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When Çaglar Söyüncü arrived at Freiburg in the summer of 2016 he was nothing more than a long-term project for the club. Two years on, however, the 21-year-old is one of the most sought-after defenders in European football.
Signed from the Turkish second division club Altinordu for €2.65million a little under two years ago, Christian Streich was given a player full of raw talent but one lacking in tactical schooling. But Freiburg have always been a club mining raw gems, players who still require special attention to make the next step.
Located in the very south of Germany, right on the border to Switzerland, the Bundesliga side have a tough time keeping up economically with clubs from the big German cities. As a result, they have always relied on their academy and finding youngsters overlooked by the top sides.
Relying on long-term vision rather than short-term results, Freiburg see themselves as a top-25 team in German football. Dropping into the second tier is not the end of the world and head coaches almost never fear for their jobs – Streich survived the club’s last relegation and his predecessors Robin Dutt (four years) and Volker Finke (16 years) had the luxury of working in a calm environment.
It allows coaches to experiment with young talent and also take a risk on players who need playing time in order to succeed. It is exactly why Söyüncü was not only able to get a foot in the door at Freiburg but to also grow from a tactical immature player to a standout defender.
Heading into the 2016/17 season, Söyüncü was seen as a squad player, someone who could be slowly integrated into the side by receiving a few minutes here and there. But injuries meant he was given an unexpected start in the club's season opener against Hertha Berlin.
Freiburg lost the match but Söyüncü impressed. He started the subsequent two games but against Köln made two major errors that led to goals for Anthony Modeste. The youngster was brought off at half time.
The mistakes could have broken the Turk, who couldn't speak German and struggled to communicate with his team-mates.
“It was quite a tough lesson for him”, Streich told the German magazine kicker in December 2017 ahead of Freiburg’s clash against Köln the following season.
Söyüncü’s first Bundesliga season was far from perfect, yet at the same time no-one expected a wonder campaign from a player who had made the jump from Turkey’s second division to Germany’s top flight.
He featured in 24 top flight games throughout the 2016/17 season and averaged 2.04 tackles per 90 and 1.95 interceptions. His passing numbers were also good, playing 37.12 accurate passes per 90 with a 76.59 per cent completion rate.
“I am happy how he has developed, only on few occasions was I not happy with how he handled things,” Streich summed up Söyüncü’s first 18 months in Germany
Freiburg finished seventh in their first season back in the Bundesliga and were lauded as the surprise package of the campaign. But as is often the case for the Breisgau Brasilianer, a good season was followed by many of the top talents leaving – forward Maximilian Philipp was sold to Borussia Dortmund and winger Vincenzo Grifo headed to Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Söyüncü was linked with a move to England, with Sunderland snooping around in December 2016. But neither in the winter of 2017 nor the following summer did the Turkish defender feel ready to make the step away from Freiburg.
Winning his first cap for Turkey's senior side in March 2016, Söyüncü was not even swayed after Freiburg made a surprise exit in the third round of Europa League qualification.
Instead, he remained with the club and has become his side's most reliable performer this season. Furthermore, despite the fact they're fighting against relegation, the young Turk has improved on his defensive numbers.
Relying less on tackles – he's gone from averaging 2.04 per 90 to 1.65 – Söyüncü has made more interceptions (2.69 per 90) while his passing accuracy has increased to 81.5 per cent. They are signs of a defender that is maturing.
With Söyüncü making strides in his development it is no surprise Arsenal are interested in signing the defender. The Gunners hired former Borussia Dortmund head of scouting Sven Mislintat in the winter and he is charged with rejuvenating Arséne Wenger's squad.
For Freiburg a bidding war would be ideal. They earned a record €20million from selling Philipp to Dortmund but Söyüncü is expected to shatter that record with the club understood to demand in excess of €30million for the defender.
Given his potential and the deep pockets of Premier League teams, it would be a justified price that would help the club from Breisgau to compete with the big hitters of German football in the long-term.