Freiburg enjoyed an exceptional 2012/13 season, finishing fifth in the league, a result admittedly aided by the decline of sides who in recent times have been challenging strongly for the European spots. Hamburg, a model of chaos and inconsistency throughout the campaign, finished three points behind SCF, coming seventh with 48.
Wolfsburg and Stuttgart ended the term 11th and 12th respectively, and Bremen’s meltdown took them as low as 14th; they were lucky that the relegation spots were filled by at least one team far short of Bundesliga standard. The season was largely notable for Bayern utterly romping away with the title. Ninety-one points, a positive goal difference of 80, ninety-eight goals scored; no other side in the division could touch them over the campaign. Their Champions League final opponents, Dortmund, finished with 66.
But within the context of such a ridiculous, record-breaking season, Freiburg performed strongly throughout under popular manager Christian Streich. Combining the league’s third-best defence (only 40 conceded, behind Bayern and Leverkusen) with an at least respectable scoring rate (45 in the league), they were tidy, disciplined, and on the face of it looked to be announcing themselves as Bundesliga perennials, casting off their legacy of being a yo-yo team.
Yet this campaign they have really struggled. Their only two wins have come against fellow basement boys Braunschweig and the toothless FCN. They could even be very fortunate that these two sides currently occupy the bottom spots, because at least they could have an opportunity to escape sliding back into the second division. Braunschweig just look terrible, and Verbeek’s Nürnberg remain winless and don’t look like changing that, with almost all their creative talent residing in one individual, Hiroshi Kiyotake, who often seems as though he’s given up already.
But back to Freiburg, who appear to be in something of a tailspin, their rivals’ woes notwithstanding.
They have not won at home all season, looking unlikely to even remotely threaten last season’s record of eight home wins. On average, they concede a goal at home after just over half an hour. Consistently going behind early has done absolutely nothing for their chances, especially since they are struggling so badly in front of goal. Only Braunschweig have scored fewer.
Their defence is to no great degree worse than that of their rivals. Statistically, it’s better (marginally) than those of Stuttgart, Hoffenheim, Hamburg and Bremen. But they have still conceded 30 goals already; last year’s 40 will soon be eclipsed, in barely more than half the number of games. As ever, goals are key, but Freiburg are suffering terribly from a lack of them.
So what’s gone wrong? This isn’t a Dortmund situation, in which the underperformance since last season is a) relative and b) not destructive. Dortmund sit third and are far better than any team below them, and will qualify for next year’s Champions League. They have a relatively easy CL knockout round coming up, facing Zenit St Petersburg, statistically the weakest team ever to come through the group stages (with only six points). As such, their season, despite some histrionics in the press, hasn’t turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. But Freiburg’s has.
They have, in their defence, perhaps suffered from a relatively congested fixture list, although their exit from the Europa League (another unwanted hangover from last term’s excesses) may act in their favour. Although their finishing third in their group, behind Sevilla and Slovan Liberec may count as a slight embarrassment, they may treat the Christmas break as an opportunity to regroup. Certainly, they are in no position to do otherwise, and may have to swallow any pride they still have to prepare for the grind of a relegation battle.
The first factor is, without a doubt, their performance in the transfer market. It could be argued that last term’s success was a poisoned chalice. Important players were picked up by other clubs, and were not adequately replaced.
Youth product Daniel Caligiuri was a key performer last season, picking up eight goals in all competitions from midfield. The midfield was Freiburg’s greatest strength last season. But the ownership, in a series of business decisions giving the lie to the Bundesliga’s reputation as a league of well-run clubs, allowed it to be decimated.
The versatile Jan Rosenthal, comfortable in midfield and on the flanks, picked up four goals. He left for Eintracht Frankfurt alongside his midfield colleague Johannes Flum. While Freiburg fans might gain some succour from Frankfurt only being one place above them in the table, themselves the victims of last season’s success, it’s a good bet they’d rather just have their midfield back. Retaining the spine of a successful team is vital at all levels, and it’s not occurring is a key reason for this season’s disappointments. Cedric Makiadi also departed for pastures new, moving to the Weserstadion, completing an almost wholesale gutting of Freiburg’s engine room.
But of course their most acute loss is the hipster’s favourite Max Kruse, who has, as expected, gone on to bigger and better things.
Leading the line with eleven goals and nine assists last term, Kruse’s only season at Freiburg (having moved in the summer from St. Pauli) quickly made him a favourite of fans and neutrals alike. He has continued his good form at Gladbach, providing the Foals with eight goals and four assists so far. He has also earned, in the purest sense of the word, a call-up to the national team. Perhaps over-keen to impress, he underperformed in the friendly against England. He’s probably reached his level, but for Freiburg, he was exceptional. Have they replaced him at all? Erm, no.
The new acquisitions have largely been poor. Ex-Manchester City foul-machine Gelson Fernandes does not wholly convince in midfield. More severe is the paucity of creativity within the side. Czech pairing Vladimir Darida – given his first crack at the top leagues in Europe following his summer signing from Viktoria Plzen – and Wolfsburg loanee Vaclav Pilar have played five and three league games respectively. Darida’s problems with injury are unfortunate. But Pilar has an injury record as long as his arm. For a club of Freiburg’s means, is that really a sensible signing?
Wide man Felix Klaus, rescued in the summer from sinking ship Greuther Fürth, has also played just five league games. These three should, to a point, be shouldering much of the creative responsibility, so their playing so few games both explains some of Freiburg’s woes as well as exposing flaws in the club hierarchy’s decision-making.
A lack of creativity does not dovetail well, where the side are concerned, with their lack of, well, much at all up front. Admir Mehmedi, on loan from Dynamo Kiev, is not a striker to which the appellation ‘clinical’ could ever be applied. Their other frontline striker, Sebastian Freis, all too often appears to be a medical miracle; a man with an extra pair of shins where his feet should be. His workrate is very impressive, but he is not the kind of player a struggling side necessarily need up top. An ageing Mike Hanke is their third option, and he has been used mainly from the bench. He has had his moments during his career, but he is not the man to fire Freiburg back up the table.
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