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Union Berlin Outwit and Outplay Borussia Dortmund to Stay on Top of the Bundesliga Table

When good teams have momentum on their side, taking it back is almost impossible. Here’s how Union Berlin set themselves up to take full advantage of Gregor Kobel’s colossal first half mistake.

1. FC Union Berlin v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Momentum is everything. Even though the concept of momentum in sports is intangible in the sense that it can’t be observed or measured, anybody who has ever actually played a sport knows that it is very, very real. When momentum is against you, every stride you take feels like you’re running through mud, and even something as simple as a basic pass feels more difficult to execute. You communicate with your teammates less. When momentum is on your side, you feel like you can run forever. Your passes are crisper, and you dive harder into tackles.

It’s very hard to control something like momentum. When something bad happens, the temptation to draw inward and accept your fate is very difficult to overcome. Even the best professional athletes face this challenge: it affected Bayern Munich last week, and it affected Union Berlin and Borussia Dortmund today.

When a Raphael Guerreiro rolled a slow pass to Gregor Kobel, and the goalkeeper completely whiffed on his attempted clearance despite being under no pressure at all, giving Janik Haberer all the time in the world to tap the ball into the net, it was a total knife to the heart. Not only did it give Union Berlin the lead, it gave them all the momentum in the match, and they held onto it fervently for the remainder of the 90-minute contest. Even though BVB controlled the bulk of the possession and the shots, it still felt like Kobel’s mistake hung over their heads for the entire game. On the back of that massive momentum swing early in the match, Union Berlin took the initiative and grabbed a second goal in the first half, making a BVB comeback incredibly unlikely.

Union Berlin nailed their tactics

I do not think Union Berlin will win the Bundesliga this year, but I do think that they are a very solid and very well-coached team. They were the better team today, and they deserved the win.

Although Union Berlin played very well defensively, they did not park the bus. That accusation undermines the monumental effort they put in today. As of the 80th minute, they had run seven kilometers further than BVB, a testament to how hard they pressed and how demanding their defensive setup was.

Borussia Dortmund set up in a 3-5-2, something akin to this:

Union Berlin’s entire goal was to force Dortmund to play the ball to both wingbacks, either Guerreiro or Meunier, by playing very narrow off the ball, leaving them in relatively open space while aggressively closing down on Can, Bellingham, and Özcan in the center. Once the ball got to either wing back, Union would immediately close them down, and pinch their narrow set-up to the ball side, leaving the wing back with no passing options. This scenario is what led to their second goal. When Nico Schlotterbeck first plays the ball to Guerreiro, there is nobody on him...

Raphael Guerreiro is where the red arrow is pointing, just out of frame. Source: ESPN

... but when Guerreiro receives the ball, he is immediately closed down by Christopher Trimmel.

Source: ESPN

As you can see, Guerreiro has no good options. Union outnumber BVB in the immediate vicinity 4-3. His only option is to try to pass to Adeyemi, who is being marked. To his credit, Adeyemi comes close to try to get himself open, but Timo Baumgartl managed to pick his pocket, and suddenly Union Berlin were off to the races.

This is such a great counterattacking system, and Kobel’s early mistake only made it work better. With a one goal lead, Union could afford to be patient. They could watch BVB’s center backs pass the ball around and switch the play all they wanted, but as soon as the ball fell to that dangerous position at wing back, they pounced.

I’m not a master tactician. I’m not sure what Edin Terzic could have done that would have mitigated this situation. In the second half, he subbed on Marco Reus, who along with Jude Bellingham would frequently come deep to collect the ball and dribble forward. This alleviated the pressure on the wing backs somewhat, and BVB did control the play better in the second half, but it was too little too late, and they failed to convert the few meager chances they were able to create.

Your Thoughts

I honestly don’t have more to say about today’s game. It’s such a deflating result that sucks away any momentum (there it is again) that BVB had might have had left in them from the Bayern comeback. Dortmund now sit in 8th place in the Bundesliga, and will need to turn it around quickly if they are to make it into the top four, let alone challenge for the league title.

What does Terzic need to fix? Which players need to improve? Let me know your thoughts.