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2019-20 Bundesliga Preview: Union Berlin

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Can Union Berlin batten the hatches and survive a season in the top flight?

FBL-GER-BUNDESLIGA-RELEGATION-UNION BERLIN-STUTTGART Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

Union Berlin’s promotion to the Bundesliga has inspired a great deal of excitement, but not really because of anything they have done on the pitch. Union Berlin are a unique club with a complicated history, spanning numerous iterations of the same club and survival in different countries both democratic and authoritarian. The club became a platform for protest and a place of protection from the Stasi under the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and to this day their fans are known as passionate, radical, and anti-establishment in an era of big money in football.

Dortmund have had quite a bit of experience playing Union in recent years, having played them twice in the last two seasons, both in the cup. Both times Union managed to give BVB a bit of a scare, though the Bundesliga side eventually prevailed. Dortmund will travel to Berlin to face Union on 31st August, in just the third week of the season. When they get there, Dortmund fans can look forward to the cheapest bier und wurst in the Bundesliga, with half a liter of beer setting you back €4 and a sausage (presumably measuring a full meter) costing €2.50.

One of the challenges facing Union beyond just surviving is how to balance their success without losing some of what makes this club so great. How can they continue to maintain such cheap food at the stadium, and how can they continue to be this same community-run club, when they play in one of Europe’s biggest and best leagues? That was a problem for St Pauli before, and to many they really lost some of their shine due to profiting off their image and maximizing their brand. I certainly hope Union manage to find a way, but it’ll be something the club and the fans have to grapple with over the coming season.

Who are they?

They are the only truly east German club in the Bundesliga (Hertha Berlin having been based in the west German part of Berlin, and RB Leipzig having been established since the reunification). During the Cold War, Union Berlin were well known agitators, and caused as much trouble as a small football club could get away with without being folded by the Stasi. They are most famous for their incredible fans, who have literally given their blood, sweat and tears for the club. A “Bleed for Union” campaign involved giving blood and donating funds to the club to avoid bankruptcy, and the sweat came later, when 1,600 of their fans combined for an apparent 90,000 – 140,000 hours to help the club repair and modernize the stadium.

Public Viewing im Stadion von Union Berlin 2014 Photo by Ulli Winkler/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The fans manage to produce an incredible atmosphere despite Stadion An der Alten Forsterei having a relatively small capacity of 22,000. Perhaps the best summary of what Union’s fans are all about is their four rules for games (thanks to Marcus Iredahl’s BFW preview for this fact):

  1. Never boo your own team
  2. Never make your own players a scapegoat
  3. Never leave before the final whistle
  4. Leave with a sore throat from all the noise you’ve made

The club has also become a pillar in the local community. The stadium plays host to a Christmas carol event every year, and they even let fans bring sofas and use the stadium as their living room in the 2014 world cup. Clearly Union maintains a special relationship with it’s fans.

Last Season

2. Bundesliga: 3rd Place – 57 pts (14 W, 15 D, 5 L)

DFB Pokal: 2nd Round – 3-2 loss to Borussia Dortmund A.E.T

In the years since reunification, Union have come close to bankruptcy, reached the DFB Pokal final and qualified for Europe as a result, and gradually risen through the divisions. Eventually they managed to gain a bit of stability in the 2. Bundesliga before beating Stuttgart in the promotion/relegation playoff last season to secure a spot in the Bundesliga for the first time ever.

Under Urs Fischer, a former Swiss international that had previously played and managed in Switzerland (including a successful spell with FC Basel) Union have been successful as a product of being so hard to beat. Last season, they lost only 5 times, less than anyone else in the 2. Bundesliga. However, Union struggled for wins almost as much as others struggled to beat them. They managed more draws than any other team in the league, picking up 15. Union’s success came from making it incredibly difficult to score against them, playing out of an organized and intense high press. Though Union were primarily built from an impressive defensive solidity, they managed enough wins in large part due to the two Sebastian’s – Polter and Andersson. Polter is in his second spell with Union, scoring 9 goals in 20 games last season. Sebastian Andersson joined last season and was an instant hit, picking up 12 goals and 7 assists.

Elsewhere on the pitch, Christopher Trimmel and Grisha Promel offer flair and creativity in deeper positions for Union, the attacking full back and captain Trimmel often being the main creator in the team, and central midfielder Promel the guy to progress the ball and keep things moving. Abdullahi and Zulj offered offensive spark in the final third. One of their best performers last season, however, and perhaps the guy that will see the most action next season, is Rafal Gikiewicz. The Polish goalkeeper conceded only 33 goals last season (the lowest in the league), and even popped up with a goal early in the season.

Transfers

Transfers In:

  • Marvin Friedrich (CB) – FC Augsburg - €2m
  • Anthony Ujah (CF) – Mainz 05 - €2m
  • Marcus Ingvartsen (CF) – KRC Genk - €1.5m
  • Robert Andrich (CM) – FC Heidenheim - €1m
  • Suleiman Abdullahi (RW) – E. Braunschweig - €500k
  • Marius Bulter (LW) – FC Magdeburg – Loan
  • Florian Flecker (RW) – TSV Hartberg – Free
  • Christian Gentner (CM) – VfB Stuttgart – Free
  • Sheraldo Becker (RW) – ADO Den Haag – Free
  • Julius Kade (AM) – Hertha BSC – Free
  • Neven Subotic – Saint Etienne – Free
  • Manuel Schmiedebach – Hannover 96 – Undisclosed
  • Keven Schlotterbeck – SC Freiburg – Loan
  • Moritz Nicolas – Borussia Monchengladbach – Loan

Transfers Out:

  • Marc Torrejon (CB) – Released
  • Fabian Schonheim (CM) – Released
  • Eroll Zejnullahu (CM) – Carl Zeiss Jena – Free
  • Lennart Moser (CK) – Energie Cottbus – Loan
  • Berkan Taz (AM) – Energie Cottbus – Loan
  • Peter Kurzweg (LB) – FC Ingolstadt – Undisclosed
  • Marcel Hartel (AM) – Arminia Bielefeld – Undisclosed
  • Lars Dietz (CB) – Viktoria Koln – Loan

To Union’s credit, they’ve done some excellent work in the summer transfer window, despite their limited resources (spending a total of €7.4m). They made a number of loan deals permanent, including Schmiedebach and Friedrich, and they have brought in BVB legend Neven Subotic. A defensive partnership between Subotic and Friedrich could prove crucial to Union having a successful season.

One of the biggest problems facing the newly promoted side going into this summer was a lack of Bundesliga experience, and they’ve worked on resolving this by bringing in Subotic and Christian Gentner (signed from the side they relegated, Stuttgart). Between these two, there are a few Bundesliga titles, international caps, and hundreds of Bundesliga games. That could be incredibly important over the course of the next season.

FC Union Berlin vs Brondby IF - exhibition match Photo by Florian Pohl/City-Press GmbH via Getty Images

Finally, they’ve strengthened their attacking line, having brought in Anthony Ujah and Marcus Ingvartsen. Ujah spent the last two season at Mainz, picking up 4 goals from 33 appearances (most of those on the bench), and has also had successful spells at Werder Bremen and FC Koln, scoring 11 and 10 in his seasons with the two clubs. His average xG+xA/90 is 0.56, which is decent for a player at his level. He averaged around a goal per 90 for Mainz, and was only a little below this at Werder Bremen and Koln. If he can manage similar for Union, this could be huge for them in securing their place in the Bundesliga for another season.

They’ve done quite a lot of business, but managed to keep the bulk of their successful core from last season. A number of their incoming players are actually just permanent deals for guys they loaned last season. Bringing too many new players is difficult for any team, and can often be the ultimate downfall of promoted sides, but guys like Gentner and Subotic should certainly help that process, and in reality I think there will only be one or two players that go straight into the first team.

What to expect in 2019/2020

Playing Style

It’s reasonable to expect that they will play in a similar fashion this season, hoping to limit the number of goals the opponent can score, and crowd out superior teams and force mistakes in order to stay competitive in games. However, they’re going to have a really hard time recreating their success from last season against much better opposition. While they may be able to do this a little bit, their biggest problem may ultimately be a lack of goals. If Ujah maintains his moderate Bundesliga success, or if Sebastian Andersson manages to keep up his scoring rate from the 2. Bundesliga, this could really help them in their survival efforts.

Perhaps the real game changer for Union can be the atmosphere they produce at home. Their stadium has become a real fortress as a result of the atmosphere they create. They’ll have to make a lot of noise if they hope to maintain their great home record, but maybe it’ll be a tough enough place to play for enough clubs that it helps them secure their top flight status for another year.

Rivalries & Derbies

There are two particular matchups that are of note, games against RB Leipzig and their derby with Hertha Berlin. Incredibly, Union will be welcoming RB Leipzig in their first ever Bundesliga game. That’s sure to be a hell of an atmosphere, with a great deal of animosity felt by Union’s fans, as the two clubs represent complete polar opposites in German football. Currently Union ultras plan to be silent for the first 15 minutes of the game in protest against RB Leipzig. Several players and the coach have asked them not to do this, simply because they’ll probably need all the help they can get, but I guess we will see what happens!

2. Bundesliga, Hertha BSC - Union Berlin Photo by Contrast / Ralf Pollack/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The Berlin derby, on the other hand, will be contested for the first time in the Bundesliga on 2nd November, at Stadion An der Alten Forsterei. The relationship between Union and Hertha fans is relatively unique, owing to the relatively unique history of the city itself. In reality, these two teams aren’t exactly rivals. Though their relationship hasn’t been all amicable, they mostly share a friendship. Union were the anti-establishment, anti-Soviet agitators (as opposed to Dynamo Berlin). During the Cold War period, many at Union shared their discontent with the regime when they were in the stands. One of those songs even stated that only two clubs existed “on the Spree”, Hertha and Union – a direct knock on Dynamo Berlin. Hertha Berlin, on the other hand, were known to fly Union flags and banners in support of the club and in solidarity with the East of Berlin. Since reunification, the friendship hasn’t always been so close, but it’s possible that the first game between these two in the Bundesliga could be more of a celebration than a fierce rivalry.

Prediction: Survival

Realistically, Union are in for a tough season. They’re going to be one of the favorites to go down, and it’ll probably require a mammoth effort if they’re to avoid the drop. I think their defense will still be difficult to score against but it won’t be sufficient for Union to stay their Bundesliga execution. Instead, they’ll need someone in offense to step up and have a really good season. If Abdullahi makes a further step, or Andersson and Ujah manage to scrape together enough goals to gain the team some points, perhaps their defensive solidity will be enough to keep Union in the top flight. Otherwise they’ll be relying on their fans to make it very, very tough for opponents having to travel into the woods to face them.

It requires a bit of a leap of faith to back them to stay up, but I am going to go ahead and do so. This is probably letting my heart lead my head, but I think the tough crowd can give them a bit of edge at home, Subotic, Friedrich, and Gikiewicz can make them very difficult to beat, and Ujah will have a good season that does barely enough to keep them in the division one way or another. I’m not sure they’ll be a mainstay of the Bundesliga any time soon, but maybe they can scrape enough victories (or draws) together for a second season.