Christian Streich

How can West Ham beat the Breisgau Brazilians? | SC Freiburg analysed

Formed by Hammers supporters Jack Elderton and Callum Goodall to offer their fellow fans in-depth but accessible analysis of their team and its players, Analytics United use performance analysis and data to examine how David Moyes’ West Ham United might get the better of SC Freiburg in the UEFA Europa League round of 16 second leg...


After topping Group A in the UEFA Europa League, West Ham progressed directly to the round of 16 and skipped the dreaded knockout round play-off, where teams from the UEFA Champions League dropped into the competition. This year’s Champions League dropouts included Benfica, AC Milan, Galatasaray, Lens and Shakhtar Donetsk – teams that would make progressing through the play-offs a challenge for any of the second-placed finishers in the Europa League groups.

But SC Freiburg, despite drawing one of the aforementioned teams in Lens – who had beaten both Arsenal and Sevilla in their group – managed to get through. After a 0-0 draw in France, a 3-2 win in the return leg, thanks to an incredibly late Rolland Sallai equaliser at the Stadion am Wolfswinkel and a Michael Gregoritsch winner in extra-time, saw them through to the round of 16. And thus, the team that West Ham beat twice in Group A, come to the London Stadium again to try and turn those first results on their head and progress to the quarter-finals of this year’s competition.

Some Hammers would’ve headed into this tie with high expectations thanks to those two results in the group, a 2-1 win away and a 2-0 win at home, but Freiburg were buoyed by a draw against Thomas Tuchel’s Bayern Munich prior to the first leg and Christian Streich’s side converted those embers of momentum into a 1-0 win in Germany. Gregoritsch popped up with another crucial goal and, though Freiburg now come to London with a lead to defend, West Ham fans can look back to those group stage games to recapture some positivity ahead of this one.

Edson Álvarez made one goal and scored another at London Stadium in December

Streich’s side rank just above the median average for xG per 90 (1.5) in the Bundesliga this season, making them one of the league’s better attacking sides, but the problems have been at the other end where the Breisgau Brazilians – a nickname they earned for their exciting brand of football back in 1995 under Volker Finke – have been conceding far too many goals. They actually rank just above dead centre in the league for xG conceded when looking at the median average (1.51 < 1.53), but they’ve been conceding at a much faster rate.

Over the course of the season so far, Freiburg have allowed 37.7 total xG but have conceded a whopping 44 goals, sixth most in the Bundesliga. This would immediately point to significant underperformance from the goalkeeper, and Noah Atubolu ranks last in Germany for goals prevented with 5.1 more goals conceded than expected. Despite his less than ideal form, Streich has stuck by Atubolu and the experience will be invaluable for the German youth international, who is four years younger than the next youngest starting keeper in the Bundesliga, and Atubolu went some way to repaying that faith with a big save from Jarrod Bowen in the first leg.

Still, this is a weakness that West Ham should target again. Atubolu was at fault for Nayef Aguerd’s winner at the Europa-Park Stadion in October as he came to collect a James Ward-Prowse corner but was comfortably beaten to it by the centre-back. The keeper could also have done better to stop Lucas Paqueta’s first-half header, which had a PSxG figure of 0.17 – a 17% chance of going in.

Nayef Aguerd

Looking more broadly at those two group stage fixtures against Freiburg, we can see that Streich’s 4-4-2 created problems for his own team at times as their willingness to adopt a high first line of engagement with the front two caused decompaction, with the backline not showing the necessary aggression to step up and support. This often played into West Ham’s hands, as David Moyes’ centre-backs could drop deep to counteract the speed of any pressure whilst simultaneously opening gaps between Freiburg’s frontline and midfield to play through.

Then, in deeper areas, we saw a lack of engagement to pressure from Freiburg’s front two whilst intense man-to-man pressure was attempted from defenders and midfielders. With Moyes’ side enacting constant fluid rotations between players like Lucas Paquetá, Jarrod Bowen, Mohammed Kudus, Emerson Palmieri and Vladimír Coufal, this caused huge problems for Streich’s side as players were constantly pulled out of shape whilst excellent progressive distributors Nayef Aguerd, Edson Álvarez, and Konstantinos Mavropanos were left unpressured and able to pick out the right options at the right times.

We saw this in action for West Ham’s first goal at the London Stadium in December as Emerson and Paquetá rotated, forcing Freiburg’s right side of Ritsu Doan and Kilian Sildillia to swap positions, prompting Bowen to drop off, drawing left-centre-back Manuel Gulde a few steps out and enabling Kudus to dart in behind and get on the end of a lovely chipped ball over the top of the defence from Álvarez. A simple goal with too little pressure on the ball and too big a focus on man-oriented defending behind that.

Similar problems then occurred for the second goal as Doan and Maximilian Eggestein followed their responsibilities to close down Paquetá and Ward-Prowse, but with no-one set to stick with Álvarez, who was expected to stay deep and close to the centre-backs. A quick rotation between the three (Paquetá, Ward-Prowse, and Álvarez) allowed the Mexican to drift in between the lines unmarked, receive from Paquetá, and play a quick one-two with Bowen to go through 1v1 and score.

It’s clear that this man-oriented approach was not able to cope with the positional fluidity of Moyes’ side in attack and it will be interesting to see how Streich might adjust to help his side defend their lead without dropping too deep and ceding too much space. West Ham can go into this match with confidence as Freiburg have had problems in goal at times this season, an area that can be targeted from set-pieces and crosses, have conceded the most counter-attack goals in the Bundesliga (8), and have shown an out-of-possession inflexibility that can be exploited by contrasting positional fluidity. Hopefully Moyes’ team can put those things together to overturn Freiburg’s lead and progress to the quarter-finals.


*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Analytics United and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of West Ham United.