bundesliga

No second-season syndrome for Max Kruse-led Union Berlin

If the early part of the 2020/21 Bundesliga campaign has taught us anything - apart from the fact record champions Bayern Munich remain the team to beat - it's that Max Kruse is among the very best players in German football and Union Berlin belong in the top flight.

At 32 - the same age as Bayern's Robert Lewandowski - Kruse has produced three goals and five assists in seven Bundesliga appearances for Union.

In that time, the capital outfit have only lost once, and went in at the November international break in fifth place, thanks to a club-record six-match unbeaten run.

Only Bayern have scored more than Die Eisernen's 16 league goals; only RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg have conceded fewer.

"Right now, Union are playing some fantastic football - they're no longer relying on long balls up to Sebastian Andersson like last season," Union legend Torsten Mattuschka - who hit 52 goals in 246 games for the club - told Sport1.

"Everyone knows Max is making the difference."

And how. Back in Germany following a one-season stint in Turkey with Fenerbahce, Kruse set the tone with a goal on his full Bundesliga debut for Union in the 4-0 win at Mainz on Matchday 3. He turned provider in the 1-1 draw against ex-employers Freiburg, before upholding his sublime taker-maker reputation by scoring one and creating two in the Matchday 6 win at Hoffenheim, and the ensuing 5-0 rout of promoted Arminia Bielefeld.

Union have now won all three of the games in which the former Germany international has found the net. He heads the league-wide assist charts on five for the season, while his penalty against Bielefeld was his 16th consecutive successful spot-kick in the Bundesliga, drawing him level with Hans-Joachim Abel's near 40-year record.

"Put simply, Max is a very good player - it's always been the case," Kruse's former Borussia Mönchengladbach teammate Christoph Kramer told the Rheinischen Post in November. "He understands the game, he can control it and make the decisive plays. He's a match-winner. We experienced that here in Gladbach."

Watch: Max Kruse orchestrated Union's win over Bielefeld

Kruse spent two seasons in Mönchengladbach, where he won eight of his 14 Germany caps. Having made his professional breakthrough at St. Pauli in Germany's second tier and left his mark on Die Mannschaft head coach Joachim Löw whilst at Freiburg, the Bremen youth product posted a then career-best return in his debut season at Borussia-Park, ending 2013/14 on 12 goals and 11 assists. He tallied 11 and nine respectively the following campaign as Gladbach finished third and secured a long-awaited return to the UEFA Champions League.

Kruse took his outwardly unassuming talents to the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid on the European stage, albeit in the colours of eventual 2015/16 quarter-finalists Wolfsburg. He scored nine times in all competitions and chipped in with 12 assists for the Wolves, before returning to boyhood club Werder Bremen with a vengeance. A Bundesliga debutant in a Werder shirt almost a decade earlier, the Reinbek native produced 35 goals and 31 assists in 91 outings across a three-season stay with Die Grün-Weißen.

Coaches Viktor Skripnik, Alexander Nouri and Florian Kohfeldt spoke about Kruse in the highest of tones, with "leader" the common thread. Legendary goal-getter Claudio Pizarro went as far as to label his former teammate as "world-class".

Accurate assessments of a player whose influence was sorely missed as Bremen clung onto their Bundesliga status via the relegation play-offs at the end of 2019/20.

Kruse reinforced his reputation as one of German football's most effective forwards on his return to Bremen. - imago images / Nordphoto

While Bremen toiled, Kruse delighted the Turkish SüperLig. Despite groin and ankle ligament troubles, he weighed in with seven goals and as many assists in 20 league appearances for Fenerbahce, including eight goals in 10 games between those aforementioned physical setbacks, and five assists in as many matches to start what remains his only campaign outside of Germany.

According to reports, Bremen were first in line when news broke of Kruse terminating his contract, but something in his gut told him to sign for relative Bundesliga newboys, Union.

"From the moment I met [sporting director] Oliver Ruhnert, I had a good feeling," Kruse told the Berliner Kurier of his decision to sign for Union. "I remembered the electric atmosphere here that you can feel even on TV, and of course, Berlin's a good place to live.

"In the end, I wanted to continue my career at the highest level. I just want to remind the people in Germany what I can do."

Watch: Kruse on his season objectives with Union

Kruse is doing just that as the new figurehead of a Union unit that defied expectation in 2019/20.

Urs Fischer's side were promoted following an away-goals win over VfB Stuttgart in the play-offs, but claimed scalps against the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Gladbach on their way to a debut-season 11th-placed finish. Sweden international Andersson accounted for 13 of their 41 goals, while Christopher Trimmel set up eight of them - all from set pieces.

The summer departure of the former to Bundesliga rivals Cologne, along with the loss of goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz to Augsburg, prompted inevitable murmurings of 'second-season syndrome' - football parlance for the widespread downturn in fortunes for clubs and players a year after achieving unexpected success - but the latter continues to set a captain's example with three assists already this term.

Moreover, Andreas Luthe has suitably filled the gloves of Gikiewicz, repelling 70.6 per cent of shots on his goal; free transfer Robin Knoche has brought ample top-flight experience to the defence, replacing two-time Bundesliga winner Neven Subotic life for like; Dutch winger Sheraldo Becker has been given a new lease of life and is the club's second-best for combined goals and assists (three); while the loan signing of Japan international Keita Endo has added a splash of pizazz to Fischer's iron-clad pragmatism.

The inimitable Kruse - a keen poker player when he's not plying his teammates with goals - is Union's winning hand.

At 5'11" and with some counterintuitive off-field interests, Kruse is not your average top-level forward. - Maja Hitij/Getty Images

"Max loves life," said Mattuschka, touching on Kruse's colourful extra-curricular pursuits. "I was partial to a kebab, beer or McDonald's back in the day, but always put in 11 kilometres on the pitch.

"Max might not have a six-pack, but he doesn't doze on the job either. He works an unbelievable amount for the team. Even if he runs a few kilometres less than his teammates, what's important is that he makes the right runs.

"The players listen to him and want to play with him. He scores goals and makes goals, and improves everyone around him. He can take the club to the next level."

Chris Mayer-Lodge