Freiburg headed into the international break in the heady heights of fourth following their best-ever start to a top-flight season. bundesliga.com explores the magic ingredients contributing to the Black Forest club's success.
1) Solid foundation
They may look like they’ve come from nowhere this season, having finished 13th and 15th over the last two campaigns, but Freiburg are no one-hit wonders destined to fizzle out - quite the opposite, in fact. The foundations have long been in place for the club to triumph.
Even putting aside the overall structure – financial stability, an excellent youth academy and a loyal fan base that sells out every home game – results on the pitch are ultimately what count, and to that end the head coach is vital. Step forward Christian Streich.
Watch: Why Freiburg are off to their best ever season start
Born and bred in the Black Forest region, and boasting a strong local accent, the 54-year-old has been at the club since 1995. He was U19 coach for a number of years, before becoming first-team assistant coach in 2007.
He took full charge of the side in December 2011 and even kept his job following relegation in 2014/15, making him by far the longest-serving head coach currently in the Bundesliga. For context, Fortuna Düsseldorf’s Friedhelm Funkel is next on the list, having been in his role since March 2016.
The son of a butcher, Streich is unafraid to give his opinion on political and social issues, he cycles to work and encourages his players to vote and eat free-range food, and also values the importance of switching off from football, whether it be reading books or going to concerts.
“For us, the most important new signing is always a well-rested coach,” said Freiburg sporting director Jochen Saier. “Streich doesn’t want anything to do with football during his free time. He has people around him who aren’t involved in the game. He’s an open, curious person who enjoys travelling.”
But why does any of that matter? It shows that Streich is unafraid to show his human side, he has a stable environment to work in and he sets the tone at the club. As such, his players can relate to him, learn from him and buy into his concept. “[He’s] untouchable because everyone knows he’s always been successful,” striker Nils Petersen told Süddeutsche Zeitung. “Anyone wanting to cause unrest in the dressing room will have a hard time of it. Everyone – even the fans - knows he’s the one in charge.”
2) A team in every sense
All of that has led to Freiburg having a team of players who fully understand their roles, who work for each other and put the collective first.
After Freiburg’s 2-2 draw at home to Dortmund on Matchday 7, Streich gave a fascinating example of this. “Luca Waldschmidt was in the starting line-up but Petersen wasn’t. The conversation with Nils [telling him he wouldn’t be playing] lasted one minute and 30 seconds and even after that he still trained brilliantly.
“That acceptance and humility towards someone else who’s been picked because of their performances in training is the foundation of everything for us […] If the boys can continue to be humble and put others first while still giving their all, then we won’t be a bad team at all. But that’s the only way.”
Watch: Highlights of Freiburg's 2-2 draw with Dortmund
That is no mere rhetoric either: Freiburg collectively ran 76.55 miles and made 253 sprints against Dortmund, putting them in the top two in each category over the weekend. By way of comparison, BVB covered 73.44 miles and made 224 sprints.
“We all really work together behind the scenes,” said Saier. “That makes us more stable than other clubs. We’ve all been working very closely together for a long time. We all know each other inside out.”
3) They can play a bit too
Hard work, structure and team spirit all sound a bit like vague corporate buzzwords though, don’t they? And as intangible – albeit vital – as they may be, they are worthless unless they go hand-in-hand with consistent performances on the pitch. Fortunately for Freiburg, they also have some excellent players.
Take Waldschmidt, for example. He served notice of his talents by scoring seven times for Germany at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship over the summer, while he also has four Bundesliga goals from outside the box in 2019, a tally matched only RB Leipzig’s Marcel Sabitzer.
Moreover, Streich appears to have settled on a preferred 3-4-3 formation this season, aided by the return of Jonathan Schmid to fill the lung-busting role as a right wing-back, while Christian Günter is equally effective on the opposite flank. Between the two of them they have three goals and three assists already this term and have only missed two minutes of Bundesliga action.
Freiburg have also benefitted from keeping their squad together over the summer, with no key first-team players departing. An experienced backbone that includes Alexander Schwolow, Dominque Heintz, Mike Frantz and Petersen is supported by gifted youngsters, including Waldschmidt and Robin Koch, while the return of Vincenzo Grifo has given them added quality and unpredictability in the final third.
“I’m not someone who usually gives out too much praise,” continued Streich in the wake of the Dortmund draw. “But in the second half the performance was exceptional, as a team and as individuals. I think we really deserved to draw today. I’d have been very frustrated if we’d lost the game. Even after we went 2-1 down we didn’t let our heads hang and our quality didn’t drop off.”
4) Players improve there
That quality is no accident. For all his extra-curricular interests, Streich is an expert in his field. The 54-year-old has a keen eye for talent and an even keener knack of honing it into the finished article.
In recent years, Max Kruse, Matthias Ginter and Petersen have all become full Germany internationals while on Freiburg’s books. They are not anomalies: Waldschmidt and Koch both followed suit in Joachim Löw’s side this month when they started Germany’s 2-2 friendly draw against Argentina, while Grifo likewise earned his first senior Italy cap as a Freiburg player in November 2018.
Furthermore, the Black Forest side have greater depth in their squad than in previous years, with 20 players appearing in the Bundesliga already this terms. If you’ve not heard of Philipp Lienhart, Nicolas Höfler, Janik Haberer and Lucas Höler, you’re probably not alone. They may not be household names beyond the immediate vicinity of the Schwarzwald-Stadion, but they are also key figures in the team and have featured in the majority of games in 2019/20.
5) Long goodbye
The fact that this is the club’s final season at their long-time home at their quaint Schwarzwald-Stadion may also be eking out an additional percentage point of motivation from the players.
The stadium is situated in a picturesque location at the foot of the Black Forest hills next to the Dreisam river. However, with the club’s training pitch also one side of the arena and a residential street on another, expanding the current 24,000 capacity has not been possible.
As such, Streich’s men will move into a new 35,000 capacity home in time for the 2020/21 season. “It could be a fantastic way of setting a new course for us,” said Saier. “If we do well over the next four or five years, we could take a very big step forward as a club.”