This season’s surprise package SC Freiburg have reached a crossroad in their season. With 8 games remaining, the team which Germany manager Joachim Löw chose to play for on three separate occasions during his playing career, are delicately poised in 9th position on 36 points, with a goal difference of 0 (having scored 33 goals and conceded 33 goals). A couple of wins could see them right back in contention for the lucrative 4th spot and European football to look forward to at the Mage Solar Stadion next season. They also have their first ever DFB-Pokal semi-final to look forward to on the 17th April against rival Baden-Württemberg side VfB Stuttgart, that promises to be a strongly-contested cup tie, where the winner will get to face either Bayern Münich or Wolfsburg. On the other hand, defeats in their next three Bundesliga matches versus Borussia Mönchengladbach, Hamburger SV and Hannover 96, combined with a semi-final loss to Stuttgart, could see them with nothing to show for what has been a remarkable turnaround under manager Christian Streich.
Following his promotion from youth team coach to first team manager, replacing Marcus Sorg in December 2011, the team has seen an extraordinary change in fortunes. Saving them from relegation in the 2011-2012 season, and then making them contenders for the European spots in the 2012-2013 season, Streich’s unique, energetic personality has been a big-hit in Freiburg.
He is a qualified teacher, who cycles to home games and to training, and has instilled this hard-working ethic into this fearless Freiburg team. He likes his team to play a high pressing game, which requires a lot of guts and stamina, as well as a strong team spirit, as each player needs to trust that his team-mate will be pressing alongside him. Congolese midfielder Cedric Makiadi epitomises Streich’s playing philosophy down to a tee, and you will do well to find a player with a better work-rate in the Bundesliga than this athletic box-to-box midfielder.
Streich favours a 4-4-1-1 formation and has preferred to delegate attacking responsibilities to attacking midfielders Jan Rosenthal and Max Kruse, as opposed to an out-and-out striker, with Kruse generally playing just behind Rosenthal in a centre-forwards role, with Ivan Santini, Sebastian Freis, Marco Terrazino and Erik Jendrisek all providing an alternative attacking option from the bench. This system has worked for them so far and the pair have scored 11 goals and created 7 assists between them to-date. However, on the 8th March, Jan Rosenthal announced that he was going to join league rivals Eintracht Frankfurt on a Bosman transfer at the end of the season and so this may force manager Streich to change things around. In the previous game, Rosenthal was dropped in favour of Marco Terrazzino, but this may change as Freiburg were dismantled 5-1 by Borussia Dortmund.
Streich has built a team with a core of experienced Bundesliga players, who are just reaching the peaks of their careers, such as Julian Schuster (27), Cedric Makiadi (28) and Daniel Caligiuri (25), who are surrounded by an excellent group of younger players showing a lot of potential. Players like Fallou Diagne (€500k from Metz), Max Kruse (€750k from St. Pauli) and Vegar Hedenstad (€500k from Stabaek) have all been bought in on the cheap and their consistently impressive performances this season and last has caused their values to double and triple in price, with scouts from big clubs all over the world keeping very close tabs on them.
Similarly, exciting products of the Freiburg youth academy (previously under the management of Streich) have made the smooth transition into the first team following Streich’s promotion to first team manager. Germany Under-21 goalkeeper Oliver Baumann and defenders Oliver Sorg and Matthias Ginter have already shown that they have potential to be leading Bundesliga stars in the future and Freiburg will have to fight extremely hard to keep hold of them in the foreseeable-future.
Streich has to take full credit for their progression from the youth team into established first-team players, but these are not the only players who have gone on to do well after passing through the Freiburg youth system. The list of Alumni from Freiburg’s academy extends internationally, with players such as Jonathan Pitroipa (Stade Rennais), who recently grabbed the world’s attention with his sublime performances during the African Cup of Nations for Burkina Faso, Hamburg and German international Dennis Aogo and Leverkusen duo Daniel Schwaab and Turkish international Ömer Toprak. Fulham full-back Sascha Riether is also a product of the Freiburg youth system, whilst Senegal international Papiss Cissé used the club as a platform to earn a €11 million move to Newcastle United.
Therefore, the question this season is whether the enigmatic Streich can build on the phenomenal success of avoiding relegation last season, by achieving European qualification with his developing squad this season. After the last two thumpings at the hands of Wolfsburg (5-2) and Borussia Dortmund (5-1), the team from the Black Forest will need to show character as they host Borussia Mönchengladbach after the international break in a must-win game if the club are to stand any chance of playing European football next season, but with the league being as tight as it is, their fortunes may be determined by the results of teams around them.
As a neutral, it would be much more refreshing to see this young Freiburg team, that has shown such astonishing development over such a short period of time under Christian Streich, competing in Europe, as opposed to the proverbial giants of German football, such as Schalke 04 and HSV, who view European qualification as mere formality and rarely field full-strength sides. From Freiburg’s perspective, European qualification would make retaining this blossoming nucleus of the team a lot easier, as the revenue that comes with it would allow them to compete financially with their rivals, as well as being able to offer a high quality of football that can only aid their development.