Freiburg and Union Berlin continue to upset the odds and have UEFA Europa League football to look forward to in 2022/23 as a result of their efforts last season. The two underdogs look set to continue to punch above their weight in the Bundesliga this year - so how do they do it?
bundesliga.com examines the secrets to their success…
Union earned a first promotion to the Bundesliga in May 2019, with their famously passionate supporters invading the pitch at the end of a nervy play-off win over VfB Stuttgart. It was one of the greatest ever nights at their Stadion An der Alten Försterei ground, but there have been plenty more since.
A giant-killing win over Borussia Dortmund on Matchday 3 of the 2019/20 campaign set the tone for their top-flight adventure, and few teams have enjoyed visiting the Berlin district of Köpenick since. Union won eight and drew three of their home matches in their maiden Bundesliga campaign, coasting to an 11th-place finish as a result.
“Iron Union” went even better in 2020/21, losing only once at home in 17 league matches. An injury-time winner from Max Kruse on the final day against RB Leipzig again sent the home support wild, sealing as it did seventh position in the table and a first ever qualification for European football via their league finish.
Watch: When Union upset Borussia Dortmund
Union then set a new best finish in 2021/22 in no small part thanks to that same backing and the confidence that comes from playing at such an intimidating venue. Fifth position was, naturally enough, secured on the final day with a 3-2 win against Bochum, with Taiwo Awoniyi scoring the crucial goal in the 88th minute.
The existence of Union’s iconic 22,000-capacity home owes much to the loyalty of their support, who visit the stadium - cutting through the edge of a wood to get there - to sing Christmas carols every year. In 2004, numerous fans gave blood under the slogan “Bleed for Union” in order to help the club avoid bankruptcy, and in 2008 over 1,600 volunteers sweated for an estimated 90,000 hours to help Union rebuild and modernise the ground.
Freiburg’s fan base has also played a key role in their success. Success on the field and demand for places saw them move from the old Dreisamstadion (capacity 24,000) to their new Europa-Park Stadion (capacity 34,700) in October 2021.
The club have only lost four of their 17 home matches in three of the last four seasons, and they had nine home wins in 2019/20. Bigger teams with bigger budgets regularly have an off day on their visit to the southwest, and in 2021/22 Freiburg had eight wins and five draws at home.
Freiburg finished sixth last season and came desperately close to winning their first major piece of silverware. It would have been rich reward for their supporters, but the club came up short in a penalty shootout against Leipzig in the DFB Cup final.
Football would be a much lesser game without the fans, but by harnessing the power of loyal supporters - like Freiburg and Union have managed to do - then great things are possible.
The transfer strategy
Clubs of Union and Freiburg’s stature become victims of their own success. If players do well there - and upset a few of the more prestigious names in the process - then bigger teams will take notice.
Knowing that you could lose your biggest assets make forward planning essential. Union managing director for professional football Oliver Ruhnert has proved adept at that since arriving in 2018, particularly since the Berliners were promoted.
Every year Union see key players leave in the transfer market, but each time they seem to find an adequate replacement without spending too much. For 2020/21, they had a masterstroke by persuading charismatic attacker Kruse to return to the Bundesliga and help replace the departed Sebastian Andersson, who was the club’s leading goalscorer the previous season. In 2021/22, Rani Khedira arrived from Augsburg to seamlessly follow in the path of the impressive Robert Andrich in midfield. Nigerian striker Awoniyi left after scoring 15 Bundesliga goals that season, but again Union have found a new hero in the form of USA striker Jordan.
Watch: Jordan & Union - tactical analysis
There are plenty of other examples - and not every transfer works - but by providing a platform for hungry players with a point to prove, Union are gaining plenty of points themselves.
Freiburg have managed to do similar, although in a slightly different fashion. The sale of Caglar Söyüncü, for example, not only produced a large profit but effectively could have financed a quarter of the new stadium. And this summer, Matthias Ginter returned to his hometown club after Nico Schlotterbeck - a former Union centre-back - made a big move to Borussia Dortmund.
There’s a strong emphasis on both local talent and youth development at the Black Forest outfit, with skipper Christian Günter - like Ginter did initially - rising through the ranks to become a Germany international.
Hungary international Rolland Sallai has flourished since joining the club as a youngster in 2018, while French right-back Kiliann Sildillia - who only turned 20 in May - looks the latest up-and-coming player who will enhance Freiburg’s reputation as a great finishing school.
Continuity also helps. Both Union and Freiburg have two vastly experienced coaches who have done incredible jobs so far.
Urs Fischer led Union to promotion in his first year in charge, and the Swiss coach has somehow managed to improve on that every year since.
The 56-year-old has had to deal with a huge turnover of players each year, but has been credited to a large extent with helping to create a family atmosphere around the club and admirable togetherness among his players on the pitch. Fischer’s Union teams are determined, tough, well organised - and rarely easy to play against.
Christian Streich, meanwhile, is an institution in Germany. The longest-severing head coach in the Bundesliga has been in charge since December 2011, and won kicker’s Coach of the Year for his skilful management in the 2021/22 season.
The charismatic 57-year-old got his team as high as fifth by the end of 2012/13 and bounced back from relegation in 2014/15 to deliver three more top-eight finishes since returning to the top flight at the first attempt.
Watch: Freiburg started the new season in style
With both clubs enjoying superb respective starts to the 2022/23 Bundesliga campaign - Freiburg and Union are currently among the Bundesliga's top five teams - the omens are good for both in what will be busy campaigns. Streich's Black Forest outfit and Fischer's capital club finished within two points of each other last term and will be Germany's representatives in the group stage of this season's UEFA Europa League.
With their focus on fan power, family atmosphere and finding the perfect player fit for their characteristic clubs, these brilliantly coached underdogs could be set to bite on the continental stage in the coming campaign.
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