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The German Football Weekly: Issue #12
SC Freiburg's stellar start may look like a flash in the pan, but it’s the justified reward for consistent work across the past decade
In Issue #3 of TGFW Ethiopian Bundesliga pundit Eskender Tamrat came on to write a bit about SC Freiburg’s glistening start to the season. Across the analysis it became startlingly clear just what an exceptional crop of talent Streich has at his disposal. The attacking personnel is undeniably the most versatile and impressive since Streich took over the club in 2011, whilst the defensive skill is highlighted in their league-low 9 goals conceded.
Whereas Eskender halfheartedly alluded to a European charge, it’s fair to say that 3 months later, one would be foolish not to at least include the Breisgauer in the equation.
So, what is it about SC Freiburg that despite numerous financial disadvantages they are not only halfway to safety before the end of November, but also within touching distance of table-toppers FC Bayern?
As with many sudden overachievers, it is the consistent work done behind the scenes which has allowed unfancied Freiburg to flash into prominence. Though for a world-wide audience it may feel like Die Breisgauer have risen out of nowhere, it is slow steady progress which sees them rightfully in the running for European football.
Perhaps the biggest symbol of this continuity is manager Christian Streich, now in his 11th season as head-coach. SC Freiburg’s “Footballing Professor” has grown to be an almost cult-figure in the Black Forest, providing an appealing honesty and humility which is increasingly rare in the censored era of modern football.
Far more than Streich’s appealing personality is the success he has brought on the pitch.
When he took over the club in January 2012, Freiburg were firing blanks at the bottom of the table, conceding an average of 2.29 goals per game and 5 points adrift of safety.
Not only did Streich lead the Breisgauer to mid-table, but built on the stability of his first months in charge to achieve a Europa League finish the following season. Within a season and a half Streich had turned one of the most abject defenses in the Bundesliga to one which conceded the third fewest, an identifying feature of Streich’s coaching which is still the cornerstone of success 9 years later.
In the 2021/22 campaign Freiburg have conceded just 9 goals, the joint-fewest of any side in the Bundesliga since Bayern in 2017. Whereas Der Rekordmeister was regularly calling upon a defense of David Alaba, Mats Hümmels, Niklas Süle, Joshua Kimmich, and Sven Ulreich, at Freiburg there is no such star-power for Streich to fall back on.
Looking beyond veteran center-forward Nils Petersen, not a single player in the current squad has ever started a Champions League fixture, whilst only Dominique Heintz has featured in the Europa League beyond the gates of the Dreisamstadion.
Without the riches to allure world-class talent, it is instead figures like Mark Flekken, Christian Günter, and Lukas Kübler who remain integral to Streich’s defensive plans. Players who are willing to leave their egos at the door in favor of the collective is the essence of Freiburg’s success and simultaneously the reason for a wealthier club like Schalke’s demise.
Having played third-tier football as late as 2017, few but Streich would have held faith in a player like Mark Flekken. Yet, the 28-year old is now amongst the best goalkeepers in the Bundesliga, and even a part of Louis van Gaal's Dutch national team setup.
One must also praise the recruitment structure at Freiburg, with Jochen Saier at the forefront of their rise from a middling second tier side, to one which now has the ability to open up a 35,000 capacity stadium in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Like Streich, Saier is now part of the establishment at Die Breisgauer, operating in various roles since 2002 and as Sporting Director since 2013. Under his tenure, Saier has routinely filled the clubs pockets with smart transfer dealings, and implemented a sustainable model which isn’t reliant on European football or individual performances.
Despite not even featuring a player in the Bundesliga top 50 record-departures, since Saier’s promotion in April 2013, Freiburg have made €172.63m off player sales, whilst an even more impressive €49.62m has been accumulated in net-profit!
Two opposite ends of the extreme: Though Schalke made significant profits with the sales of Leroy Sané, Manuel Neuer, Thilo Kehrer, and Julian Draxler (all €30.00m+), they never allowed these funds to grow, and with heavy investment ended the period 2009 to 2020 with a net loss of €54.75m. Freiburg on the other hand didn’t make as many significant sales, - just 3 players over €15.00m - but with smarter, incremental, investment they ended the decade with a massive profit and a sustainable topflight outfit.
The final point to touch on is SC Freiburg’s incoming transfer policy. With just 9 foreigners, SC Freiburg has the least internationals of any squad in the Bundesliga, Premier League, or Serie A, and since their 2016 promotion back to the topflight they have always been amongst the bottom three in the division for the number of foreign players.
Perhaps it is a coincidence, but it feels like there is a conscious effort to reduce the amount of clashing cultures to form a squad that can quickly build up chemistry and connect on and off the pitch. That is why, for example, Freiburg have had just two South Americans in the clubs 117 year history, with the last departing the Black Forest in 1995.
The importance of continuity is also reflected in the distribution of minutes.
Of the 13 players who have played 350+ minutes in the Bundesliga, only two have been at the club for fewer than 4 seasons. Furthermore, 9 of the current squad have come through the Freiburg academy, a testament to the stellar youth development which sees Freiburg feature alongside Dortmund as one of just two u23 sides in this season’s 3rd tier.
So, whilst it may feel like Freiburg have come out of nowhere, it is the rewards of steady progress and a well-defined identity which sees Die Breisgauer playing a prominent role in this season’s international race.
Is there any better run club in Germany than SC Freiburg? Do they have what it takes to finish in the top 6? Let me know on twitter using #BUNDESLETTER.
GAME OF THE WEEK:
Saturday 18:30 (CEST): Union Berlin v Hertha BSC
A difficult choice this week between the Berlin Derby and a German classic in the Zweite Bundesliga (SV Werder Bremen v Schalke 04), but ultimately I’ve gone for the local topflight affair.
Berlin, the capital of Germany and 5th most populated city in Europe, is the only club in the country to support two top flight clubs. A 1/3rd of the 86 founders of the DFB in 1904 were from Berlin, whilst 47 separate clubs from the Hauptstadt played in Germany’s professional pyramid last season.
Yet, despite this extensive history and sustained engagement, the city has yet to win the Bundesliga or DFB-Pokal.
Even as sports like Volleyball, Basketball, Handball, and Ice Hockey have thrived in Berlin, football remains but a highly-entertaining pastime where an influx of capital and attention has done little to put a dent into the Bundesliga’s traditional hierarchy.
Even the derby this weekend, which has been marketed as a hostile affair in the Bundesliga’s overseas markets, actually finds its roots in friendship and a longing for unification.
Union was the provincial workers club in the East of Berlin, whilst Hertha embodied the free-spirited West during the 28 years of German division. With Hertha a traditional powerhouse in the city and Union spending most of its time treading the line of amateur football, today’s ‘Berlin Derby’ was all but non-existent throughout the city’s almost 150 year footballing history.
In fact, the first competitive match between the sides was only played 11 years ago, with just 7 more matches following in the ensuing seasons. Rather than the animosity of a Union Berlin v BSC Dynamo fixture, throughout much of Berlin’s history there was shared friendship and longing for unification between the Hetha and Union fanbases.
Union Berlin fans would even regularly adorn Hertha memorabilia throughout the 80s, with the words “Wir sind alle Freunde hinter dem Stacheldraht” (we are all friends behind the barbed wire) written across it.
In fact, the modern hatred between the two sides - exemplified when Hertha BSC lit rockets in the away end at the first ever topflight derby - is only spawned on by the post-fall fans who didn’t live through the cold war and the era of division.
So, whilst Saturday’s clash may be billed internationally as the hate-filled rivalry rife with tension, the 9th ever Union-Hertha fixture is far more than just a match for the cities bragging rights.
It is a reminder of the power of unity over division, and how even in the face of an iron curtain splitting family and friends, the community of football still found a way to prevail.
2. Bundesliga GOTW: Saturday 20:30 (CEST): SV Werder Bremen v Schalke 04
3. Bundesliga GOTW: Saturday 14.00 (CEST): TSV 1860 München v MSV Duisburg
Title Image: Gabriel Foligno