Leipzig’s dismantling of the team that beat them to the second division title last year is further proof of a divide both philosophical and economic, but both approaches are working, writes DW’s Matt Pearson.A little over a year ago, Freiburg beat RB Leipzig 2-1 at home before going on to claim the second-division title ahead of their opponents. Things look very different now.
The two side’s approaches to chasing a seat at the top table last term were a stark demonstration of two polarized sporting models, and the chasm between philosophies has widened further in the current campaign. In the off season, Freiburg splashed out 12 million euros ($12.7 million) on nine players while Leipzig spent more than that on Scotland international Oliver Burke alone. Leipzig changed their coach, Freiburg didn’t even consider axing Christian Streich. Leipzig made headlines globally, Freiburg made barely a ripple outside the Black Forest.
The widening divide was as evident on the pitch in Leipzig’s 4-0 home win on Saturday as it is in the transfer market. A Freiburg side short of several key players struggled to cope with the dynamic movement, tactical intelligence and pace of Timo Werner, Yussuf Poulsen, Emil Forsberg and the consistently outstanding Naby Keita.
The hosts dominated from the start, going close several times before Poulsen nodded in the opener and laid on the second for Werner in the first half. Keita added a third that settled the game just after the break before Diego Demme’s stooping header put the icing on the cake. The win stretched RB’s gap over their opponents to 20 points and ensured a top-four finish.
“The difference from last year to this year is Keita and Werner. That’s one big difference,” Streich, the Bundesliga’s longest serving boss, told DW after the game. “That’s two Champions League players. Keita is an incredible midfielder, hard to stop. He can go one against one and he wants to do that. This is normally a player who would be playing for Arsenal or Chelsea, but it’s possible now that he can play in Leipzig – you know why and I know why. He’s one of the best midfielders in the Bundesliga, but not only in the Bundesliga.”
Forsberg was a little less forthcoming on the difference Leipzig’s financial muscle has made: “It’s hard to say (the difference between last year and this). I think today we used the chances that we got and I think that was the important thing and then we played it safe. After Naby’s goal it was a secure win and we didn’t have to use too much power. We are a young team and we develop every day.”
Despite the result, for many observers of the Bundesliga, the discrepancy in approach and resources actually makes Freiburg the Bundesliga’s real overacheivers this year. To Germany’s swathes of football purists, sixth-placed Freiburg’s campaign must be something of a godsend – proof that traditional values, faith in coaches and sensible, sustainable growth can compete with the supposedly diabolical taurine-injected, get-rich scheme represented by Ralf Hasenhüttl’s men.
Black Forest roots
For Freiburg fan Marcus, Streich is a critical figure at a club that still has a strong idenitity. He and hundreds of other Freiburg fans awoke in the early hours of the morning to make the 650 kilometer journey northeast and they still feel closely connected to their club in a way that critics of the Red Bull project suggest Leipzig’s fans can not.
“For me, the Leipzig thing is not a problem, that is up to them” Marcus said before the game. “But it is not what I like as a fan and it is not what Freiburg is. We love our coach and this is our club, whether we are in the second division or the first division or whatever. That is why we travel to this game even though it is a hard game for us.”
His words proved more prophetic than he might have hoped but it seems impossible that a defeat will change Freiburg fans’ view on their boss. Streich grew up near Freiburg and started his coaching career with the club’s youth sides in 1995. He then served as assistant manager before taking charge in 2011 – less than two years after RB Leipzig were formed. His Black Forest roots are strong.
While Streich readily admits it’s “not possible” for his side to dream of finishing above Saturday’s opponents again in the near future, his is a club that enjoys the journey, especially if it takes them back in to Europe. For RB Leipzig, the destination is all that really matters – and they’re headed for the rarefied air of the Champions League.