The Surprise Firing of Jens Keller at FC Union Berlin

The sacking of Jens Keller as the manager of 2. Bundesliga-promotion-hopefuls 1. FC Union Berlin on Monday, along with FCU assistant Henrik Pedersen, was a surprise. It came as a surprise to the footballing world beyond Köpenick and Berlin, where people had trouble fitting the news into the narrative of Union as a sympathetic, close-knit club that does things the right way. It came as a surprise to the club’s supporters, who were not particularly enamoured with the team’s – frankly quite awful – display in a late 2-1 defeat away to Bochum a day earlier, but (in their overwhelming majority) were also far from calling for the dismissal of the ex-Schalke manager. It came as a surprise to the team itself, which apparently did not feel that its performances would merit a managerial change. It came a surprise least of all to Keller, who left a conversation with Union’s chief sporting officer Lutz Munack after 20 seconds, having been told that his services were no longer required and not feeling there was a whole lot else to discuss.

And it came as a surprise finally to André Hofschneider, Keller’s successor, who, when he was asked about his willingness to take the job on Sunday evening, was occupied with figuring out a way of securing Union’s place in the Bundesliga next season – just not that of the first team, but of the club’s under 19s who are struggling to avoid relegation. Hofschneider has stepped in as Union’s head coach once before in the last few months of the 2015/16 campaign, when Sascha Lewandowski had fallen ill. Since then, he went through the curriculum to acquire the DFB’s professional-level coaching license (to become a so-called Fußball-Lehrer) and has taken charge of the newly promoted youth team that has since found it difficult to establish itself at the highest level. Hofschneider’s coaching c.v. comes with a history of 15 years as a player at Union, followed by another decade as journey man in the lower ranks of the professional game in Germany. It does not, however, constitute a body of work that convinces those sceptical of firing Keller immediately that the new man in the job is better equipped to achieve promotion, which has been Union’s unambiguous goal for this season from at least the summer.

Despite Union’s current 4th place berth in the table, recent performances suggest that getting into the two automatic promotion slots or winning a play-off will require substantial improvement. Having already gone five matches without a win earlier in the season, Union took only one point from its last three games. The football it played in these games was marked by an over-reliance on counter attacks, a lack of trust in its own possession play and a curious defensive instability, especially faced with crosses. Last season, Union had mostly found a way to put opponents under enough pressure not to allow balls in behind its back line that couldn’t have been cleared by the towering centre-half Toni Leistner, his (now departed) colleague Roberto Puncec or one of the physically strong full-backs Christopher Trimmel and Kristian Pedersen. This time around, the Berlin side’s (counter)pressing is neither sufficiently productive offensively to overpower opponents nor making it difficult enough for them to take advantage of the space it concedes in particular behind those full-backs. That Puncec now plays (intermittently) for Croatian champions Rijeka and that his replacements are either injured or not quite up to the task has been very visible in the way Union deals with those crosses. The result have been two, three and four goals conceded respectively against Bochum, Darmstadt and Heidenheim, none of which are clubs currently residing  in the upper half of the league.

But despite the shortcomings that have been obvious so far, the club is yet to show that Hofschneider is more likely to turn the team’s form around than Keller and Pedersen would have been. At his first press conference back in charge of the first team, the 47-year-old was reluctant to go into much detail in terms of what tactical or psychological impulses are needed ahead of games at home to Dresden and  Ingolstadt before the (short) winter break. Instead, he called on his players to prove their individual quality, which is in fact rated at or near the top of the league. As such, Hofschneider maintained that he would be neither willing nor able to change much in the team’s strategic and tactical setup when it meets Dresden on Saturday.

Union Berlins New Manager André Hofschneider

That match is emotionally charged not just because it is something of derby, though calling the clash between teams from cities a couple hundred Kilometers apart “one of the most emotional derbys” – as Hofschneider did on Thursday – is stretching the geography of that concept. But there is also a closer connection in the person of Uwe Neuhaus, who now manages Dresden, after spending seven years in the same position at Union, where Hofschneider had been his assistant.

While Dresden will travel to the Stadion an der Alten Förserei with the considerable boost in confidence of winning 3-1 in Düsseldorf and beating Aue 4-0 at home last week, Union’s new manager showed himself reluctant to adapt his team’s approach too much in response to the opponent, even more so in front of a presumably enthusiastic home crowd. Whether the encouragement to express themselves that Union players will receive from their new coach and the terraces will be enough for them to find a way to deal with Dresden remains to be seen. That the visitors have a goalkeeper in Marvin Schwäbe who is very adept at getting involved in the build up and can alleviate pressure from the back line while  able to rely on the pressing-resistance of their midfield pairing of Rico Benatelli and Niklas Hauptmann will be tough for FCU to overcome.   The fact that Dresden also like to focus their attacking play on the wingers in their 433 formation seems to fit well with what is needed to be successful against this Union side..

How well Union will respond to Hofschneider’s appeal in the remaining two games of the year – whose importance the club put forth in support of the urgency it felt was in order in letting go Keller – will determine how realistic it is that the former defender will in fact be a long-term solution as manager. While his contract in that position is set to run to July 2019, sliding further away from the promotion ranks would sit badly with the club’s ambition. If nothing else, the sacking of Keller and Pedersen was an act that expressed commitment to that ambition. It is now up to their successors to show that it also was a step towards satisfying it.

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Daniel Roßbach is a writer based in Berlin, where he covers Union for his tactics-focussed blog Eiserne Ketten and the blog and podcast Textilvergehen. His work appeared among other places also on Spielverlagerung and The Set Pieces.

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