Christian Streich’s players sealed their best-ever start to a Bundesliga campaign. Their win at Hoffenheim was also a clash between two very different philosophies, in which money tells a small part of the story.
Legendary football coach Ottmar Hitzfeld once said that Christian Streich should be the coach of the season in every season that he kept Freiburg in the Bundesliga.
While the 2019-20 campaign may only be four games old, Freiburg have secured their best-ever start to a Bundesliga season. After the 3-0 away win at Hoffenheim, Christian Streich's side has nine points from four games, one more than Bayern Munich, scoring ten goals and conceding just three in that time - the same as league leaders RB Leipzig.
The promising start has far from fazed Freiburg's players. "It feels good, but our target is still staying up," midfielder Janik Haberer said afterwards. Streich himself said, with a smile: "I've never won in Hoffenheim, but I've been here quite a bit."
Football fans in Germany are used to the team from southwest Baden overachieving. During Christian Streich's seven-year reign at the club, Freiburg have twice reached the Europa League, and only once suffering relegation from the top flight. Most impressively, this club has achieved all this on one of the league's most modest budgets.
Under Streich's leadership, Freiburg have made a name for themselves. Despite consistently losing key players to bigger and wealthier clubs, Streich and the club's scouting department have found a way to keep finding quality.
"We look at many things beyond the pitch," Streich told Sportbild in February 2018. "We need hungry, socially competent boys that are crazy about football. If they have that, a player can have a few drawbacks. He'll still be at the right place with us."
Born in the region, the Freiburg coach famously lives so close to the club's training ground that he normally cycles to work instead of taking the car. Streich is also known for his outspoken nature about burning social issues in Germany and the world. In recent years, Streich has discussed society's shift to the right, sexism and the fight against racism at press conferences, all in his thick Baden accent.
This very much fits with the city of Freiburg, a place of liberal, alternative subcultures, endless cycle lanes and a CO2 counter downtown. There's a reason Freiburg's largely left-wing ultra scene appreciates Streich so much. He is, quite literally, one of their own. If Streich cycling to work seems hard to believe, imagine the club's ultras organizing a fan cycle to the Schwarzwald-Stadion ahead of the home game against Cologne and the bigger picture of what Freiburg is begins to appear.
The structures created at the club over the years were made to fit the city and community in which it is based, despite the lack of financial means. Ironically, their opponents on matchday four were the perfect example of the mirror opposite. Hoffenheim have a squad double the value of Freiburg's, are a club backed by local businessman Dietmar Hopp, one that appeared out of nowhere and lacks a clear culture.
This season, life has also been a struggle on the pitch for Hoffenheim. Losing several key players in the summer was one thing, but the loss of head coach Julian Nagelsmann has, in the early stages, proved dramatic. Four points from four games has not been an inspiring start.
Any club would struggle to replace a coach of Nagelsmann's stature, but Freiburg's clear concept of how to run a football club provides the benchmark for clubs like Hoffenheim. Those who might have more money, might also lack the clear vision that Freiburg have shown over the last few seasons.
With RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund starting the season looking like worthy contenders to Bayern Munich, the Bundesliga's title challenge will understandably catch most of the attention. But amidst all of the madness at the top of the table, it's an old side with a familiar coach who deserves recognition.