Bundesliga MD 11 Preview: Union Berlin vs. Bayern

Justin Separator December 12, 2020

The surprise team so far in this Bundesliga campaign comes from Berlin. It is not Hertha BSC, but Union. After ten games, the team from Köpenick is in sixth place with 16 points. Various statistics show that this is no coincidence: With only 14 goals conceded thus far, they have one of the best defenses in the league.

According to StatsBomb’s expected goals model, Union have only conceded eight expected goals (8.2 xGA). That is just about the best figure in the Bundesliga. And they also do well in attack with 17.6 xG (6th place) and 22 actual goals (3rd place).

The key word to describe them is “balance”. Union have the third-best expected-goals difference (+9.4) and the fifth-best real goal difference (+8). Urs Fischer’s team already could rely on a consistently strong defensive last season – but only intermittently. Eight times they played to nil, and seven times they conceded no more than one goal. However, several resounding defeats against Hertha, Gladbach, Hoffenheim, Dortmund, and Leipzig saw them concede 58 goals by the end of the season.

Reality check: Where is union really at?

On the one hand, Union have managed to stabilize their defense in terms of consistency. On the other hand, their attacking game seems more composed, more precise and more effective. In addition to the longer time Fischer has had with his team to continue their adaptation to the top flight, there has also been a clever transfer policy at the club.

Above all, the signing of Max Kruse has proved decisive. The former German international has added a completely new dimension to the offensive almost all by himself. Union no longer have to rely solely on long punts forward and going for the second balls. You can tell that he is at least one level above his teammates in terms of ability, and he also manages to raise his teammates’ levels up with him. Kruse is the difference maker who could ultimately tip the balance between Union retaining or losing their Bundesliga status.

But less spectacular newcomers like Marvin Friedrich, Anthony Ujah, Robert Andrich, Marcus Ingvartsen (all arrived in 2019) and Robin Knoche also bring a good mix of potential and seasoned Bundesliga experience. In addition, loan players such as Joel Pohjanpalo and Loris Karius strengthen the squad as proven short-term reinforcements.

Are appearances deceiving?

The club’s transfer policy seems to complement the sporting development under Fischer. And yet, even after the strong start to the season, it is not yet clear where Union really stands.

The doubts about the current high can best be explained by this statistic from Twitter user @bimbeshausen: If you add up all the points of each team’s opponents T, it becomes clear that on paper Union had the “easiest” opponents of all the teams in the league so far. Hertha, on the other hand, had the theoretically most difficult ones.

And so it could well be that Union will slide down the table sooner rather than later, while their local rivals from Charlottenburg now have the opportunity to start the race to catch up.

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Flexibility in defense

Nevertheless: Union’s self-confidence is sky high and especially in last week’s Berlin derby they showed why they are such an unpleasant opponent even after they were a man down. From what is actually a deep formation (mostly with a five-man backline), they still manage to exert pressure on the opponent’s build-up play.

Under Fischer, the team always pushes out cleverly and thus narrows the spaces in the central midfield well. In addition, Union are very quick, precise, and efficient in transition. For example, when the ball is played out to the flank by the opponent, the wing-back there pushes forward exerting pressure, while the remaining four defenders shift in to fill the gaps.

But also if the three central defenders push out, it is hardly a cause for concern. Compared to last season, it has become much more difficult to disrupt Union’s compactness and open up spaces between the lines.

Personnel problems at Union

This points to how the game on Saturday evening will not likely play out: Union will try to put Bayern under pressure from a deep shape. There is a danger that they will become too passive, as was the case at times in the last encounter in the second half of the season, but one, Bayern are not as strong as they were then, and two, Union will have learned from that – their performances this season at least indicate they did.

However, the Eisernen are short-handed ahead of the clash with Munich: Key players like Andrich (suspended) and Max Kruse are missing, as are Pohjanpalo, Ujah and Schlotterbeck. In addition, Hübner might not be fit in time, which in turn means that Fischer will have to improvise at the back. Julian Ryerson, who can be used flexibly, could start at the back if his coach does not start him in midfield.

At least things are looking good for Christian Gentner. The experienced former Stuttgart player could replace Andrich, whose running and tackling skills will be sorely lacking. However, it is unclear whether Fischer trusts him to play 90 minutes yet.

Stricter roles for the full-backs at Bayern

At Bayern, Lewandowski and Alaba will be fit in time. However, Flick has announced that he will discuss changes to the current style of play with the coaching team for the remaining matches of this year. How serious he is about this might become apparent as soon as the game against Union, who are strong in transition. Perhaps Flick will opt for a more defensive setup than before.

In our exclusive Patreon article, we analysed FC Bayern’s defensive and possession problems in detail in mid-week and pointed out possible courses of action that the coaching team now has.

The simplest, but perhaps also most efficient adjustment would be for Flick to give clearer marching orders to his full-backs. Bayern basically use an asymmetrical shape in defense, but it often does not seem to be clearly defined. The typical pattern could be seen before the 0-1 against Leipzig: Left-back Alaba as the full-back on the near side of the ball pushed up while Pavard on the far side stayed back near the halfway line close to the center-backs.

But then Pavard started to run forward to offer himself as a passing option in a gap high up on the right wing he had spotted. At the same moment, however, Müller played a loose pass and suddenly Leipzig could counter-attack. Pavard’s previous sprint had caught him cold up high with several meters to catch up running back. Had he not pushed up beforehand, Bayern might have been able to defend the counter-attack having more bodies at the back.

Flick could therefore sacrifice offensive penetration for a little more stability at the back by issuing the clear order that the full-back closest to the ball is allowed to go forward while the other one has stay behind and to protect – no matter what spaces are available up front. Perhaps a few good attacking opportunities would be lost as a result, but that should be manageable for a team like Bayern.

Union: How far have they come?

The Bayern team cannot afford to offer Union any such invitations. Even without Kruse, the Eisernen are too strong in offensive transition.

For FC Bayern, this match will be more of a test than it appears on paper. And for Union it will be a test, too: How close are they really to be able to establish themselves in the top half of the table?

With their reliable defense and their strength in transition, Union have exactly what it has taken to beat Bayern in recent weeks. It will be interesting to see whether Flick makes changes to his team that go beyond personnel changes.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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