RB Leipzig’s unprecedented rise to the top (unprecedented because they’ve only been around for seven years) has sent shock waves through Europe and especially in Germany. But there’s a story brewing in the 2. Bundesliga that could restore people’s faith in German football. That story involves 1. FC Union Berlin.
2.Bundesliga members since 2009 after they achieved promotion in the 2008/09 season from the 3. Liga, FC Union are on course for their first ever promotion into the Bundesliga. Under new coach, Jens Keller, who you may remember from his days managing FC Schalke and a very brief spell at VFB Stuttgart, the capital based club are in deadly form. With a sturdy defense, an effective attack and a cool midfield, Union Berlin now have the perfect chance to show the rest of Germany you don’t need the backing of a drink sponsor to get into the top flight.
I’m reminded ever so slightly of Leicester City when I think about Union Berlin’s position this year. A new manager takes over at the start of the season, he brings in some fresh talent that not many know about, builds a strong squad harmony and then he begins to make the unthinkable possible. Whilst this is the 2. Bundesliga, and Leicester did it in the Premier League, the similarities are there. So, what has, Jens Keller got so right this year?
Let’s start at the back. Union Berlin have the best defense in the league. 24 goals conceded in 25 games. They’re consistently strong in that area of the field. An important trait for any team hoping for success. With the first choice back four made up of Kristian Pedersen at left-back, Roberto Puncec and Toni Leistner as the centre-backs and Christopher Trimmel at right-back, there is a vast array of experience, youth, pace, strength and an impeccable organisation among them. After Erzgebirge Aue, Union have completed the second most tackles per game, averaging around 20 every week. And after Hannover 96, the club from East Berlin also manage the second most interceptions per game, around 23. So, a solid defense has equaled a solid season, so far, but what about going forward?
VFB Stuttgart lead the way in terms of number of goals scored this season, 41. Union Berlin, Eintracht Braunschweig and Hannover 96 are all level on 40 goals, Dynamo Dresden also not far off this list, they’ve scored 39. You can see why it’s incredibly tight at the top. FC Union have failed to score in more games than any of the other top four. On five occasions this season they have failed to find the back of the net. Compare that with Stuttgart and Hannover who have failed to score on four occasions. or Braunschweig who have come out of the game without a goal just three times this season, one may think that this is where Union are likely to slip up.
Yet the capital club are sitting top of the league and have won their last six on the bounce, making them the hottest professional club in Germany (Bayern are 5-1-0, Werder are 4-1-1), The Rückrunde has seen Keller’s men hit a total of fourteen goals in eight games, winning seven of them, drawing one away in a goalless encounter in Dresden. It’s intriguing to see that FC Union don’t have a single player in the top scorers chart. The closest is, Steven Skrzybski who’s managed eight goals in 25 appearances. Believe it or not, there are fourteen other players that have scored either the same amount or more, such as Simon Terodde of Stuttgart who’s bagged fifteen and Martin Harnik of Hannover with thirteen.
Team effort has been the key for Union. There is no individual who stands head and shoulders above the rest. Instead, we see a small group of players who are pitching in when the team needs them to. Croat, Damir Kreilach has chipped in with seven goals as well as three assists and Sebastian Polter, who arrived in January, already has four goals in his eight games, contributing three assists too. It’s this team effort that has led them to where they are right now. It’s why their expressive fan base, dressed in red and white week in week out chant “Fussballgott” after every players’ name is read out by the stadium announcer. This is a team. Together as one.
It would be an abomination to mention Union Berlin’s breath-taking season, and not have one mention of, Felix Kroos. The younger brother of Toni has captained his side to a place that not even the Union players themselves would have imagined of at the start of the season. With a similar style of play to that of his older brother, Kroos has four assists and two goals this season. Very much the hub of the operation, Kroos keeps things ticking and is one of the best in the league at winning the ball back. With eleven games to go, can Felix keep his team’s feet on the ground?
Having visited the Stadion An der Alten Försterei back in February, I would love to see Union Berlin in Germany’s top league. It was an incredible experience in their wonderful ground, and remains one of my favourite stadiums I have ever been to. There isn’t one thing about this club that the football romantic can dislike. It would be a privilege to see them playing in the Bundesliga next season. And after who we saw go up last season, it would certainly be refreshing. Eisern Union!
Union Berlin (1st) next play Hannover 96 (4th) at the HDI-Arena on Saturday, 13:00 local time. Four points separate the two sides, you don’t need me to tell you how huge this game is. It will be Hannover’s first game under new coach, André Breitenreiter. 49,000 expected to be there, including myself! Indeed, it is the biggest game of the season so far.
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