How Union Berlin became a surprise Bundesliga title challenger and Europa League contenders
Just four years ago Union Berlin were in the 2. Bundesliga, but now they’re fighting for the German top flight title and through to the Europa League last 16 after eliminating Ajax.
Urs Fischer has worked wonders in the capital to transform The Iron Ones from second-tier sloggers to genuine Meisterschale chasers, with Union currently third in the Bundesliga and level on points with second-placed Borussia Dortmund, and habitual table-toppers Bayern Munich after 21 games.
This isn’t actually the first time Union have been in Europe, qualifying for the Uefa Cup in 2001/02 (bowing out in the second round as DFB-Pokal runners-up) while also exiting the Europa Conference League group stage last season.
After finishing fifth in the Bundesliga in 2021/22, just one point behind fourth-placed RB Leipzig, Union are once again enjoying midweek continental football, but it feels as though they aren’t just here to make up the numbers this season. They are looking like genuine contenders
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There were question marks as to how Union would fare this season after they made 10 signings in the summer, but evidently, they’ve coped pretty well. So, who were the signings — and how have they fared so far?
From: Greuther Furth
Union’s first signing of the summer was a free one (more of those to come), with Paul Seguin joining from relegated Greuther Furth at the end of his contract — a deal that was announced as early as March. The 27-year-old central midfielder did his best to keep Greuther Furth in the Bundesliga last season with three assists, the second-most at the club. However, Seguin does have a bit of a disciplinary issue as he was booked nine times in the Bundesliga last season — only two players received more yellow cards. That is something Union have found out this term, as he has more yellows (four) than he does starts (three).
Another midfielder brought in on a free transfer, Janik Haberer was part of the Freiburg team that reached the DFB-Pokal final last season, finishing as runners-up to RB Leipzig. Playing in a few positions for Freiburg last season, Haberer scored three goals in the Bundesliga, but had to make do with a fringe role towards the end of the campaign. That hasn’t been the case in Berlin, though, with the 28-year-old starting 19 games and bringing a real vigour and tenacity to Union’s midfield.
From: Vitesse Arnhem
Danilho Doekhi was captain of Vitesse Arnhem last season, leading them to the final of the Eredivisie’s European competition play-offs, though they lost 7-3 to AZ over two legs. Despite his role in Vitesse’s defence, the Dutch centre-back was allowed to leave at the end of his contract and snubbed a move to Rangers to join Union. A member of Ajax’s academy, Doekhi played alongside the likes of Justin Kluivert, Noussair Mazraoui, Owen Wijndal and Matthijs de Ligt. After a slow introduction, the 24-year-old has started the last eight Bundesliga games and recently scored against Ajax as Union eliminated them from the Europa League knockout play-off.
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From: Greuther Furth
Another arrival from relegated Greuther Furth, 21-year-old forward Jamie Leweling found the net five times in the Bundesliga last season, with only Branimir Hrgota managing more (nine) for the club. But all five of Leweling’s goals did come from open play, while he also completed 46 take-ons, more than any other Greuther Furth player. He has been restricted to substitute appearances only this term, and fleeting ones at that.
Part of Union’s plans to bolster their attack was to sign Tim Skarke from Darmstadt, again on a free transfer. But unlike Union’s other three signings, Skarke did not have Bundesliga experience, playing all of his football with Darmstadt in the second tier. Last season the 26-year-old scored five goals in 19 appearances having missed the first part of the season through injury. And, like Leweling, Skarke hasn’t featured much at all this season, with just six Bundesliga appearances.
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Goals weren’t Union’s strongest point last season, scoring the joint-fewest goals in the top half of the Bundesliga, so especially after losing Awoniyi they looked to find someone who can score from anywhere. Milos Pantovic appeared to be the man to remedy that Achilles heel. While at Bochum last season, Pantovic scored one goal from inside his own half vs Hoffenheim and another from inside the centre circle against Freiburg. That’s half of his four total goals coming from long range. However, it’s been slim pickings this term, with only eight substituted appearances in the Bundesliga.
From: Bayer Leverkusen
Only a few years ago Lennart Grill was playing the 3. Bundesliga with Kaiserslautern before joining Bayer Leverkusen, but his time in the top flight hasn’t been ideal. In three seasons since joining Leverkusen, Grill has made just nine appearances in the Bundesliga, four of which have come for Union this term. He has so far played second fiddle to Frederik Ronnow.
From: BSC Young Boys
Union wasted little time in trying to find a way to replace Awoniyi’s goal production and they snapped up Jordan Siebatcheu pretty quick. The American joined from BSC Young Boys after just one year as a permanent fixture in the Swiss Super League (signing from Rennes the summer prior after a season on loan), and he thrived. Overall, Siebatcheu scored 42 goals in 87 games for Young Boys across all competitions and finished as the Swiss Super League’s top scorer last season on 22 goals. He got off the mark for Union on his debut in the DFB-Pokal against Chemnitzer and in his Bundesliga bow against rivals Hertha in a 3-1 win on matchday one. However, he hasn’t exactly exploded since then, scoring just three more times, though his power and drive have been invaluable.
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Diogo Leite is playing outside Portugal for the first time having come through the Porto academy, and Union are enjoying the same influence as Braga did last season during a loan in the Minho Province. The 24-year-old centre-back played 23 times in the Primeira Liga last season to help Braga to a fourth-placed finish, averaging 3.16 clearances and 3.69 aerial duels won per 90 minutes. He has been a mainstay in Unions’ backline this term, acclimatising to German football like a duck to water.
Morten Thorsby is a great footballer, but there’s more to him than just his ball-playing skills. He is actually known as football’s Greta Thunberg, with the 26-year-old being well known for his environmental activism, especially surrounding climate issues, using his platform for good.
“Some colleagues call me that, it’s true,” the 26-year-old said last year.
“It’s not a problem for me, but I wouldn’t compare myself to Greta. She has been doing very important work, almost as a face of the movement, but she speaks a lot to people who are already sensitised and informed about the climate crisis.
“I think we have to get everybody on board, we have to do what Greta says, but simplify the message and extend it to more people. But Greta has done an amazing job. It’s okay to be called like that.”
He has made 21 appearances this season in all competitions, though only six of those have been starts, and he will certainly be looking to feature more regularly towards the business end of the campaign.
Union strengthened further in the winter window to reinforce their stellar campaign. Josip Juranovic was brought in from Celtic after a strong World Cup with Croatia, while seasoned left-back Jerome Roussillon traded Wolfsburg for the capital. Ferencvaros midfielder Aissa Laidouni also made the switch, with the dynamic midfielder moving across to Germany following a fine showing in Qatar with Tunisia.