Preview: SC Freiburg – FC Bayern

Justin Separator January 18, 2017

Freiburg can reflect on a successful first half to the season. They still actually have the game against Bayern to go, since this is indeed the 17th matchday, but even if they lose, things won’t change. Among other things, we talked to Freiburg fan Michael about the reasons for that, Christian Streich, Nils Petersen and the game on Friday.

(Visual: Michael Böck)

Hello, first of all please introduce yourself to our readers, explaining who you are and your connection to SC Freiburg.

Hello, I’m Michael, and over countless childhood holidays in the black forest I became and stayed a Freiburg fan. You can find me on Twitter as @fuszball and if you want to hear my coughy, sniffy, sneezy voice, you’re more than welcome to check out the Füchsletalk (@fuechsle_talk) podcast.

Sometimes one gets the feeling that Freiburg’s fantastic performances are going just a little bit under the radar. How is it that the club is so successful in spite of limited resources?

Well, the fact that we’re going a bit under the radar this season definitely has something to do with the table: Frankfurt so high up, with some of the usual contenders for the Champions League loitering in the bottom third of the table. So our 8th place at the half-way point isn’t so eye-catching in comparison. The main reason for our success so far is that, in contrast to almost always, we lost no players in the summer, and the team almost swore an oath to stick together at least for the first season after our promotion into the Bundesliga.

A few years ago, the word from SC Freiburg, quite modestly, was that you saw yourselves in the top 25 of German clubs, and with that in mind constantly have a plan ready for the second division. Is that still the case or have expectations changed now? What are the long-term goals?

We’ve certainly become a bit more confident: I think these days we see ourselves more as part of the top 20, or at worst come in at number 21, in Germany. We know there’s always the chance we’ll go back down again if it goes badly, but we’ve always got a plan up our sleeves so we can look ahead quickly again. The goal for these next years, most of all, is to ensure the move into the new stadium goes as swiftly as possible, so we can make the most of the additional revenue in cancelling out the financial disadvantages. Maybe then we can be a bit bolder and aim for the top 15 in Germany.

Time to sing some praises: Christian Streich is, without a doubt, one of Germany’s most special managers. What is it that makes him just so special?

The greatest thing about him, removed from the fantastic work he puts in here, is that he’s an incredibly great person – his interests and his world-view don’t die outside of the stadium and the training ground, and I find it great that we have someone in the dug-out who, unlike other managers, isn’t just a rent-a-quote coach.

And the football side of things?

In that sense, he’s the best manager you could think of for Freiburg: he has known the whole team and the academy for many years, has good working relationships within the club too, including young players, and has the rare gift of being able to support them and demand more of them at the same time. A player like Söyüncü would, after his initial difficulties, probably not have played such a big role at any other Bundesliga side as he has for us. But Streich protected him, built up his confidence and worked intensively with him. And I always imagine that being pretty funny, since basically neither of them speak German… (Ed: though Streich does speak German, he speaks quite quickly with a very strong dialect that’s even hard for some Germans to decipher)

Christian Streich and Freiburg, a combination that the fans hope to see for a long time to come
(Image: Marc Mueller / Bongarts / Getty Images)

What kind of football does Streich try to promote?

Freiburg’s football under Streich has changed a little, which is interesting since that has also gone under the radar a little bit: our game has become more physical, while the players remain, becoming a little bit more assertive in the mean-time. Also long balls, which were indeed a taboo in Freiburg for a while, are more common now. One of the reasons for that is that we now have players who can play those balls, as well as Nils Petersen up front, who can make something out of them.

And yet Petersen, one of the biggest names at Freiburg, who always delivers too, plays relatively little. What’s up with that?

Wasn’t that the case at Bayern too? Nils, when you examine the rate of goals per game, has scored at an above-average rate regularly wherever he’s been, with the slight drop in Bremen an exception. The fact that he doesn’t play all 90 minutes all the time is down to a combination of two things: firstly, this season, all of our strikers are in good form and the tactic of bringing Petersen on later as a super-sub is just working pretty well. Secondly, it’s probably a tactical move too that Niederlechner starts, busying the opposing defence before tiring out, when we can then bring on a fresh striker who was also able to check out the defence he’d be up against from the bench before the substitution. What Petersen and Niederlechner think about that was clear to see in an interview with the Badische Zeitung from the training camp: they both say that of course every player always wants to play 90 minutes, but they also see that it’s going really well for the team as it is at the moment.

For the Rekordmeister, Freiburg have always been an unpleasant opponent. What makes you optimistic for Friday, and what do you expect tactically from your side?

Other than Söyüncü, the whole back-line should be fit again. There haven’t been any departures. The winter break was long enough to rejuvenate, and not too long to lose our momentum from the season so far, I hope, at least.

As for tactics, I can imagine several scenarios: the three-man back-line that we employed at times in the first half of the season which becomes five in defence is definitely an option. Our usual 4-4-2 with a defensive double-pivot in midfield is also a possibility for sure, mostly because the team still feels most comfortable in that system – as we saw earlier several times after changes in formation. Regardless of the formation, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to put Alonso under pressure, and since we’re a team of strong runners I’m excited to see how the midfield battle looks on Friday. The only thing that I can’t imagine at all is Freiburg sitting back at home. Maybe it’ll snow a little too, like in our game against Leipzig during our promotion year. That’d be an atmospheric way to get the ball rolling in the new year!

How will the game turn out?

I’ll be pleased if we don’t lose. We’re strong at home, we haven’t lost recent home games against Bayern and we’re experienced. I think a draw isn’t completely unrealistic.

If you could choose any Bayern player, who would it be and why?

If we had Lewandowski, Petersen would have even more problems getting game time, so you can keep him… purely out of interest I’ll say Müller: that the talked-about loan move never happened is a shame. That’s an exciting “What would have been if…” scenario.

We’ve seen clearly already in the interview that this Freiburg side are no typical newly-promoted side. Park the bus and hope for some luck defensively? Not with Christian Streich.

Freiburg are convincing with their relatively attacking football, but look at the same time to keep as compact as possible in defence.

The two teams compared
(Analytics: Lukas)

Scouting report

Above all, Freiburg have become more flexible too. As well as the formations spoken about in the interview (3-5-2/5-3-2 and 4-4-2), there are also the long balls, situationally aggressive defensive behaviour and a varying intensity in their pressing that contribute to the development in their game.

Whether it’s three or four at the back, the wing-backs in particular carry out a lot of running to overload the opposition on the flanks. Streich’s side run 118km on average per game, which is the best in the league. Due to this kind of enormous effort, Freiburg are able to close gaps in their formation quickly.

So, a midfield battle could be lying in wait for Bayern, and the outcome of that will decide who takes control of the game.

Freiburg’s biggest strength, however, is going forward. If you ignore Leipzig as an anomaly, there has perhaps never before been a new Bundesliga side who have had such a well-rounded, widely-positioned and effective attack.

Maximilian Philipp, Nils Petersen and Florian Niederlechner have produced 15 goals together (five each). If one struggles for form, one of the others can jump right in. If the game isn’t going to plan, Streich simply brings Petersen on, with the striker always able to turn things around for his team. That’s a luxury not enjoyed by Ingolstadt, Darmstadt, Augsburg and co.

Streich has, at least in the last year or so, clearly divided the roles between the three. Niederlechner is more of a deep-lying striker who does also at times push higher up, supporting his team-mates with runs and, more often, looking for one-v-ones, playing to his technical strengths. Philipp and Petersen are more target players, with the latter finding himself increasing in the role of wildcard.

Since Niederlechner regularly looks for one-v-ones, the other two aren’t as active. In spite of that, all three generate a lot of shots.
(Analytics: Lukas)

The creative head in midfield is Vincenzo Grifo. The Italian doesn’t just take dangerous set-pieces, but can also impress with his individual play and good passing.

All in all, though, Freiburg isn’t a team that relies on individual quality. Eventually team spirit, hard running, aggression, courage and a rather unique combination up front makes this Freiburg a rather unpleasant opponent for Bayern to kick off the second half of the season against.

So Bayern, for their part, will have to find their rhythm straight away. They have indeed been pretty successful so far, but not always completely satisfied. 2016 was, however, drawn to a close with a superb performance against Leipzig.

The men from Munich have to build on that now. Above all, the midfield set-up will certainly be interesting. With Thiago missing, they won’t have the man who held together Bayern’s positional play with Ancelotti often unsure how to structure things in that sense.

Whether Bayern are able to structure things properly in the centre without the Spaniard as well will be decided over the course of the game. Ancelotti’s best option here might be Thomas Müller as an advanced central midfielder, since he has the best understanding of the number-ten zone and constantly supports the wide players.

Those wide players rely on occupying the half-spaces well. Whether that’s through diagonal runs from the wing-backs or thanks to the central midfielders doesn’t matter so much; it’s more about making triangles. Far too often this season have Bayern left their dribblers alone out wide. That led to a lot of crosses and not enough creativity to break down opposing defences.

They solved that problem well, however, against Leipzig.

Bayern München vs RB Leipzig, Line-ups Bayern were in constant movement against Leipzig and so were able to constantly outmanoeuvre the opposing press.

The constant movement in positional play and also the many supporting runs made by Thiago as well as the wide players always caused the opponents problems. One Bayern midfielder by-passed the pressing in the centre as a result, while the other was supported by the number ten and/or the wide players cutting inside. Wherever the ball was, Ancelotti’s men were able to create telling overloads.

Leipzig’s pressing became so ineffective that Alonso got the help he needed, and so gave one of his best performances. On top of that, the wingers who would often drift inside harmonised better with the rest of the team, since Thiago created the necessary connections in the ten-zone. Freiburg won’t cede the centre in the same way that Leipzig did, meaning that the solutions will need to be adjusted, but it should become clear how important movement and triangles are.

The counter-pressing will play a large role too. Freiburg struggle to build up from the back when pressurised. Lately Bayern have been getting better at that. At the start they left a few large gaps between the lines, before pressing Leipzig to death in their own half. This merciless, but above all structured, closing-down will need to be present from the start for Bayern in Freiburg.

Should the Rekordmeister win on Friday evening in Freiburg, that will make Bayern winter champions for the 22nd time, which would make them sole record holders. Of the previous 21 winter titles, 18 led to a league trophy.

So, for Bayern it’s about three points, a successful restart to the season and a good omen for the most important title of all.

Five bold predictions

  1. Bayern will make a successful start to the new year.
  2. Lewandowski will score at least once.
  3. At least three goals will be scored.
  4. Bayern won’t keep a clean sheet.
  5. There will be at least three yellow cards.

After two correct predictions from the Leipzig preview, my score so far is 53/105.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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