The difference 12 months can make in football is astounding. At this date in 2012, SC Freiburg were bottom of the Bundesliga with only three wins in 17 league games and had just appointed Christian Streich to replace Marcus Sorg, who had been dismissed in December.
Fast forward to January 2013, and Freiburg are sitting fifth in the table and are four points away from a Champions League position. The 46-year-old was a former youth coach and has effectively carried on the Freiburg philosophy of high-pressing, high-intensity and forcing the opposition into mistakes high up the pitch.
It is a quite unique style of play in the Bundesliga, and perhaps, more suited to the Spanish game, with similarities to the Villarreal and Barcelona philosophies. Streich’s experience of implementing the same attributes into his development squads has allowed him to create the right ethos around the first-team squad and identify the right players to suit their formation.
Based in the Black Forest, Freiburg are a modest, local club with a reasonably low budget compared to the teams around them in the league. Their academy system is well-respected in Germany with the likes of Oliver Baumann, Matthias Ginter and Oliver Sorg progressing through to the first-team under the enthusiastic head coach.
Unlike the rest of their opponents, Freiburg’s squad lacks any particularly talented individuals, or those with that extra element of skill or flair. Streich’s squad is well-moulded and the structure of the team is just as important as the ability of any specific individual players.
The integral part of Freiburg’s dangerous play is the high-pressing game, with an orthodox 4-2-4 formation, and the two supporting-attackers inclined to drop back into wide-midfield positions when in defensive areas. Freiburg play without a main centre-forward in their regular front-line of Jan Rosenthal, Max Kruse, Jonathan Schmid and Daniel Caligiuri.
Former Werder Bremen and St Pauli midfielder Max Kruse has been one of the signings of the season in the Bundesliga. The 24-year-old has slotted well into the attacking style at Freiburg, with great athleticism and ability to time runs from midfield to perfection. His work-rate is a vital asset to maintaining a pressing game that is designed to force the opposition into losing possession as close to their own goal as possible.
Born in Hamburg, Kruse was picked up by Bremen at the age of 17 but only went on to make one appearance in the first-team, despite being a regular feature in the Werder Bremen II side. A broken leg halted his development, and he subsequently lost his position in the German Youth Sides, which he represented from the U19 to U21 levels, when with the River Islanders.
In the search for first-team football, Kruse returned to his home city with St Pauli in 2009, playing 29 2. Bundesliga matches with seven goals to his name, and helping their promotion to the top-flight. The young midfielder added 33 Bundesliga games to his belt, scoring two goals, and creating seven in the season which saw St. Pauli drop back to the Second Division.
Honing his attacking attributes at St Pauli, Kruse thrived back in the 2. Bundesliga with 13 goals in 34 games—he missed just 57 minutes of that league campaign—and he earned a move back to the Bundesliga with SC Freiburg in the summer. His decision to leave Bremen and drop to the 2. Bundesliga might have been a tough one, but his positional development at the Milentor has been essential to learning the ropes.
Kruse has now held his own as an attacking-midfielder, and is in a different mould to the traditional ‘No.10’/Zehner in German football, lacking the same guile and skill as other players in that role. But Kruse’s intelligent running from the middle, dynamism and sheer athleticism make him a very difficult opponent to track and pick-up.
In Streich’s 4-2-4 setup, Kruse rotates between inside-left and inside-right alongside 26-year-old Jan Rosenthal at the front of the attacking shape. French attacker Jonathan Schmid provides a lovely inverted balance from the right-hand side, cutting on to his favoured left-foot, and likewise with the prolific Daniel Caligiuri on the left.
Freiburg are highly unlikely to make any major transfers in the January transfer window for a number of reasons. Predominantly though, it is not in the club’s transfer strategy to spend medium-to-large sums of money on players, preferring for stability and confidence in their academy to come to the fore.
With Streich’s selections and signings paying dividends over the season, and with an impressive setup already, the Freiburg officials will be quite content to finish the campaign with the current backbone of the squad.