After back to back top ten finishes, SC Freiburg are now flying high toward a Champions League position in the German Bundesliga. Christian Streich’s team have played some fantastic high pressing, high tempo football, beating some of the best teams in the league without any genuine stars in their side. So following up from our tactical analysis of the team last season, we take a look at how Christian Streich has revolutionized Freiburg in 2021-22.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-4-3
While Christian Streich remains a flexible tactician, SC Freiburg have most prominently achieved success using a 3-4-3 system this season. In 14 matches this season, Streich has facilitated a 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1 on eight occasions. The other six they’ve played in variations of a 4-4-2, sometimes looking more like 4-4-1-1. Regardless of formation, Streich has a consistent set of personnel in which he looks to use whenever possible. Captain fantastic Christian Gunter has played every single minute this season as the left-back in the team, after earning himself a selection to Jochim Low’s final Euros squad last summer. Goalkeeper Mark Flekken has also played every single minute, with centre-backs Philipp Lienhart and Nico Schlotterbeck starting every single game alongside them. The versatile forward Lucas Holer is the fifth and final player to start every game, and unlike those mentioned before him, he’s performed in a variety of different roles along the front line. Vincenzo Grifo has continued as the closest thing to a star in the team, fulfilling a role on the wide left, with the most common right-sided player being South Korean international Woo-Yeong Jeong. In central midfield, Streich’s been impressed with the form of veteran midfielder Nicolas Hofler and team newboy Maximilian Eggestein, after his move from Werder Bremen in the summer. Lukas Kubler’s played the most prominent role on the right side of the back-four or as the right-wing-back, while Manuel Gulde has been the man to enter the frame whenever Streich deploys a back-three. While a few other players have rotated in and out of the side, the most important of substitutes has been the young 20-year-old Kevin Schade, who’s trickery and dazzling footwork has caught the eye in recent weeks.Embed from Getty Images
Before moving on to the tactical notes within Streich’s system and style of play, it’s important to note that Freiburg are a well-drilled, high-pressing team, that don’t abandon their style of play against any opposition. They can play the 3-4-3 or 4-4-2 in different moments, to equal success, with that slight variation offering Streich something different depending on the opposition’s system and style of play. While it’s a bit random as to when they change shape, they will usually deploy a 4-4-2 against teams high in verticality, such as Dortmund or Stuttgart. Teams that can destroy their opposition in the wide areas like Bayern or Frankfurt, they will opt for a 3-4-3, and that extra defender.
BUILD-UPEmbed from Getty Images
SC Freiburg build out from the back in a 4+1 shape, that usually holds true regardless of the formation. This 4+1 can also look like the more commonly used 2+3, as the two furthest defenders join the distinctive line of the defensive midfielder. That said, the reason why I’m describing it more as a 4+1 is partially down to the personnel that make up that four and how they use their defenders to carry the ball out. Instead of Christian Gunter getting involved, the two widest players in the initial build-up are the right-back, usually Kubler, and Nico Schlotterbeck, the left-sided centre-back in the team. They will position themselves higher on a diagonal angle than the two centre-backs, but usually not quite as high as the lowest midfielder, Nicolas Hofler, who floats away from pressure. Hofler will often drift toward the centre-back in possession, drawing an opposition ‘number 10’ with him. This opens up more space for others to receive in between the lines, such as Woo-Yeong Jeong or Maximilian Eggestein. We’ve previously discussed this tactic in our Manchester City analysis this season, and how effective it can be at helping teams evade pressure.
It is true that Freiburg are best known for high-tempo, high-pressing, counter-attacking football. However, their possession and patience have come on leaps and bounds this season, and it’s a major reason why they’ve crept into fourth. In their impressive 1-1 draw with Leipzig in the middle of October, it was actually the Breisgau-Brasilianer who kept more of the possession. Given Leipzig’s excellent track record for keeping the ball and their clear principles of play centered around controlling the tempo of a match, this was a particularly impressive feat, and one that shows them to be more than just a counter-attacking team. In truth, Freiburg are actually excellent at expanding the field in possession, and utilizing width. They are not just a narrow-minded, counter-attacking team. They are so much more than that, and have showcased that time and time again with their results this season.Embed from Getty Images
They are one of the best in the league at finding the right avenues forward, and then making their magic happen. As we will discuss in the next section, their build-up often occurs in the wide areas, with the centre-backs and Hofler acting as key mechanisms for switching play left to right. They have a particular preference toward the left-hand-side and building out through Lienhart and Schlotterbeck, then advancing further forward when the time is right (or rather when the time is left). Left-sided centre-back Nico Schlotterbeck leads the team in progressive carries forward, and frequently continues his runs into the opposition half. He looks to get involved in the attacking half not only as a weapon for recycling play, but also as an underlapping centre-back who can spray vertical passes forward and find Lucas Holer up front. Between the two of them, Lienhart is actually the better in possession and the safer head at the back. But Schlotterbeck’s positivity is important too, and he will often look to be the one that advances the ball toward skillful players like Grifo, Gunter and Holer (the team’s most intended target of their attempted passes). This is one particular reason for their left-sidedness, as Holer will often drift over to the left, compared to Jeong who roams centrally and deeper to pick up the ball. Even when advancing down the right and switching things up, the ball will eventually make its way to Freiburg’s danger men down the left on a switch of play. So with that, let’s now examine what Streich’s men look to do after advancing the ball into the opposition’s half and how they use that left-sidedness to generate chances.
ATTACKING PRINCIPLESEmbed from Getty Images
SC Freiburg are one of the deadliest teams in the Bundesliga. Despite just 48% of the possession in their matches so far this season (11th in the league), they’ve scored a whopping 25 goals in 14 matches (joint 5th best). That is partially down to their quickness in attack, and their ability to generate quality chances that often end up in the penalty area. But again, they are so much more than just a team that relies on quick attacking transitions.Embed from Getty Images
Freiburg excel in the wide areas, frequently creating overloads and getting their best players in close proximity. They have a strong preference toward the left side (40% of attacks), where Christian Gunter and Vincenzo Grifo can link up in close quarters. Gunter will often look to hold a true wide position and deliver dangerous crosses into the box. Grifo on the other hand will drift inside with the ball, looking to create magic on the dribble and incisive passes into the penalty area. Gunter’s crossing numbers are right up there with the best in the league, and the two men have created 72 chances alone. Highlighting this left-sided dominance further, Freiburg’s most common right-sided players (Kubler and Jeong) have created just 12 chances this season. When you add the inclinations of both Holer and Woo-Yeong Jeong to drift over to this left-hand side, in addition to the presence of Eggestein often floating higher than both Gunter and Grifo, you have a team that can easily create havoc down the left, before crossing into the box for one of Freiburg’s many aerially-dominant men.
One of the reasons why Freiburg have climbed so far up the table this season comes down to their excellence in generating chances through careful pass and move sequences down the left-side, and an overall increased patience in working the wide areas in attack. But they are very much still a deadly counter-attacking team. The pace on the break provided by players like Woo-Yeong Jeong and the surprisingly quick Lucas Holer is enough to frighten any opposition defense, and both of Freiburg’s central midfielders present themselves as more box to box in nature, rather than true defensive players. Intriguingly however, the team as a whole have almost no reliance on dribbling. Their tally of 6.6 dribbles per game is the second lowest in the league, behind only FC Koln. As opposed to dribbling and ball carrying, their counter attacks are quick through incisive passing, and powerful running off the ball. Their longer spells of possession could be described as exactly that too, with only Grifo and Schade attempting to dance their way through the opposition on any real frequency. Holer’s powerful frame means that he often attracts pressure and wins fouls when he attempts to dribble, while Jeong Woo-Yeong wants to keep the team ticking as a unit rather than doing anything individualistic. Even Grifo doesn’t look to hold the ball for terribly long, and will often keep the ball at his feet more so as a mechanism to attract pressure and allow others to catch up. For example, he may drive inside at an opposition fullback onto his right foot, allowing Gunter to overlap him and exploit the vacated space down the wide left. Then Gunter will look to deliver one of his signature crosses, where Jeong and Holer are ready to pounce.Embed from Getty Images
It’s much less to do with what Freiburg do on the ball when it comes to their goal-scoring heroics, and much more to do with what they do off the ball. Their movement is impeccable, with players from every direction offering quick, forward runs into open space to receive. Through playing in the wide areas and overloading the left, they can take risks with the frequency at which they make forward runs, knowing they have several players in close quarters if they are to lose the ball.Embed from Getty Images
Finally, it has to be mentioned how in Lucas Holer, the Breisgau-Brasilianer have an excellent target man, who can hold up play, bring others into the game and get on the end of crosses. We already mentioned how the 27-year-old German is the team’s most intended target with their passes, and that continues into set-pieces. Freiburg have scored a whopping 11 goals from set-pieces and another 2 penalty kicks this season, the only team in the division with more goals scored from set-pieces than open play. As we noted about Bayern Munich and their use of Lewandowski from set-pieces, the presence of Holer presents a similar dilemma. As the opposition look to stop Holer from receiving on a set-piece, they forget about the big men at the back like Lienhart, Hofler and Schlotterbeck, who are also more than capable of slotting the ball home. Philipp Lienhart in particular has made a remarkable impact from their routines, scoring 4 set-piece goals. The team as a whole have scored 9 headed goals this season, which makes it all the more impossible for opposition teams to stop their tricky set-piece routines, let alone crosses into the box.
SET-PIECESEmbed from Getty Images
No team in the league have scored more set-piece goals than Freiburg this season. The excellence of their delivery, often coming from Gunter or Grifo, combined with the incredible power the team possess in the air, make them impossible to stop.
One of their favourite ways to score from set-pieces is simply to whip the ball toward the goalkeeper’s six yard box. Streich’s men will then make their forward movements toward the goal, looking to either head home the ball directly, or bounce in a rebound as the goalkeeper makes a save. You’ll often see three or four men more advanced than any opposition defender by the time a rebound comes their way, which obviously makes the goalkeeper’s task nearly impossible even if they do make the first save. Other times it’s more simple, and they’ll simply whip in a cross Peter Drury would only describe as “delicious”, toward the near-post for their big men to head in directly. But it’s again what they do off the ball that is so important here. Smartly, Streich’s men will often start behind their opposition, in the marking defender’s blindspot. The opposition defenders will strive to stay both goal-side and ball-side, focusing their attention on the ball as it’s delivered, neglecting what’s behind them. So as the ball comes in, Freiburg’s danger men will then move ahead of the defender marking them, who cannot react quick enough as Freiburg’s players appear out of nowhere to head home the ball or flick it onto the back-post for someone else. The sheer power of delivery from Gunter in particular will often mean that even if a Freiburg player doesn’t get the first touch, an opposition player can’t clear the ball away either. The ball will then bobble up and fall to one of Freiburg’s many warriors. Many of their goals are not pretty, but they are highly effective at making their moments count, and scoring goals when the opportunity presents itself.
DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLESEmbed from Getty Images
While Freiburg have excelled in attack this season, they’ve also made massive improvements to their defense. They’ve conceded just 13 goals in 14 matches this season, the best record in the division. As a comparison, Streich’s men conceded 52 goals in 34 matches last season, a significantly worse record.
Their defensive excellence this season all starts from their high-press, led by the forwards in a 5-2-3 or 5-2-1-2 shape. It goes without saying that their 4-4-2 formation will then stay the same in defense, with very little 2-4-4 adaptation to it. The more interesting shape is the 5-2-3, which has more fluctuation. As the ball moves to one side, it may actually take on the form of a 4-3-3, as a fullback joins the midfield line and everyone else shuffles across. In other moments it could look like a 3-4-1-2 or 5-2-1-2, as Woo-Jeong Yeong drops into central channels to screen the opposition’s ‘number 6’.Embed from Getty Images
Within their team of incredibly hard-workers, Woo-Yeong Jeong and Lucas Holer are particularly intelligent pressers. They are excellent at angling the opposition wide, and covering the opposition’s attempts to progress vertically through their approach. Grifo is the least active of the front three when it comes to applying pressure, but he too will take turns with the other two in dropping into central areas in more of a 1+2 pressing shape from the front. In behind them, Hofler is the team’s most successful and active presser, helping his team win the ball back 38% of the time directly after he’s applied pressure. That kind of statistic is usually more likely to come from centre-backs (Schlotterbeck for example is also at 38%), where it is crucial that the opposition are thwarted and unable to progress any closer to goal. That makes Hofler all the more impressive, and key to the team’s ability to win the ball back.
When it comes to their defensive stance and pressure, Freiburg are excellent at forcing their opposition out wide, where they want to play their football and restart attacks. They do this through an incredibly compact shape, with every single player condensing the field in defense. At their best, Freiburg’s left-winger and left-fullback will come all the way to the halfway-line when the ball is on the opposition’s left (Freiburg’s right) and vice versa. At their worst, they can sometimes be too open as the intense pressure wears off and their forwards begin to tire. This is however a rarity. Holer and Woo-Jeong seem to have an infinite supply of batteries in their bodies, and Hofler and Eggestein never let themselves drift too far apart in condensing central areas. But if the opposition are able to catch Freiburg in a lull moment and carve them open through the centre of the pitch, say through a powerful dribbler, the rest of the system can crumble.Embed from Getty Images
With the wing-backs often high up the pitch in possession, the biggest gap can then occur between wing-back and outside-centre-back as opposition players peg the defensive line back. This is where most opposition teams look to hurt Freiburg, and where they’ve conceded the biggest bulk of their 13 goals. Further, if their forwards fail to win the ball, Freiburg’s low-block can sometimes become too deep, inviting shots from range. But again, Streich’s men are usually fantastic at avoiding this. Their central midfielders are often resolute in tracking runs from deep during build-up phases, and one of the three forwards will often drop to condense central areas all the more and limit the opposition’s progress forward.
With Freiburg utilizing wide overloads in attack, they are also often well set up to counter-press in the wide areas. They rarely need to be overly-aggressive in stopping attacks when they first occur, trusting their compact shape to do the work on its own. In fact, the Breisgau-Brasilianer not only have the best defensive record in the league, but the best disciplinary record as well. They’ve given up just 10 yellow cards this season, and 0 reds. It’s all culminated in Streich’s team conceding just 13 goals in 14 matches, a remarkable tally at this stage of the competition.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
SC Freiburg have been one of the most exciting stories of the 2021-22 season, leaping into fourth place in the Bundesliga table so far. They’ve boasted the best defensive record in the league, whilst showcasing impressive pedigree in several other facets of the game – notably set-pieces, pressing and chance creation from wide areas. Whether or not Streich can lead his star-less Freiburg team into the Champions League remains to be seen, but for now, Freiburg are playing some of the most exciting football in the Bundesliga.
So there it is! A tactical analysis all about SC Freiburg in 2021-22, under the influence of Christian Streich. Be sure to check out more of our Bundesliga content and more analyses, and follow our social media channels @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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