Freiburg have been outdoing the likes of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig in 2022/23, even topping the table earlier in the campaign. The one-time minnows from the Black Forest are now an established Bundesliga force under Christian Streich, and increasingly mixing it with the big boys at the top.
It probably doesn’t sound that outrageous for last year’s DFB Cup runners-up to be getting involved in the battle for Bundesliga supremacy. Yet it was still a pretty big surprise when Die Breisgauer moved to the top of the table on Matchday 5.
A hard-fought, clinical display saw them win 3-2 away at Bayer Leverkusen, and meant that last year’s sixth-placed side were leading the way at the end of a matchday for only the second time in their history. The other occasion came after the opening round of the 2000/01 season.
Matthias Ginters celebration after stooping to head in Freiburg’s equaliser at the BayArena was symbolic of the new – and most importantly, public – confidence that the Black Forest club rightfully now have on the back of their best-ever start to a season. With a stony-faced expression, he pointed to the club badge on his shirt as if to say to the cameras, “This is my club. We are SC Freiburg”.
After the match, coach Streich was compelled – by his professionalism and nature – to hurriedly emphasise the “luck” that was involved. “We had periods in the last three games where we played well, but periods where we didn’t do well enough. We’ve had good results in the last few games, but it can’t all be explained with quality. Moments went our way,” the 57-year-old said.
But none of this is down to luck. Freiburg lost Roland Sallai to injury after nine minutes in Leverkusen and went behind when Kerem Demirbay turned home a failed clearance.
A change in formation for the second half was seen as the impetus for the comeback, but it was also just Freiburg playing to their strengths – and that’s set pieces. First Vincenzo Grifo’s corner was met by Ginter, before Nicolas Höfler flicked on Christian Günter’sdelivery for Ritsu Doan to turn in the winner after Patrik Schick had levelled.
Michael Gregoritsch had earlier slotted home after a Leverkusen defensive mistake to put the visitors 2-1 in front just six minutes after the restart. And even the manner of the goals was indicative of the spirit and determination in the Freiburg squad. Ginter put his head on the line diving to meet the ball; Gregoritsch clattered into the post to turn his in; and Doan got the better of Daley Sinkgraven to get to the ball first.
All three goals were also scored by summer signings, underlining once more the excellent work the club frequently does in the transfer market.
Even with crucial new additions, the key thing for Streich is that the core of the team that qualified for Europe and reached the DFB Cup final last season has remained intact. Only summer asignings,left the club for Dortmund, being replaced by a more experienced Germany international in Ginter as he returned to his boyhood club.
That continuity is not something they take for granted in Freiburg. Although Streich is the longest-serving coach in the Bundesliga by some distance – almost 11 years – the past has shown that the squad is often picked apart on the back of successful campaigns and they have to start over. Not this time for a club now on solid financial foundations and in a modern new stadium.
For years Freiburg were a popular side among supporters of other teams because they had that quaint, small-club feeling, and were seen as the little team from the Black Forest in an enchanted corner of Germany who never really posed a threat. However, they are sporting proof that you can almost sneak your way to the top of the game. They have gone about their business quietly and unassumingly.
Are we looking at another Wolfsburg or Leicester City about to upset the establishment? They’d never say that’s their objective in Freiburg. In fact, Streich declared after the Leverkusen game that the goal in a season that also includes UEFA Europa League action is to avoid relegation.
The results suggest otherwise, however. The Black Forest club are currently enjoying a seven-game unbeaten streak in the Bundesliga, and picked up a fifth win of the campaign at home to Mainz on Matchday 8. Ahead of the Matchday 10 meeting with Bayern, they are two points clear of the record champions in second place. Sunday’s trip to the Allianz Arena should give an indication of just how high they can fly.
Four months on from coming so agonisingly close to a first major title in the DFB Cup – a defeat that can often break a team – they’re looking more determined than ever. And there’s no suggestion they’ll be dropping out of Germany’s upper echelons any time soon.