SC Freiburg: Back to the Future?

“It is not worth while to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.”

This quote, attributed to the great American author Mark Twain, is a reference to what is known as Historical Recurrence, a theory of history with the basic premise that historical events, which are similar in nature, will repeat themselves over the course of time.  In the sporting world, we’re most likely to see this theory put to use by a commentator as part of the narrative within the play by play.

While it may be fun to think that there is some kind of predetermination (I’m referring in this instance to the cosmic variety and not the match-fixing crime syndicate kind which sadly does exist) in football, we would do well to consider the very specific time and context in which any particular event happens to take place.  With that being said, and in the interest of not being a complete killjoy, I wanted to see if there was any to use this theory to make any connections between this season’s SC Freiburg, who are currently playing in Europe, and the 2001-02 incarnation, which was the last time the team qualified for European football.  The results are rather interesting to say the least.

In the 2000-01 Bundesliga season Freiburg finished with a 15-10-9 record, good for 6th place and qualification to the 2001-02 UEFA Cup.  However, the season that followed was an on field disaster as the team finished with a dismal 7-9-18 record (which included separate 5, 6 and 12(!) match winless streaks) where they ultimately finished in 16th place and were automatically relegated to the 2-Bundesliga.

Fast forwarding a dozen or so seasons and the club has found itself in interestingly similar territory.

Last season Freiburg, under the watchful eye of footballing genius Christian Streich, was the undisputed surprise team of the Bundesliga, finishing with a very respectable 14-9-11 record, which landed them in 5th place and qualified them directly to this current season’s UEFA Europa League’s group stage.  But this season has seen their fortunes do a complete 180 degree turn.  SCF has struggled immensely having gotten off to a 2-5-6 (complete with a 10 match winless streak to start the year) start, leaving them 16th in the table and occupying the relegation playoff spot.  It is definitely worth noting that Freiburg’s only two league victories have come against winless and woeful FC Nürnberg and newly promoted Eintracht Braunschweig who are, perhaps not coincidentally, the only 2 teams below them in the league standings.

On the surface then it appears that Die Breisgauer are treading down the same historical trail that was blazed for them by their predecessors which perhaps lends a little credence to the validity of Historical Recurrence in football.  But to reiterate, while an outcome of any particular event, in this case Freiburg’s relegation at the end of a season in which they played European football, may be caused by some kind of repeated pattern of history, the way in which these outcomes are arrived at are certainly dependant on and shaped by forces that by definition could only exist at that given point in time.

Now that the metaphysical loose ends have been all tied up, we should probably get to attempting to explain what it all means in terms of what actually happened at the club in these two seasons.

Why did Volker Finke’s Freiburg get relegated after the 2001-02 Bundesliga season?  Taking a look at the squads from that season and the season prior in terms of the core players Freiburg remained relatively intact. This suggests then that the poor results that season cannot be blamed on Finke having to teach new players how to play his style of football, assuming of course that he employed a similar system as in the previous season, which in all honesty is a pretty safe bet.

Perhaps then the failures could be blamed on having to play in 3 different football competitions, where a healthy dose of squad rotation is needed to ensure the players don’t get burnt out and can play at a high level throughout the course of the entire season.  A quick glance shows that Finke tended to play the same 11-14 players for most of the Bundesliga campaign although he was a little more willing to get new blood into the line-up further into the 2nd half of the season.

In 2001-02 Freiburg played their normal 34 Bundesliga matches, was eliminated in the 2nd round of the DFB Pokal on penalties by 3rd tier side SV Darmstadt, and went out of the UEFA Cup in the 3rd round defeated by the eventual champions Feyenoord.  All in all that is 42 matches played, but only league matches were played after the winter break.  Interestingly enough Freiburg collected 6 more points (18 to 12) in the first half of the season than they did in the second.

While this may not be the best argument it does at least cast some doubt on the 3 competitions as a major contributing factor to Freiburg’s relegation.

If these more immediate reasons don’t necessarily tell the story then perhaps the reason was systemic.  In a 2007 article football writer Uli Hesse wrote “In 2001, Volker Finke would look back on his decade at the helm and say: ‘The tactical advantage we used to have is gone.’  By which he meant that the league had learned too much from Freiburg.”  Freiburg, vis-à-vis Finke, had been successful because they played their football much differently than their Bundesliga opposition but as time went on they’d lost their monopoly; Hesse remarks “The typical Freiburg player – inconspicuous but clever, technically gifted and fast-learning – was now scouted by other teams as well.”  The very thing that made Freiburg special was now becoming commonplace; they were unable to cope with this shift and it culminated with their relegation at the end of the 2001-02 season.

What then of this season’s SC Freiburg; how is it that they’ve managed to find themselves struggling against Historical Recurrence?

Simply put the main reason is the critical personnel losses they incurred in the latest transfer window.  In total Freiburg lost 10 players last summer, half of which were vitally important to the team.  Breakout star Max Kruse left for Borussia Mönchengladbach, Cédric Makiadi went to Werder Bremen, Daniel Caligiuri shipped off to Wolfsburg, and Johannes Flum and Jan Rosenthal both sought greener pastures at Eintracht Frankfurt.  While the club moved quickly to try to plug these gaps, the loss of such quality players has hit the club incredibly hard.

Of course this has a trickle down effect.  Squad turnover of this magnitude on a club that plays a particular style of football, which in turn requires a specific type of player, who are currently playing in 3 competitions (at least 6 matches of European football are guaranteed) is a perfect storm.  And the results on the pitch (or lack thereof), both domestically and in the Europa League, tell a very grim tale indeed

However there is still time for Freiburg to pull themselves out of this mess and avoid history repeating itself.  A loss against Slovan Liberec will eliminate them from Europa League play.  They’ve also been handed a tough task in the Pokal as they will host Bayer Leverkusen in December, which by being eliminated from that competition would at least allow Freiburg to focus solely on staying in the German top division.  They’ll be looking to right the ship this weekend when they travel to Borussia Park for the final fixture of the 14th matchday against ‘Gladbach.

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Born in Toronto, Adrian is a first generation Canadian by way of Bavaria and the Black Forest. After some intense football soul searching he's now a fully fledged member of the Church of Streich. Follow @AdrianSertl

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