How do UEFA Champions League contenders Union Berlin continue to upset the odds?
Union Berlin’s third season in the German top flight might just be its best yet. A place in the top four – and a place in the UEFA Champions League – is now within reach, as they are also in the quarter-finals of the DFB Cup. How do they do?
Capital upstarts continue to prove doubters wrong by surviving and then thriving in the elite. bundesliga.com studies how a club with one of the smallest budgets in the division – as well as the oldest team in the league – became a top four.
Days after celebrating a derby victory over Hertha Berlin in the cup round of 16, Union wrote more history for the 2021/22 season. Digging deep on Matchday 20 to win 2-1 at Borussia Mönchengladbach, they moved up to fourth in the standings. It was the first time they held a Champions League qualifying spot at the end of a Bundesliga matchday.
Union hadn’t looked like a claim to victory, and Gladbach wasted a big chance to do it themselves. But the visitors did what they usually do under Urs Fischer when times are tough. They fought tooth and nail to score the points – and won all three thanks to Max Kruse’s second goal of the game.
Look: Union digs deep to see Gladbach
“The belief that we can even win games like this so late indicates that the mentality is right,” defender Paul Jaeckel said afterwards.
A never say die attitude is therefore a good reason why Union is where it is. Ever since they stunned VfB Stuttgart in the promotion/relegation play-off in May 2019, they have always lived up to their ‘Iron Union’ bill.
Having already exceeded expectations in the Bundesliga for two seasons – finishing 11th and then 7th – they look certain to do so again. Gladbach’s win extended the Berliners’ unbeaten streak to six competitive games, and ahead of that match Fischer had explained why they continue to perform so well.
“Hopefully we can build on the self-confidence we’ve gained – wins help you,” he said. “But you can’t get comfortable. That’s the challenge.”
Union edged out city rivals Hertha in the pecking order of the German capital. – Maja Hitij/Getty Images
sweat and tears
Swiss coach Fischer has ensured that his side – without the star names that other teams at the top of the league regularly call on – never lack for effort.
By Matchday 20, Union had scored no more than twice in a league game, and only two of their nine league wins had come by more than a goal margin. Seven draws and only four defeats provided further proof that they are extremely difficult to beat.
Part of that is down to the fact that they are one of the hardest working teams in the top flight. Union rank third in distance covered in the league – after Arminia Bielefeld and Eintracht Frankfurt, and just ahead of Hoffenheim and Bayern Munich.
While they’re third in possession – averaging just 43% – Union’s efficiency in attack and ruthlessness on the counter make them a dangerous team.
“What sets us apart at the moment is that we only need a few chances to score a goal,” midfielder Grischa Prömel said after the smash-and-grab against Gladbach.
A willingness to fight for each other until the end also helps. While they can be blunt and are certainly an uncomfortable opponent, Union’s reputation for physicality perhaps deviates from their impressive discipline. Fischer’s side are in the bottom third, league-wide, for fouls committed and cards received.
Another reason Union is so difficult to overcome is the craftsmanship within its ranks. At 23, Jaeckel is the youngest player to have played for them this season. The team’s average age is over 28, and in the Matchday 19 win over Hoffenheim they fielded their oldest starting XI to date, with an average age of 30.1. .
Union have a cool head between the posts in the form of 34-year-old Andreas Luthe, the same age as club captain Christopher Trimmel. At the heart of defence, 29-year-old Robin Knoche didn’t miss a minute, while Genki Haraguchi and Andreas Voglsammer – both 30 – are the only other players to have featured in each of the first 20 matches of championship.
Two of the club’s most successful players are left-back Niko Gießelmann, 30 (three goals and four assists) and 33-year-old Kruse (five goals, four assists).
Look: Union Berlin – tactical analysis
Kruse the talisman
Kruse’s talent is definitely a major factor. Scoring 11 times and providing five assists in 2020/21, he ended his debut season at Union with a last-minute header against RB Leipzig that significantly earned Union a place in the UEFA Europa Conference League.
This season he has been just as important – and committed. Few players would make themselves available the day before their wedding, which the former St. Pauli, Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg striker did in the Matchday 16 encounter against his former club Freiburg.
It was a Wednesday. After getting married on Thursday, Kruse was back in action on Saturday against Bochum. He did not disappoint on a cold December afternoon, scoring the game’s only goal on the half-volley.
“We all learn a lot from him – his insight does us good,” Promel said of Kruse. “In every training session you can learn from his game intelligence, his composure, his composure and the movement that always puts him in a good position. He is incredibly good with his last ball.”
Look: Kruse to lead last-gasp winner to send Union to Europe on final day of 2020/21
Kruse turns 34 on March 19 and he doesn’t move around the court as much as he used to. He hardly needs it, though, since his quick thinking and execution make up for the mileage on his legs. You just have to witness his winning goal against Gladbach to understand it.
After converting a first-half penalty – he missed just one of his 31 spot-kicks as a professional – Kruse came to life six minutes from time. He smartly peeled around the corner of the penalty area, then ran away from his marker’s shoulder to invite a threaded pass from Gießelmann. A touch of the feet and bang – Union snatched a late win against the run of play.
“We know what we have with him,” Fischer said afterwards. “He’s a very smart player, who looks for space and finds it like no other.”
Kruse’s effort against former club Gladbach took his tally to two goals and two assists in the first four matches of 2022. This run was well timed, as nine-goal top scorer Taiwo Awoniyi was out with Nigeria at the African Cup of Nations.
That’s the thing with Union, though – someone always seems to step in when needed.
Union lost key players like goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz and top scorer Sebastian Andersson in the summer of 2020, as well as midfielder Robert Andrich a year later. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Sporting director Oliver Ruhnert always seems to unearth another gem, or persuade another unsung player that he can prove a point in Berlin.
Taiwo Awoniyi found the back of the net nine times in the Bundesliga for the Union, before heading to the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations with Nigeria. -Boris Streubel/Bundesliga/Getty Images
Former Liverpool striker Awoniyi replaced Andersson, for example, while Rani Khedira replaced Andrich effortlessly.
Long-serving and talented centre-back Marvin Friedrich left for Gladbach this winter, but Union proved soon enough – winning against his new side – that they could handle defeat too.
Where will this end?
How far can Union go? They have lost just one home game this season at their Stadion An der Alten Försterei ground in south-east Berlin, so no opponent will be looking forward to a visit. And with Awoniyi back to bolster the attack, they certainly won’t be any easier to face.
Urs Fischer has overseen more than 140 games as Union head coach since taking over in July 2018. – Matthias Kern/Bongarts/Getty Images
Kruse should also be refreshed for the home stretch. Always a maverick, he spends some of his free time during the international break testing himself against an actor on a German game show. Then it’ll be back to star hunting with Union.
“At the moment we’re just on a roll, and that’s what sets us apart. The chances we get, we put aside,” Kruse said after his brace against Gladbach. “When you look at how Union has developed, it’s remarkable what we’ve achieved here.”
At times, this accomplishment also defied all logic – but Kruse & Co. aren’t quite done yet.