The Rise of Union Berlin

The Bundesliga race has started to intensify as the current champions Bayern Munich look to win the title for an 11th straight season. Despite their previous dominance, Bayern does not have a substantial lead over the other teams in the league. Atop the Bundesliga table, there is a clear outlier amongst the German giants: Union Berlin.

Union Berlin was promoted to the German top flight in 2019. They have no world-class players nor a billionaire owner. Their home stadium seats just 23,000 and was built by fan volunteers and donations. Relative to Bayern, they are tiny. 

Despite their size, Union Berlin currently sit just one point behind Bayern with the most wins this season and occupy one of the qualifying spots for the Champions League. This is an extraordinary feat given the club’s extremely limited resources. 

Tactics, however, are not the only reason for Union Berlin’s success. 

How has the club been able to accomplish this? The answer lies in Union Berlin’s tactics and set-up. Head coach Urs Fischer has transformed Union Berlin into a defensive behemoth. Fischer sets up the team in a defensive formation that allows them to stay organized in their own half of the field and their compact defense has since become their biggest strength. The club recognizes that it cannot compete head-to-head in attack and open game against many of the top clubs with their meager offensive weapons. They are not bothered by letting their opponents have the ball: thus far, they have one of the lowest possession percentages in the Bundesliga at just 44%

Furthermore, Fischer’s emphasis on athleticism and physicality has helped the team transform into a powerful defensive force. The players are always active and running, making sure to disrupt opponents’ passing lanes. This means that Union Berlin can limit goal scoring opportunities for the opposing team while creating opportunities to win the ball back. However, this is very physically demanding. Union Berlin players have run over 2481 kilometers this season, one of the highest in the league. 

It is in the counter-attack where Union Berlin’s offense truly comes to life. Union Berlin, with their defense-oriented approach and low ball retention, allow their opponents to attack them and push men forward. Opposing teams expose themselves at the back when attempting to score against Union Berlin. If Union Berlin is able to win the ball in their own half, they quickly rush the ball up in classic counter-attacking fashion. Typically, these counter-attacks are down the wings and end up with crosses into the box. In terms of attempted crosses into the box, Union Berlin is only second to FC Koln. 

Union Berlin’s strategy is made possible by forward Sheraldo Becker, who has played a key part in the group’s attack. He has contributed 7 goals and 4 assists this season, the combined most goal contributions for the club. Furthermore, he is near the league’s best in terms of crossing and sprints. 

It is in the counter-attack where Union Berlin’s offense truly comes to life.

Union Berlin’s tactics are high risk, high reward. They don’t concede many goals, but they don’t create many scoring opportunities. This season, Union Berlin has an expected goals scored of 21.65 and an expected goals conceded of 20.26. Both of these are the lowest in the entire league. As such, Union Berlin have to be extremely clinical with their finishing. In past seasons, title winning teams such as Bayern created goal-scoring opportunities at an alarming rate. Union Berlin lacks this quality. Their strategy has worked for them so far. However, it remains to be seen if it is sustainable. If Union Berlin’s attackers sustain a slight drop in form, the whole unit’s success will be threatened. 

Tactics, however, are not the only reason for Union Berlin’s success. 

In football, the fans are often known as the ‘12th man.’ They push their team forward to complete every tackle, every pass, and win the game no matter what. Union Berlin excels in this aspect. Union Berlin fans, known as “Die Eisernen” (The Iron Ones), remain a defining feature of the club. Their support is passionate, and unwavering, creating an intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams at their home ground, the Stadion An der Alten Försterei. They play an important role in giving the players energy and motivation when executing such physically demanding tactics. Their support has made a clear difference as Union Berlin is yet to lose a single game this season when playing on home soil. 

Head coach Urs Fischer has transformed Union Berlin into a defensive behemoth.

It would be unfair to claim that Union Berlin is wholly distinct in factors such as tactics and fans. They are not the only club in the Bundesliga that sits back and counter-attacks. In fact, many teams with lower quality players like Union Berlin play this way. They are not the only team in the Bundesliga with such passionate fans. Rather, what separates Union Berlin from the rest of the mid-level Bundesliga teams is how clinical they are in front of goal. Simply put, Union Berlin takes their chances while other teams do not as they have outperformed their expected goals by twelve, the highest in the league. 

Against all odds, it is Union Berlin who has emerged to break Bayern’s Bundesliga dominance. Although it is still too early to celebrate a new champion, Union Berlin’s rise to the top of the Bundesliga is nothing short of incredible. 

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