It’s first against second as Bayern Munich travel to Union Berlin for what is shaping up to be an intriguing tussle on Matchday 5, and while the record Bundesliga champions might be favourites to win, don’t expect them to have things all their own way in the German capital.
bundesliga.com takes a closer look at how this season’s early frontrunners stack up.
1) Fearsome front lines
Bayern might have scored more goals than anyone else so far this season, but handily for Union head coach Urs Fischer, he has a red-hot front line at his disposal too. Losing chief attackers Max Kruse and Taiwo Awoniyi this year would have resulted in a downturn in form for most clubs, but Fischer has adapted brilliantly.
Sheraldo Becker has been moved inside from a wide role to play more centrally and the summer arrival of USA international striker Jordan is already looking like a masterstroke, with the pair dovetailing brilliantly so far.
Becker is the league’s top scorer with four goals (plus two assists), while Jordan has two of each, his strength and physical presence offering the perfect foil for Becker’s pace and direct running. “It was hard in my first years here, but I have more confidence now,” he told bundesliga.com following his double in the 6-1 thrashing of Schalke last week. “In the end you just have to shoot and it goes in.”
It is unlikely to be quite that simple against Bayern, but Julian Nagelsmann is certainly wary of the Eiserners’ threat: “They’ve developed well, play very directly up towards their two strikers,” he said in his pre-match media briefing. “It’s a great stadium with good fans. We’ll try our best to win there. It’s a difficult place to play, but it’s doable.”
Watch: Star in stripes: Jordan
And if anyone can do it, it's Bayern. The departure of Robert Lewandowski has not proved as troublesome as many anticipated, with Nagelsmann revamping his side and arguably making them even more dangerous without one primary focal point.
Bayern are enjoying their most free-scoring start to a campaign ever with 16 goals, and boast four players in the top scorer’s chart at this early stage: Sadio Mane (three goals), Jamal Musiala (three goals, one assist), Serge Gnabry (two, one) and Leroy Sane (two, one) are all on fire so far – and that is before Thomas Müller (one, two) and Kingsley Coman (one, two) even get a mention.
“Bayern have got a lot of extremely quick players who can decide a game on their own,” said Fischer in the build-up to the match. “We’ll need to have a lot of courage both with and against the ball. We’re not thinking about fighting for top spot in the table; we just want to play to our best out on the pitch.”
Watch: World Star: Sadio Mane
2) Quality versus quantity
Nagelsmann's pre-game words of caution stems from an awareness of how Union get their goals. Fischer’s men have averaged just 43.3 percent possession in their games this season, the second lowest tally after struggling Schalke. However, that doesn’t mean the opposition is in control; Union usually have teams exactly where they want them.
The capital club have scored both more goals on the counter (three) and more long-range goals (three) than any other Bundesliga side in 2022/23, while only Werder Bremen have netted more headers than Union’s three.
They have also been ruthlessly efficient with their chances: Union have a shooting efficiency quota of +6.6 so far, which is to say they’ve scored 6.6 goals more than expected, according to the expected goals (xG) metric.
Watch: Highlights of Union's 6-1 thrashing of Schalke last week
Bayern aren’t doing too badly themselves in that regard with a shooting efficiency rate of +4.3, but the approach is rather different. Rather than lying in wait and pouncing in transition, Nagelsmann’s troops hog the ball and adopt the ‘if you don’t shoot, you don’t score’ maxim: Bayern have had more shots (104), more long-range attempts (41) and created more gilt-edged chances (15) than anyone else.
They also seem to particularly enjoy playing away from home this season, putting five past RB Leipzig in the Supercup, then six and seven past Eintracht Frankfurt and Bochum respectively in the league.
3) A case for the defence
Union may be relative top-flight newcomers, having only earned promotion ahead of the 2019/20 campaign, but they play with the air of top-flight veterans and are unbeaten in their last 11 league assignments dating back to last season. Their robust backline is due plenty of credit for that. Fischer usually sets his side up in a 3-5-2 formation, with three no-nonsense centre-backs shielded by the equally stony faced Rani Khedira in defensive midfield.
Watch: Union Berlin - tactical analysis
As such, it is no surprise to hear that Union are the only Bundesliga team not to fall behind in a game this season: they leave very little space to work with inside their own half and crosses into the box are invariably hoofed clear. Union have won a league-best 120 aerial duels this season, cover more ground than anyone else (72.4 miles per game) and have also committed more fouls than any other team (59). In short, you will not out-fight or out-work the boys from Berlin.
Fischer’s side had the third-best defensive record of any team last season (44 conceded) and the fourth best in 2020/21 after letting in just 43 – even fewer than Bayern themselves. They have lost just three home games since the start of the 2020/21 season and concede an average of just one goal per game at their Stadion an der Alten Försterei. "Playing against the ball [in front of our opponents] is our trump card; we don't allow much [to pass us]," Fischer explained.
Bayern are pretty formidable at the back too. With just two goals conceded in their first four games of the season they have the league’s best defensive record. It’s not hard to see why. Centre-backs Dayot Upamecano, Matthijs de Ligt and Lucas Hernandez carry an air of menace akin to back-alley security guards reveling in being given permission to rough up unwanted riff-raff – setting the scene for a thrilling battle with Jordan come kick-off.
Alphonso Davies is the quickest player in the league – and probably the world – meaning attacks down Bayern’s left side are virtually pointless, while Benjamin Pavard has been getting forward so much this season he’s been more winger than he has full-back.
Then there is the matter of having the ball in the first place. Bayern have averaged 61 percent possession in their Bundesliga matches so far this season and have completed 88.7 percent of their passes from open play. It’s no wonder, then, that they have only allowed opposing teams a league-low 34 shots at goal this term.
4) Contrasting histories
Football is all about focusing the next game and while building towards the future is essential, there is no doubt that the past informs both of these teams’ presents. Unions fans famously came together to help rebuild the club’s stadium in 2008, with more than 2,300 volunteers collectively contributing over 140,000 hours of work in laying bricks and installing key elements inside the ground.
There was also a push to raise funds for the club through the "Bleed for Union" project, a campaign whereby supporters donated blood - donors in Germany get paid - to add some much-needed cash to the Union coffers.
"In our stadium, everyone knows it is only good if you take part," the club's director of communications, Christian Arbeit, said in an interview with Sky Sports. "Don't come here to look at how great it is. Come here and make it great." That same sense of hard work, grit and graft is expected of the team, influencing the way they play.
If Union are at the start of their top-flight success story, then, they would do well to follow Bayern’s example. What is now a modern-day juggernaut was also once an ambitious upstart, with the foundations laid in an extraordinarily golden period in the 1970s in which the club won, among others, three successive European titles.
Bayern legend Franz Beckenbauer once claimed that Bayern “would still be working out of a shed on Säbener Straße” if not for the goals of Gerd Müller, who, like Beckenbauer, was a cornerstone of that 70s team. Rather than having success and riches parachuted upon them by a wealthy foreign investor, Bayern are where they are thanks to their on-field exploits.
That has created a self-perpetuating cycle, with success breeding success and confidence breeding confidence. As such, only continued footballing triumphs are not so much desired as demanded.
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