Union Berlin’s third season in the German top flight could well be their best yet. A top-four finish - and a place in the UEFA Champions League - is now within reach, while they are also into the DFB Cup quarter-finals. How do they do it?
The upstarts from the capital keep proving doubters wrong by surviving and then thriving in the top flight. bundesliga.com investigates how a club with one of the smaller budgets in the division - as well as the oldest squad in the league - has risen to be a top-four contender.
A few days after celebrating a derby victory over Hertha Berlin in the last-16 of the cup, Union wrote more history for the 2021/22 season. Digging deep on Matchday 20 to win 2-1 at Borussia Mönchengladbach, they climbed to fourth in the table. It marked the first time they have ever occupied a Champions League qualifying place at the end of a Bundesliga Matchday.
Union hadn’t looked like claiming victory, and Gladbach wasted a big chance to do so themselves. But the visitors did what they usually do under Urs Fischer when times are tough. They fought tooth and nail to grind out the points - and took all three thanks to Max Kruse’s expertly taken second goal of the game.
Watch: Union dig deep to see off Gladbach
"The belief that we can even win games like this so late says that the mentality is right,” defender Paul Jaeckel put it afterwards.
A never-say-die attitude, then, is one good reason why Union are where they are. Ever since surprising VfB Stuttgart in the promotion/relegation play-off of May 2019, they have consistently lived up to their "Iron Union" billing.
Having exceeded expectations in the Bundesliga for two seasons already – finishing 11th and then 7th - they look certain to do so again. The Gladbach win extended the Berliners unbeaten run to six competitive games, and before that match Fischer had given an indication of why they continue to get such good results.
"I hope that we can make use of the self-confidence we’ve gained - wins help you," he said. "But you can’t become comfortable. That’s the challenge."
Sweat and tears
Swiss coach Fischer has made sure that his side - without the star names that other teams at the top of the league regularly call upon - are never lacking in effort.
By Matchday 20 Union had not scored more than twice in a league match, and only two of their nine league wins had come by a margin of more than one goal. Seven draws and only four defeats offered further evidence that they are extremely hard to beat.
This can be partly explained by the fact that they are one of the hardest-working teams in the top flight. Union rank third for distance covered in the league - after Arminia Bielefeld and Eintracht Frankfurt, and just ahead of Hoffenheim and Bayern Munich.
While they are third bottom for possession - averaging just 43 percent - Union’s efficiency in attack and ruthlessness on the counter makes them a dangerous outfit.
"What distinguishes us at the moment is that we only need a couple of chances to score a goal," midfielder Grischa Prömel said after the smash-and-grab against Gladbach.
A willingness to scrap for each other until the end also helps. While they can be direct and are certainly an uncomfortable opponent, Union’s reputation for physicality perhaps deflects from their impressive discipline. Fischer’s team are in the bottom third, league-wide, for both fouls committed and cards received.
Another reason Union are so tough to overcome is the know-how in their ranks. At 23, Jaeckel is the youngest player to have featured for them this season. The average age of the squad is over 28, and in the Matchday 19 win over Hoffenheim they fielded their oldest starting XI yet, with an average age of 30.1 years.
Union have a cool head between the posts in the form of 34-year-old Andreas Luthe, the same age as club captain Christopher Trimmel. At the heart of the defence, 29-year-old Robin Knoche has not missed a minute, while Genki Haraguchi and Andreas Voglsammer - both 30 - are the only other players to have played a role in each of the first 20 league games.
Two of the club's top performers, meanwhile, are 30-year-old left-wing back Niko Gießelmann (three goals and four assists) and 33-year-old Kruse (five goals, four assists).
Watch: Union Berlin - tactical analysis
Kruse the talisman
Kruse’s talent is certainly a major factor. Scoring 11 times and providing five assists in 2020/21, he ended his first season at Union with a last-gasp header against RB Leipzig that dramatically earned Union a place in the UEFA Europa Conference League.
This season he has been just as important - and committed. Few players would make themselves available the night before their wedding, which is what the former St. Pauli, Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg attacker did for the Matchday 16 encounter against his old club Freiburg.
That was on a Wednesday. After he tied the knot on Thursday, Kruse was back in action on the Saturday against Bochum. He didn’t disappoint on that cold December afternoon, crashing home the only goal of the game on the half-volley.
"We’re all learning a huge amount from him - his shrewdness does us all good," Promel said of Kruse. "In every training session you can learn from his game intelligence, his calm, his composure, and the movement that always brings him into a good position. He’s incredibly good with his final ball."
Watch: Kruse heads last-gasp winner to send Union into Europe on final day of 2020/21
Kruse turns 34 on 19 March, and he’s not getting around the pitch quite as much as he used to. He hardly needs to, though, since his speed of thought and quality of execution make up for the mileage in his legs. You only have to witness his match-winning goal against Gladbach to understand that.
Having converted a penalty in the first half - he’s only ever missed one of his 31 spot-kicks as a professional - Kruse came alive again with six minutes left. He cleverly peeled wide to the corner of the penalty area, then ran off the shoulder of his marker to invite a threaded pass from Gießelmann. One touch out of the feet and bang - Union snatched a late victory against the run of play.
"We know what we have with him," Fischer said afterwards. "He’s a very intelligent player, who looks for space and finds it like no other."
Kruse’s efforts against former club Gladbach took his tally to two goals and two assists in the first four matches of 2022. That run was well timed, since nine-goal leading goal-getter Taiwo Awoniyi was away with Nigeria at Africa Cup of Nations.
That’s the thing about Union, though - someone always seems to step up when required.
Union lost key players like goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz and top-scorer Sebastian Andersson in the summer of 2020, as well as midfielder Robert Andrich a year later. But it doesn’t seem to matter. Sporting director Oliver Ruhnert always seems to unearth another jewel, or persuades another unheralded player that he can prove a point in Berlin.
Ex-Liverpool striker Awoniyi came in for Andersson, for example, while Rani Khedira has effortlessly replaced Andrich.
Long-serving and talented centre-back Marvin Friedrich left for Gladbach this winter, but Union proved pretty quickly - by winning against his new team - that they can cope with his loss too.
Where will it end?
So how far can Union go? They have only lost one home game this season at their Stadion An der Alten Försterei ground in southeast Berlin, so no opponent will be looking forward to visiting. And with Awoniyi to come back to bolster the attack, they certainly won’t get any easier to play against.
Kruse should be refreshed for the final stretch too. Ever the maverick, he is spending part of his time off during the international break to test himself against an actor in a German TV game show. Then it will be back to shooting for the stars with Union.
"At the moment, we’re just on a roll, and that’s what sets us apart. The chances we’re getting, we’re putting them away," Kruse said after his double against Gladbach. "When you look at how Union has developed, it’s outstanding what we’ve achieved here."
At times that accomplishment has defied all logic too - but Kruse & Co. are not quite finished yet.
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