Freiburg are the Bundesliga's little engine that could
After nine matchdays the Bundesliga is still very, very wacky. We now have a grand total of ten teams at the top of the table separated by a margin of only four points. So there has to be a true surprise team among those ten, right? Yes, very much so. While surprise leaders Borussia Mönchengladbach have all the makings of a legitimately good team, and Schalke 04’s revival under the guidance of David Wagner also seems to be real, we have teeny-tiny SC Freiburg in third place currently. Which is, by any measurement, shocking.
Let’s start off with the obligatory ‘raining on the parade’ from a statistical point of view. Because, yes, you can be a bit of Debbie Downer on Freiburg’s hot start.
In attack, Freiburg have been absolutely lethal in regards to finishing off their bigger chances.
And, surprise-surprise, the opposition has been far less clinical from similar types of shots so far.
But as you can from the xG trendlines, Freiburg are definitely improving. Helped by this hot start, they have a legitimate chance of finishing in the top half of the table: if last season’s points total of the Bundesliga’s ninth team (Hoffenheim, 44 points) suffices this year, the local pride of southwest Baden Württemberg only needs 27 points from the remaining 25 games. A top-half finish would be a remarkable achievement for manager Christian Streich’s squad. Last season, only 1. FC Nürnberg had a smaller player payroll than Freiburg among the 18 Bundesliga teams - with the arrival of Union Berlin and Paderborn, the expectation is that Freiburg will rank in 16th place in that budget table this season. Which makes it all the more admirable that Freiburg could finish among the best half of the Bundesliga for the fourth time since 2010 this year. It seems that Streich and his boys truly are capable in the art of over-achieving. More than enough reasons to take a look at the standouts of the current squad.
Although Freiburg do occasionally show nice bursts of an organised press and some feisty bits of gegenpressung, Streich’s squad mostly plays in a bend-but-don’t-break style. They defend in a 5-4-1 shape, with the two semi-wingers dropping back around the parts of the field where the opponent’s second midfield-option in the build-up occupies space. At the heart of the defense, we find a brand-new German international, Robin Koch. With the forced (and controversial) international retirement of Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng and the horrific injury for Niklas Süle, the 23 year-old really has a shot at playing time at the Euros next summer. Koch combines impressive size (6 foot 4) with adequate speed and agility, and impressive ball-playing skills.
Considering the absolute dearth of capable, left-footed German centre backs, there’s also a reasonable chance that Koch’s partner on his left-hand side, Dominique Heintz, can make it to the final 23 at Die Mannschaft next summer. The 26-year old defender is less polished on the ball than Koch, but also quite big and physical (6 foot 3), and an excellent marker. The silent success of Heintz has been key for Freiburg’s hot start this season.
Freiburg’s midfield four (in possession, they play from a 3-4-2-1 shape) is less stacked with individual talent than their back three. Veteran Nicolas Höfler, who is the best ball distributor in Freiburg’s direct passing game, gets accompanied by a ball-winning type in the heart of midfield, while a lot of attacking play goes through the oft-crossing wingbacks, Jonathan Schmid on the right, Christian Günter on the left. Positional discipline when switching from attacking to defending is key for this group: seeing that Freiburg’s play in possession requires a good amount of width, whilst their defending mostly happens from a compact shape, means that the transition to defense really is labour-heavy for this crew. As you can see from the defensive activity map below, Freiburg are not a pressing bunch.
Centre back Koch is not the only young Freiburg player who recently made his international debut for Joachim Löw’s national team. Gian-Luca Waldschmidt was rewarded for an excellent summer and a decent start to the new Bundesliga season. Waldschmidt was crowned top scorer at the European Championships for u21’s this summer, where Germany finished as runners-up to a dominant Spanish side; the young lefty scored a whopping total of seven goals in the tournament’s first four games, including an absolute rocket of a long shot (seriously, YouTube it). While Waldschmidt clearly is talented - he accompanies his splendid shot-technique with some nice vision and agility - and has scored five goals in his first eight official games of this season, the 23 year-old doesn’t seem to be playing in an ideal role in Streich’s effective, direct system. That shot map is a giant yikes!
Waldschmidt has been getting the majority of his minutes as a central striker in Freiburg’s 3-4-2-1, where he shares minutes with super-sub Nils Pedersen. But the youngster’s shot selection clearly leaves a lot to be desired from an out-and-out striker. In many ways, Waldschmidt’s game has a lot of similarities to a former Freiburg standout, Max Kruse. Just like Kruse (a lefty with a cannon of a shot as well), Waldschmidt seems to have the skillset to become a star player as a semi-striker - not a classical number 9, but also more of a poacher than a classical number 10.
But there currently seems to be no such role to be carved out for Waldschmidt. Because the current ‘semi-wingers’ epitomize Streich’s no-nonsense, heavy-workload playing style that makes Freiburg supersede their financial means. On the right, all-rounder Janik Haberer has been very useful with his somewhat insane workrate, and high football-IQ runs. But the true ‘grit’-standout of Freiburg’s season so far has been Lucas Höler.
On paper, the 25-year old is a striker. He also looks like a striker - albeit not a super deadly one, having scored 45 goals in 151 lower-league appearances before joining Freiburg in 2018. He even wears the number 9 on the back of his jersey. But Streich has molded Höler into a gloriously useful supporting player in one of the half-winger-half-striker roles in his formation. As a pure attacking talent, Höler would never stand out in the Bundesliga. But at Freiburg, his workrate and game intelligence have made him into one of the most important players in the squad, and a fitting symbol for this small team’s consistent success.