Promoted to the Bundesliga for the very first time in 2019, Union Berlin have continued to show that successive European-placed finishes were no fluke. In fact, the East Berliners have gone one better than that this season as they pursue the unlikeliest of title challenges.
Until coming unstuck against the former a couple of weeks ago, Union Berlin were level on points with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in a three-way Bundesliga title race. Even now, just five points separate top spot Bayern (49) and third-placed Union (44), with the Bundesliga title race the closest of any across the big five European leagues, and the closest it’s been in years.
Yet Union’s current league position is no flash in the pan. Urs Fischer’s side got off to a flying start back in 2022, avoiding defeat in their first seven league games (W5 D2) on their way to topping the table for seven consecutive gameweeks between September and November. That run included a big win over RB Leipzig, while Bayern Munich were forced to come from behind to clinch a 1-1 draw at Union’s Stadion An der Alten Försterei.
Union were the pacemakers for the majority of the Hinrunde (the first half of the Bundesliga season), and started 2023 in a similar vein, winning five consecutive Bundesliga games while setting a record for their longest winning streak in the competition’s history.
That scintillating run springboarded Fischer’s back into contention for the Bundesliga title – something very few would have predicted heading into the campaign. With 44 points after 23 games, this is Union’s highest ever top-flight points tally at this stage in a league campaign.
Coupled with the fact that they have reached the last 16 of the Europa League and are still in the DFB Pokal, Die Eisernen have blown all expectations out of the water. And that’s despite losing top goalscorer Taiwo Awoniyi, first-choice goalkeeper Andreas Luthe and vice-captain Grischa Prömel during a hectic summer.
They’ve achieved all this while having one of the lowest wage budgets in Germany.
But just how have they done it?
Fischer has very rarely altered from his tried-and-trusted 3-5-2 system across the season, with it proving the undoing of almost every opposition side that they have come up against.
The formation transitions into a 5-3-2 off the ball, making Union very difficult to play against. They defend deep and compact, playing aggressively against the ball but in their own half. That is the foundation of their overperformance in recent years, with the team consistently hard to break down.
The effectiveness of their low, compact block is highlighted in the numbers. Only league leaders Bayern (22) have conceded fewer goals than Union in the Bundesliga this season (27), while the underlying numbers also point to Union Berlin’s defensive strength. Again, only Bayern (23.2) have a lower xG against figure than their 24.7.
That comes from a very press-hesitant style, with Urs Fischer’s side ranking bottom, or close to bottom, for high turnovers, PPDA, and possession won in the attacking third.
Summer acquisitions Diogo Leite and Danilo Doekhi have seamlessly slotted into the three-man defence, while goalkeeper Frederik Rønnow has flawlessly replaced the departed Luthe. The Danish shotstopper boasts the highest save percentage (79%) and has conceded the fewest goals per 90 among goalkeepers to have played over 600 minutes in the Bundesliga this term (0.84). The Berliners’ five clean sheets in the Europa League this season is also the highest tally in the competition.
Fischer’s side are just as efficient going forwards. Union rely on swift counter-attacks to transform defence into attack within a matter of seconds: Die Eisernen have scored more goals from fast breaks than any other side in the Bundesliga this season (six).
And once in front of goal, Union are ruthlessly efficient. They have netted 35 goals in the Bundesliga, drastically outperforming their xG (24.7). In fact, only bottom side Bochum (24.1) have a lower expected goals total than the Berliners. On one hand, it could be a slight concern that Union Berlin aren’t generating a ton of high-value opportunities. But on the other, they’ve managed to expertly finish the chances they have generated.
That’s even more impressive given the context that they lost last season’s top scorer Awoniyi to Premier League side Nottingham Forest in the summer. Awoniyi netted 30% of Union’s goals in the Bundesliga last term (15 of 50).
Instead, the goalscoring responsibility has been shouldered by Suriname international Sheraldo Becker. The 28-year-old had an inconclusive start to his time in the German capital upon his arrival in 2019, but the winger-turned-striker has been the revelation of the year for Urs Fischer’s side in 2022-23.
Becker’s blistering pace is a constant thorn in the opposition’s side, with defenders often on high alert in case he makes one of his trademark darting runs in behind the backline. The Ajax academy graduate has created 25 chances following a ball carry this season, showing his ability to threaten when dribbling at opponents. For context, Janik Haberer is next highest on that list for Union, and he’s created just seven.
Becker has already bettered his previous season-high goal tally in the German top-flight with seven strikes this term. But again, like the rest of his team, he’s performing well above his underlying numbers (2.9 xG).
Constant doubt has been cast over Union’s ability to maintain their expected goals outperformance, yet they have not fallen below fifth spot in the league table throughout the course of the campaign.
Union have remarkably averaged the third-lowest possession in the Bundesliga this term (43.2%). This is due to the fact that once they win the ball back, they look to utilise their wing-backs by spreading the play as quickly as possible. Die Eisernen have scored more headed goals than any other side in the division (12), while only Köln (349) have attempted more crosses from open play than Fischer’s charges (340).
Much of Union’s success this season has come down to their potency from set pieces, with 15 of their 35 Bundesliga goals coming from dead ball-situations. Consequently, no side has scored more goals from corners than Union in the German top-tier this term (nine).
One intangible thing that metrics cannot always measure is team spirit. The Berliners’ persistency is unrivalled in Germany. Union have notched 11 goals in the final 15 minutes of Bundesliga games this season, while no side in the division have gained more points from losing positions than Die Eisernen across 2022-23 (12).
Union’s fortress home, the Stadion An der Alten Försterei, has been equally as integral to their recent fortune. Fischer’s side are unbeaten at home in the league across 2022-23 (W7 D4). They have lost just three such matches in the last three seasons combined.
Die Eisernen overcame European royalty Ajax 3-1 on aggregate in the Europa League knockout play-offs to reach the round of 16 last month. Drawn against fellow group stage opponents Union Saint-Gilloise, the Berliners will hope to have their opponents’ number in their quest to reach the quarter-finals.
As expected, Union’s form in the Bundesliga has taken a slight hit due to their continental exploits – Fischer’s side are winless in their last three league games (D2 L1).
Yet Union Berlin still sit just five points behind league leaders Bayern with 11 league games remaining, while the first leg of their last 16 Europa League clash with Union Saint-Gilloise is set to take place this week. It’s a truly remarkable achievement when you consider that Fischer revealed their target ahead of the season was Bundesliga survival.