November 18, 2017

2017-18 Season Preview: SC Freiburg — Grifo, Philipp Leave Big Boots to Fill

The Basics

Name: SC Freiburg (Sport-Club Freiburg e.V.)

Nickname: Breisgau-Brasilianer

Founded: 30th of May, 1904 (113 Years Old)

Team Colours: Red, Black, and White

Primary Rivals: VfB Stuttgart (Baden-Schwaben Derby), Karlsruher SC

Fan Friendship: FC Augsburg, Alemannia Aachen, Borussia Dortmund

 

Schwarzwald-Stadion*

Capacity: 24,000

2016-17 Attendance: 407,300 (23,959 per match – 99.9% capacity)

Schwarzwald-Stadion (courtesy of scfreiburg.de)

*Construction of a new 35,000 seat stadium is set to commence in late 2017 with the goal to have SC Freiburg begin play there starting for the 2019-2020 season.

 

Trophies

2. Bundesliga Winners: (4) 1992-93, 2002-03, 2008-09, 2015-16

2016-17 Finishes

Bundesliga: 7th place  (14 wins, 6 draws, 14 losses), 48 Points, Goals For 42, Goals Against 60, Goal Difference -18

DFB Pokal: 2nd Round (lost to SV Sandhausen 3:3 aet, 4:3 on penalty kicks)

  • Matches won by 2 or more goals: 3
  • Matches won by 1 goal: 11
  • Matches drawn: 6
  • Matches lost by 1 goal: 3
  • Matches lost by 2 or more goals: 11 (9 by 3 or more!!)
  • Matches in which a lead was blown, resulting in a loss: 1
  • Matches in which a lead was blown, resulting in a draw: 5
  • Matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn a draw: 1
  • Matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn a victory: 2

 

2016-17 Top Scorers (All Competitions)

  • Florian Niederlechner: 12
  • Nils Petersen: 11
  • Maximilian Philipp/Vincenzo Grifo: 9

Summer Results

Record: 5-0-2

Goals Scored: 31

Goals Conceded: 5

  • SC Freiburg 8:0 FV Lörrach-Brombach
  • SC Freiburg 8:0 Freiburger FC
  • SC Freiburg 11:0 FV Schutterwald
  • SC Freiburg 0:3 SV Sandhausen
  • SC Freiburg 2:0 Konyaspor
  • SC Freiburg 1:0 Feyenoord Rotterdam
  • SC Freiburg 1:2 FC Turin

Questions with an Expert:

Back by popular demand is @SCF_UK’s Chris Walker! Chris is an absolute must follow for English language SC Freiburg coverage and news. He’s once again answered the call to provide us with his insights, and for that we’re all incredibly appreciative.

BF: The club finished 7th in the table but with a -18 goal differential. Do you think that the club has done enough to address the issues on the defensive side of the ball for the upcoming season?

CW: In terms of personnel, it’s been a case of one in and one out with the veteran Marc Torrejon being replaced with the youngster Philipp Lienhart. How they stack up against one another is difficult to say given their disparity in experience, but Lienhart clearly has potential coming on loan from Real Madrid who must have seen something in him. The rest of the youthful defence should also benefit from their playing time last season and hopefully step up a notch, particularly Çağlar Söyüncü. The young Turk has bundles of ability, but will have learnt harsh lessons last year from a lack of concentration at times.

BF: Losing both Philipp and Grifo was tough. Who do you expect will have to step up to fill the large holes left by their departures?

CW: I think expecting to replace them with the same quality is an impossible task. We will almost certainly be weaker than last season as between them they were probably 75% of our creativity. Nils Petersen will have to get used to starting games more often and hoping he can be as effective as he was when used off the bench. It’s also a chance for Janik Haberer to play more games, and possibly from wide positions rather than the support striker role he typically occupied last season. Pascal Stenzel might get a chance on the right of midfield instead of as a full-back too. So far the only addition in an attacking role is Bartosz Kapustka who has joined on a season-long loan from Leicester. The 20-year-old Pole barely played in England despite a £7.5m transfer fee last summer. How he settles in to the demands of playing under Christian Streich and attempting to fill the shoes of Philipp and Grifo is hard to predict.

BF: Do you think Christian Streich will be forced to approach his match preparation differently with those two gone?

CW: I think it’s a certainty, yes. In the last few years we’ve almost been resigned to conceding goals in the knowledge that scoring them at the other end was well within our ability. In order to win points on a regular basis this campaign we’ll have to tighten up, and as a result the football might not be quite as expansive or thrilling. Sadly, it’s the level the club is at whereby if we have a successful season the vultures will come circling for our best players which then can set us back for a couple of years so we have to re-build again and the cycle repeats. When the new stadium opens in 2019/20 and there is more revenue coming in, we can hopefully mitigate this a little and keep our best players longer.

BF: SCF were rather unceremoniously dumped out of Europe by Slovenian Cup winners NK Domžale. Are you of the opinion that this was a blessing in disguise?

CW: It’s a bit gutting to be honest. If we’re lucky, we get these European adventures once every five years or so and to bow out at the first hurdle is disappointing. Yes, it can be a burden, but we should be there to enjoy these rare occasions. Otherwise, what’s the point of even trying to do well in the Bundesliga? Going out will help us concentrate on our league form in what will be a very challenging season I’m sure, but I could never say I was fine with being knocked out.

BF: Somewhat along those lines, do you think that failing to qualify for the Europa League somehow validates Grifo’s decision to move to ‘Gladbach?

CW: I’m not sure European competition really comes into it. Ultimately, Borussia Mönchengladbach are a team on a completely different level to Freiburg so it’s hard to stand in a player’s way when that opportunity arises. Grifo will have doubled his salary at the very least so you can’t blame him. We had two great years out of him and it helps us attract other young players in future who know they can showcase their ability and then maybe win a move to a bigger team. It’s just the natural order of things.

BF: Finally, give me your predictions for the season. Finish, Top Goalscorer, and Player of the Year.

CW: Unless reinforcements arrive, I think we could be struggling near the bottom. I think the club are aware of this too however, so assuming we can get another one or two attacking players in before the transfer window shuts, then we can avoid relegation and finish around 12th-14th. Florian Niederlechner will be the top scorer and player of the year will be Marc-Oliver Kempf. I also predict our outrageously brilliant 3rd kit to sweep the end of season best kit awards!

When We Last Saw Them

If I were to sum up SC Freiburg’s 2016-17 season in a word, I’d have to go with: successful. Bizarre and wildly inconsistent, but successful nonetheless. Any time a club comes up from the 2. Bundesliga their goal first and foremost is to secure a place in the top flight for the next season. In Freiburg’s case it isn’t necessarily about how it was accomplished, but rather that it just got done – which of course they managed to do.

Freiburg finished 7th in the league table with a 14-6-14 record. A very respectable finish for a good number of clubs but for the Black Forest outfit that amounted to one hell of a season – on only three occasions have they ever finished higher in the Bundesliga (3rd in 1994-95, 6th in 2000-01, and 5th in 2012-13 – Christian Streich’s first full season in charge). There also was the added bonus of watching Borussia Dortmund defeat Eintracht Frankfurt in the DFB Pokal final which secured Freiburg’s spot in this season’s Europa League 3rd Qualifying Round.

The devil, they say, is in the details and that’s where things get incredibly interesting.

The statistic that jumps off the page immediately is the -18 goal differential. That is a staggeringly high (or is it low?) figure to see for a lower mid-table club to say nothing of one that finished on the cusp of the European qualification spots. No other team in Bundesliga history has finished that high in the table with that poor of a goal differential – in 2012-13 Hamburg managed a 7th place finish with a -11. A nearly equally as alarming statistic was Freiburg’s 60 goals conceded, better only than the aforementioned HSV (61), lowly Darmstadt (63), and Werder Bremen (64).

The question begs: How on Earth did Freiburg manage to do what they did?

The figure below shows Freiburg’s table position relative to each match day. For most of the campaign the club stayed in relative safety of the middle of the table, climbing to the lower end of the top third of the table by the end of the season.

Image courtesy of Transfermarkt.com

They achieved this by avoiding an extended run of poor results all the while not being able to string together a winning streak of longer than two matches for the entire season. In other words, they were remarkably evenly keeled. Part of it could also be a bit of good fortune. Their longest stretch without a win occurred between matchdays 10 and 13. During this streak of three defeats and a draw, Freiburg saw themselves drop only three places in the table (8th to 11th). But in the three matches immediately following (W-D-W), Freiburg climbed right back up to 8th.

While much ado was made of the awful goal differential statistic, it almost appeared if Freiburg was strategically conceding goals. Now bear with me on this – of Freiburg’s 14 league defeats, 9 of them were by 3 goals or more! On the flip side however, only 3 of Freiburg’s 14 league victories were by 2 or more goals. Seeing as how goal differential as a statistical value only really plays a significant factor as a end-of-season tie breaker, SCF’s ability to win close matches was the major difference between where they did finish and where they might have expected to finish. Losing 3:0 every second game was fine as long as they managed a 2:1 win every other matchday.

It also goes without saying that teams like Schalke, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Wolfsburg, and Bayer Leverkusen all had disappointing seasons relative to their expectations and Freiburg took full advantage of this.

 

Aspiration

Mid-Table: In last season’s preview I wrote that Freiburg should aspire to a mid table finish and I think that the goal for this season should be no different. As is the case every season, there will be lots of volatility in the league table and the squad should have a much better understanding of what it takes to be successful in the top flight given the experience they accumulated all of last season. This is especially true for several first team regulars such as Alexander Schwolow, Çağlar Söyüncü, Janik Haberer, and Pascal Stenzel — none of whom had experienced top-level football prior to last season.

While I don’t fully subscribe to the idea that getting dumped out of the Europa League was more of a blessing than a curse, it of course does allow Freiburg to focus almost exclusively on the league. The additional European fixtures took their toll on many of the squads last season, most notably Mainz, who only avoided the relegation playoff by a superior goal differential over Wolfsburg. With that being said, I do echo the sentiment of our expert Chris Walker in feeling that not qualifying for Europe was indeed a missed opportunity. There is just something about those magical European nights, and for Freiburg they don’t come along all too often.

Also it’d be rather nice to go on a bit of a cup run given that last season’s was prematurely truncated thanks to a penalty shootout defeat at the hands of SV Sandhausen in only the 2nd round. The draw for this season’s second round is on the 20th of August.

Reality

Safety: This is going to sound eerily similar to what I’d written for last season’s preview (I swear this isn’t just cut and pasted) but Freiburg are likely going to be in a dogfight to avoid the drop to the 2. Bundesliga. The fact of the matter is that they’ve lost their two most dangerous offensive weapons in Vincenzo Grifo and Maximilian Philipp. While Freiburg still have the aforementioned Haberer and added Marco Terrazzino and Bartosz Kapustka this summer, it isn’t a given that these three will be able to produce anywhere near at the level of the Grifo/Philipp pairing. It also doesn’t appear if any further reinforcements will be brought in this transfer window, which leads to the next potential issue.

The squad is also only a few injuries away from a crisis. Freiburg are not blessed with too many viable options from the bench meaning that they could be forced to play inexperienced players significant minutes should several injuries pile up.

It is true that some things are going to have to fall in their favour in order for Freiburg to end the season comfortably safe from relegation. But as long as they manage good results against teams at or near their level Freiburg should be able to stick around for another season. Make the Schwarzwald-Stadion the fortress that it was last season and that should remove all doubt.

 

The Boss

It bears repeating that Christian Streich is practically synonymous with SC Freiburg. He’s currently the longest tenured manager in the Bundesliga (even if one of those seasons was spent in the second division) having held his current position since late December of 2011 and has been with the club in several coaching capacities since injuries forced his retirement from playing football in 1995. Make no mistake at all, if Streich ever does leave the club it’ll be on his own terms — he’s been at the club for 28 of the last 30 years (a short time playing for FC Homburg the only interruption) as a player, youth coach, assistant coach before being appointed the club’s leader on the sidelines.  

Image courtesy of t-online.de

Streich is starkly aware of his club’s rung on the German football ladder. I’ve referenced this interview with DW Kick-Off ad nauseum, but it rings as true today as the day he spoke the words. Streich is under no illusion that SC Freiburg is not a top-tier European club. This of course means that it becomes very difficult retain their best players year in year out – Grifo and Philipp are just two recent cases in a long list of major departures Freiburg has had to endure. He follows up by saying given Freiburg’s penchant for developing talent, it would be in the best interests of players’ agents to try to get their clients to Freiburg in order to not only reach their development goals but also showcase them to the wider footballing world via top flight German football. It is a win-win for both the club and the players involved. This type of attitude and self-awareness is a rarely expressed publicly in football these days.

Anyone who has watched a Freiburg match knows that Streich is passionate about his football. Not a match goes by where the camera pans to the SCF technical area only to see the manager in his trademark blue denim jeans and SCF top with this arms flailing in one direction or another, yelling orders to his players. But, as more and more people are starting to realize, Christian Streich uses what celebrity he’s got to open a dialogue on a whole host of social matters as well. In the past year or so he’s dedicated parts of his press conferences to discussing the refugee crisis in Germany, the importance for players and young people alike to understand social media and its impact on one’s life, and most recently he hit out at the sheer absurdness of money in football when he discussed Neymar’s transfer from Barcelona to PSG (tip of the hat to DW’s Jonathan Harding for the translation).

Streich is truly a unique figure in world football.

 

Philosophy

First and foremost, Freiburg like to get forward and attack with a tendency to attack through the middle of the pitch. They all but abandon the flanks at least in terms of crossing the ball into the box. According to InStat, last season Freiburg attempted the fewest amount of crosses per game at around 7, succeeding on just over 1.5 of them – both being the lowest of all the Bundesliga teams. This makes sense when you consider that neither Florian Niederlechner or Maximilian Philipp are natural target men. It will be interesting to see if this season Freiburg attempt more crosses now that Nils Petersen will be starting more often in the centre forward position.

While Freiburg does try to funnel their attack centrally, they do have issues with feeding passes to their players in the penalty area. Last season they ranked 17th in passes attempted into the 18 yard box with 23 per game, and ranked only slightly better (15th) in completed passes with 11 per game. At times they struggle to break down a well-organized defence.

Also worth noting that with Grifo gone, Freiburg will likely have to minimize their dependence on attacking from set pieces.

Barring some sudden change of tactical heart, Freiburg will most likely line up in Streich’s preferred 4-4-2 doppel sechs. It is almost a given that when healthy the strike partnership will feature Petersen and Niederlechner and the back line will most likely consist of Christian Günter at left back, Pascal Stenzel at right back, and the pairing of Çağlar Söyüncü and Marc-Oliver Kempf in the heart of defence. It is in the midfield where Streich has the most options to choose from and will likely pick the right players for the right situation. I’d be shocked if Alexander Schwolow wasn’t the first choice goalkeeper.

 

Plan B

When Freiburg are unable to penetrate a tough opposition back line they tend to fall into one of two secondary modes of attack, both of which can be very limited in their viability. The first involves taking shots from distance, usually after several failed attempts at getting the ball to a player in the penalty area. The second involves bypassing any kind of build up play and go full route one, bombing long balls from just inside the opposition’s half with the hope that an attacker will latch onto one and create something on his own.

I mentioned briefly before that with Petersen likely featuring more as a starter this season, it might not be a bad idea to try to get more crosses into the box where he can attack them directly or possibly create a chance for one of the other attackers. Freiburg’s fullbacks do have a tendency to make overlapping runs so it would make a lot of sense to mix up the attack on occasion.

 

Transfers (All Figures in Euros)

Out:

  • Maximilian Philipp to Borussia Dortmund (20 Million)
  • Vincenzo Grifo to Borussia Mönchengladbach (6 Million)
  • Havard Nielsen to Fortuna Düsseldorf (500 Thousand)
  • Sebastian Kerk to 1 FC Nürnberg (400 Thousand)
  • Fabian Menig to Preußen Münster (Free)
  • Marc Torrejón to Union Berlin (Free)
  • Jonas Föhrenbach to Karlsruher SC (Loan)
  • Fabian Schleusener to Karlsruher SC (Loan)
  • Amir Falahen (Released)

In:

  • Pascal Stenzel from Borussia Dortmund (4.5 Million)
  • Marco Terrazzino from TSG 1899 Hoffenheim (2.5 Million)
  • Florian Niederlechner from 1 FSV Mainz (2.3 Million)
  • Vincent Sierro from FC Sion (1.5 Million – arrived on Jan 31st 2016 but was injured)
  • Philipp Lienhart from Real Madrid Castilla (Loan – 500 Thousand)
  • Bartosz Kapustka from Leicester City (Loan – 500 Thousand)
  • Caleb Stanko from FC Vaduz (Loan return)
  • Florian Kath from 1 FC Magdeburg (Loan return)
  • Jonas Meffert from Karlsruher SC (Loan return)
  • Tim Kleindienst from 1 FC Heidenheim (Loan return)

Strengths

Freiburg’s has a willingness to bring the game to its opponents. They are a team that hardly ever intentionally sits back and will attack with tempo and tenacity as long as their legs will carry them. And make no mistake about it, Freiburg can run with the best of them too.

Last season Freiburg also showed a high degree of mental toughness as well. When they scored first they were able to hold on to leads and win a good number of close matches, which was a real issue in season’s past. Look for them to continue this ‘bend but not break’ mentality into the upcoming season if they are to come close to replicating their results from a year ago.

There is one perhaps under the radar strength about this club and that is the players know that the manager and his staff will always have their back. Christian Streich is not just a football coach, he’s a proper player’s manager and a teacher above all else. He’ll allow his players to play and make mistakes only to learn from them, with the added benefit of not having to fear facing a lengthy spell on the bench. This of course isn’t to suggest that an effort isn’t expected out of the players, far from it. More so that at Freiburg there is a culture of education both on and off the pitch.

Weaknesses

The one that jumps right off the page is somehow trying to compensate for the loss of your two best attacking players. The addition of the highly touted Bartosz Kapustka will hopefully pay some dividends, but there’s little chance that he alone can fill the void left by Grifo and Philipp’s departure. Freiburg are going to need big contributions from Petersen, Niederlechner, and Haberer especially, if they are going to be competitive this season.

Freiburg also has one of the smaller squads in the league – 29 players as of this writing. And while team is by and large fully fit, injuries to a few key players and Freiburg’s lack of quality depth will be on display for all to see, especially in central defence where the depth is really verging on paper-thin, even with the addition of Philipp Lienhart on loan from Real Madrid Castilla.

This of course brings me to perhaps the most glaring weakness and that is the defensive play. Freiburg will have to, and I can’t stress this enough, play better defensively. They simply cannot concede as many goals as they did last season and expect to stay in the Bundesliga. This means cutting back on individual errors and not losing focus when on the defensive side of the ball. Defending set pieces remained an issue last season, so hopefully with some preparation and focus Freiburg will be able to improve on this rather dubious record.

Critical Stretch of Matches

There is a stretch of five matches spanning from matchday 10 to 14 where Freiburg will play teams that they will be realistically competing with for final table positions. In order, the have a big match vs Stuttgart away, then back at home against Schalke, then away to Wolfsburg, and then a pair of home fixtures against Mainz and Hamburg. A good run of results here, and also in the return fixtures on matchdays 27 to 31, will be crucial in getting to that mid table finish or even above.

Also, wouldn’t it be just lovely to do the double over Stuttgart this year?

Verdict

11th place

I truly want to play the part of the optimist and predict a mid table finish and I think that if most things go Freiburg’s way they’ll be able to hit that mark, especially that there are no European fixtures to congest the schedule in the Hinrunde. I am confident that there is enough quality in the first team to be competitive in the league, and perhaps to go on a decent cup run. Of course staying as healthy as possible is a huge x factor, but that is something that all teams have to contend with. All that being said I think an 11th place finish is both ambitious and reasonable.

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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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