After 20 matchdays, Union Berlin sit fourth place in the Bundesliga table, just one point behind third place Bayer Leverkusen. This is coming after a stunning seventh place finish last year, with the club securing their first taste of European football in twenty years. With a rigid 3-1-4-2 to 3-5-2 system and a group of grinders, Union are well set up for years to come under the influence of Urs Fischer. Here is our tactical analysis of Union Berlin in 2021-22.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-1-4-2 / 3-5-2
Union Berlin have played all twenty matches so far this campaign in a back-three, shaping up in either a 3-1-4-2 (17 matches) or 3-4-1-2 (3 matches). With a big squad, Fischer has loads of room to move things around, but still keeps a steady set of reliable figures at the forefront. Marvin Friedrich, rather foolishly, departed for Borussia Monchengladbach in January, which has allowed for 23-yearold Paul Jaeckel to accumulate more minutes at the back. He’s partnered by the experience of former Wolfsburg man Robin Knoche, and the solid Timo Baumgartl, who’s more adventurous in getting forward than the other two. Andreas Luthe sits behind them in goal, and continues to establish himself as one of the best keepers in the league with his six clean sheets so far.Embed from Getty Images
Captain Christopher Trimmel has also been one of the best right-wing-backs in the league two seasons running, which is quite some feat for a 34-year-old. On the other side, Niko Gießelmann is one of the key creators in the side, and Bastian Oczipka provides a capable understudy. Rani Khedira’s played 19 of the 20 matches at the heart of Union’s midfield, anchoring alongside the solid scorer Grischa Prömel, who excellently times his runs forward. The right attacking midfield spot has been more open to debate, with the ball carrying energy of Genki Hargaguchi and the raw running power of Sheraldo Becker battling most prominently for a place, and Levin Oztunali also offering an option.Embed from Getty Images
Up front things have been more clear cut, with target man Andreas Voglsammer only now starting to get minutes due to Taiwo Awoniyi’s role for Nigeria at the African Cup of Nations. Awoniyi’s been one of the key men to the Berlin attack so far, with 9 goals in his first 17 matches this campaign. Max Kruse provides the necessary gusto and determination alongside him, and also acts as one of the key creators in the team. With loads of experience in their first eleven, Fischer has achieved great success through relying on older heads, who have been there and done it at the highest level for years. It’s clearly been an efficient strategy to take, and his players have perfectly bought into everything he wants to achieve in their 3-5-2. So with that, let’s dive into exactly what Union look to do in attack and defense in their formation.
BUILD-UPEmbed from Getty Images
Union Berlin have clear principles and patterns of play starting right from their build-up, wanting to play out from the back and work their way up to the target man they could so easily go to right away.
The back-three will usually interact with a narrowness between them, with minimal angles as they circulate the ball. The goalkeeper and Khedira will then form the other important part of the build-up with both involved in initial stages of circulation. It’s not uncommon for all three centre-backs to touch the ball in build-up phases, as they move the opposition around and find avenues forward. One of the central midfielders may also drop deep in a 3+2 shape, as the other floats away from the situation. Perhaps most intriguingly, in some moments, one centre-back pushes higher. When the goalkeeper has the ball, the middle centre-back will often float into more of a defensive midfielder’s position in a 2+2. Baumgartl on the left meanwhile will look for moments to carry or advance forward ever so slightly. This could mean Khedira dropping into the back-three instead, or a lopsided 2+2 as the team look to advance down the left.
While they favour short passes, long passes from the likes of Luthe, Knoche, Jaeckel and Baumgartl may also come to fruition. Knoche’s completed more passes into the final third (48) than any other Union player, with a team high long pass completion rate of 69%. If the goalkeeper or back-line find themselves under pressure, they can go more direct into their target men, and break lines through those long passes. Against certain teams that they can clearly win aerial battles against, they may take on this more direct approach. Die Eisernen have completed 67 long passes per game this season, the 4th highest in the league. There were several moments in the recent 2-1 win over Hoffenheim, where Luthe would stop in his tracks on the ball, urge the defenders to push up, and then he would clip one long into the strikers. This is a very normal thing when talking about a goal kick, but a quite unusual thing when talking about open play. But, it works. It works in many ways, especially with both strikers being such capable hard-men. Voglsammer in particular is able to make himself a real nuisance up top, with Kruse and Awoniyi also rising well to challenge for high balls.
Finally, in elucidating this strategy further, initial build-up stages can even look more 5-1-2-2, as the fullbacks come in deep. They do this not necessarily to pick up the ball in the wide areas, but to create even more room for the strikers to chase balls into half-spaces. Moving players closer to your own goal pulls opposition players with you, erasing the opposition’s compactness as the target men stretch the depth. If Die Eisernen want to use the wing-backs then as additional options, you could expect the attacking midfielders to receive next on a one-touch diagonal into half-spaces, where the forwards can then receive in space. Altogether, Urs Fischer’s build-up strategy is incredibly effective, versatile, and shows a clear understanding of the team’s strengths, and ability to lean into those opportunities.
ATTACKING PRINCIPLESEmbed from Getty Images
Once progressing out of their meticulous build-up, Union don’t waste any time in getting the ball forward. They utilize speed down the wings and wide combinations to unlock the opposition’s defense, and look to hit their target men early. The wing-backs and attacking midfielders will often combine quickly out wide to find avenues for deliveries into the box, where the likes of Awoniyi, Voglsammer or Kruse wait to pounce. This also presents the opportunity for the far-sided midfielder to get forward, which is where Grischa Prömel has been so effective this season in arriving late, and pounding the ball home.
That combination works exceptionally well with Prömel having more of a box-to-box, off-the-ball role, and the other attacking midfielder looking to produce more magic. Suriname midfielder Sheraldo Becker has caught the eye this season, with more progressive carries (61) than any other player in the team, despite fewer minutes. With an electric pace, he frequently gallops down the right wing to advance ahead of Christopher Trimmel, with left-wing-back Niko Gießelmann more advanced down the other side. Again, the balance of the team is all in place. The 30-year-old left-wing-back is the team’s best creator, with more key passes, crosses and assists than any other player in the team. With a player like that who can pick out the right pass at exactly the right moment, the likes of Kruse and Awoniyi can thrive inside the box.Embed from Getty Images
With so much time spent out of possession (only 43% possession this season), Fischer’s men have to be particularly capable in attacking transitions, and in making their moments count. That’s where their directness either in running power or the sheer strength of their strikers can come in handy. Union’s stamina and ability to cover ground is one of the highest in the league, with players exploding in attacking transitions and the use of one-touch moves to quickly get up the field. They can bounce passes into strikers and back as other player runs wide, or immediately break lines on a dribble with the strikers pushing the opposition line back. The sheer frame of Union’s forwards is enough in itself to strike fear in the opposition, and this constantly creates room for other, more underrated players, to get on the ball and drive the team forward.Embed from Getty Images
The final note we must make on Union’s attack is a particular cleverness we picked up on attacking throw-ins. Players will often dart forward in specific moments, pushing the opposition away as the thrower then makes a lateral throw into the vacated space, or backwards to allow more time for the receiver to control and think about their next action. David Edgar recently lent me a brilliant article on throw-ins, which details how backwards and lateral throws have the highest retention rate, and subsequent shot-creating ability. Union have clearly worked this out, and make an active habit out of these decoy forward movements to open space for backwards or sideways passes instead. Brilliant.
DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLESEmbed from Getty Images
With 29 goals from 20 matches, Union Berlin have been solid in attack this season, but the real reason why they sit fourth in the Bundesliga comes down to their stellar, organized defense. At 26.3, they have the fourth lowest expected goals against this season, and at 23 actual goals against, the joint-fourth lowest in the league.
Union hold a solid, compact 5-3-2 shape, limiting central progression and forcing their opposition out wide. They frustrate their opposition into misery, constraining them to basic passes between centre-backs with little hope of finding a way forward. The strikers will pressure one at a time to limit time on the ball, but don’t really care to win it back on a tackle. They’ve won the ball in the attacking third under 30 times per game, the third lowest in the division. So instead of intense high pressing, which they will do in their high block on occasion, they are more likely to hold a steady shape in their mid to low-block.
The initial high block starts as a 5-1-2-2 shape, intentionally angling the opposition out wide. This can be adjusted to match up against the opposition in more of a 3-1-4-2 or 3-3-1-3, especially if chasing matches. But more commonly the wing-backs start closer to their centre-backs than central midfielders. The interesting discrepancy would be in the 3-3-1-3 shape, which pushes Khedira and the fullbacks up, the right attacking midfielder inside, Prömel higher on the left and Kruse into the number nine role. Having this flexibility allows Union to seamlessly adjust depending on the evolution of the match. They specifically adjusted in this manner in the second half against Hoffenheim‘s deep build in a 3-1-4-2, which was an immensely intelligent judgement to make. Union went more man-to-man in that case, changing from their normal zonal structures seen in their mid to low-block.
With hard-working strikers on-side, shuffling and pressuring from the front, the opposition may be forced into making long passes and losing the ball. It’s not uncommon for one striker to drop behind the other and screen the opposition’s number six, facilitating the forcing wide.
With intelligent, hard-working midfielders in behind the front two, the opposition’s task is all the more complex. Against Monchengladbach, Rani Khedira frequently stepped up as the highest midfielder in the 5-3-2. He recognized Gladbach’s lack of a number ten, and pressured higher time and time again to put Hutter’s defensive midfielders under pressure, or dissuade passes into them to begin with, as Voglsammer and Kruse worked Gladbach’s centre-backs. Again, this shows flexibility within the rigidness to adapt to the opposition. As we discussed with Graham Potter at Brighton, this is the sign of a really clever manager who knows a thing or two about tactical versatility and opposition analysis. Union are however different from Brighton in that they never change shape, and so the adaptability is always rooted in the 3-1-4-2, where they can make slight tweaks to player roles, without changing their over-arching ideologies.Embed from Getty Images
The back-five are also warriors, with Robin Knoche organizing everything at the back. The outside centre-backs are allowed to follow their markers (such as the opposition’s inverted wingers) as they drop to pick up possession, with the midfielders ahead of them responsible more zonally for shifting wide and stopping attacks ahead of the wing-backs. This is particularly crucial, as one of the targeted areas in a back-three formation is often the space between the wing-backs and centre-backs. Union’s ability to hold their narrowness and compactness and give players higher up the pitch defensive responsibility, means they can mitigate that concern. The strikers for example coming very deep in the low-block and doing the bulk of the work, makes the job all the easier for those lower down and closer to goal.
So we’ve been quite positive on Union Berlin defensively, but any team can be susceptible if you hit them in the right ways. So let’s quickly talk about how to score against Urs Fischer’s side, and break down his resilient defense.Embed from Getty Images
One of the keys to success against Union is breaking the lines quickly and playing swift passes through the lines. Carrying will be nearly impossible other than transitions, and so line-breaking passes in their tiny gaps will be imperative to shift players out of position. This can be done through things like positional rotation, as the opposition shifts out of shape to cover one player, and leaves another available. Another way to do this is in playing quick one-touch passes through the lines. Lateral, sideways passes are easy for Fischer’s men to deal with, and therefore pointless. The opposition must be positive in trying to play forwards, knowing they will likely be able to regain possession and try again soon enough if it doesn’t come off. The final piece of advice would be to target Union’s back-three with some quick changes of direction and silky smooth dribblers. The big men at the back are not able to turn quite as fast as those creative, dribbling types, and will be more cautious anyway as they won’t want to foul so close to goal. Using wide overloads or speed down the wings against Berlin’s older heads could be another way, but the shape is always well set-up to stop their opposition from getting there to begin with. Breaking through the centre and then using fancy footwork might be a better approach, where at least from there you can win a free kick or create a chance.
All and all, Union Berlin are incredibly tough to break down, and that shows in the minimal amount of goals and shots they’ve conceded this season.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Union Berlin have made an exceptional start to the 2021-22 season, and have now gone unbeaten in their last six games in all competitions. Claiming a European place last season was a fantastic achievement, and they might do even better this season, with a top four push certainly on its way. Fischer’s team play to their strengths through an organized defense, long passing regime, and simultaneous meticulous build-up. They also inject pace in the form of quick attacking transitions, and occasional high pressing schemes that put the opposition on the back-foot. Incredibly hard to break through, Union’s stellar defense has conceded just 23 goals in 20 games, the joint-third lowest in the division. Whether or not they can claim top four remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure, Urs Fischer is a fantastic, tactically versatile coach.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Bundesliga high flyers Union Berlin. Be sure to check out more of our Bundesliga analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an article like this. Thanks for reading and see you soon.
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