Freiburg’s Spinning Top and the Brain Behind It

A year ago this month Freiburg were staring relegation right in the face.  They were bottom of the table going into the break, conceded the most goals in the league, lost their most important player and looked sure to go down.  Then came Christian Streich, who against the odds turned it all around.  Only five teams had a better second half of the season than Freiburg last year as they clawed their way back up the table to finish 12th.  This year the man who has coached at Freiburg for almost 20 years built on his great work and in a complete 180 has his team sitting in a European spot at the end of the Hinrunde.

Streich’s narrative at Freiburg is reminiscent of Lucien Favre’s start at Borussia Mönchengladbach, a coach who came in, saved the club from relegation, and turned them into one of the most consistent and difficult to beat sides in the league. Both coaches elevated the performances of their players and created extremely functional and effective systems tailor made for their personnel. Like Gladbach last year, Freiburg have been one of the most exciting teams to watch in the league.  Their impressive performances and victories are built on an extremely methodical and well crafted tactical platform and elevated by the personality, culture and team management of a coach who lives and breathes SC Freiburg.

Run, run, run…

So much success in football nowadays is down to fitness and effective and continuous pressing.  Whether it is Barcelona under Guardiola and Vilanova, Borussia Dortmund under Klopp or Juventus under Conte, the best sides are those that are as good off the ball as they are on it. In that sense, pressing has become a de facto tactic. Similarly, the success of Gladbach and Mainz in the Bundesliga over the last couple of seasons is also built on such a foundation. Freiburg under Streich have promptly followed in their footsteps.

Freiburg regularly feature among the teams that covered the most distance on matchdays and while their tackles won percentage is not very impressive they are one of the most combative teams in the league in that they effectively run you into the ground during games, something Schalke found out first hand on the last matchday of the Hinrunde. As that match progressed, Schalke players found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the lively and unrelenting Freiburg attack. Sure enough, as other teams have slipped down the table over the course of the season Freiburg got better and better.

All that energy expended does not just mean an improvement in attack though. Perhaps more important than anything else is a much improved defense. Only league leaders Bayern Munich have conceded fewer goals in the first half of the season than Streich’s team.  Conceding about a goal a game so far is an admirable statistic in a league renowned for its free scoring nature. Sure enough, pressing has the add-on effect of slowly taking a team’s offense out of the game, and by default reducing their scoring chances.

Freiburg’s Spinning Top

The “Spinning Top” or “Kreisel” as it was known in Germany, is used to refer to the famous Schalke side of the 1920s and ’30’s that won multiple national championships with an inventive and dynamic passing game. While Freiburg may not be at that level yet the term is certainly appropriate for an attack that seems to never be able to stand still and has become very difficult to contain.

Spain did well to publicize and popularize the strikerless formation this summer at the EUROs and more and more teams are beginning to experiment with formations that exclude traditional strikers. Freiburg may very well be the most bold and interesting in German football in that sense.  Over the course of the season Streich moved closer and closer to a system that resembles just that. Out of the four registered strikers in the squad, only Sebastian Freis has featured in the majority of the games so far and most have come as a substitute.  Another striker, Garra Dembele, meanwhile was not even included in their trip to the team’s winter training camp.

Instead, Streich has chosen to line up with essentially a strikerless formation that utilizes two versatile attacking midfielders in Jan Rosenthal and Max Kruse in interchangeable roles up front with two similarly versatile supporting wide players in Daniel Caligiuri and Jonathan Schmid. Rosenthal and one of the great revelations of the season, Kruse, have normally been used in midfield positions, either playing off the striker or out wide.  Neither have defined positions under Streich but are encouraged to roam and interchange in and around the box. Freiburg haven’t been the most prolific scoring side as a result but the goals have been spread around pretty evenly which speaks to a well functioning and effective system.  16 of the team’s 24 goals were scored by their four attackers.

As explored in this statistical analysis, Freiburg are only behind Bayern, Dortmund and Schalke in chances created this season.  They’ve created 10.5 chances a match, well above the league average and another indicator of the team’s growing chemistry.  Kruse in particularly has excelled and created more scoring opportunities than any player in the league with 52. The productivity of the team a whole has gone up despite the absence and use of a prototypical striker.

Freiburg’s real formula for success on the pitch then lies in the team’s synergy.  Kruse, Schmid, Caligiuri and Rosenthal are all comfortable covering for each other. Many times this season, Caligiuri or Schmid came inside while Kruse covered for them and it’s all done seamlessly and disciplined enough not to compromise their shape. If anything, Freiburg hold their shape better than most teams in the league but they enjoy a degree of flexibility and freedom that others simply don’t have. As we’ll see though, that freedom is as much physical as it is mental and that’s due in large part to the great management of the team’s coach.

The Brain

The man who is shy in front of the camera but whose personality and press conferences have garnered their own cult following, Streich may be awkward in the spotlight, but he is as cunning as a fox on the sidelines and on the training pitch. It’s not out of line to say that he has transformed and revived a club once down and out to one brimming with energy and attacking verve for the first time since legendary coach Volker Finke left back in 2007.

Streich’s energy and enthusiasm are infectious. One of Sky’s commentators noted after their win at Schalke that he may have run more on the sidelines than some of the players on the pitch.  While his exuberant and animated displays on the sidelines may appear a bit overzealous it does give way to his passion and dedication to his craft, something his players have clearly been receptive to.  When he took over last season he would stay at work until 2 or 3 in the morning.  He made communication with players a top priority, on and off the pitch, and was rewarded on matchdays.  Streich tapped into the psychology of the game and his players and understands that football goes beyond just the 90 minutes on weekends.

All the numbers and tactics aside, none of Freiburg’s success would be possible without the influence and management of Streich.  Having played and coached at the club for decades, few understand the culture and personality of the city better than Streich.  Sure enough, it is players Streich coached at youth level that have really blossomed and helped the team in 2012, another way his trust and player management have reaped rewards at the club.  It is easy to see how much the players are behind their coach when they rush towards him to celebrate goals and even peers like Thomas Tuchel have recognized how special Streich is.

His humility and honesty are also refreshing in an age of the PR trained and politically correct football managers.  At the end of the season last year when complimented for saving Freiburg from relegation he interjected, “I did not save Freiburg. The 270 other employees at the club did, I was just one part of that.” In fact, he admitted to not liking being called “Cheftrainier” and takes pride in the flat hierarchy at the club.  Often swaying between the philosophical and the educational in press conference it is impossible not to see the passion Streich has for the game.

He’s not in it for the recognition or the trophies but out of his genuine affection for the game.  Streich is truly a special personality, as his words so beautifully reflected as his team retreated into their winter break,

What interests me is the methodology and the way in which the team works, how they play football, how they work for football, how the creativity continues to develop, how all these things happen collectively—that’s the most beautiful part and that’s what makes us happy.

It is only appropriate that Freiburg’s Mage Solar stadium is powered by solar panels as the sun is set to shine bright on the club for a long time with Streich in charge.

Header courtesy of firo sportphoto 

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

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