Mark O’Haire takes a deep dive into the Bundesliga, shining a light on the surprise early pacesetters Union Berlin.
Union Berlin fans could be forgiven for thinking they’ve encountered utopia. 10 games into the 2022/23 Bundesliga campaign and the unfashionable capital club, against every expectation, remain top of the tree in Germany (W7-D2-L1), two points clear of the chasing pack after seeing off supposed title challengers Borussia Dortmund 2-0 on Sunday.
Who knows whether it will last but the Die Eisernen (‘The Iron Ones’) faithful who have followed the club through thin and thinner down the years are determined to savour the moment. Never before have Union enjoyed a league-leading position in the Bundesliga, but Urs Fischer’s charges are well worthy of their lofty early season position.
Despite enjoying over 75% possession at the compact and atmospheric Stadion An der Alten Forsterei, Dortmund rarely threatened Union. A first-half Janik Haberer double did the business for the Berlin boys - the first taking advantage of an air kick by Gregor Kobel, and the second a zinging drive from the edge of the area putting Die Eisernen on their way.
Union had to dig deep in the second-half but their immense, dogged resistance deserves special praise considering the underdogs came into the contest with two days’ less rest compared to BVB, having battled to the end to beat Malmo late on in the Europa League on Thursday night. But can Europe’s Cinderella side maintain their remarkable start?
The Meisterschale (league winner’s trophy) might be beyond Union, although Fischer’s outfit have already taken seven points from three games against Dortmund, Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig - the presumptive three best teams in the division - to highlight their capability and ruthlessness as they seek a club-record finish inside the top-four.
Everything seems to be going right for Fischer and his players, who are proving a real thorn in the side of German football's establishment. And in so many ways, that suits an upstart, anti-establishment club like Union down to a tee.
They have never conformed and the stories of fans shouting dissent against the Stasi from the terraces during the days before reunification, when their idiosyncratic Stadion An der Alten Forsterei lay beyond the Iron Curtain, are well known now.
Likewise, there are the tales of Union fans literally bleeding to save their impoverished club by donating blood and turning up with their toolkits to repair the ground in another of those semi-regular brushes with extinction.
Union played fourth-tier football as recently as 2006 and it required a decade in the 2. Bundesliga to crack promotion into the top division for the first time. Then those loyal supporters missed a lot of their first two Bundesliga campaigns because of Covid-19, but the progress on the pitch has been unmistakable.
Union defied relegation predictions to finish 11th in 2019-20 and subsequently came seventh and fifth, playing in the Europa Conference League and then the Europa League. If Die Eisernen continue their surge, a first taste of Champions League football could be on the menu next season and that truly would be nose-bleed territory for the perennial no-hopers.
Fischer has taken Union to unprecedented heights since arriving in 2018 and his tactics make the pacesetters incredibly awkward to play against. His favoured 3-5-2 formation allows Union to play directly as opposed to placing an accent on possession. Die Eisernen usually only see about 40% of the ball but they're ruthless and economical with it.
One of the major tasks over the summer was replacing the 15 league goals scored by Taiwo Awoniyi last season after the Nigerian moved to Nottingham Forest for £17.5million. Fischer signed the 6-foot-3 United States international Jordan Pefok from Swiss club Young Boys to maintain a physical edge and he has three Bundesliga goals to his name already.
The American is also forming a strong chemistry in attack with Dutch-born Suriname international Sheraldo Becker, who has six league strikes thus far. Both are willing to make runs into the channels to chase down the long balls played from deep in their direction, the idea being that any opposition press is bypassed. It has worked a treat so far.
Of course, to counter so effectively requires players who can pick out an accurate pass. Robin Knoche, one of the three in defence, is adept at this, seeking out the advanced wing-backs Christopher Trimmel and Julian Ryerson. Union counter-attack with more discipline and precision than anyone else, and also run and fight harder than anyone else.
In fact, in terms of pure kinship and togetherness, the Union are right where they belong. But quite where all this new-found success leads remains to be seen. Fans are singing about winning the championship in east Berlin, but Fisher remains grounded. The head coach is still solely focussed on winning the 40 points necessary to ward off relegation.
The market remains fixated on Bayern with the defending champions as short as -2000 favourites to seal an 11th successive Bundesliga title. However, Union’s exploits have seen their preseason price of +2500 to finish in top-four crash to just +200, and with every passing week, the capital club deserve to be taken more seriously at the top table.