Union Berlin’s astronomic rise to the top

Union Berlin's astronomic rise to the top

By Andrew Asher

After a win against FC Kӧln, Union Berlin find themselves top of the Bundesliga and thus far unbeaten. Union were promoted to the Bundesliga in 2019 for the first time following a play-off win against VfB Stuttgart. Little was expected from the club from the capital, but four seasons later and Union have been nothing short of fantastic since their promotion.

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Photo: Steffen Prößdorf, CC BY-SA 4.0

Humble finances & loyal support
Union Berlin have never been the wealthiest of clubs and their path to the top of German football has been paved with financial struggle. According to Transfermarkt, Union are ranked 14th from 18 teams for squad market value in the Bundesliga this season, tenth for money spent on transfers and sixth for net profit. Even since establishing themselves in the league, Union have been careful with transfers and have continued in their sustainable approach. For example, the sale of star striker Taiwo Awoniyi to Nottingham Forest this summer has allowed the club to make their own signings as well as post a net profit of €10.92m, per Transfermarket.

Given the tight monetary limits of the club, Union has been propped up immensely over the years by its loyal fanbase. In 2004, the club was on the brink of bankruptcy when the fans decided to start a unique initiative to help the club out of its financial situation. The ‘Bleed for Union’ campaign saw fans donate blood and donate the money they received to the club so that it could pay its required deposit for the upcoming season to the German FA. In 2008, the club’s stadium, Stadion An der Alten Försterei, was in need of repair, but finances were tight as always. Around 2500 fans dedicated their time and labour to helping with construction of the stadium’s refurbishment.

Since promotion to the Bundesliga
In their first Bundesliga season, Union cruised to an eleventh-place finish whilst many had tipped them for the drop before a ball had even been kicked. Building on the success of their inaugural Bundesliga season, Die Eisernen secured a seventh-place finish in their second season, qualifying for the Europa Conference League play-off round. Once again, Union impressed last season, gaining qualification for the Europa League and narrowly missing out on Champions League football, finishing one point behind fourth place.

Urs Fischer and his style of play
Possibly Union’s biggest asset is their head coach, Urs Fischer, and the way in which he sets up his team. Since joining the club in 2018, the 56-year-old has overseen the most successful period of the their history in German football. Fischer’s will often set up with some variation of a 3-5-2 formation depending on the opponent, with wing backs having a crucial role to play whether more advanced or sitting deeper.

Above all else, a solid defence has been the foundation of the club’s tremendous success in recent years. Only two teams conceded less goals than Union last season, those being Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig. This season has been no different so far, with Die Eisernen having conceded four goals in six games this season, the lowest amount in the league.

Another stand-out feature in the Fischer’s team is the speed of transition from defence to attack. Fischer’s team will often soak up pressure from the opposition with the midfield dropping deep to form a defensive eight with the wing-backs falling into a flat 5-at-the-back. Once the opposition has been snuffed out, the quick transition to attack is a huge asset to Fischer’s team. This isn’t to say however that Union Berlin are just a hit-and-hope long ball team.

Last season, the back five had the highest amount of touches out of the whole squad (Niko Gießelmann, Paul Jaeckel, Robin Knoche, Timo Baumgartl and Christopher Trimmel). The same five players also ranked in five of the top six players in the squad for ball carries across the season. The back five play an important role in progressing the side up the pitch, none more so than centre-back Robin Knoche, who ranks highest in both metrics.

New man Jordan Pefok has picked up where Taiwo Awoniyi left off last season, holding up the play at the top of pitch to allow the team to push forward. The defence can play long balls into the American striker in order to quickly transition to the attack.

The season so far…
Union are currently sitting pretty at the top of the league, having secured another win in their recent match against FC Kӧln on Sunday. After a disappointing 1-0 defeat against Union Saint-Gilloise in the Europa League on Thursday, Union Berlin regained their trademark intensity.

The stats behind the team this season suggest that Union are in somewhat of a false position, scoring 13 goals from a total of 6.15 xG. This massive overperformance in goals scored is due mostly to the electric start of second-striker Sheraldo Becker. The Surinamese winger turned striker has scored five goals this season from a total 1.09 xG (understat). Becker’s confidence has grown game upon game and his eagerness to work a shot from any angle has proven to be extremely successful thus far. His first volley against Bayern Munich was the perfect example of his confidence at the moment. After four goals and two assists in August alone, it is clear to see why Union’s man was nominated for the Player of the Month award.

Not only is Becker getting amongst the goals, he has also provided a creative spark, forming an instant partnership with new man Jordan Pefok. Becker ranks in the 96th percentile for progressive carries per 90 and the 97th percentile for xA per 90 amongst other Bundesliga forwards. Jordan himself has managed two goals and three assists in five games this season, proving that this partnership will certainly be one to watch for the rest of the season.

Club captain Christopher Trimmel is entering his ninth season with Union, having signed from Rapid Wien back in 2014. The Austrian right-wing-back is vital to the way Die Eisernen operate. Trimmel is a dead ball specialist and loves to get down the flank and whip in a cross. Now 35, he hasn’t slowed down at all, constantly getting up and down the wing and providing energy and quality. Last season, Trimmel was in the 86th percentile for shot-creating actions from dead ball situations. The Austrian already has two assists in five Bundesliga games this season, including one from a free-kick against Bayern.

In their recent game against FC Kӧln, Union looked sharp and energetic, they were on the front foot first from minute one, scoring, missing a penalty and having a goal chalked off for offside by VAR early on. The Rhein Energie Stadion is a tough place to go and Steffen Baumgart’s team were the only other team to remain unbeaten in the Bundesliga so far this season before the game. A 1-0 win in the end was enough to send die Eisern top of the table after six games.

Club president Dirk Zigler isn’t as surprised as others following Union’s start to the season. He told Kicker:

“I see how people work here every day. We have a concept. And over the last ten to fifteen years it has worked more than it hasn’t. Everyone on the pitch knows what they have to do. We don’t leave anything to chance. We also have a top head coach with a clear idea of how he wants to go about doing things. It’s not witchcraft, really.”

The sky is the limit this season for Urs Fischer’s men. Union Berlin continue to surprise and are currently showing no signs of stopping. Could this season be the one where Union finally break into the Champions League? Only time will tell but so far, they have been a joy to watch and will no doubt continue to upset many teams in the league.

More about Union Berlin

Bundesliga Tactics Talk: Round Six
Timo Hübers’ own goal puts Union top of the Bundesliga summit
Union chief defends Kruse after Wolfsburg omission
FC Köln vs. Union Berlin preview: Battle of the unbeaten sides
Union without Doekhi against Köln, American striker Jordan should be ready
Union frustrated in loss to open Europa League campaign

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