Steffen Freund, Tottenham Hotspur and the changing role of central midfielders

Steffen Freund, Tottenham Hotspur and the changing role of central midfielders

As featured on Guardian Sport

Had Steffan Freund never come to England – had he retired from football the day before he joined Tottenham Hotspur in December 1998 – he could have looked back on his career with more than a little pride.

Born in the East German town of Brandenburg in January 1970, he had been approached by the Stasi – the state secret police – at the age of 17, while playing as an amateur for Stahl Brandenburg and earning his living at a steel factory. “They tried to build networks in football teams,” he told the BBC before this year’s Champions League final. “They had all the information. If you went to Austria to play a friendly, they would find out which player was maybe thinking about not coming home and they would be stopped from travelling.”

Freund’s description of the interrogation – a dark room, two men shining torches in his face, “you will work for us, or your family will be in trouble” – is no less terrifying for its familiarity, while the fate of Lutz Eigendorf illustrates that the fame of footballers who defied the regime could not be relied on to protect them. Eigendorf, a midfielder at state-patronised Dynamo Berlin, defected to the West in 1979; four years later, he was killed in a car crash. No charges have been brought in relation to his death, but files discovered some years later showed that he was being watched by up to 50 Stasi agents, as well as apparently indicating that, on the night of his death, he had been poisoned.

The young Freund, though, refused to inform on his team-mates – “In the end they couldn’t put me under enough pressure because my family was clean”, he said – and with the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of his country, he went on to put together a seriously impressive footballing CV.

From Stahl, he was picked up by Schalke 04 before moving on to Borussia Dortmund, the latter another brave move notwithstanding the financial strife which had necessitated it. “Tod und Hass dem S04” – “Death and hate to Schalke” – rings round the Westfalenstadion on match days. Clashes at the Revierderby between the two clubs in October 2012 led to 180 arrests, and the following year’s meeting in Gelsenkirchen was interrupted after a smoke bomb narrowly missed Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller.

On the pitch, though, the move paid off for Freund, who helped Dortmund to successive Bundesliga titles as well as the 1997 Champions League crown. In the meantime, he was also part of the Germany squad that won Euro 96, although an injury picked up in the dying stages of the semi-final against England kept him out of the final itself.

And so when he came to North London, just a year and a half after that Champions League victory, it was to high hopes. Described by Tottenham’s director of football David Pleat as “the kind of midfield action man that every club needs”, he was expected to fill two roles that the club had been lacking for some time. In a team that had traditionally offered all the core resistance of a meringue, Freund was to bring defensive solidity – but that was only the half of it. Up near the top of the league, Chelsea had Dennis Wise, Manchester United had Roy Keane, Leeds had Lee Bowyer. For years, Spurs teams had been too soft, too much of a pushover, and Freund was meant to be their nasty piece of work.

He came to England with extensive top-level experience, an upbringing that spoke of an unusually tough streak, and trophies to his name. And yet gradually, this winner at domestic and international level came to be just another example of what is football’s definition of being damned with faint praise – a cult hero. But why?

Well, for one, he couldn’t shoot. Sure, he had never been prolific, with six goals in more than 100 games for Dortmund and three in 50-odd for Schalke before that, but at White Hart Lane, his composure levels in the final third plumbed new depths. In five years and 131 games for the club, he never scored a competitive goal (although to give him his dues, he did score the sixth in an 8-1 pre-season friendly win over Stevenage in July 2001). Nor, really, could he pass. Throughout his time at Spurs, he set up one goal; and this author went to quite a few Spurs games while Freund was there, and is damned if any raking 40-yarders come to mind. He could tackle, but all too often he would then just give the ball away again. And his team didn’t get much better while he was playing for them either. Tenth in the Premier League on the day he joined in 1998, tenth was where they would finish in 2002-03, his final season at the club.

The fondness in which he is held hardly reflects a current craving on the part of Tottenham fans for a player of his ilk. It is a little over a decade since Freund retired, after the brief spells with Kaiserslautern and Leicester that followed his time at Spurs, but over that period his position has become, for any number of reasons, almost entirely obsolete.

Admittedly, in purely geometrical terms – where he actually was on the field – Freund was at the vanguard of the change that was coming to the English game. There was a spot between the lines, and he found it, as domestic football in general began to edge away from 4-4-2 and Spurs in particular from a string of bit-of-everything, not-much-of-anything midfielders. But the days of the purely defensive midfielder have been numbered for a while.

Increasingly, those who play in Freund’s old area of the pitch – the Carricks, the Fernandinhos – are expected not simply to stop attacks but to instigate them too. Meanwhile, those who play in his style – the Mascheranos, Medels and Javi Garcías – are being shifted away from midfield, where they are no longer either necessary or sufficient, back into defence.

The move away from the pure destroyer was becoming more and more apparent as Freund’s Tottenham career progressed, and would only be accentuated by those who would follow in his footsteps. Not for the German the unobtrusive knitwork of Michael Carrick. Not for Freund the total immersion of Edgar Davids or the relentless probing of Luka Modrić. It was not quite the end of the old ways in North London – Harry Redknapp would briefly flirt with the similarly agricultural Wilson Palacios – but it is difficult to see his like, in his position, again in the foreseeable future.

No, the fans loved Steffen Freund, and love him still, for the main reason that fans ever do – in him they saw something of themselves. Not without reason too. He reportedly sat in the crowd and joined in with its chants when forced to miss a North London derby through suspension. Then, having retired as a player, he turned up in the away end at Old Trafford in 2005, this time wearing his own shirt from the 1999 League Cup final. He led the singing on the tube on the way to the League Cup final last March; and if most of us yearn to turn up to the darts in a purple Teletubby outfit but allow society to stop us from doing so – well, let us just say that Steffen Freund is not so hidebound.

And so Freund, a 28-year-old bona fide football hero with European Championship and Champions League titles to his name, became a man caught in between two revolutions – one at his club, which was looking to flex its muscles and finally leave behind its soft reputation, the other in the wider game, which was phasing out his style of play. Every midfielder worth his salt is a bit of everything these days; Freund was a bit of some things and not very much of the rest, and so the game overtook him. But for all of that, the fans loved Steffen Freund.

Why? Because Steffen Freund loved them.

By Harry Reardon @hsreardon

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