Ross Dunbar hails the plucky Black Forest side surpassing expectations in the Bundesliga this season – and not for the first time...
Two months ago Freiburg were destined for relegation, languishing in the drop zone with 19 points from 24 matches. So for them to be safe with three weeks of the season remaining is exemplary.
Relegation would hardly have been unforgivable either; manager Christian Streich saw last season's over-achieving team (who finished fifth, incredibly, and qualified for the Europa League) pulled away from under his feet. No fewer than five regular starters left: Max Kruse (to Borussia Mönchengladbach), Jan Rosenthal (to Eintracht Frankfurt), Johannes Flum (to Eintracht Frankfurt), Daniel Caligiuri (to Wolfsburg) and Cedric Makiadi (to Werder Bremen).
Freiburg's torrid autumn demonstrated a team lacking cohesion, confidence and top-flight experience, but they eventually brought a 10-game winless start to an end against Nürnberg in November. Freiburg fans and interested observers preached patience, while others questioned whether Streich could turn his touchline exuberance into results.
Streiching the right chord
But, if the Bundesliga tells us anything, it's that thoughtful long-term planning tends to turn out all right. The table suggests so: Hamburg, Werder Bremen, Stuttgart and Nürnberg – and 2.Bundesliga champions Köln – have been in decline while Mainz, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Augsburg and Mönchengladbach are thriving, some like never before.
The common decision would have been to change coach, but new sporting director Fritz Keller – his predecessor Dirk Düfner was lured to Hannover in the summer – refused to budge. Freiburg's well-practiced ethos is paramount to the club's plans. Essentially, there has never been a need to implement Plan B.
Hindsight shows it would hardly have helped anyway. Freiburg's rare foray into Europe this season has also taken its toll on a young squad, the Europa League's demands sapping energy and shortening recovery time ahead of the next Bundesliga matchday. Thus, the winter break was a key factor in recharging the batteries and refuelling enthusiasm. Their return match was a 3-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen who, at that point, were still shaping up well before their abject collapse. But six games without a win followed, and sucked Freiburg back into the relegation fight. Optimism was low.
But the most important opinion in the depths of the beautiful Black Forest – that of the influential Streich – was different. Since then they've taken 17 points from an available 27, and are nine points clear of play-off-occupying Hamburg. The recent narrow loss at home to Schalke 04 was only their second defeat from nine outings.
At full throttle, Freiburg's attacking football can be devastatingly efficient, as well as aesthetically pleasing. It's somewhat problematic to analyse Streich's base formation as an orthodox 4-4-2, because the fluidity and freedom of positioning in the final third helps their more structured pressing style.
Up front, Swiss forward Admir Mehmedi has proved a super loan acquisition from Dynamo Kyiv (Freiburg are expected to trigger his €4 million release clause), having scoring 12 goals in 32 games. Far from a natural centre-forward by any means, Mehmedi's positional flexibility means he can play anywhere across the front-line, efficiently interchanging with others.
He does, however, have the attributes of a born goalscorer. He's powerful, direct in his running and is always looking to get an early shot away. His advanced partner tends to vary from game-to-game: Karim Guede's languid style means Mehmedi's energy is often central to Freiburg's attacks. Mike Hanke and Sebastian Freis, meanwhile, have played bit-part roles.
In the summer, while the club could hardly stop their players filtering out, they made two interesting signings – both for very different reasons. Firstly, 23-year-old Czech attacker Vladimir Darida became Freiburg's most expensive player in their history, costing €4m. Yet, without being hair-raisingly impressive, the former Viktoria Plzen player has contributed quietly, playing his role to good effect. He's only scored three times this season, but Darida is an all-rounder. He's very gifted on the ball and boasts good pace which helps Freiburg both defensively and in attack.
The other addition was 19-year-old Felix Klaus. Plucked from Greuther Fürth's relegated side, the young forward has surpassed expectations – albeit low ones. It's taken him time (likewise ex-Kaiserslautern speed-merchant Sebastian Kerk) to become a Bundesliga player, but he's another solid pick for Streich. Klaus's record is also impressive: five goals and four assists in 19 matches.
On the right wing, Freiburg have had to pin Jonathan Schmid down after his 11 goals last season helped the club to fifth. Now 23, the Frenchman is perhaps ripe for a good move in his career, but for the moment he's still in Baden-Baden – and delivering too, with three goals and eight assists this season.
While there's individual talent for Streich to pick from, it's the collective harmony of the team that remains the priority. If one player moves out of position, another has to step into that role – the structure and strategy of the team is one that is fairly recognisable in the Bundesliga.
Perhaps ultimately, mid-table is where Freiburg belong. But they continue to maximise their resources – not least thanks to one of Germany's finest academies – and take advantage when the league's more prominent clubs fall into difficulty.