After a fabulous 2021-22 campaign in which Urs Fischer led Union Berlin to a stunning fifth place finish on the final day, many fans of German soccer would have been right to be skeptical about their sustainability heading into 2022-23. But Union have only kicked on since the start of 2022-23, currently sitting fourth place in a competitive Bundesliga campaign that has seen them start with an unbeaten run of form. Along the way, Fischer has maintained a succinct style of play, that drastically differs from the other German giants around them in the table. Here is our tactical analysis of Union Berlin in 2022-23, under the influence of the extraordinary Urs Fischer.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-1-4-2
Union Berlin have continued on in their favoured 3-5-2 / 3-1-4-2 formation this season, even despite some key departures from their previous campaign. Goalkeeper Andras Luthe left the club at the end of the campaign to little consequence, with Frederik Rønnow performing magnificently in his place. At the front end of the pitch, the team also lost their top scorer in Taiwo Awoniyi, who’s goals have been replaced by Sheraldo Becker – a man who has already bettered his goal tally from 2021-22. American forward Jordan Siebatcheu has also entered the frame to be that Max Kruse-esque bullying figure from the front, and has provided a wonderful partner to bring the best out of Becker’s pace and mobility in behind. More on that as we continue.Embed from Getty Images
Along the back, Union have made a few smart additions – including Diogo Leite from SC Braga and Danilho Doekhi from VItesse, who have seamlessly entered the frame to play alongside Robin Knoche – sitting at the heart of the defense. Paul Jaeckel provides another solid option to play at the back end of the pitch, but started the season with a poor tackle and pressure percentage, and found himself replaced by Doekhi following his late summer arrival. Julian Ryerson has been the other surprise within Union’s ranks, completely kicking on from being an auxillary alternative last campaign.Embed from Getty Images
Ryerson has performed admirably as a right-footed left-wing-back, cutting inside and wonderfully joining attacks. But he’s also made an impact over on the right, in place of team captain Christoper Trimmel, who also continues to go strong at the age of 35. Niko GieBelmann has also challenged for a place at left-wing-back, and provides much needed width on that left side to support the front-two in creating chances.Embed from Getty Images
In central midfield, Union have a trio of resilient, hard-working terriers who endeavour to hold shape and win back possession at will. Rani Khedira is the man who organizes the entire system from that ‘Anchoring’ role, acting as an extremely positionally aware player in all defense phases. Janik Haberer has been another positive addition after his move from Freiburg, replacing the energetic Grischa Prömel on the left of the midfield three. On the right, Sheraldo Becker is now firmly a right-sided-striker, which has allowed a variety of men to audition for the role in midfield – including András Schäfer, Genki Haraguchi, and ex Sampdoria man Morten Thorsby. We may expect Thorsby to kick on and hold down the role for the bulk of the season, but Fischer can be quite positive knowing the plethora of options he has at his disposal.Embed from Getty Images
The functionality and rigidness of the system, always achieving the same 5-3-2 shape in defense, and 3-1-4-2-esque ferocity in attack, means that Union have achieved a clear sense of what they strive to accomplish on the pitch, and an over-arching identity that rules everything they do. This has only been a positive in Fischer’s master-plan, and one that has guided their phenomenal start.
ATTACKING PRINCIPLESEmbed from Getty Images
Union Berlin build out from the back in a 3+1 shape. Goalkeeper Frederik Rønnow remains involved throughout the initial stages of circulation, in that diamond shape that sees Rani Khedira feature at the top. As soon as the keeper comes under greater pressure, he is not afraid to go long, in the quest to find his hard-hitting centre-forwards up top. As we noted in our analysis last year, one centre-back may also shift wider or higher to support a more natural diamond, ensuring that Knoche and Khedira don’t fall in the same line of play. This can then create something of a 2+3 shape, as one wing-back floats all the way into the attacking half and the other stays low. Then as Khedira moves toward his keeper, he naturally attracts more space for passes to be played in behind to the strikers.
While they can be effective in driving the team forward, the central midfielders ahead of Khedira typically remain uninvolved. Passes are more likely to be played directly into the strikers, or wide to the wing-backs before a wide combination occurs that can help the team progress. Keeping hold of the ball has not been the greatest strong suit of Union this season, but they won’t necessarily be bothered by that reality. They thrive in this direct approach, and would rather sit back and then explode on the break, then keep the ball for long periods of time. However, this style has resulted in many unwanted statistics so far this campaign, including the lowest pass completion (69%), and the lowest amount of possession (37.1%). Instead of smoothness and control in possession, Union have clearly emphasized the defensive side of the game, where they can then explode on the break via Jordan and Becker. That said, you could even say that they’ve been too haste in getting the ball forward, with the lowest long passing percentage in the division (48.1%).
But when you have the highest ratio of goals per shot (0.22), it’s hard for anyone to discount the work that Union have done, and their potential for greatness once more in 2022-23. Their success has been marked by their ability to seek space in transition, led magnificently by Jordan Pefok and Sheraldo Becker.
Siebatcheu is magnificent in the air, winning 6.3 duels per game, and serving as a wonderful compliment for Becker’s mobility in behind. The American is an excellent back-to-goal target man, so incredibly capable of holding up the play. Naturally, as he attracts pressure on his back, he can then bounce to a midfielder, as Becker sprints in behind for the third-man pass.
We broke down their efficient counter-attacking play in this article, which pinpoints the precision to which Becker finds space in transition. They prioritize all the right areas on their counter-attacks, always keeping a strong sense of verticality in their pursuit toward goal. They will then get several numbers forward quickly, and are not afraid to take on shots from difficult angles or immense pressure. In fact, Union’s xG so far this campaign tells a very different story from their actual goal tally (3.4 to 12). In their 6-1 win over Schalke, Die Eisernen accumulated a lower xG than Schalke, in large part due to the fact that their goals were spectacular, extravagant, and always through several bodies.
Conceptualizations of xG may need to be refined when looking at the goals in isolation, but its still a miracle how they managed to find the back of the net under such circumstances.
Beyond their extraordinary counter attacking play, Union have achieved much of their potency via the way of their healthy mix of width and verticality. Their attack can quickly become a 3-1-6 in the blink of an eye, with the central midfielders pushing forward in tandem, and the wing-backs stretching the field. Niko Gießelmann loves a deep cross, and will often even use that knowhow to his advantage in faking one, cutting inside and then gaining space closer to goal. Ryerson provides a nice contrast as someone who constantly wants to cut inside on his right foot from that left-wing-back slot, pushing his defenders against the run of play. In a 3-1-4-2 formation like Union Berlin’s, this then allows more variety in who can occupy the wide left spot, from left-centre-back to left-central-midfielder.Embed from Getty Images
Becker and Jordan may also shift to their respective wide area to enhance an overload or receive a long pass down the line, allowing more space for a central midfielder to become a late arrival into the penalty area. With so much fluidity to their attacking play, Union have scored 12 goals in 5 matches, the second most in the division.
DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLESEmbed from Getty Images
Out of all their characteristics from last season to this one, Urs Fischer has maintained an incredibly consistent set of defensive principles. Die Eisernen defend in a 5-3-2 shape, with Rani Khedira anchoring the midfield and organizing all the compact shuffling and shuttling that goes on in central areas. They don’t tend to press audaciously from the front, but do so with a meticulous mastery both in distance and timing. This mastery of distance and timing has been such a hallmark of their play, that they’ve accumulated the fewest yellow cards (5) this season, despite the lowest amount of possession, and even the highest number of fouls (89). They will often swarm tricky dribblers in numbers, and this sometimes causes niggly fouls in non-dangerous areas of the field, rather than anything warranting serious trouble for Die Eisernen.Embed from Getty Images
From the front, Siebatcheu and Becker will take turns pressuring the opposition’s centre-backs as they circulate the ball, desperately trying to find a route forward against Union’s system. The other striker will then fall back slightly to either cover or screen the opposition’s number six, making it incredibly difficult for a dangerous player to receive the ball.
Through their deep shape and relative distance between the lines, they invite the opposition to either play long and create 50-50’s, or to play short and come further away from Union’s goal. Both intentions work in Union’s favour, and allow them to stunt their opposition’s attempts to play forward.Embed from Getty Images
In many ways, this is a direct result of a rigid man-to-man defense, where the defenders have clear responsibilities, and look to get touch-tight on their opposite number. They won’t follow their man around everywhere they go, instead getting tight whenever an opposition player enters their space. This recognition of when to follow and when to stay put allows Union to have an incredibly successful time clearing the ball out of danger, magnificently defending any passes that somehow find a way into their penalty area.Embed from Getty Images
As you’d expect from the team lowest in possession, they’ve made more clearances (28.6 per game) than any other team in Germany’s top flight. But they don’t quite stack up on blocks, which pinpoints just how non-aggressive they can be in defending the width of the field, and how they allow their opposition limited opportunities to strike at goal.Embed from Getty Images
One of the many ways in which they limit their opposition to only a few shots per game manifests from their competitive organization. Just as they do in attack, Union are quick to position several men behind the ball. At least one central midfielder may even join the equation in the box to provide an extra aerial presence, as one striker shifts all the way down to stop a cross. This means they always keep at least one centre-forward free to be used in transition, as the other nine-ten men find their way behind the ball.
Not only are their centre-backs strong in the air and wing-backs capable 1v1 defenders, but the secret sauce lies behind the strikers, where the trio of central midfielders magnificently shuffle with the play. They will swing their shape from side to side, usually with the nearest midfielder the highest on the pendulum. Those outside central midfielders will then hold responsibility for pressuring opposition fullbacks or wide situations in general before the wing-backs, allowing the back five to hold that narrow compactness. The mobility and stamina that this requires is quite demanding, and something that should be commended as we glance upon how the Berlin-based club have managed to achieve so much success at the start of the campaign.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Union Berlin have made a wonderful start to the 2022-23 campaign, even despite boasting the lowest possession and passing statistics in the division. Their xG hasn’t even been overly impressive, as they’ve constantly been thrust into taking shots from difficult angles, and under immense pressure. But somehow, Union sit fourth in the table, as one of the only unbeaten sides up to this point. They’ve scored with 22% of their shots this season, vastly outperforming their xG by the largest margin anywhere in Europe. This could call into question the ability for sustainability as the season progresses, but Urs Fischer won’t be worried. His side have a clear and succinct style of play that works in their favour, prioritizing defensive resilience and compactness, followed by moments of explosiveness on the break. It’s all manifested in three wins and two draws to start the campaign, as Die Eisernen look to improve upon their surprise fifth place finish in 2021-22.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Urs Fischer’s Union Berlin in 2022-23. Be sure to check out more of our Team Analyses, more on the Bundesliga, and follow on social media @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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