nils Petersen who is an experienced figure and is Freiburg’s all-time top goalscorer. With 86 goals in just over 200 games.

What does the rest of the season hold for SCF?

Freiburg are enduring a fantastic season so far but looking to the future in a pessimistic manor they may run out of steam soon. A lack of open play goals will soon catch up with them and is a true concern, key players such as Schlotterbeck will certainly be snatched by bigger clubs and may be hard to replace and if Freiburg do play European football next season, which looks very likely, then it may take its toll on the players. Freiburg have a relatively small squad which could be burnt out playing in Europe next season, and they may struggle heavily in the league also trying to compete with a relatively thin squad.

On the other hand, taking the many positives into account, Freiburg are in the hands of the Bundesliga longest serving coach who is vastly experienced and knows the club inside out. They are generally a sum of their parts and have one of the most astounding defences in Europe which is no mean feat considering their budget etc. compared to the likes of Bayern Munich. Prospects such as Kevin Schade, Demirovic and Jeong Woo-Yeong, who are all yet to explode into life, are also reasons to be excited for the future if they can hit a consistent high level of performance.

In conclusion, Freiburg have been a surprise package, who may not be the prettiest team to watch but they are certainly effective and boast true talent within their ranks. They will inspire fellow ‘smaller clubs’ with their current form and should they keep their standards as high in 2022, then they may well have the title of European football’s biggest overachiever’s.

Joe Langlands

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