At the halfway stage, Union Berlin are just one point behind perennial Bundesliga dominators Bayern Munich. Sandwiched in between the two German giants of Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, the club from the capital are upsetting the applecart when it comes to the established elite. But where have they come from and can they keep up their incredible rise?
This season is the fifth season of evolution under manager Urs Fischer. It’s been a remarkably successful spell that has seen them get promoted from the second tier, establish themselves in the top flight and qualify for Europe. Now they are looking to take things a step further and gatecrash the Champions League spots, with an outside chance of doing the unthinkable and ending Bayern Munich’s ten-year streak of titles.
Their model of success, as with Brighton and Brentford in the Premier League, comes from sensible transfers and incremental progression as a club. Although the Seagulls and Bees are yet to seriously challenge the top four, they are getting close despite lacking the spending power of the ‘big six’.
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It’s the same story for Union Berlin, a team that could have regressed this term after their fifth place finish last season. They sold top scorer Taiwo Awoniyi to Nottingham Forest for £17m, lost second top scorer and integral midfielder Grischa Prömel on a free to Hoffenheim while Julian Ryerson left for Dortmund.
Promel and Ryerson had both been part of the journey since 2018 but instead of the team regressing, the opposite has happened. The process and playing style of Fischer means that the individual cogs can be replaced. Awoniyi, who got 15 Bundesliga goals last term, has had his shoes filled by Sheraldo Becker who they signed from ADO Den Haag in 2019.
He’s currently on seven for the season and has a player of the month award to his name, but it is the team and system that comes first as Union consistently compete way beyond their means. Fischer employs a 3-5-2 system that is hard-working, direct, and relatively simple. Becker forms part of a front two that work the channels along with 32-year-old Kevin Behrens. Behrens, picked up from second tier SV Sandhausen on a free, is one of many underappreciated individuals that have found a home in Berlin.
Even with an average of 42% possession per match, they press the opposition into going long, which suits their towering centre-backs perfectly. Fischer has got his side playing to their strengths and they minimise any mistakes at the back by getting the ball forward when needed.
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Perhaps their most intriguing tactical ploy, especially notable this season, has been their commitment to getting bodies forward and crosses into the box. The centre-backs will get the ball out to the wing-backs, who will get the ball into the box as quickly as possible. Given two strikers are supported by two onrushing central midfielders and both wing-backs, 'The Iron Ones' often end up in a 3-1-6 formation when attacking as they look to overload the opposition defence. Even if the first ball in is not successful, this aggression often means they are ready to pick up the second ball and recycle it. It’s a strategy that has seen them win more league games than Bayern this term and progress to the last 32 of the Europa League, where they will take on Ajax.
They are also uniquely placed to establish themselves as a force not just in the short-term. Think of every major capital city in Europe. London boasts Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur to name but a few, Paris has Paris Saint-Germain, Rome has Roma and Lazio, Madrid needs no introduction and Amsterdam is home to Ajax. But Germany’s capital has been crying out for a major football team.
For so long Munich has dominated the German football landscape and yet the capital has been left starved of success. It has hosted a World Cup final, a Champions League final and hosts the German Cup final every single year. Yet their clubs have barely even competed at the top level with Hertha the only other current Bundesliga outfit from Berlin.
It’s a diverse city with numerous football clubs yet none of them have been successful enough, and only Dynamo v Union stokes any real sort of rivalry. But now, Union are changing things. If they can bring Champions League football to the capital, they could for the first time, establish themselves as Berlin's major club.
There’s a vacuum waiting to be filled. The city will never be wholly unified behind one team, but Urs Fischer’s unlikely outfit are in pole position to command centre stage. A first Bundesliga title for Germany's capital since 1911 feels closer than ever before.
*18+ | BeGambleAware