March 22, 2017

1.FC Union Berlin: Die Köpenick Chronik

It’s been a predictably quiet Winterpause for Union fans amidst the snow-covered streets of Köpenick in Berlin’s east. A limited war chest has meant new additions have been tough to find, and manager Norbert Düwel will have to face the remainder of his first season with familiar faces.

His task is simple enough; a comfortable mid-table finish with an eye on turning his current squad into a more functional and consistent unit. After a horror start to the 2. Bundesliga season, on-field results exacerbated by off-field drama, Union turned it around heading into Christmas to hold 10th spot.

Building on that late run of form is essential, however the team is still lacking depth and quality in certain positions, namely central midfield and the left side of defence.

Ninteen-year-old Valmir Sulejmani is the sole new face, arriving on loan for the rest of the season from Hannover 96, where Düwel once worked underneath Mirko Slomka.

But Sulejmani’s arrival is more to soften the blow of Maxi Thiel’s shoulder injury, which will keep him out for a few weeks at least. The left-sided midfielder has been Union’s brightest spark alongside seven-goal man Sebastian Polter but was forced to undergo surgery earlier this week.

The club has managed to offload problem child Adam Nemec, however, after a string of disciplinary issues made his position untenable. He’s off to America to join up with David Villa and co. at New York City, while Martin Dausch has also signed with MSV Duisburg after failing to impress in his short time with the club.

So two out, one down and one in – it’s hardly positive reading for Düwel, but he knew the club’s financial limitations when he arrived. What’s essential is that he makes a better start to February than he did August.

Düwel came in to the club too strong and too hard, and paid the price with poor results and player confusion. His forward-thinking tactics weren’t quickly adapted, but thankfully Düwel took a step back, no mean feat for modern day managers who are usually steadfast with their ideals.

SV Sandhausen at home was the turning point, Union overcoming a 1-0 deficit and listless first half performance to emerge 3-1 victors. Following that result it’s been a respectable five wins, two draws and three losses.

As mentioned, problem areas have been apparent within the squad. Düwel has struggled to find a partner for captain Damir Kreilach in the middle of the park, with both Benjamin Köhler and Björn Jopek failing to hold down a starting spot. Kreilach himself has been dropped twice this season.

Devastating news that Köhler had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma has also just surfaced, meaning the veteran 34-year-old’s career could be in threat as he begins therapy.

Youngster and Berliner Eroll Zejnullahu is an exciting prospect, but as a natural number 10 he doesn’t fit in tactically if Düwel sticks with the 4-4-2 he’s largely settled on.

Then there’s left back, where the only incumbent is Michael Parensen, who the coach would probably like to experiment with in midfield. But a move for VfL Bochum’s Fabian Holthaus broke down after personal details had been agreed, keeping the defence light on numbers.

At least they have the goals of Polter, who has been a revelation on loan from Mainz. He’s yet to play with a regular partner, however, Düwel rotating the likes of Soren Brandy, Martin Kobylanski and Steven Skrzybski.

The off-season included a training camp in Andalusia, with friendlies against FC Luzern, Ludogorets Razgrad and Danish outfit Esbjerg. Düwel has reportedly been unhappy with some of the performances, so it will be interesting to see if there’s improvement on Saturday against Bochum.

Union’s next two opponents, Nürnberg and Heidenheim, present opportunities for a decent return to the field and will be crucial in building confidence for a side that will want to avoid a relegation scrap. With a number of players coming off contract, they’re also playing for their future.

For Düwel, consolidation is the key this season, with an eye to kick-starting a project that has an initial three years to run. Placing above 10th will go a long way to creating a solid platform for an off-season re-build, with a push for the Bundesliga the medium to long-term goal.

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