Hinrunde Review SC Freiburg: The Breisgau Brazilians Streich Back

The 2012/2013 season didn’t start quite as the Breisgauers planned: several key players picked up injuries right before the season began. The first 1/3 of the Hinrunde was a bit shaky as a result; the Breisgau Brazilians won only one game in their first six rounds and there were glitches here and there. But, after that things seemed to get properly back on track: the last 11 games of the Hinrunde resulted in six wins, three draws, and only two defeats (against Bayern and BVB). Heading into the winter break SC Freiburg collected 26 points, sit is fifth in the league, and have reached the DFB Pokal quarterfinals. Back in the summer the big question facing the Sport-club was whether they could carry the momentum of last Rückrunde into the new season. Well, we have our answer now. Loud and clear.

Most of the credit for reviving this Freiburg team, without any doubt, has to be placed in the hands of coach Christian Streich. Even Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes once said “the best man of Freiburg sits on the bench.” The quircky man from Weil am Rhein has become such a unique figure in the Bundesliga, because of his distinctive character and achievements. There has been enough praise for him coming from the media and fans, but regarding his cult status in town there’s no better indication than the graffiti spotted on the outer wall of a Freiburg University building:

StreichOfTheYear2The ultimate question: “Where does the mustard stand?”, was voted Streich’s quote of the year by local newspaper readers.

Far beyond just collecting a lot of mileage on the sideline and supplying the emotional outbursts that TV directors have all come to love, Streich and his coaching team have done a tremendous job transforming a group of young and relatively unknown players into a disciplined and spirited team, leading them from the edge of the chasm to heights that even the most optimistic fans didn’t dare to imagine one year ago. Anyone who still remembers what it was like in Freiburg last winter would agree: What an amazing year it has been!

The System and the Squad

As a firm believer in attacking football, Freiburg hasn’t been particular good at scoring goals. In the Hinrunde the team created 180 chances in total (4th in the league), but only 13.3% of them were converted into goals. This is certainly a weakness that needs to be addressed. Anyhow, their goal getting ability have actually been more or less the same over the years, with or without a super striker like Papiss Cissé. This time last year they had 21 goals to their good, which wasn’t all too bad and not much different from the 24 goals scored in the current season. What really made the difference this year is the much-improved defense.

In Freiburg’s 4-4-2 system the defensive work starts with the two upfront players harassing opponent’s center backs. When the ball starts rolling all the players are also mobilized, pushing forward and taking on the corresponding player on the other side. At the same time, they maintain a compact grid in midfield. With continuous and purposeful runs they seek to choke up the space and isolate the opponents’ players, leaving little room for the other side to build up an effective attack making it very difficult to get past their packed and well-organized formation in the process.

This collective pressing scheme requires every player to maintain a high level of concentration throughout the entire game, to be constantly aware of the teammates’ as well as the opponents’ positioning and movement, and know how to respond accordingly. And once the mechanism is imprinted in the players’ mind, and each one understands how to function as an organic whole, the team could be less susceptible to personnel changes in the defensive organization. During the Hinrunde, Freiburg had a total of 11 different players play in the back four positions, yet, they conceded the second lowest number of goals (18) in the league.

The obvious variation in the defensive lineup is their interchangeable full backs: Mensur Mujdža, Oliver Sorg and Vegar Hedenstad showed their flexibility by switching sides from match to match, as Sorg was often assigned the task of marking the opposition’s stronger winger. On the other hand the rotation of center backs was rather forced. Fallou Diagne, with his calm and sometimes bold and unconventional moves, formed a solid center back pair alongside the 18-year-old talented Matthias Ginter at the beginning of the season. Due to injuries and suspensions later on, Pavel Krmaš, Johannes Flum and other players had to step into the fray, and all of them did a decent job.

The only constant at the back is the goalkeeper Oliver Baumann. Since his defenders often times push the back line almost as high up as the middle line and leave huge space behind, he has to stay highly alert and ready to react to any sign of danger immediately. In addition to a shot-stopping rate of 72.7%, he also comes out of his box frequently to clear the balls that find their way past the offside trap. Baumann now supports his team in a less dazzling way —he doesn’t throw in as many jaw-dropping saves that fill the match highlights and make him the focus of the media, but Freiburg’s system wouldn’t have worked so well without his outstanding performances.

When it comes to the attacking movement of the team, things look a bit different. The full backs usually shift forward quickly and the defensive midfielder Julian Schuster spontaneously drops back to be in line with the center backs and assumes the task of distributing the ball. The formation thereby morphs into an aggressive 3-5-2-ish shape. The other defensive midfielder, Cédric Makiadi, despite of seldom being the center of attention, is arguably the most consistent player for Freiburg in recent years. This season he’s continued to be the heart of this troop, strong and industrious, and as a box-to box player he’s just everywhere, pumping energy all around.

In the attacking line Freiburg’s biggest summer signing Max Kruse has managed to add a lot of quality to Streich’s starting line up. Upon arrival he quickly settled in and became indispensable to the team. The trained midfielder has played on the wing but mainly adopted the role of a striker. Having contributed four goals and five assists, he also links up well with the two dynamic wingers Daniel Caligiuri and Jonathan Schmid, setting up 52 chances in the process, which makes him the most creative player in the Bundesliga so far.

The last spot at the front has been filled by several different players over the first two months. Only when Jan Rosenthal came back from his knee injury in November, the last piece finally clicked into place. With his sharp instinct and efficient finishing, the front four formed a fluid quartet that never stops running or hesitates to switch positions and exploit every inch of space, and seek out any chance to crack the opponent’s back line. The free-roaming of the nominal strikers does compensate for the, at times, lack of support from the full backs. At the moment the four players have each chipped in four goals for the team, and hopefully this band will keep the goals coming for the rest of the season.

Mission Klassenerhalt Continues

Despite their good form in 2012, SC Freiburg have stayed, more or less, a benchmark for “a team you can/should beat.” In the 2012/13 Hinrunde two coaches lost their jobs after they failed to do so. The Breisgau Brazilians are now likely to be considered a much tougher opponent in the Rückrunde by the other teams in the league, which could mean that Freiburg’s road ahead might suddenly get more bumpy. For the first one and half month in the new year the Sport-club will have to do without their core player Makiadi, who will be representing DR Congo in the coming Africa Cup of Nations. It won’t be easy to replace him in his absence. Furthermore, injury is always an enemy—but at the same time some long-term casualties are expected to return. Ginter and Höhn are looking to reinforce Freiburg’s defensive strength, while Terrazzino and Calvente can add more attacking power.

With 14 points clear of the play-off spot, relegation doesn’t look like an imminent threat for now. The Sport-club is not interested in raising their season objective though—as they repeatedly stated, thinking about other possibilities before securing 40 points is not only premature, but could be distracting and destructive. In any case, the fans are allowed to dream; the encouraging sign is that the Breisgauers do look like to be riding an upward curve along the course of the season so far. The season is still long, and no one knows where Freiburg will be at the end of it. Nevertheless considering the club record-high 53 points collected in the calendar year 2012 and getting past the 3rd round of DFB-Cup for the first time in eight years, it is already quite remarkable. And above all: it’s their inspired performance on the pitch that counts the most. The team plays with passion and devotion, which is always a joy to watch. ‘The important thing is how we play football,” Christian Streich likes to point out. “And we want to make our fans happy.”

The fans are very happy indeed.

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