Juventus take on SC Freiburg in the Round of 16 of the Europa League starting this Thursday, with the first leg being played in Turin and the return in Germany the following week.
The Bianconeri’s next opponents are not a household name in European football, but have been impressive in the last few years following up two top ten finishes with a sixth place last campaign and are in fifth this season.
To get more of an idea of who Freiburg are and what kind of threat they pose on the pitch, we caught up with Adrian Sertl, an ardent Freiburg supporter from Toronto, Ontario and club member since 2017.
For those of our fans who don’t know much about Freiburg, tell us about the club and their history. What are the team colors, and any nicknames? On a related note, tell us more about the club’s impressive and scary crest!
At the risk of glossing over nearly 120 years of club history, up until quite recently the story has been a rather humble one. From the beginnings in the early 1900s as an amalgam of two local clubs, the team now known as SC Freiburg has spent the vast majority of its existence in amateur football before winning promotion to the 2. Bundesliga in the late 1970s. SCF would stay for fifteen seasons in the second division until achieving promotion to the top flight for the 1993-94 season under the guidance of the legendary manager Volker Finke. It was under Finke’s watch that the club gained its nickname the Breisgau Brasilianer (the Brazilians from the Breisgau) for the attractive attacking football they played. The most recent era under current boss Christian Streich has seen the club firmly establish itself first and foremost as a Bundesliga side but also one that has the ambition to push further up the table and perhaps be a perennial contender for the European spots.
This Bundesliga era of Freiburg’s, starting with Finke and continuing with Streich, can be summed up nicely with one word: consistency. The club understands its standing in the greater scheme of German football and doesn’t go out of its way to live beyond its means. Staying in the league is always the prime objective and anything else that happens to come along is an unexpected bonus.
Losing its standout players in the transfer windows is a constant bogeyman for the club. Freiburg is well known for not hesitating to bring younger players up through the ranks and into the first team because they know that these youngsters are being trained to play the Freiburg way and will fit seamlessly into the squad. Those players that can’t be replaced by youth team graduates have their spots filled with inexpensive, yet talented players brought in by a competent scouting department.
Perhaps the main hallmark of this consistency is the way Freiburg sticks with its managerial squads. Since 1991, the club have employed only four managers and have stuck by these top men through relegation and promotions alike. The Sporting Director Klemens Hartenbach has maintained his place since 2013 and two of the more important club executives, Jochen Saier and Oliver Leki, have held their posts since 2014. This kind of thing is extremely rare in modern football.
As for club colours, SCF’s traditional kits will be in red and black, saving the away shirts for the more creative and sometimes flamboyant designs. As part of the club’s commitment to sustainability, the new shirts are made out of recycled polyester. The club’s crest is an imposing gryphon head with an open beak that was first used in the 1950s replacing a stylised “SCF”.
Freiburg sit in fifth place in a wide-open Bundesliga title race. What has gone right for them this year? What’s been their biggest strengths and weaknesses?
It certainly is an exciting race for the title this season and part of the reason for that excitement is that we’ve got a few new teams up near the top of the table, Freiburg of course being one of them. Part of why this is the case is that some of the bigger clubs, the ones you’d expect to be challenging for the title, have struggled at times – most notably RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund. While those teams have since righted their ships and are back to where they expected to be, this has afforded a club like Freiburg the opportunity to maintain their spot in near the top of the table.
Some outliers aside, Freiburg have been fairly strong defensively this season and currently lead the league in clean sheets with ten and have allowed one goal or fewer in 16 of the 23 league matches thus far. On the other side of the ball, Freiburg will look to move the ball up the pitch as quickly as possible and make use of the flanks to provide their attacks with emphasis on the left side occupied by Vincenzo Grifo and Christian Günter – both of these players are excellent crossers of the ball and combine together with great effectiveness to create chances for their teammates. Additionally, Freiburg have feasted off of set pieces - they are near the top of the league in threats from free kicks and corners and more than half of the team’s goals have come from set piece opportunities (including penalties).
As for weaknesses, sometimes when up a goal or two Freiburg can some show too much respect to their opposition, especially those that they may be expected to beat, and take a more defensive approach to the match instead of staying on the front foot and putting the match out of reach. This doesn’t always mean Freiburg will squander away a lead but it does mean that matches may be a little closer than they should be. I don’t suspect this will be a problem against Juventus however.
Freiburg can also struggle to effectively deal with a team that presses them and if they are unable to play out of the press will usually play the safer option of getting the ball long upfield or ceding possession by putting it out of play.
Very few clubs in world football have the kind of squad depth to maintain challenges in multiple competitions. Will Freiburg be prioritizing any one of them over the other?
The goal first and foremost for Freiburg is retaining their place in the Bundesliga – the supporters are well known to have a running countdown to the 40 point mark, which will certainly guarantee top flight status for another season. That being said, this year’s squad is the most deep the club has had, perhaps ever and is the best equipped to be competitive in all three of the competitions Freiburg are playing in.
The DFB Pokal (domestic cup) is typically the club’s best shot at silverware so there is some importance placed on that competition. They so nearly accomplished that feat last season, falling on penalties in the Final against RB Leipzig. This season Freiburg has reached the quarter-finals but have the monumental task of a trip to the Allianz Arena to play FC Bayern.
Since European football is such a rare occurrence for Freiburg, I don’t think it would be too incorrect to say that the Europa League’s priority was probably the lowest of all three competitions at the outset of the season. With that being said, the club has all but secured their Bundesliga status for next season and coupling this with the strong performances in the group stage, there is at least a heightened sense of excitement around the tie vs Juve. I can guarantee that the squad will go all out in these next two matches.
What is manager Christian Streich’s footballing philosophy? Tell us about some of the tactical innovations he specializes in and what we can expect this week.
Christian Streich’s football is, by design, intense and requires the players to have a high work rate and lots of stamina in order to play the way the coach demands.
When playing without the ball, Streich’s men will press high up the pitch in what I like to call controlled aggression. The players will press with purpose but will not push too aggressively that they lose their defensive structure – this season Freiburg typically line up with a four-man back line but that can quickly turn into a back five when defensive midfielder Nicolas Höfler drops back. The idea being to force the opposition into wider areas by cutting off any passing or dribbling lanes in the centre of the pitch. At that point, Freiburg can rely on their aerial strength, in the form of centre backs Matthias Ginter and Philipp Lienhart and the aforementioned Höfler, to clear crosses from danger.
With the ball Freiburg are usually looking to get up the pitch as quickly as possible but are also very comfortable playing out from the back. In order to facilitate this Nicolas Höfler will once again drop into the back line to pick up the ball which allows the fullbacks to move further up the pitch to create passing options. The fullbacks are normally the ones tasked with moving the ball up the pitch quickly but have support from the attacking players who will shift to the side of the ball to create a numerical advantage that the team can attempt to pass through. The end goal is to get crosses into the box to hopefully exploit a numerical advantage or to draw fouls in dangerous areas where Freiburg’s set piece prowess can be put on full display.
Juventus certainly have some weaknesses that can be taken advantage of. What aspects will Freiburg focus on and look to exploit when the two sides meet?
I’d be remiss if I said I was up to speed on the opposition’s play style or strengths/weaknesses. What I do know is that Freiburg will be well prepared for the task ahead of them and should look to impose their style of play on the match – they have been successful playing the Freiburg way and there’s no reason to stop doing that now. One player that the team will know well is Filip Kostic and they would do well to minimise his influence on the match.
How has Vincenzo Grifo developed at Freiburg the last few years? He’s never quite made it with the Italian national team but seems to be doing well in Germany.
Vincenzo Grifo has truly developed into one of the league’s top creative players during his time at SC Freiburg. He joined the club in the 2015-16 season, when SCF was playing in the second division, and instantly became a breakout star with 14 goals and 15 assists – many of those goals coming from highlight reel free kicks. His success with the club ultimately earned him a move to Borussia Mönchengladbach who could undoubtedly pay him more that Freiburg could have hoped, but injuries coupled with a very competitive midfield limited his influence and he decided on a move back to former club TSG Hoffenheim.
This move turned out to be even worse than his stint at Mönchengladbach and it wasn’t before long that he was back in the red and black, at first on a January loan and then on a permanent move. The prodigal son had returned home.
At Freiburg, Grifo is the maestro, and his partnership with Christian Günter on the left side has been integral to the club’s success. A self described street footballer, Grifo is given free reign to create and improvise in the opposition’s defensive third and is among the league leaders in shot producing actions.
In addition to these God given talents, Grifo has also bought in heavily to the Streich footballing philosophy. He understands that in order to be effective offensively, he needs to put in the work defensively and evolve as a two-way player. It may seem a bit trivial but it is interesting to note how much he’s improved at heading the ball this season, heading the ball with purpose and winning aerial duels to get or maintain possession.
What Grifo’s education at SC Freiburg amounts to is that he’s become a more complete player but without sacrificing the qualities that make him a special talent – something that maybe the Italian National Team should be taking notice of. And while Grifo may be Freiburg through and through, I don’t think any of the supporters would begrudge him if he ever decided to follow his heart and suit up for a Serie A club…Juventus perhaps?
Our thanks to Adrian for his time and insightful comments about Freiburg.