A Work in Progress: Is the Norbert Düwel era on road to recovery from rocky start?

After seven years under the tutelage of one coach and nine years of leadership on the field from a club legend, Union Berlin are finding the transition from one era to the next difficult. Uwe Neuhaus’ reign came to an end following a limp conclusion to a 2013-14 campaign that had seemed so promising. After falling short of expectations, Union management called for a changing of the guard, and in came rookie manager Norbert Düwel.

The unknown 46-year-old brought with him a fresh approach, one that has so far failed to yield results on the field.

Additionally, he club has had to deal with its fair share of controversy this season, from club icon Torsten Mattuschka’s departure, through the suspensions of Barış Özbek and Adam Nemec, to protests in the stands.

Yet, signs point to things starting to come together for Düwel and his charges despite a horrid start to the season, which yielded just seven points in the first nine games.

For Union fans, it’s a matter of patience.

This is the first upheaval the club has had in the coaching ranks in seven years, meaning Neuhaus is the only coach most younger fans have known. His arrival in 2007 provided stability for the club, bringing them up from the Regionalliga Nord into the 2. Bundesliga and cementing Union as a mid-table competitor.

Spells of good form – astonishingly good form at times – were common the past three seasons, but hopes of a charge towards the Bundesliga ultimately fell flat, leading to the shift in direction. With Union’s Stadion An der Alten Försterei now equipped to meet top-division standards, the ultimate goal is promotion, which is what Düwel will be expected to eventually deliver.

But, for now, it’s a time of transition, as the new coach gets to know his players and stamps his mark on the club. Some feel he’s changing things too quickly, while others are glad it’s happening sooner rather than later.

The only certainty is that Düwel has done it the hard way. He hasn’t been afraid of making the tough calls, which could prove the difference between a premature exit and the rookie extending his current three-year deal.

Upon his arrival, Düwel announced that he wanted to bring in a different system based around athleticism and not necessarily possession, while using the width of the park.

He was determined to enforce a 3-5-2 formation on the field, targeted a goalkeeper, attacker, and left back in the market, and refused to commit to handing Mattuchska the team’s captaincy, which the fan favorite had held since 2010. Düwel expressed his desire to promote from the youth teams.  The new coach also threw lifelines to Özbek and Nemec after Neuhaus had banished them from the first team due to disciplinary issues.

Five games into the current season, Union were winless and appeared to also be clueless. Mattuschka had been dropped as captain, replaced by Damir Kreilach, and the new tactics had proven difficult to impose. With nothing working, Düwel shifted from the 3-5-2 to a 3-4-4 and then to a 4-2-3-1 without success from any of them.

Then a shock, albeit deserved, 2-1 victory over high-flying RB Leipzig stemmed the criticism momentarily, but two losses and a draw, including a 3-0 demolition at the hands of hapless St. Pauli, sparked debate anew.

The loss at St. Pauli came just days after Mattuschka, the most popular Union player in history, got fed up with rotting on the bench and requested a move to 3. Liga side FC Energie Cottbus, his hometown club. A section of the away fans in Hamburg angrily bellowed “Duwel raus” toward the end of the match, words that continued to ring in the manager’s and players’ ears as European club football broke for the October international break.

With his club languishing in 17th place,Düwel organized a trip to the Federal Kienbaum, a training centre outside Berlin and delivered several changes over the following four games, dropping Özbek, Bjorn Jopek, Toni Leistner, Kreilach, and goalkeeper Daniel Haas at different stages.

And it seems to have worked.

The introduction of Eroll Zejnullahu against Saundhausen sparked a 3-1 comeback victory after an insipid first half performance let visiting Sandhausen take a 0-1 lead into halftime. Union repeated the feat with another come-from-behind display six days later at VfR Aalen. Players were seen imploring Düwel to join the celebrations at the end of the victory in Aalen, a key sign the team were behind their manager and his vision.

A disappointing loss to SpVgg Greuther Fürth followed and a respectable draw with the undefeated and table-topping FC Ingolstadt followed. Becaus Union held a 3-2 advantage with 10 minutes remaining, the draw was a bit of a blow, but Düwel would have taken a split of points before kick-off, and seven points from four games was nothing to sneeze at. Union entered the current international break in starkly different circumstances than they did the last pause, and once again set off for Kienbaum, looking to build on their new-found form.

It was always a risk to hire Düwel, who had never held a head coaching job in his career, with his apprenticeship consisting of a stint as a scout for Manchester United and three years as Mirko Slomka’s assistant at Hannover 96.

President Dirk Zingler wanted to take the club in a new direction and has stuck to his guns, refusing to get lost amid the media and public hysteria surrounding his man in the dugout. The current path is a long-term plan. Düwel has had trouble implementing his preferred system with his current squad, leading to Düwel setting his side in a more familiar 4-4-2 after the first training camp in Kienbaum, which has paid dividends.

Düwel still lacks the personnel needed to take the club forward, though. Union lack a specialist left back (although Andriy Tsurikov has been trialling) and they are in desperate need of a creative force in midfield. Özbek had been earmarked to replace Mattuschka’s creativity, but he’s since been fined and suspended, along with Nemec, for failing to watch Union’s home game against Fürth after being dropped from the match day squad. It’s unlikely either will return to the first team fold.

Mattuschka’s departure itself was a bit of a shambles, with the club legend missing out on an appropriate send-off due to his abrupt departure. For Düwel, though, “Tusche” was a necessary casualty. The man involved with 24 goals last season was a vital cog under Neuhaus, but perhaps Union’s reliance on the top-heavy playmaker worried Düwel.  Relying so heavily on a 33-year-old doesn’t bode well for a long-term strategy.

Dropping Mattuschka had to happen for reconstruction to truly begin. Meanwhile, the player himself refused to stay and fight for his position – a fair enough call given he was offered a three-year deal with Cottbus. Düwel showed no sentimentality for the club’s most famous player in history, a tough path to take and one not at all popular among many fans.

But the “Düwel raus” chants shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The same chants had been yelled in the direction of Neuhaus in previous years, and it’s mainly limited to a minority of the support. Many fans are willing to give their new leader a chance.

Düwel’s signings so far have been promising, if unspectacular. Mohamed Amsif has cemented himself in goal. Christopher Trimmel has been important at right wing back. Leistner is growing into the centre back spot, though is still prone to mistakes. Sebastian Polter, on loan from Mainz, has been the pick of the litter, scoring five goals in nine appearances.

But the middle of the park is still a concern, with too many opponents dispossessing Union’s midfielders with ease, and no one stepping up to push the team forward at vital moments. Düwel favours width over going through the middle, but it’s still a crucial role.

Düwel has used 26 players in four different systems so far and he’d be advised to stick with the basics for now. It will take time for his ideas to sink in, with the squad so far failing to grasp his tactics. Thankfully, the past four games showed Düwel’s willingness to engage with his players and re-jig the approach on the field. That’s not to say he has to abandon hopes of using 3-5-2, but he definitely needs to break it in slowly.

It’s worrying, but also promising, that eight goals conceded this campaign have been from set pieces. That should be a problem easily fixed on the training ground. Then it’s down to finding more avenues for goals.

Another camp in Kienbaum is clearly a ploy to get players and manager on the same wavelength. It will be interesting to see what shape Union take in Saturday’s match against 1860 München. The team needs to build on the past four games and put distance between themselves and the relegation zone.

Düwel has taken responsibility for results so far, and rightly so, but it’s still early days for Union and too soon for fans to get anxious. The most important thing is that the players are behind him, which is essential if the Düwel dynasty is to last as long as the Neuhaus reign.

Union fans are. for the most part, willing to give him time and see where his direction takes the club. Progress is the key and Düwel definitely has the right mindset in bringing Union up to speed with modern tactics. Whether he has the skills and personnel to do so is a different matter, and the fans won’t stay patient forever.

The game against 1860 will be clear an indicator of how well the team has managed to gel since their latest escape from Köpenicker, and the next six fixtures between now and the Winterpause will likely determine Düwel’s first season.

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