Freiburg could qualify for the UEFA Champions League for the very first time and have reached a maiden DFB Cup final under the Bundesliga's longest-serving coach, Christian Streich — it seems the Black Forest side might be able to have their gateau and eat it, as bundesliga.com focusses on their success this season.
If you were to sum up their secret, 'continuity' pretty much does it. It runs through every fibre of the club with one man embodying that ethos. A former Freiburg player, Streich has been at the club since 1995 when — aged 30 — he joined the club's youth coaching set-up. First-team boss since 2012, now 56, Streich has not had a linear trajectory in charge, and even oversaw a relegation in 2014/15. The team immediately bounced back up, and are now seeking a fourth top-five finish in 22 Bundesliga seasons. But it could be even better.
Watch: Freiburg move into the top four with victory at Hoffenheim
Not that you should expect Streich — or anyone else at Freiburg — to be getting carried away. After a summer transfer window in which they barely tinkered with a squad that had finished 10th last season, seven points off the European qualifying places, expectations were low, even from within the club. When his side went unbeaten in their opening 10 matches of the season — winning six and equalling the club record of 2012 — Streich's experience that a fall from grace can come quickly in football kept everyone's feet on the ground.
"We have to keep improving, stay humble and work," he said. "I won't let myself be blinded. It's wonderful now, we've never had anything like that after 10 matchdays. But we know why it's stable at the moment. And if we lose a bit of that, we won't win any more Bundesliga games."
His squad heeded his words, and did win matches to finish the Hinrunde in third. Even when his team maintained their momentum after the winter break, Streich remained unswervingingly on-message. "We are convinced we will achieve our goal and stay in the Bundesliga. That's been true for a number of weeks," he said in February, when a win over Hertha Berlin took his team to within three points of the magical 40 required to ensure another top-flight campaign. They reached that target just two games later.
Though they have seen other sides perform better in the Rückrunde, Freiburg have been consistent: with two matches to go, they have 26 points from the second half of the season having tallied 29 from 17 in the Hinrunde. That form means they come into the final 180 minutes of the season fourth and with their European destiny in their own hands.
"We have many good players with huge quality in the team, that's why we're in this position," said Hungary international Roland Sallai after taking his season's tally to four with the 4-3 win in Hoffenheim on Matchday 32 that took Freiburg into the top four for the first time since January. "We have to fight together. We have a big target."
And all without having big names, even if - in a benchmark team effort - some individuals have stood out.
Vincenzo Grifo, formerly of Hoffenheim and Borussia Mönchengladbach, has a team-high nine goals and seven assists, similar numbers to those he put up in a stellar 2020/21. "He has dealt with criticism well, and said to himself that he must improve if he wants to become a better player," said Streich of the midfielder, who has been at the club since 2019.
That improvement has not come at the cost of Grifo's scruples: he was widely praised for telling the referee that a penalty in his favour against Eintracht Frankfurt earlier in the season had been wrongly awarded. "It wasn't one at at all, and so it's right that Vincenzo said so, I think that's good," said Streich, whose side were beaten 2-0. "At the end of the day, the players are always a reflection of their coach," said an admiring Oliver Glasner, the Frankfurt boss.
Those ethics run through a squad that has largely and almost literally grown up together. Teenage defender Hugo Siquet was added in the winter transfer window, while Maximilian Eggestein was the only summer arrival of note with the vast majority of the players already well used to Streich's methods and famed idiosyncracies.
Watch: Rising star Nico Schlotterbeck
Nils Petersen — signed from Werder Bremen in 2015 — remains a reliable man to lead the line when called upon, though Lucas Höler, a January 2018 arrival from Sandhausen, has been the team's main frontrunner. Jonathan Schmid — who returned to the club in 2019 having initially emerged from its youth academy — is another experienced head in a dressing room which, true to the club's and Streich's ethos, has homegrown players as the cornerstone.
Experienced midfielder Nicolas Höfler has been at the club since 2005, while Nico Schlotterbeck has more recently made the step up from the youth academy to the first team. The freshly capped Germany international will leave for Borussia Dortmund in the summer, though that departure has already been compensated for by the return of another Freiburg youth academy success story, Matthias Ginter. The 2014 FIFA World Cup winner will step into a defence that has been the platform on which Freiburg's success has been built.
Goalkeeper Mark Flekken has kept 10 clean sheets this season — the joint-most in the Bundesliga alongside the likes of Manuel Neuer — which is the fruit of both the Dutchman's individual class and the team's collective industry. "We work very hard every day. We've been playing together for a long time, and defend as a team," explained Austrian defender Philipp Lienhart, who has flourished in Freiburg since joining from Real Madrid in 2017. "We have a very good goalkeeper, that helps us," added Streich. "And of course we've had the necessary luck at times this season."
See what continuity can do? If Streich is the essence of that off the pitch, captain Christian Günter personifiies it on the pitch. He turned 29 in February, and joined Freiburg as a 14-year-old when he first came into contact with Streich. He actually led the youth side including Schmid and Höfler that lifted the DFB Cup in 2012, and could now repeat the feat with the first team and take them into European club football's biggest competition after tasting UEFA Europa League qualifying rounds in successive seasons between 2016 and 2018.
But Günter, the definitive Streich student, obviously still can't bring himself to talk about that. "When you are in a position three games from the end of the season that you don't have to talk about battling relegation, there's nothing better," he said before the Matchday 32 win over Hoffenheim.
Streich was the same when asked whether taking the club to the DFB Cup final — they face RB Leizpig, the team they could pip to a top-four place, on 21 May — was the highlight of his coaching career. "No," he replied. "We reached the final a couple of times with the A-youth team, and that was also exceptional." No, he's not joking. A German TV reporter told the Freiburg boss he had been promised €50 if he could get Streich to say that he wanted to be in the Champions League. "Let's do it like this," replied Streich in trademark fashion. "I say nothing and give you the fifty later."
Don't expect him to change should he guide Freiburg to an unprecedented top-four finish, and in 2022/23 it will be more of the same. Streich has just signed a contract extension — the length of which has not been disclosed — as has his staff, who have been with him for much of his Freiburg odyssey.
Even when goalkeeping coach Andreas Kronenberg joins Hansi Flick's backroom staff with the Germany national team in the summer, Freiburg have a ready-made replacement who knows the club inside out: Michael Müller played for the club's reserve team and has been part of the staff since 2014. Sporting director Klemens Hartenbach and team boss Jochen Saier all have virtually lifelong connections to the club, too. Now maybe you see what continuity can do.
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