The Resurrection of SC Freiburg

SC Freiburg  could hardly have experienced a worse beginning to the 2011/2012 season. The team that surprisingly ended the previous season in 9th had less points than the number of games played prior to winter break. A total of only 13 points after 17 games saw the Breisgau-Brazilians fall to the very bottom of the table. What happened since?  And who is the man behind their incredible resurrection in the Rückrunde?

Hinrunde Disaster

The football club from the South-West of Germany was known last season for their team play, hard work and of course the lethal finishing of Papiss Demba Cissé. There was little turnover in the roster from last season as August began — the only major change was the coaching position, in which Robin Dutt, who had gone to Bayer Leverkusen, was replaced by Marcus Sorg.  But Sorg, unfortunately, was unable to build upon Dutt’s accomplishments.

The system that worked for Dutt became too predictable and most teams knew now how to defend it. Freiburg began losing games consistently. Since the middle of October they held a relegation spot,  and with only three victories, four draws and ten losses at the end of the Hinrunde, Sorg’s Bundesliga coaching debut offered little promise. After December disputes with players like fan favorite Heiko Butcher, Felix Bastians and Maximilian Nicu, who all had to leave the club, Sorg was shortly dismissed thereafter. It also came as no surprise that Freiburg’s top scorer Cissé left the club to join Newcastle United during the winter break, as transfer rumors had surrounded Cisse for more than a year. The second best goal scorer from last season, Cisse scored nine out of Freiburg’s 21 Hinrunde goals.

There were not many people who believed that Freiburg could stay in the Bundesliga based on their first half form and the loss of their top scorer.  The people in charge at Freiburg had always seen their club as one that could only survive in Germany’s top flight by constantly developing their own youth talents to adapt to their first team one day, and Freiburg could boast a quality youth system.  (Well established Bundesliga players like Dennis Aogo, Daniel Schwaab, Jonathan Pitroipa or Ömer Toprak were all trained at Freiburg’s youth academy).

The academy was founded in 2001 and from day one until winter break one coach did an outstanding job in finding and shaping the best talents. His name is Christian Streich and under his reign his teams won lots of titles, including the U-19 German championship in 2008. Since 2007 until the end of 2011 he was also the assistant coach of the first team, so there was a certain amount of logic in promoting him to replace Sorg as headman of the senior Freiburg side.  Streich accepted the offer and signed a contract until 2014. The only problem he saw was that the media attention and constant pressure and criticism in the Bundesliga could be too much for him and so a clause was included in Streich’s contact allowing him to again work as the youth coach if he found the scrutiny and attention of being a Bundesliga head coach too distressing.

Rückrunde Resurrection

Freiburg’s senior side underwent quite a few changes once Streich took over. Tactically, Streich opted to abandon the 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 and installed a more 4-4-2 formation that was more flexible and dynamic. This system was perfect to put pressure on the opponent. Both strikers can attack the defenders, who have to pass the ball to the sides and there the midfielders can isolate the opponent so that he is forced to either pass the ball back or knock a long ball forward — if he isn’t dispossessed. The system made Freiburg a less predictable side.  Streich also brought a number of inexperience players into the first team.   Matthias Ginter, Jonathan Schmid, Immanuel Höhn and Oliver Sorg were amongst those who suddenly become starters. Ginter, who is mainly a midfield player,had to play as center back and Karim Guédé played as a striker although he is a defensive midfielder. Streich explained these positional changes by saying that every player from the youth academy was trained to play at any position. Streich had knowledge of each youngster’s abilities after being so closely involved in their training at the academy over the years.  Streich was also the coach who developed and help bring up Freiburg’s current #1 Oliver Baumann. While Streich was basically an unknown outside the Freiburg family, there is an innate trust he has built after years of coaching at the club. Even if the Freiburg administration thought it may be too early to let their youngsters loose on the Bundesliga, their faith in Streich’s and his relationship with the players and their confidence in the talent assembled made the hiring of Streich the right thing to do.

Although Freiburg were in a perilious situation regarding relegation upon Streich’s appointment, Freiburg management would stand behind the coach no matter what, even if that meant accepting the drop to 2. Bundesliga. Streich said in an interview that it doesn’t matter if his team was playing in the first or second division — as long as his boys would play good football every week the supporters would still come.  He was absolutely right. The supporters loved the concept — they went with no expectations to the matches but weren’t let down by the team. The players were young of course and made mistakes, especially in the first few games against Mainz, Wolfsburg and Stuttgart in which the inexperience of the defenders led to a lot of goals. But Streich was proud of the team and saw the progress being made. He pointed out in every interview that his players were very young and allowed to commit as many mistakes as they want, that being the only way to learn. Streich did not to seem to care at all about the results. His goals were minimal –have a good team spirt and play attacking football. It is exactly this combination of lowered expectations and emphasis on team spirit and attacking football that has worked so well with Streich’s young team.  In fact, at one point in his young tenure Freiburg fielded their youngest ever side in league history.

The Mage Solar stadium was thus turned into a fortress in 2012. The team has not lost a single match at home. After victories against Augsburg, Kaiserslautern and Schalke and draws with Bayern München and Werder Bremen the team steadily gained points and climbed up the league table. Initially they lost their first three games away under Streich but with a goalless draw against Mönchengladbach and a 1:3 victory at Hamburg they managed to lift themselves out of the relegation zone and currently sit in 13th. There are four games left until the end of the season and Streich’s team has still to play some tough matches with the last game in Dortmund, but with the recent development there is lots of hope in Breisgau that they might even manage to stay another in the top flight for another year.

The difference between the reign of Streich and Sorg can be easily seen if you compare their statistics. After thirteen games under Streich Freiburg has a total of six victories, four draws and three losses for a total of 22 points, nine points more than Sorg earned after 17 games. If the season was as long as Streich’s tenure Freiburg would be sitting in a European spot.  Goals allowed by Freiburg is another number that stands out immediately.  Streich improved the defense to the point where his squad allowed ten goals less than in Sorg’s first eleven games. The goals scored are more or less the same [Sorg 14, Streich 18], but out of those 14 goals, Cissé scored half of them while there are now ten different players who scored those 18 goals. Streich splits the responsibility and there is more of a team effort to score goals than relying on one man. Every player takes an important role but on the other hand side everybody has less pressure to carry the load alone.  In fact, no side in the league can boast more different goal-scorers than Freibug (14).

Speaking of pressure, the coach tries his best to take any type of pressure away from his team. His interviews gained attention for their candor. Streich is a person who speaks honestly and tries to be himself. You never hear him boasting ahead of a match — he always plays everything down. Before the match against Kaiserslautern, Streich was asked by a reporter if this game would be a must-win for his team. His response … “The team doesn’t have to win. We only need to die sometime. But we don’t need to win.” A typical Streich-interview and symbolic of his personality and coaching philosophy. To the point, minimalist and all about the football.  Sepp Herberger would be proud.

So far things are good and everybody is tapping Streich on the shoulder. It will be interesting to see how things will change if there is going to be a bad streak. How he will turn around a series of losses, how he will respond to the press and most importantly how the press will address him during those times. Winning is easy if the team has a run of form, but overcoming a bad spell is the kind of thing that separates a good coach from a poor one. Nevertheless Christian Streich is an enrichment for the Bundesliga with his low-key approach and winning ways.  So far he has done a remarkable job of resurrecting a side that seemed destined for the drop.  We all would like to see next year in the Bundesliga.

Follow Florian on twitter @Flooo09

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