Im zweiten Teil der “Christoph Freund” Serie, zeigt Anna, wie Christoph Freund Salzburg zu dem gemacht hat, was es heute ist…

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A long lasting era

When we speak about Ralf Rangnick, we always him as a single-handed patriarch of the entire Red Bull football empire. However, unlike RB Leipzig, where his influence was long-lasting and substantial, the situation with Salzburg turned out differently. He came, assessed the desperate situation, completely redesigned everything according to his own concept over a couple of years, and gradually began to let the club sail freely, handing over management to his younger successor. The Rangnick era was bright but short-lived – however, the following Freund era lasted for eight years, during which Rangnick’s basic ideas were reworked, tuned and refined. It was Christoph Freund, as well as the concurrently working general managers Jochen Sauer (with whom he, by the way, will meet again at Bayern) and Stefan Reuter, who gave him full freedom of action, who Salzburg owes its current status.

Christoph Freund’s Salzburg

Three things characterize Freund’s Salzburg, making it so stable and successful from a sporting and economic point of view: a strict and clear-defined football concept within a specific philosophy, a well- tuned self-sustainable youth system aimed at preparing players as early as possible for implementing this concept, and a developed business model that allows the club, while still being a part of a corporation, to generate profits and exist mostly independently without excessive interventions.

Salzburg’s football style has long been synonymous with the Red Bull philosophy. Regardless of the individual ideas each new coach brings, the trademark elements remain the same: high speed, verticality, high-intensity pressing and counterpressing. “If two teams were to play against each other wearing identical neutral jerseys, let’s say black and white, without any distinctive marks, it should be evident within a couple of minutes which one is Red Bull Salzburg. This is how we perceive our main task”, Christoph Freund repeatedly formulated these principles.

These requirements can be implemented through various methods and solutions. Coaches like Marco Rose and Matthias Jaissle have always preferred possession-based football, but not at the expense of aimless passing for the sake of passing. On the other hand, Jesse Marsch preferred to play without the ball when possible in reasonable margins. However, regardless of the approach, every coach who arrived at the club fully shared the trademark Red Bull basic requirements and concepts.

Freund always perceived the process of selecting coaches as similar to scouting players. Form him, coaches are vital personalities in the team because they influence both the individual development of players and the overall team performance. Therefore, the club has long been focusing on identifying talented young coaches, tracking their progress, and establishing early contact to invite them to the youth system, providing them an opportunity for further development. Similar to scouting players, they maintained a list of potential coaches of various levels.

Freund tauscht sich mit Jaissle auf der Trainerbank aus. (c) Jasmin Walter - FC Red Bull Salzburg via Getty Images
Freund tauscht sich mit Jaissle auf der Trainerbank aus. (c) Jasmin Walter – FC Red Bull Salzburg via Getty Images

The results of this system are evident: the last three coaches all came to the club through this process. Marco Rose and Matthias Jaissle were both invited to work in the system as promising young managers and quickly got their deserved promotions. Jesse Marsch came from the Red Bull system with long-term views on him and a plan to help him gain experience as Ralf Rangnick’s apprentice in Leipzig before moving to Salzburg. Another well-established top-league coach who followed a similar path was snatched by another club (we’re obviously speaking of Bo Svensson from Mainz). Several other coaches who went through the same school are in demand in Europe and the world (such as Thomas Letsch from Bochum or the currently unemployed Gerhard Struber).

Talent scouting

Talente der Red Bull Fussballakademie. (c) Jasmin Walter - FC Red Bull Salzburg via Getty Images
Talente der Red Bull Fussballakademie. (c) Jasmin Walter – FC Red Bull Salzburg via Getty Images

However, scouting players still remains a core task. Similar to the approach with coaches, the scouting of players at Salzburg focuses on early discovery and transfer to the academy or the reserve team. The principles of youth scouting, left by Rangnick, received clear guidelines under Freund’s leadership. Overall rules and legal restrictions require the following margins: up to the age of 14, the focus is on talent selection within the region, from 14 to 16, it expands to the entire country, other academies, and smaller football schools. From 16 to 18, players from the whole European Union are allowed to join, and from 18, the club scouts worldwide. What is different is that Salzburg targets to identify and establish contact with players as early as possible, so by the time a player enters the category making them eligible for a transfer, they must have already been identified, assessed, approved, and confirmed after contact with the player and his representatives. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see unofficial cooperation with young talents long before the official signing. For instance, Dominic Szoboszlai, who has recently moved to Liverpool, had been unofficially training with Salzburg’s U16 team on weekdays until he turned 16, returning back to Hungary to play for MTK in the corresponding age group on weekends. Many young Africans who find themselves in Salzburg’s system come to the academy several months before turning 18 for easier psychological and physical adaptation and gradual integration into a team of the required level and age group without the pressure of having to perform at 100% from day one.

Players who arrive at the club around 18 years old, already having showcased signs of talent at their previous clubs but still being not fully adapted to the senior level, get the opportunity to test themselves in a professional league with Liefering, an important piece in the youth system puzzle. In a few months of playing against tough ruthless grown-up men from rural clubs, young players gain enough experience, adjust to the physicality and become ready to get their minutes in the first team, even in Champions League matches, without trembling knees and sweaty palms. Almost all major talents who were brought in from other clubs in recent years, such as Karim Adeyemi, Benjamin Sesko, Dominic Szoboszlai, Luka Sucic, Mohamed Camara and many others, followed this path of transitioning to the first team, and it was a seamless process in most of these cases.

We have contacts all over Europe, very good connections in Africa and South America. Our scouts have clear guidelines on what we are looking for: player types, psychological profiles, and age segments. These factors are crucial for us. Since there are plenty of players everywhere, we have decided to focus on the age range of 17 to 19-20 years. The footballers must fit our playing style: fast-paced with sharp transitions, aggression, and high intensity. We understand very well who exactly we are looking for.” –  Christoph Freund in an interview with Kicker in November 2021.

“We plan ahead for 24 months,” Christoph Freund has repeatedly stated. This number has been crucial for the club from many perspectives. Firstly, the fate of each player entering the system is normally planned for this period of time in advance. Secondly, there is an unwritten rule for the players at Liefering: no one can play for the reserve team for more than 24 months. Either you demonstrate that you can reach the required level and move up to the first team, or, well, you have to say goodbye because you path at Red Bull Salzburg ends here.

Christoph Freund’s well-tuned mechanism of producing young talents has seen very few setbacks in recent years. The youth scouting system working across regions and countries consistently delivers players who at least make it to the Liefering starting XI season after season (and some, like Nicolas Seiwald, go on to become key players in the first team). The process of bringing in young but already somewhat experienced players around the age of 17-18 directly with the aim to make them first team players in 6-12 months has a fairly low percentage of failures, and more than half of them manage to establish themselves in the first team line-up. Carefully nurtured young talents progress and develop, and then they are sold in packs to top leagues for decent money each transfer window.

Money making machine Freund

To illustrate this, let’s consider a couple of figures: in eight years of Christoph Freund’s independent work, Red Bull Salzburg earned €586.57 million and spent only €169.09m. The club’s net profit amounted to €400 million, making Red Bull Salzburg one of the most profitable clubs on the planet. Christoph Freund managed to achieve a masterful mark of earning €100m per season twice, in 2019/20 and 2022/23. And this is despite losing his most significant scouting success – Erling Haaland – for a relatively small sum of €20 million due to overly cautious release clause in his contract. Now the lesson is learned, and almost none of the genuinely promising first-team players of Salzburg possess release clauses.

However, the business model of selling players to top clubs for double-digit prices is merely the end result of a lengthy process. Christoph Freund has never aimed to create a mechanism solely focused on churning out successful transfers in bulk. Football itself, of course, remains the foundation. The combination of excellent preparation of young talents and targeted transfers of more experienced (yet usually still young) players, made possible by transfer revenues, has led to the fulfillment of the biggest dream of those who ever contributed to Red Bull Salzburg: to compete in the Champions League.