Just six months after improbably qualifying for the UEFA Champions League for the first time in their history, Union Berlin are bottom of the Bundesliga and have dismissed beloved boss Urs Fischer. Where did it all go wrong?
If you want an example of how quickly things can change in football, we are still in the same calendar year in which Union Berlin qualified for the Champions League for the first time ever, signed Leonardo Bonucci and Robin Gosens, and Urs Fischer was given the Football Manager of the Year award in Germany.
Now, in mid-November, they’re bottom of the Bundesliga and on Wednesday, Fischer and the club agreed to part ways.
Everything felt great at Berlin’s only top-flight club in August, beginning the 2023-24 league campaign with back-to-back 4-1 wins against Mainz and Darmstadt. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out, almost everything.
Since that victory in Darmstadt, Union have played 14 games in all competitions, losing 13 of them. Their draw at Napoli last week was a historic moment in that it saw them gain their first ever point in the Champions League group stage, but it also halted a run of defeats that was threatening to become historic.
It didn’t stem the flow, though, with them being soundly beaten 4-0 at league leaders Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday. That proved to be the final straw, and after five and a half years in which he got Union promoted to the top flight and qualified for the UEFA Europa Conference League, the Europa League and the Champions League in consecutive seasons, Fischer was gone.
The Swiss coach was the first manager since Volker Finke at Freiburg to oversee as many as 147 of a club’s first Bundesliga games (Finke managed Freiburg for their first 340 top-flight games) but appeared to concede he had taken the team as far as he could. Following the announcement, Fischer said: “The last few weeks have taken a lot of energy. We tried a lot, the team put in a lot, but it didn’t pay off in results. I am very grateful for the trust that I have always felt here. Nevertheless, it feels right when a change happens now: sometimes a different face, a different way of addressing a team helps to trigger development.”
It’s a heart-wrenching moment for the club, but it’s hard to argue that change was needed. The 1-1 draw at Napoli may have ended their run of defeats in all competitions, but Union remain on a nine-game losing streak in the Bundesliga and sit bottom of the table. Among all teams to lose at least nine consecutive games during a single Bundesliga season, only Hannover 96 in the 2009-10 season managed to avoid relegation, with the other nine teams all going down.
The last team to have as many consecutive Bundesliga defeats was Greuther Fürth in the 2021-22 season, who lost 12 in a row and were relegated with just 18 points.
It won’t be much of a surprise to reveal that this has been Union Berlin’s worst start to a Bundesliga season, with just six points from their 11 games. In each of the last three campaigns, they had at least 17 points at this stage, and their nine losses is already more than the eight they suffered in the whole of the 2022-23 season.
The loss in Leverkusen sent Union to the bottom of the table for the first time since Matchday 1 of their first-ever Bundesliga campaign in 2019-20, when they were beaten 4-0 by RB Leipzig.
Their inaugural Champions League campaign also hasn’t gone according to plan. Granted, it looked ominous when they were drawn in the same group as Real Madrid and Napoli, though they came within a whisker of getting a draw at the Santiago Bernabéu in their first game before former Bundesliga star Jude Bellingham broke their hearts in stoppage time.
The same thing happened in their second game as they blew a two-goal lead against SC Braga to lose 3-2 to a 94th-minute goal at the Olympiastadion. That is another issue: they have been unable to play Champions League football in their own home, having to borrow rivals Hertha Berlin’s significantly bigger ground.
Union earned a draw at Napoli last time out having been beaten in Berlin by the Serie A champions before that, and they do still have a chance of nicking a Europa League spot from Braga, though it seems unlikely.
On 1 August before the season had begun, Union sat proudly in 30th spot in the Opta Power Rankings, just below Bayer Leverkusen, Feyenoord and Tottenham, and above the likes of Villarreal and Roma.
So, where has it all gone wrong for Union Berlin? Well, everywhere really.
Their fourth-place finish last season was largely thanks to excellent home form. Union were undefeated at Stadion An der Alten Försterei in the Bundesliga (W11 D6) – the only team to achieve that feat in 2022-23 – but that has certainly not continued into the 2023-24 campaign. They have won one and lost four of their five home games so far, with a goal difference of -8, making them the weakest home team in this Bundesliga season.
Union have struggled to score goals, with just 11 from their 11 games, the second worst in the division after FC Köln (nine) and have failed to find the net in their last four games, their longest run without a goal since arriving in the Bundesliga in 2019. They have been unable to score in seven of their 11 games, a league high.
Kevin Behrens scored a hat-trick in their opening game against Mainz, but since then only Gosens (four) has scored more than one Bundesliga goal, while last season’s top scorer Sheraldo Becker (11) is yet to find the net in the league in 10 appearances (six starts) in 2023-24.
That would be manageable if Union were at least solid at the back, but that also hasn’t been the case despite the high-profile signing of Bonucci from Juventus in the summer. The Italian’s wealth of experience has not had the desired effect, though it is far from just his fault. Union’s 26 goals conceded means they have the second-worst defence in the Bundesliga after Darmstadt (32), and are one of just three teams to have failed to keep a clean sheet along with Augsburg and Köln.
Having reached the promised land with a squad of lesser-known players, it seemed like Union were trying to make that next step in the summer, adding Bonucci as well as Germany internationals Gosens and Kevin Volland, with Portuguese centre-back Diogo Leite also arriving from Porto. They also sprinkled some interesting loan players into the squad in David Datro Fofana from Chelsea, Brenden Aaronson from Leeds United and Alex Král from Spartak Moscow.
It simply hasn’t worked, though. It may have simply been too much change, too fast, or perhaps Fischer’s influence on the team had just run its course, which can happen after so many years at one club. It famously happened twice with arguably Germany’s most famous manager Jürgen Klopp both at Mainz and Borussia Dortmund.
Only Bundesliga new-boys Heidenheim (41.6%) have averaged less possession than Union this season (42.6%), though that’s hardly surprising given they were never a possession-based team under Fischer – they averaged just 42.9% last season when they finished fourth – and the fact that only Mainz (9.96) have a lower expected goals value (xG) than their 12.23 also shouldn’t be a shock. Despite their lofty finish, they also had the second-lowest xG in the Bundesliga in 2022-23 (38.34) only behind Augsburg (35.2).
It was defensively that they thrived, with the joint-best defensive record last season along with champions Bayern Munich (38 goals conceded). As mentioned, that has not been the case this season, though interestingly only five Bundesliga teams have faced fewer shots than Union (130).
Not to lay the blame at the feet (or hands) of goalkeeper Frederik Rønnow, but Union have conceded 26 goals in the league this season despite only having faced a total of 16.65 expected goals. Rønnow has conceded 25 goals (excluding own goals) from 20.6 expected goals on target (xGOT), suggesting he is letting goals in too easily.
That’s the basic issue. Union outperformed their xG both for and against last season and are underperforming both this season.
Our expected points model simulates the number of goals scored by each side in each match based on the xG value of every shot taken. It then uses the simulated number of goals to determine the match outcome (win/draw/loss). Each match is simulated 10,000 times. The expected points for each team in each match can then be calculated based on the proportion of simulations they win/draw/lose.
It’s not an exact science as xG data doesn’t include a lot of factors, such as game state and dangerous periods of possession that don’t lead to shots. Nevertheless, Union Berlin fans may take some solace in the fact that it suggests they are below where they should be.
According to the model, Union should have almost twice as many points (11.7) as the six they currently have and should therefore be in 14th place rather than bottom. That is likely due to how much they have underperformed compared to their relatively low xG conceded. Basically, stop conceding so many soft goals and they could be back in business.
The Opta supercomputer also has higher hopes for their prospects, with 10,000 simulations of the rest of the Bundesliga season only seeing them relegated 22% of the time. Their likeliest predicted finishing position is 14th, which Union fans would surely take right now.
Following the announcement of Fischer’s departure, club president Dirk Zingler said: “For me personally and certainly for the entire Union family, this is a very sad moment. It hurts that we haven’t been able to break the negative trend of the last few weeks. Looking back on the time we spent together and the successes we celebrated together, I am grateful and proud. As painful as this separation is, Urs Fischer leaves as a friend who will be welcomed by us with open arms at all times.”
Parting ways will hurt, but with a fresh approach, Union still have plenty of time to rescue their season. They host Augsburg in their next game after the international break, which will have ‘must win’ written all over it, particularly because after that they travel to face champions Bayern Munich, with a trip to Braga in the Champions League sandwiched in between.
They may have suffered nine league defeats in a row but Union fans will be hoping that, come the end of the season, the question of whether they will be relegated will also be “nein”.