They said promotion to the Bundesliga was a miracle for Union Berlin, so what are they going to call die Eisernen’s 11th place finish? The fairy tale continues for the club from Köpenick and coach Urs Fischer will lead them into their second season in the topflight with all the experience gathered this year.
And what a year it proved to be.
Their debut match in the Bundesliga was an emotional one as the club paid tribute to all those fans who had died before witnessing their ascent to the top division. RB Leipzig duly ruined the day with a 4-0 win, but not before the home fans had staged an ‘atmosphere boycott’ in protest at their visitors. Union were fast gaining fans from all around Germany.
They actually lost five of their opening seven games to provide a reality check, but stunned Borussia Dortmund on matchday 3 with a 3-1 win at the Stadion an der Alten Försterei. BVB were title-aspirants but were no match for the newly promoted minnows.
The first-ever Bundesliga derby in the German capital came and went (but not without plenty of incident) with Union recording an historic win over rivals Hertha to claim first bragging rights in the city. Four more wins were picked up before the Winterpause leaving the capital club in a more than respectable 11th place going into the interval, but with a firm eye looking over their shoulders.
They didn’t really hit a sustained poor patch of results and were always good for picking up three points here and a draw or two over there to keep them clear of the drop zone. Wins against Augsburg, Werder Bremen, and Frankfurt in the opening weeks of the Rückrunde kept the nerves under control, and they were able to make themselves mathematically safe following their win at home to Paderborn on matchday 32.
An impromptu party in the car park followed which brought censorship from the DFL, but just imagine the party scenes had the stadium been full. No-one really gave Union much of a chance this season, believing that just being along for the ride was enough. The club proved those people wrong and won a whole raft of new admirers along the way.
Speaking from the car park, club President Dirk Zingler couldn’t hide his emotions. “Unioner, we played for you this season, and this season has been taken away from us. Therefore, we will play another season in the Bundesliga. For you. And you can believe me, the guys who stood on the grass today thought exactly about playing another Bundesliga season for you. Now we’re taking a break, we’re going to take a break for two months. And we will work to ensure that football takes place with people again.”
It was a season full of highlights for Union. The first home game at the Alten Försterei against Saxony’s RB Leipzig gave the club the opportunity to pay tribute to the fans who weren’t there to enjoy it with hundreds of pictures of deceased fans raised in tribute.
Bundesliga hopefuls Borussia Dortmund were sent back to the Ruhr with a shock to their system after suffering a 3-1 defeat on matchday 3. Two goals from Marius Bülter set them up for the win, which was secured by Sebastian Andersson’s 75th minute goal.
The November derby with Hertha was always going to be a cracker and so it proved. Tensions were high throughout and the game had to be stopped after flares were thrown onto the pitch leading to ten minutes of stoppage time. Sebastian Polter’s 87th penalty winner did little to calm things down and Union keeper Rafal Gikiewicz even had to face down some of his own fans at the end as they stormed the pitch.
Obviously being unable to share the joy of their Klassenerhalt (survival) with the fans was a low point in the season, at just the very point that they should have been rejoicing an ultimate high point.
Hertha Berlin gaining revenge in the second derby of the season would have hurt- especially considering the manner and scale of the defeat at the Olympiastadion. The Rückrunde also witnessed heavy defeats to Dortmund (5-0), Borussia Mönchengladbach (4-1), and Hoffenheim (4-0).
The unsavoury end to Sebastian Polter’s time at the club was also regrettable. The forward was exiled from the Union Berlin squad for failing to uphold ‘fundamental community values’. In effect it meant that he was the only player to not agree to waiving part of the player’s salaries during the corona virus pandemic.
Tale of the Tape
Record: 12-5-17, 41 points (1.21 per game), 11th in Bundesliga
Home Record: 27 points (8-3-6) Away Record: 14 points (4-2-11)
Goals: 41 (1.21 per game), Goals Against: 58 (1.71 per game), Diff: -17
xG: 39.8, xGA: 53.8, Diff: -14.0
Their 41 goals scored gave Union an average of 1.21 per match. Swede Sebastian Andersson finished as top scorer on 12 goals with Marius Bülter adding seven and Marcus Ingvartsen scoring five. 28-year-old Andersson was an absolute beast in the air leading the entire Bundesliga on duels won (503) as well as aerial duels won (154).
Union ranked fourth bottom in terms of total shots (389) but rose to 10th for percentage of shots on target (34.2%). Anthony Ujah provided an extra option upfront and scored three times in his 24 appearances (10 starts). The downside in terms of Andersson’s displays this season has been an increase in interest from other clubs. With a release clause in his contract, reports are already linking him with Schalke, Scottish champions Celtic as well as English sides Newcastle, Bournemouth, and Leeds.
Keeper Rafał Gikiewicz was certainly kept busy as he ranked second in the Bundesliga for shots saved behind Yann Sommer (115). He only missed one match all season. Neven Subotic, Kevin Schlotterbeck and Marvin Friedrich were the central defensive options with Christopher Trimmel the first choice right back and Christopher Lenz at left back.
Urs Fischer began the season with a back four but switched to favour a system using three centre backs with Trimmel and Lenz as wing backs. Lenz ranked fifth in the league for blocks (79), while Friedrich ranked fifth overall for pressures in the defensive third (231). Christopher Trimmel ranked fourth in the division for tackles in the defensive third (48).
Two newcomers to the midfield provided the central muscle and guile in the middle of the pitch with Robert Andrich and Christian Gentner the oft used pairing. Andrich committed the most fouls in the Bundesliga (66) as he set about trying to control the Union midfield. He ranked 5th in the league for pressures in the midfield third (271) and had a 71.2% pass completion rate. Gentner was the more cultured of the duo. Whether in a 4-2-3-1, or a 4-3-3 Andrich and Gentner formed the core.
Grischa Prömel made nine starts in midfield, while Yunus Malli also made nine starts after joining on loan from Wolfsburg in January.
It must be said that what little money there was to invest last summer in advance of their first-ever Bundesliga season was spent very well. The highest fees paid went to Augsburg and Mainz for Marvin Friedrich and Anthony Ujah. The defender made himself an integral part of the back line missing just three games all season, whereas Ujah contributed three goals and two assists as he provided back-up to Andersson.
The €1.5 million spent on 23-year-old Dane Marcus Ingvartsen from KRC Gent seems a real bargain as his twenty starts brought five goals and two assists. Central midfielder Robert Andrich certainly made an impression following his signing from Heidenheim as has already been mentioned.
It was obvious from very early on that Union had a real talent in Marius Bülter signed on an initial loan from Magdeburg and his move has been made permanent as a result. Neven Subotic and Christian Gentner on free transfers brought in some much-needed Bundesliga experience and were well worth it. Kevin Schlotterbeck (another loan from Freiburg) played his part notching up 1939 minutes in the Berlin defensive line.
Player of the Season
The club captain Christopher Trimmel had a good season as did fellow defender Kevin Schlotterbeck. The goals of Sebastian Andersson were important as was the shield provided by keeper Rafał Gikiewicz, but the nod for Player of the Season goes to veteran midfielder Christian Gentner.
Signed on free transfer from VfB Stuttgart (the side Union defeated to earn promotion), the 34-year-old two-time Bundesliga champion’s experience proved key to the club’s impressive season. He scored four goals and provided three assists.
The club were so impressed that his one-year deal has already been extended. “I quickly felt at home in Berlin and was welcomed with open arms at Union. As a team, we played a strong first Bundesliga season and developed enormously. It was clear to me that I wanted to continue playing professional football, and I’m looking forward to continuing to do so for Union Berlin. The challenge of keeping Union in the Bundesliga is an enormous motivation for me.”
Grade: A-/ B+
Union surpassed all expectations this season and defied the odds to survive in the Bundesliga. They quickly established that they weren’t just in the league as tourists looking to enjoy a one-year tour of the topflight, but showed the quality needed to establish themselves.
To finish level on points with city rivals Hertha is one indicator of how far they have come over this past season and finishing above the likes of Schalke, Köln and Werder Bremen will give them great satisfaction.
The corona virus shutdown robbed their fans of a portion of their first Bundesliga participation, so its just as well that die Eisernen get a second bite of the cherry next season. The key now is to replace the departing players (loan returns/ potential transfer of Andersson) and avoid the dreaded ‘second season syndrome’ that often affects clubs.