Dieter Hoeness once said if Freiburg were successful in the Bundesliga, then everyone else was getting it wrong. This season, plenty of sides are struggling to find a formula as good as that of Robin Dutt’s men.
In a season of surprises, Freiburg’s rise to the top five has largely gone unnoticed, but heading into the final game of the first half of the campaign, fifth place is all theirs, a point ahead of Bayern Munich. “I’d prefer to turn it round,” said Dutt of Hoeness’ phrase, pronounced while the current Wolfsburg supremo was general manager of Stuttgart in the 1990s. “With a budget of €14.5m for the professionals, we’re doing a lot of things right.”
There is often a hair’s breadth between failure and success, and the squad seems to simply believe a bit more this season after testing the water of the top flight last time out. “We were in a similar situation to ‘Gladbach last season, and would probably have lost such a game,” explained captain Heiko Butscher after last Sunday’s 3-0 win against the league’s bottom side. “This year, we’re a couple of steps further on, and we believe in our strengths, especially when things aren’t going well.” Two successive wins and clean sheets following the 3-0 loss at Hannover in Week 14 are glowing testament to the team’s character and confidence.
Those qualities have been needed in spades this season with the team making every goal count. Incredibly, both of the bottom two – Stuttgart and ‘Gladbach – have scored more goals this season than Freiburg, and the defeat of ‘Gladbach was the first time this season they have won by more than a single goal. The 4-1-4-1 system employed this season has worked well, giving them both enough defensive solidity and sufficient attacking threat, largely thanks to Papiss Demba Cissé.
A relative mediocrity when he was picked up from French side Metz last January, the Senegalese forward began to make a name for himself by chipping in with important goals to keep Freiburg up. However, he has stepped up in a way few – if any – could have expected after the summer departure of Mohamadou Idrissou.
“If it was only up to me, there would be no limit,” said Dutt of the measures he would take to keep Cissé, who has struck 13 times this season and on 19 occasions in 32 Bundesliga games, at the club. “It’s my wish that he plays here at least another one or two years.”
With Arsenal and Fulham reportedly interested in acquiring the 25-year-old, Dutt’s dream may not come true, but for now he has a player who fits perfectly into his system. A lone striker needs strength, pace and a cast-iron first touch, which Cissé showed against ‘Gladbach, taking his second goal wonderfully.
He will be absent through suspension as Freiburg round off the first half of the season against Leverkusen this weekend, and we will see if Dutt’s belief that “no team should be dependent on one player” is his team’s reality. It looks mere lip-service in light of the stats – Freiburg’s next best scorer, Jan Rosenthal, has three – but there is no doubt Cissé’s starring role is backed up by an impressive supporting cast.
Going nowhere slowly at Hannover, Rosenthal – a former German Under-21 international – was brought in over the summer, and has added attacking impetus. “His impact has been more than positive,” said Dutt. “For us, Jan is worth his weight in gold.” Set-piece specialist Julian Schuster also excels as half-deep-lying-playmaker, half-destroyer in front of the back four, while Felix Bastians, who joined Nottingham Forest aged 17 and has Northwich Victoria, Halifax Town and Notts County already on his list of former clubs, has given both width and excellent service from left-back, providing four assists so far. Even young second-string goalkeeper Oliver Baumann has proved an unusually solid replacement for the injured Simon Pouplin, and only Dortmund’s Roman Weidenfeller is statistically better in the Bundesliga.
“We can still improve. If we can’t go any higher, then we have to change the coach,” said Dutt, whose previous biggest success before joining Freiburg was knocking Hamburg out of the German Cup with amateur side Stuttgarter Kickers in 2006. “I work at every club as if it’ll be my last. Of course, as a coach you’re always looking at the next step. But a team would have to come in and offer me a complete package just as I have at Freiburg, and that wouldn’t be easy. It’s already phenomenal that I get on well with everyone here, and we all have the same philosophy.”
That outlook, which emphasises neat, eye-catching, attacking football, has had the club’s fans singing about reaching the Champions League in recent weeks. That may be a bridge too far, but there is a good omen. In 1994/95, Freiburg had nine wins after sixteen games, and were in fifth place, a point ahead of Bayern Munich with Dortmund at the top of the table. Dortmund went on to win the title that season. Freiburg finished third.
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Monchengladbach and Hamburg kick off our final LIVE weekend before Christmas at 20:30CET on Friday. Leaders Dortmund are hoping to make Bundesliga history at Frankfurt from 15:30CET on Saturday before full highlights of Wolfsburg v Hoffenheim (17:30CET). St Pauli v Mainz (LIVE 18:30CET) rounds off Saturday’s action. On Sunday, Leverkusen v Freiburg (15:30CET) starts the day before Bruno Labbadia takes charge of Stuttgart in a Bundesliga game for the first time against his former club, Bayern Munich, at 17:30CET.