Three seasons ago it was relegation heartbreak on the final matchday. “We go down”.
Two seasons ago it was a straight shot back to the Bundesliga. “We go up”.
Last season it was a remarkable run to 7th place and, with a little help from Borussia Dortmund in the Pokal finale, a shot at Europe. “We go into the UEFA CUP Europa League”.
Not many would have correctly predicted the 2016-17 season that SC Freiburg had. Indeed you could argue that most would have had them at best in mid-table obscurity or at worst in a dogfight to avoid the drop back down to the 2. Bundesliga. Oh how wrong they (myself included!) were.
Let’s take a closer look at how Freiburg managed to do it.
It’d be easy to say that the highlight of the season came after SCF’s season had ended when the final whistle blew in Berlin’s Olympiastadion on the 27th of May. However qualifying for the Europa League playoff really should be considered the cherry on the top of the sundae. The real highlight of the season took place roughly 6 weeks previous after a 1:0 Freiburg win over struggling Mainz brought die Bresigauer to the 40 point total – the number at which you’re considered safe from relegation. Nils Petersen scored the lone goal in the match a minute after he was brought on as a second half substitute. In the first season back in the top flight safety was the number one target and on matchday 28 that target was reached.
A second honourary mention goes to the 2:0 win over Schalke on the 32nd matchday. The victory vaulted SCF into 5th place in the table although it was sadly only short-lived.
Of course if we’re talking the literal highlight of the season, it’d have to be Maximilian Philipp’s opening goal in the 1:3 win vs Werder Bremen at the Weserstadion on matchday nine. His brilliant solo effort opened the scoring for the visitors en route to Freiburg’s first away win of the season.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22_2WVR52fs 1:14 mark for Maximilian Philipp’s goal
An early exit from the DFB Pokal courtesy of a club playing in a lower division is usually more of a Bayer Leverkusen tradition (thank you Sportfreunde Lotte!). However Freiburg too fell prey to a lower league side when they bowed out of the Pokal in the second round, losing to SV Sandhausen on penalties. Sandhausen managed to gain a measure of revenge for Freiburg doing the double over them in the previous season.
A slip in a one-and-done tournament aside, the lowest of lowlights came in a 3 game span between matchday 10 and 12. Freiburg were soundly beaten in consecutive matches (vs Wolfsburg, vs Mainz, and vs Leipzig) conceding at least three goals in each match – twice conceding four ! To make matters even worse, two of these matches (vs Wolfsburg and vs Leipzig) were at the Schwarzwald-Stadion where Freiburg were generally very good at taking the points rather than gifting them away. In the grand scheme of things this little dip in form did not have a disastrous impact on the season overall but was still perhaps a microcosm of some of the team’s more glaring issues.
Ahh yes, let’s get right into it then. Freiburg conceded the 4th most goals in the league (60), better than only Darmstadt, Wolfsburg, and Werder Bremen. Trending in a similar direction, they also finished with a total goal differential of -18, which was joint 4th worst in the league (with the aforementioned Wolfsburg) and ahead of only Darmstadt, Ingolstadt, and Hamburg. Set pieces once again proved to be a sizable thorn in the side as Freiburg conceded nearly a third of their goals from set plays.
It is pretty remarkable that a team with a 14-6-14 record and a -18 goal difference finished in 7th place isn’t it? Ten of Freiburg’s 14 losses this year were by 3 goals or more(!!) and their total goal differential in all losses was a whopping -35! Contrast that with the fact that Freiburg won only three matches by more than a single goal. When they lost, they lost big!
A few points of interest stand out and are worth examining. First, the timing of the goals conceded. In the 15 minutes before and after halftime, including first half stoppage time, Freiburg were -14 in total goals for and against. This appears to indicate the team switching off in the minutes before the break coupled with coming out of halftime incredibly flat-footed. Freiburg were also a -6 in goals coming in second half stoppage time. Two of those goals conceded late, Julian Schieber’s for Hertha Berlin in the opening match and Robert Lewandowski’s for Bayern Munich in the final match of the Hinrunde, turned draws into losses.
The second point deals with players on an individual level. Well two players in particular – central defender Caglar Söyüncü and goalkeeper Alexander Schwolow. Now let’s not look to play the blame game, but according to InStat, errors committed by these two players were directly responsible for 32 of the 60 total goals that Freiburg conceded. Söyüncü alone had the dubious honour of committing a league high 20 errors that led to goals.
Now there are some things to keep in mind when looking at these numbers. One, it isn’t clear as to whether or not multiple players can “share the blame” for a single goal, which would reduce the number of total team goals conceded that the pair would be directly responsible for. Two, Söyüncü was playing his first season of top flight football in a top 5 league, playing arguably the hardest position to play, without any prior instruction in the German language. Schwolow was also playing in his first season of top flight football only with the added benefit of being able to understand his teammates. Finally, both players actually looked much better as the season wore on. Indeed Söyüncü, it could be argued, ended up becoming Freiburg’s most reliable defender by season’s end.
Freiburg are not a club that are blessed with quality bench depth, and nowhere is that more evident than in midfield – although the term “midfield” can be interpreted rather loosely as the on field positions are incredibly fluid in Christian Streich’s setup. Taking a look at the minutes played and it is fairly evident that Strich relied on a handful of key players to provide stability and give Freiburg the best possible chance to win.
Nicolas Höfler is probably the starkest exception to the rule of positional fluidity. Höfler is a defensive midfielder plain and simple and was far and away the busiest passer, tackler, and was involved in the most duels on the ground. His partner in defensive midfield was more often than not Mike Frantz, a player that can be categorized as a decent all round midfielder who performs well on a consistent basis. It was Frantz’s consistency that kept the slightly less restrained Amir Abrashi on the bench, especially as the season wore on.
In the more advanced midfield positions, Streich relied on sometimes forward/sometimes right wingers Janik Haberer and Maximilian Philipp. Haberer’s strength was his tenacity and his ability to win duels in the opponent’s attacking third. Philipp on the other hand was always looking to get the ball to his feet and attack the opposition directly. Philipp ended the season with nine league goals, good for third on the team.
Finally we come to the talisman, the straw that stirs the drink, Vincenzo Grifo. Coming off a remarkable season in the 2. Bundesliga, Grifo was, quite simply put, Freiburg’s creative engine in midfield. He attempted 3.1 key passes per 90 minutes which lead to a team high eight assists. Grifo was also not shy about shooting the ball either as he lead the team with 83 attempts on target. One thing that was missing from Grifo’s game from the previous season was goals from direct free kick situations, which isn’t altogether unsurprising given the jump in quality in Bundesliga goalkeepers.
For an attack that was the cream of the crop of the 2. Bundesliga, Freiburg’s goal scoring output on their return to the Bundesliga could be considered disappointing but not altogether unsurprising. SCF found the back of the net 42 times, the 7th fewest in the league. Mainz loanee Florian Niederlechner topped out at 11 goals while Nils Petersen (Fußballgott!) followed closely behind with ten, a good portion of which were scored as a substitute. Rounding out the top scorers were Philipp’s aforementioned total of nine and Grifo chipping in with six.
Looking a bit more closely at Petersen’s goals brings a couple of incredibly interesting statistics to light. Of his ten league goals, 9 of Petersen’s tallies were Jokertore, meaning a goal scored after being substituted into a match. Of these nine goals, five of them were also game winners. Finally, his goal against FC Bayern on the final matchday of the season set a new record for most goals scored as a substitute (19) in Bundesliga history breaking another former Bayern player Alexander Zickler’s total of 18. A super sub in every sense of the word!
Freiburg not only spread the goals out fairly well between the players but also in terms of how they were scored. 19 goals originated from open play, 12 from set pieces, and nine came from counter attacks, with a further two goals uncategorized in any of these particular buckets. As alluded to before, the direct free kick, which Freiburg utilized with great effectiveness in the season before, counted for exactly zero goals in the 2016-17 season. Freiburg were also rather efficient from the penalty spot scoring onsix of their eight attempts – those two that didn’t go in directly lead to goals from the rebounds.
Improvements for Next Season
To put it rather bluntly Freiburg needs to improve on the defensive side of the ball if they want to avoid the lower end of the table next season. It is no surprise that Christian Streich prefers an attacking style of football but his squad definitely need to focus on keeping the ball out of their net. Cutting down on the individual errors and keeping concentration on defending set pieces are an absolute must. Freiburg had a very good record last season when the matches were decided by a single goal, winning 11 while losing on only 3 occasions (all in the Hinrunde). Keep the scores close!
Additionally Freiburg have to improve their overall play away from home. Freiburg earned nearly a full point fewer per game when not playing in the friendly confines of the Schwarzwald-Stadion, while conceding more than 2 goals per game as the visiting team. The offense didn’t fare much better if at all.
Freiburg have been rather active in the transfer market so far this summer, but more for the reasons that would give fans cause for concern. In what is oddly reminiscent of the last time SCF qualified for Europe, the squad has lost its key performers from the season previous. Midfield maestro Vincenzo Grifo, for some reason, left to join Borussia Mönchengladbach for €6 Million while the biggest news was Maximilian Philipp’s €20 Million move to Borussia Dortmund, shattering the previous record of €12 Million Newcastle United paid for Papiss Cissé in the 11-12 season.
Freiburg will need to invest this money very well if they want to compete in three competitions next year. They have already started well by making both Pascal Stenzel and Florian Niederlechner’s loans permanent, but more players are going to need to be brought in to fill the gaping holes left by the departures of Grifo and Philipp. Freiburg would also do very well to bring in some experienced defenders and quality depth players for what might be a very congested schedule in 2017-18.
Player of the Season
I had originally wanted to go with Grifo as it is very difficult to argue against his consistent contributions on the offensive side of the ball. Then I thought to go outside the box and award the honour to Söyüncü who, in spite of all of his shortcomings, really blossomed into a fairly reliable defender as the season wore on. He’d for sure get the nod as the most improved player.
But after all is said and done, I don’t think I could in good conscience award the player of the year to anyone other than Nils Petersen. He not only scored important goals, but chipped in with four assists in key situations. After a very productive season in the 2nd division, Petersen was relegated to the bench, and if he had any gripes about it he never made it publicly known. He played his part with humility when he very much could have been petulant. Plus of course his statistical output is well and truly in his favour.
Danke Nils. Danke Fußballgott!
It would be down right mad, if not impossible, to say that SC Freiburg’s 2016-17 season was anything short of a roaring success. Defensive frailties may have cost the team some style points in my overall assessment, but I don’t see any other option but to give them full marks for what SCF managed to accomplish given their diminished ability to purchase significant player upgrades – we all can’t have access to that sweet, sweet fizzy drink money now can we? This past season is evidence enough why Christian Streich should be considered the best manager in Germany. No Bull.
*All statistical information provided by InStat*
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