So hard to beat and extremely difficult to play against, Union Berlin’s remarkable recent rise has continued into this season. Let’s see how

So hard to beat and extremely difficult to play against, Union Berlin’s remarkable recent rise has continued into this season, for their consistently excellent form sees them sitting pretty atop the Bundesliga at present.

Having finished an incredible fifth last season and narrowly missed out on Champions League qualification by one point, Urs Fischer’s brilliantly coached team have come out firing this term in typically forceful fashion, eager to improve on their previous efforts.

While they’ve proven what a force they are to be reckoned with once more, not many would’ve predicted they’d be the frontrunners 10 games into the new season, as they keep proving their doubters wrong to reach new heights.

Taking the German top flight by storm again under the tactically meticulous and intelligent Fischer, whose defined, fundamentally sound system and masterful man management has got his team playing with a tremendous collective spirit, this has ensured Union have provided a stern examination for all challengers. “This is a team that knows exactly how to achieve results. I am not surprised. They play their style 100 percent and with a lot of passion. You don't like to play them," insisted Bayern Munich maestro Thomas Müller.

So well drilled in their base 3-5-2 formation and always playing with discipline, organization, tenacity and commitment, the fact they've only lost once in their last 16 league matches serves as a testament to Fischer's philosophy.

Having not only recorded a famous draw with Bayern Munich inside the always incredible atmosphere within the packed Alten Forsterei but also beating the likes of Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Hertha Berlin, Wolfsburg and Koln, this further illustrates how expertly Fischer's tailored plan plays to his squad's strength to get the best out of them.

"It's important that we stay clear internally, keep our heads focused and know what we're doing. We can rely on each other. That makes us different and this is how we have to go about it now and in the future," explained Union's experienced defender, Robin Knoche.

"I think you just have to see everything else. We have our goal. We're not moving away from it. It doesn't matter what the current situation is. What goes beyond that, what comes next, we'll see then. And that's why, as I just said, nothing will change for us. We will continue to work hard. We will continue to stay true to our beliefs and try to win every game like every team tries to."

Defensively diligent, organized and exceptionally difficult to score against, Union's incredible defense has been a key foundation towards their success, for they've amazingly only conceded six goals in their first 10 Bundesliga matches.

With the players knowing their roles and responsibilities inside out, they understand exactly when to press, shift across, drop back, step out and when to cover a teammate, as their coordination, teamwork and central compactness has seen them shine.

Not a team who relentlessly presses high, they predominantly wait for opponents to pass into wide areas after ushering them away from the middle before locking onto opponents. Doing a fine job of using the touchline as an extra defender to condense the pitch, angling their pressure to use their cover shadows to block passing lanes behind them and smartly timing their harrying, this strategic hunting of their prey has paid dividends.

Good touchline pressing to pin in their opponents
Nicely coordinated pressing

Enabling them to either win back the ball immediately, force poor decisions from hemmed-in opponents and limit the ball holder's options, their pressing has been a real asset.

With the front two of Sheraldo Becker and Jordan Siebatcheu leading the press, they'll either press a central defender each, or one will monitor a holding midfielder while the other goes for a center-back, which is determined by the build-up shape of the opposition. Competently encouraging play into wider areas, the nearby midfielder then pushes up onto the fullback or wingback, while the other two mids keep tabs on their opposite numbers.

"Our defensive work doesn't start at the back, it starts with the strikers up front. If they do well, then, of course, we have an easier job. But otherwise, the lads know that they can rely on us to do everything we can to keep the box clean. And I think you win games with a compact defense. And we've done that well so far. But of course, it's important not to let up." Knoche insightfully noted.

The Union wingbacks and central defenders will then get touchtight to their foes, wanting to impose themselves on their markers and give them minimal time and space to control or execute their actions cleanly.

Meanwhile, when defending in a deep or mid-block, they've been equally effective, with them moving as a team to control dangerous central spaces in relation to the location of the ball, pressing coherently from this stance, keeping tabs on opponents and generally remaining awake to threats to prevent quality chances.

Maintaining good spacing between players and lines, in combination with their ferocity and dedication in their duels, both on the ground and in the air, has enhanced their stopping worth. To focus on their aerial prowess, and this has been a major weapon for not just dealing with open play crosses, but also when helping them win second balls and flexing their muscles on defensive and offensive set-pieces, which they prepare shrewdly for.

Possessing a nice selection of towering central defenders, most of whom are over 185 cm, such as Knoche, Diogo Leite, Paul Jaeckel, Danilho Doekhi and Timo Baumgartl, this has unquestionably been a key factor towards nullifying their foes as well.

By the numbers defensively, the below Wyscout figures accentuate what an outstanding unit they’ve been in this compartment.

  • 1st for goals against per 90 - 0.56
  • 1st for XG per shot against - 0.101
  • 1st for defensive duels p90 - 65.90
  • 2nd for XGA - 10.57
  • 3rd for aerial duels p90 - 48.20
  • 5th for shots against p90 - 9.88
  • 7th for blocked shots p90 - 3.01
  • 17th for PPDA - 15.56

Meanwhile, in terms of their attacking output, they've been similarly impressive on their way to blending efficiency, balance and smart tactics.

Mixing their focus between methodically building out from the back, playing direct, or springing forward on the counter-attack, Union can certainly hurt opponents in a multitude of ways.

To start with their efforts in transition, and seeing as they defend in such an organized fashion and usually have their two forwards in place, this gives them access to nearby teammates once they regain the ball and ensures Becker and Siebatcheu offer superb outlets to breathe life into transitions.

Indeed, with both men capable of holding the ball up while waiting for teammates to join in and directing astute runs in behind or down the vacant channels left free by onrushing wide defenders, the duo has excelled in such situations. Wreaking havoc against unset, backpedaling and stretched-out backlines, their presence has been vital, alongside the runners from midfield and the wingbacks, towards injecting momentum on the counter.

Smartly constructed counter-attack before scoring

Upon switching the focus to their passing out from the back from their base 3-5-2/3-4-2-1 posture, this has provided them with the framework to build up successfully with ground passing or when going longer.

Wanting to generate numerical and positional superiorities, the goalkeeper (Frederik Ronnow), the three central defenders and the deepest midfielder (usually Rani Khedira) form the platform to do so. The side center-backs will split wider to stretch the first line of opposition pressure so they have to cover large distances, which increases the chances of gaps arising while the wingbacks and number eights can push higher to be an option for direct passes or to help win second balls from the forwards.

The wider center-backs also give them an important option to dribble into midfield and even into the final third sometimes, for they are usually the free men after they've outfoxed the press.

It's also been notable how one of the center-halves (usually Knoche) will step into midfield next to Khedira to form an asymmetric 4-2-4 shape to add a nice variation to place doubt in the minds of the pressers and give Union an extra number centrally. Moreover, another tweak they use is pushing one of the central defenders into a fullback role to form a 4-2-4 type shape in established build-up, which allows them to push the ball side wingback and midfield eight super high.

Knoche positioned in midfield for the build-up
Interesting asymmetrical build-up shape in their 4-4-2

As they move through the thirds, how the two more advanced midfielders embark on penetrative forward bursts to take advantage of the strikers pinning markers has been a handy weapon in their arsenal.

Haberer receiving between the lines as the forwards pin their markers to make the space for him

In addition, with the wingbacks given license to maraud upfield, this has seen Union operate with five or six players across their frontline, meaning they not only overload the last line of their foes and give them minimal room for error but also horizontally and vertically stretch rearguards to give teammates a plethora of options at differing heights and depths for through balls in behind or crosses and cutbacks into the box.

Stretching the opposition with their high positioning and coordinated movement

Seeing as the crossing is an integral component of their armory, populating the box with many men amplifies their potential to create danger, for runners can attack the blindside, the front post, spaces near the penalty spot, or in front of the keeper and peel off towards the edge of the box as the defense collapses deeper.

Attacking the cross at different heights and depths to cause dilemmas for their foes
Populating the area with many numbers for the cross into the box

How the midfielders subtly interchange positions with each other so they all take turns getting into positions on either side of the opposition midfield line and sharply rotations with the wingbacks, plus the way they help form overload centrally and in wide areas, has been significant to help discombobulate opponents too.

Creating a 4v3 out wide to progress
Nice rotation between Trimmel and Haraguchi as the latter completes a tidy third-man combo after Knoche's initial dribble upfield

It's been notable how one of the mids will occasionally drop into auxiliary fullback areas as well so they can enjoy additional time and space on the ball to dictate the play and give them more control while also providing structural security behind the advancing wingback.

Another very fruitful avenue of their attacking game has been their calculated use of long passes to their forwards, in order to bypass the press and recover second balls high up to immediately attack the final third.

Courtesy of Becker and Siebatcheu both serving as fine targets, they've been able to win headed knock downs and flick-ons to runners in behind or each other to accelerate their offensive forays.

Getting players to smartly occupy zones to overload areas around the target men and instructing a midfielder to join the other forward by making a dynamic run in behind in readiness for a flick-on, their second ball setup has been a key piece of their puzzle going forward.

Excellent setup for the second balls as they have options for the flick-on and head down nearby Jordan
Forming a 5v3 to help win the second ball

Proficient at drawing out the press, manipulating the opposition structure, keeping the ball and finding free players directly or via third-man combinations, Fischer has astutely generated the conditions for his team to impose themselves in possession.

Special mention must go to the forwards, for they really help Union to thrive in all phases of the game, with their intelligent dovetailing with teammates, polished finishing, immense work rate and ability to make and exploit space with their devastating runs in behind, clever drops into midfield and ability to attract defenders being especially vital.

Becker dropping deep smartly between the lines as the runners stretch their opposition

Their offensive statistics duly depict their worth in this phase, with it intriguing to note how aptly their direct approach shines through in the numbers, plus how they’ve massively overperformed their XG.

  • 1st for crossing accuracy - 44.10%
  • Equal 1st for headed goals - 5
  • Equal 2nd for goals from corners - 3
  • 4th for long passes p90 - 52.15%
  • 5th for goals p90 - 1.69
  • 6th for crosses p90 - 14.31
  • 11th for shots p90 - 10.92
  • 14th for touches inside the box p90 - 14.97
  • 15th for XG - 11.54
  • 17th for average possession - 42%

While they might not be the most aesthetically pleasing team going around and lack the star power of their rivals, their crafty coach deserves enormous credit for devising a winning formula to battle it out with the big guns at both ends of the pitch.

Fighting for every ball and sticking to their principles, it's been a joy to watch them establish themselves among the Bundesliga's elite and hold their own in the Europa League too. "Union is an example of what is possible with quiet work. There is no stress, no hectic pace, but good togetherness, good scouting - not just by name, but by player profile. That's first class," German legend Lothar Matthaus explained.

"They know where they come from and don't even hover five centimeters above the ground, but have both feet firmly on it. They work professionally and cleverly there.”

With Fischer steering the ship and Union showing no signs of slowing down despite their heavy schedule, who knows what this season will bring for the feisty overachievers? But at the very least, following their scintillating start to the season, they should be aiming for Champions League qualification to make amends for missing out last term, in their quest to continue along their upward, history-making trajectory.

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