After five matchdays the top of the Bundesliga table has an unfamiliar feel with Freiburg sitting top ahead of both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Only a defensive meltdown right at the end against BVB on matchday 2 prevented the Breisgauer from having a 100% record this season.
Wins against Augsburg, VfB Stuttgart, VfL Bochum and recently Bayer Leverkusen have pushed the Black Forest club to the Bundesliga summit. Anybody who watched their march to a sixth-place finish last season (three points behind fourth place Leipzig) won’t be too surprised with the way their form has continued this season. But what exactly is behind the great start to the new campaign?
1. The return of Matthias Ginter
The loss of Nico Schlotterbeck to Borussia Dortmund was always going to be a blow, but it was softened greatly by the re-signing of Matthias Ginter eight years after he left the club. During his time away he won the World Cup with Germany played 281 Bundesliga matches for BVB and then Borussia Mönchengladbach.
The pull of his hometown club was obvious, but Ginter hasn’t just come to wind down his career in the peaceful Black Forest region. Reported interest from Serie A and the Premier League wasn’t enough to stop him re-joining Freiburg and he has instantly made a positive impact.
He’s forged an immediate understanding with the under-rated Philipp Lienhart and scored twice already this season. His goal against Bayer Leverkusen at the weekend summed up his contribution superbly. With the hosts leading, he launched himself between two defenders, putting his head in the danger zone, to power home a headed equaliser.
2. Christian Streich
There is only so much a coach can do, but Christian Streich does so much. Freiburg’s success is intrinsically linked to him and the way he gets the best out of what in comparison is a limited squad has no match in recent years in the Bundesliga. His down-to-earth style means the players will not be allowed to get carried away with the early leadership of the table.
Indeed, after the Leverkusen win, he was insisting his focus was on avoiding relegation rather than emulating the Leicester City miracle of 2016. “In a year in which we play in Europe, it’s about playing some games in the European competition and keeping Freiburg in the Bundesliga,” Streich said. “If that happens, it will have been a good year. And I’m completely serious about that.”
Streich took charge in January 2012 and has stuck with the club through thick and thin, ensuring Freiburg’s return to the Bundesliga in 2016 just a year after relegation. He insists on working on a yearly rolling contract so that he can “stay only as long as I’m able to remain who I am.”
He is tactically astute, is able to continually develop his squads despite player sales (Nico Schlotterbeck, Alexander Schwolow) and has the full respect and confidence of his players. He is an integral part of the club’s DNA and an integral part of the current success.
3. The Gregoritsch/ Demirovic swap has paid off
Freiburg pulled off quite the savvy piece of business in the summer when swapping strikers Michael Gregoritsch (FC Augsburg) with Ermedin Demirovic. The Austrian has settled very quickly into his role as the focal point in attack and already has three goals and an assist on his account.
Playing in front of Vincenzo Grifo, Ritsu Doan and Roland Sallai he offers both an aerial threat, but also clever runs into space that open things up. He possesses great awareness of when to burst forward, when to hold his run, and how to use his physique to hold-up play.
Early season form indicates that Freiburg, not Augsburg, go the better end of the swap deal.
4. The modern attacking full backs
Jurgen Klopp has epitomised the success to be had with two attacking fullbacks with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. League titles and Champions League trophies have been won on the back of the overlapping duo. Freiburg probably aren’t going to achieve Champions League or Bundesliga triumphs, but in Christian Günter and Kiliann Sildillia they have their own fullback pairing capable of doing some damage.
Captain Günter’s contribution from left back has been consistently good for a number of seasons, Sildillia’s form since being drafted in to deputise for the injured Lukas Kubler has meant that he has to keep his place based on his excellent performances (two assists so far). Largely an un-used squad player since joining the club in 2020, Streich’s attempt to convert him from a centreback to a more adventurous fullback has paid instant dividends.
5. Vincenzo Grifo/ Ritsu Doan
Freiburg are top of the table because key players in key positions are all playing well at the same time- be that goalkeeper Mark Flekken, Ginter and Lienhart, Günter and Sildillia, or Gregoritsch.
Two other players playing a key role in Freiburg’s early success are Vincenzo Grifo and summer arrival Ritsu Doan. It came as a surprise that more clubs were not interested in Doan after his impressive first season in the Bundesliga with Arminia Bielefeld. After returning to PSV after his loan finished Freiburg paid €8.5 million and it is looking like money well spent.
The Japanese midfielder scored the extra-time winner in the DFB Pokal win over Kaiserslautern and then on his Bundesliga debut for the club against Augsburg. He then came on as a sub last time out to score against Bayer Leverkusen and help Freiburg to the top of the Bundesliga tree.
Grifo like Ginter is in his second spell at the club and living the adage that the grass is not always greener on the other side after spells at Mönchengladbach and Hoffenheim didn’t work out as planned. This season its not just his set-piece delivery that stands out, but his three goals against Augsburg (a classic free kick), Stuttgart and Bochum (not officially a penalty).