Since promotion in 2019 the upward trajectory of Union Berlin has been steady, but few observers could have believed at the start of the season that die Eisernen could carry it on as far as a top four finish and Champions League football next season. They would have been wrong as that is just the incredible feat Urs Ficher’s side achieved this season and the fairy take shows no sign of ending.
Qualifying for the Europa League last year with their fifth place finish was seen as an amazing feat, but the worry was how the club were going to cope with the extra burden of regular midweek matches and maintain their form in the Bundesliga- they needn’t have worried.
Union ended the previous campaign with a seven-match unbeaten streak and that id exactly how they started this season with a record of five wins and two draws. Beating city rivals Hertha on the opening day was the ideal start, while beating RB Leipzig and holding Bayern to a draw showed they meant business right from the off.
The European adventure got off to a flaky start with two successive defeats, but Union managed to maintain their league form, nonetheless. The first defeat came on matchday 8 away at Eintracht Frankfurt, but Union followed that with wins over both Stuttgart and Borussia Dortmund. There were however three losses before the Winterpause to Bochum, Leverkusen, and Freiburg, but the Köpenick side spent the winter just outside the top four on goal difference.
They began the New Year strongly with five consecutive wins (including doing the double over both Hertha and RB Leipzig), but after a draw with strugglers Schalke were comfortably beaten by Bayern at the Allianz Arena. Progress was made in the Europa League as they impressively knocked-out heavyweights Ajax in the round of 32.
March saw them draw with both Wolfsburg and Köln, but the beat Frankfurt to avenge their earlier defeat. The European campaign however came to and end against Belgian side Union St Gilloise. The season run-in soon developed into a two-way race between them and Freiburg for fourth place and the golden carrot of Champions League football next season.
Union notched up three points against Hoffenheim, Gladbach and Augsburg, but lost at title-chasing Dortmund. The big match came on matchday 32 when they hosted Freiburg and a 4-2 win at the Alten Försterei put them in the driving seat. A shock loss to Hoffenheim followed, but a final day win at home to Werder Bremen saw them pip the Breisgauer to fourth and the dream of dining at Europe’s top table next season was a reality.
Union’s best-ever Bundesliga season contained plenty of highlights to enjoy. Doing the double over city rivals Hertha and seeing the power in the German capital switch to them was a proud moment as was beating RB Leipzig twice.
Beating giants Ajax in the Europa League was the highlight in the Europa League and the 4-2 win over Freiburg at the end of the season was the most important three points they won. The season as a whole was a highlight with the steam never running out and the players executing Urs Fischer’s tactical plans superbly. The 6-1 win away at Schalke on matchday four was their most comprehensive of the season.
The 5-0 loss at the Bay Arena on matchday 13 was a blow with all five goals coming in the second half after a dull first 45 minutes, The 4-1 loss at Freiburg two weeks later also hurt although in terms of entertainment for the neutrals, four penalties and a red card for Diogo Leite it was worth the watch.
Tale of the Tape
Record: 18-8-8, 62 points (1.82 per game), 4th in Bundesliga
Home Record: 39 points (11-6-0) Away Record: 23 points (7-2-8)
Goals: 51 (1.5 per game), Goals Against: 38 (1.12 per game), Diff: +13
xG: 37.9, xGA: 42.6, Diff: -4.7
Union’s 51 goals scored only put them as the ninth highest scoring team, but it was the astonishing effectiveness of their attack that stood out this season. Urs Fischer’s side was predominantly a counter-attacking side and they actually outscored their xG of 37.9 by 13.1 goals. Only Augsburg had a lower xG in the entire Bundesliga.
Sheraldo Becker top scored with 11 goals and he epitomised the efficiency and effectiveness outscoring his xG of 6.5 while also providing seven assists. Jordan started the season brightly alongside Becker and scored four goals, but the second half of the season saw Kevin Behrens coming to the fore and he scored eight overall. Sven Michel scored three with newcomer Jamie Leweling getting his first goal for the club after making 16 sub appearances.
The team ranked in the bottom three for total shots, but ranked highest for goals per shot on target, They missed four of the seven penalties they were awarded this season.
The success this season was built on a miserly defence and the 38 goals conceded was the joint lowest (along with champions Bayern). Keeper Frederik Rönnow was arguably the best in the league (he made out Team of the Season) and was the first line of defence. His 81.5% save percentage was the league’s highest and he kept 11 clean sheets.
Urs Fischer preferred a 3-5-2 formation with attacking wingbacks. The centre backs excelled this season with new signings Danilho Doekhi and Diogo Leite leading the way with Robin Knoche also having a top season. Timo Baumgartl’s recovery from testicular cancer was a huge boost and he made eight appearances.
A rotation of the fullbacks kept things fresh with captain Christopher Trimmel, and Nico Gießelmann getting plenty of game time. Julian Ryerson’s departure to Dortmund was compensated with the arrival of Josip Juranovic, while the signing of Jerome Roussillon proved to be a big success as well.
Curiously, Union actually ranked bottom in the league for tackles made in the defensive third, blocks and interceptions.
The squad was well stocked to cope with the burden of matches twice a week and the quality of the midfield didn’t suffer from the rotation that was forced upon coach Fischer to manage the demands. Rani Khedira was the anchor in midfield and such was the quality he showed that there were even rumours that Barcelona were considering a move for him in January.
Jannik Haberer proved an excellent acquisition from Freiburg, while Morten Thorsby, Paul Seguin, Andras Schäfer (first half of season) and Aissa Laidouni (second half) all put in a fair shift. Genki Haraguchi departed for Stuttgart in January having made 11 appearances.
To finish fourth with a transfer surplus of €6 million makes Union’s achievements even more impressive this season. US striker Jordan Pefok was signed from Young Boys and he impressed in the first half of the season especially as he forged an early understanding with Sheraldo Becker. Young talent Jamie Leweling arrived from Greuther Fürth for €4 million and played a bit part role.
Norwegian midfielder Morten Thorsby came in from Sampdoria for €3 million, but the arguably the best signings came in for free. Central defender Danilho Doekhi signed for free from Vitesse Arnhem, while fellow defender Diogo Leite arrived on loan with a minimal fee. Both centre backs were an integral part of Unions miserly back line. Yannik Haberer (Freiburg) and Paul Seguin (Greuther Fürth) also came in on free transfers.
The loss of Julian Ryerson to Dortmund in January was compensated with the signing of Croatian Josip Juranovic from Celtic, while Jerome Roussillon came in at left back to add options. €2.6 million was also shelled out to Ferencvaros for midfielder Aïssa Laïdouni.
Player of the Season
The departure of Taiwo Awoniyi to Nottingham Forest was hardly felt with Surinam striker Sheraldo Becker taking on the goalscoring mantle right from the start and hitting a rich vein of form. Six goals in the first seven matches fired Union to the top of the table and he finished as the club’s top scorer with eleven. He massively outscored his xG of 6.5 and also provided seven assists. His pace was a huge asset, but most impressive was the difficulty level of most of his finishes- he was definitely not a penalty area goal poacher.
Jamie Leweling signed from Fürth as one for the future and impressed on the 16 times he was introduced as a substitute. He grabbed his first goal for the club in the home win over Hoffenheim and now he’s had a season to acclimatise to the Union system the U-21 international will be hoping for more appearances next season as the demands will increase on the squad.
When Union were promoted to the Bundesliga in 2019, the aim was to survive and then slowly consolidate. They have surpassed those moderate ambitions and showed this season that they are no flash in the pan. They coped superbly with the demands of European football and topped the table for the first time in their history. People expecting the bubble to burst were left disappointed and an historic top four finish was achieved while so-called big clubs floundered. Union are living the dream and long may it continue.