Jochen Saier and Klemens Hartenbach talk about SC Freiburg’s transfer philosophy, this season’s new arrivals and the trust in home-grown players.
Joachen, Klemens, the transfer window closed at the beginning of September, despite the season kicking off in August. SC’s final new arrival of the window was Maximilian Philipp, who scored the winning goal against Werder Bremen shortly after making his return to the club. Do you think the team are well-equipped for the challenges they’ll have to face this season?
Jochen Saier: We hope so, and not just because “Milli” scoring on his comeback was such a good story. It was a unique transfer window. It came off the back of a very successful year for us, our most successful year yet, in fact. We came fifth in the Bundesliga, got to the semi-finals of the DFB-Pokal again, and reached the last 16 of the Europa League for the first time, after qualifying for the second year in a row. All this cannot be overstated.
A lot of the players in the squad, like Florian Müller, Junior Adamu, Maximilian Philipp, Jordy Makengo, and Max Rosenfelder, were all in SCF’s U23 team. After Mark Flekken’s departure, 21-year-old home-grown player Noah Atubolu has filled his gloves as first-choice goalkeeper in only his second senior campaign. You’ve signed fewer players in comparison to last season.
Saier: We started the squad-building process by evaluating the players who might be leaving as well as those who were part of our long-term plans. We decided that Noah would start in net after Mark Flekken’s move, because that’s the Freiburg way and he’d earned it.
Couldn’t it be a bit risky to put your faith in a young goalkeeper?
Klemens Hartenbach: Yes, but talent always comes first for us, and Noah’s showed how much he has in the many years he’s spent with our academy teams and our U23s, as well as in the Germany youth sides. Not to mention that he’s the current goalkeeper for the Germany U21s. We know that it’s a bold move, but it’s clear that we’d only give him this opportunity if we trusted him...
Saier: ... and because that’s the way we like to do things. If we don’t put our faith in young, home-grown players, they won’t be able to develop here and progress to the next level.
In Florian Müller, you’ve got another young goalkeeper, but one who has more Bundesliga experience after filling in for the injured Mark Flekken when he was on loan during the 2020/21 season.
Hartenbach: It was a very important transfer for us. It’s hard to find a goalkeeper that ticks all the boxes for this type of role, who is a good fit for the goalkeeping set-up and the squad as a whole in terms of ability, but also personality. I’m very glad that Benjamin Uphoff has extended his contract and will continue to be part of our goalkeeping set-up.
Saier: On the subject of contract extensions – Philipp Lienhart deciding to stay at the club wasn’t a guarantee at all considering his quality and how long he’s spent at the club. That’s why him extending his contract is like a new signing for us.
Have you thought about bringing someone in to replace Christian Günter after he got injured again?
Hartenbach: No. His injury was a big blow for us – “Günni” is our captain, after all – but his replacement is already in the squad. Lukas Kübler has shown that with his recent performances at left-back. Kenneth Schmidt and Jordy Makengo, as well as Noah Weißhaupt, can also play down the left.
The squad that you’ve put together has depth, but also a lot of young players. Do you think it is capable of building on the club’s recent success?
Saier: I think that we’ve got a very flexible squad that worked really well as a group last season and was extremely successful. That’s why we looked to do the best thing for the squad as a whole in the most recent transfer window.
And does that mean fewer new signings for the club?
Hartenbach: Some people say that keeping a team together is just as big of a task as putting together a new team. Obviously, we look to improve the squad every year, but it’s not just through new signings that the overall performance of the team gets better; the development of academy players is also a big factor. Kenneth Schmidt is a good example of that last season and Noah Weißhaupt the season before, as well as Noah Atubolu and Merlin Röhl so far this term.
You did bring in a young talent in Junior Adamu too, although we had to wait until after the international break for his debut due to the injury he had to recover from following his arrival from RB Salzburg.
Hartenbach: We are really pleased that Junior made the decision to come to SCF. He’s still only 22, already an Austrian international and an extremely talented attacker. Hopefully, he’ll also now be able to showcase his talent here.
After the home game against Borussia Dortmund, next up is a trip to Olympiacos in the Europa League on Thursday and then a match in Frankfurt three days later. The team coped well with the heavy workload last season...
Saier: But we know that it won’t necessarily be the same this season. Last season, almost everything went perfectly right from the start and that’s why we felt that everything was relatively easy and that we had a strong side. We hope for the same this season, of course, but we have to be realistic given our extremely busy schedule until December.
Freiburg also have Conference League champions West Ham United and Serbian SuperLiga runners-up FK Bačka Topola in their group.
Saier: It’s a really exciting group and each opponent has their own individual appeal, especially West Ham. Travelling “across the Channel” to London is particularly special as it means that we will have ticked off all the locations in the song that the SC fans sing.
Photo: Achim Keller