The Bundesliga leader after five games is not Bayern Munich, not Borussia Dortmund, not RB Leipzig but in fact Freiburg. The one-time minnows from the Black Forest who are now an established Bundesliga force under Christian Streich and increasingly mixing it with the big boys at the top.
It probably doesn’t sound that outrageous for last year’s DFB Cup runners-up to now be leading the Bundesliga after five matchdays. Yet it was still a pretty big surprise after Bayern’s first-against-second encounter with Union Berlin and Dortmund’s win over Hoffenheim that it was in fact Die Breisgauer who finished the weekend atop the summit.
A hard-fought, clinical display that saw them win 3-2 away at Bayer Leverkusen ensured last year’s sixth-placed side were suddenly leading the way at the end of a matchday for only the second time in their history. The other occasion, by the way, came after the opening round of the 2000/01 season.
Watch: Leverkusen went top with victory in Leverkusen
Matthias Ginter’s celebration after stooping to head in the corner for Freiburg’s equaliser at the BayArena was symbolic of the new – and most importantly, public – confidence that the Black Forest club rightfully now have on the back of their best-ever start to a season. With an almost stone-faced expression, he pointed the club badge on his shirt to the cameras as if to say “This is my club. We are SC Freiburg”.
After the match, coach Streich was compelled – by his professionalism and nature – to hurriedly emphasise the “luck” that was involved. “We had periods in the last three games where we played well, but periods where we didn’t do well enough. The last few games have gone for us. It can’t all be explained with quality. Moments went our way,” the 57-year-old said.
But none of this is down to luck. They lost Roland Sallai to injury after nine minutes in Leverkusen and went behind when Kerem Demirbay turned home a failed clearance. It was only the second time this season Freiburg had trailed in a game.
Watch: Ginter reflects on Freiburg’s table-topping start
A change in formation for the second half was seen as the impetus for the comeback, but it was also just Freiburg playing to their strengths – and that’s set pieces. First Vincenzo Grifo’s corner was met by Ginter before Nicolas Höfler flicked on Christian Günter’s delivery for Ritsu Doan to turn in the winner after Patrik Schick had levelled again.
Michael Gregoritsch had earlier slotted home after a Leverkusen defensive mistake to put the visitors 2-1 in front just six minutes after the restart. And even the manner of the goals was indicative of the spirit and determination in the squad. Ginter put his head on the line diving to meet the ball; Gregoritsch clattered into the post to turn his in; and Doan got the better of Daley Sinkgraven to get to the ball first.
It also meant all three goals were scored by summer signings, underlining once more the excellent work the club frequently does in the transfer market.
Even with crucial new additions, the key thing for Streich is that the core of the team that qualified for Europe and reached the cup final last season has remained intact. Only Nico Schlotterbeck left the club, being replaced by a more experienced Germany international in Ginter as he returned to his boyhood club.
That continuity is not something they take for granted in Freiburg. Although Streich is the longest-serving coach in the Bundesliga right now by quite some distance at approaching 11 years, the past has shown that the squad is often picked apart on the back of successful campaigns and they then have to start over. Not this time for a club now on solid financial foundations and in a new, modern stadium.
While the coach may have spoken about luck being on their side, Die Breisgauer could in fact be further clear at the top if not for some misfortune for goalkeeper Mark Flekken. His uncharacteristic blunder to allow Dortmund back into the Matchday 2 encounter ultimately led to a 3-1 loss and the only game this season where Freiburg have dropped points.
For years Freiburg were a popular side among supporters of other teams because they had that quaint, small-club feeling, and were seen as the little team from the Black Forest in an enchanted corner of Germany who never really posed a threat. However, they are sporting proof that you can almost sneak your way to the top. They have gone about their business quietly and unassumingly.
Watch: Christian Streich – Freiburg Fairytale
Are we looking at another Wolfsburg or Leicester City about to upset the establishment? They’d never say that’s their objective in Freiburg. In fact, Streich said after the Leverkusen game that the goal in a season that also includes UEFA Europa League action is to avoid relegation.
But four months on from coming so agonisingly close to a first major title in the DFB Cup – a defeat that can often break a team – they’re looking more determined than ever. And there’s no suggestion they’ll be dropping out of Germany’s upper echelons any time soon.
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