Following a defensive capitulation at the hands of RB Leipzig last weekend, Union Berlin manager Norbert Düwel was looking for a response from his side and got it Sunday as high-flying Kaiserslautern went home from Köpenick with a goalless draw.
Three goals in the first 13 minutes against Leipzig had killed Union’s chances of a derby victory before fans had even had a chance to drift through the stadium turnstiles, and Düwel was less than pleased post-match.
As such, the boss rang the changes, dropping goalkeeper Daniel Haas for Mohamed Amsif, and Toni Leistner for Björn Kopplin, who played on the left side of defence with Fabian Schönheim partnering Robert Puncec in the middle.
The introduction of Amsif was surprising, given that Haas was not at fault for any of Union’s goals in Leipzig. And while the omission of Leistner was understandable, taking away the attacking threat of Schönheim down the left flank was also a strange move.
But from the outset it was clear what Düwel was after – solidity, structure, and a clean sheet.
Initially, it looked like Düwel had enforced a 4-1-4-1 for the match, however it soon turned into a 4-2-3-1, as Damir Kreilach and Michael Parensen were required to work as twin sixes with Björn Kopplin working hard in defence even as the number 10.
Union stifled Kaiserslautern’s chances superbly for most of the opening stanza, with the trio of Alexander Ring, Karim Matmour, and Philipp Hofmann failing to find holes in the side despite some neat interchanges.
Union even had a fantastic chance to go ahead in the 19th minute, when Sebastian Polter made a breakaway before squaring for the supporting Jopek. Yet the Berliner was quickly crowded out in the box before he could get a shot away.
The inevitable Union shakiness to which fans have become so accustomed briefly appeared in the 31st minute, but just as it appeared Kaiserslautern would push on to find a way through a resolute defensive unit, Union started to wrestle control of possession.
Fabian Schönheim kick-started the spell, pushing forward and winning a free kick about 20 yards out. The chance came to nothing, but it was the type of impetus that has been a highlight for Union in recent weeks, further drawing question to Düwel’s decision to push Schönheim inside from his usual left back slot.
Union finished the half stronger, finally pressing the Kaiserslautern defence and looking to move forward and hold possession. Yet, there was still a disconnect between defence and attack, as Amsif regularly was punting long balls forward to a stranded Polter.
Following the halftime break, order returned with Kaiserslautern bossing possession and Union soaking up the pressure. While it was a drab affair, the way the team kept their shape showed a disciplined side that has often been lacking this season.
Kaiserslautern were forced to let fly from well outside the 18-yard box when they did attack, and Amsif was tested for the first time from Matmour in the 50th minute.
Union then had another good spell, with Jopek the first to threaten Tobias Sippel’s goal with a weak effort wide of the post. Ten minutes later the keeper was forced to unorthodoxly clear a corner with his right leg.
Düwel made a change on 67 minutes, replacing Martin Kobylanski with Steven Skrzybski. The substitute almost made an immediate impact. Cutting in from the left wing, Kobylanski nutmegged a Kaiserslautern defender before winding up a shot.
The ball looked destined for the net, or at least a spectacular save, when Polter unsuspectingly ran into its path, the danger passing as soon as it emerged.
Irrespective of blocking his own teammate’s shot, Polter was struggling to have any influence up front. His challenges for the long balls were mistimed, his touches when receiving the ball at his feet inconsistent and his off-the-ball running strangely out of sync with teammates. It’s not often the star striker has had a bad game this season, but this was definitely one of them.
The frustration showed when the nine-goal man attempted to win a penalty late in the game producing a desperate flop that was never going to be given. Moments before, Amsif had been forced into a brilliant diving save after Matmour volleyed a Hofmann chest down towards goal.
While the Union support finally found some energy in the final five minutes, and the team started to look for more opportunities, the game finished in an appropriate fashion. Goalless was what Union deserved, both in attack and defence, while Kaiserslautern were left ruing their inability to produce a breakthrough or even a chance to attempt a breakthrough.
For Union, the result can be looked at in two ways: as a second consecutive game without a win, or as a defensive performance that finally resulted in a clean sheet, only the third of the season. Given the strength of the opposition and the fact that Union managed to maintain their structure for 90 minutes, perhaps for the first time this season, it should be taken as a positive.
Unspectacular, for sure. Promising, perhaps. Düwel has been at pains to improve Union’s defence this season, with the team forced to come back from early setbacks far too often. Hopefully this performance will provide a building block, one that in time can be turned into a more offensive game plan.
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