Last season Union Berlin were arguably the surprise package of the Bundesliga, finishing fifth and thus securing Europa league football for just the second time in the clubs history. A robust side, Union have conceded just four goals so far this campaign and are flying high at the top of the table after seven matchdays, remaining the only side yet to be beaten.
The real point of interest from Union, which is slowly garnering more and more attention is there almost unheard of xG performance going forward. For context they’ve scored 15 from an xG of 6 and in the 6-1 away demolishing of Schalke, Die Eisernen had an xG of 1.07. This overperformance going forward is raising eyebrows across Europe as few, if any, can match this level of efficiency.
The context of this overperformance is even more impressive considering top scorer Taiwo Awoniyi departed for the Premier League this summer having scored 30% of Union’s overall Bundesliga goal haul from last season.
How Urs Fischer’s philosophy benefits Union in the final third
The first thing to analyse is Union’s style of play and how the coaches philosophy benefits his side in the final third. In his previous job at Basel, Urs Fischer won successive league titles whilst recording their two highest goal scoring seasons in the past 10 years, under Fischer’s two-year reign, scoring 88 and 92. Basel are yet to win the Swiss Super League since Fischer departed in the summer of 2017. By the winter break of the 2016/17 season, Fischer’s side had already scored 49 and only conceded 15. This highlights that the Swiss tactician is no stranger to wanting his teams to play more on the front foot and gravitates to a more offensive style of play.
In his first season in Berlin, Fischer’s side essentially matched their expected goals, scoring 50 from an xG for 50.5. They were solid at the back keeping seven clean sheets in the league and only conceding a very impressive 44. For context, Freiburg (also major overachievers across the past two seasons) finished just below Union in sixth and are renowned for how compact and astute they are at the back, conceded 46. In fact, only champions Bayern Munich conceded less than Union. With an established foundation in defence, led by the likes of Dominique Heintz and Timo Baumgartl, Union rarely scored more than two per game and had a worrying overreliance on Nigerian frontman Awoniyi, who scored 20 in 43. The only other players to score more than five were midfielder Grischa Prömel and the experienced Max Kruse. However, both players followed Awoniyi in departing Berlin this summer, joining Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg.
All these factors would heavily point towards a lack of optimism heading into this season with half the goals in the team now gone. Towards the end of last season there was a late flurry of goals, notably coming in dominant 4-1 away victories over rivals Hertha Berlin and Freiburg, with impressive back-to-back 2-1 away wins over RB Leipzig sandwiched in between.
Fischer set up in a 3-5-2 towards the back end of last season and has continued to do so in every league game so far this season, favouring the lethal duo of summer signing Jordan Pefok and Suriname international Sheraldo Becker. At Basel, Fischer oversaw the development of players who went on to secure big moves in Breel Embolo and Mohamed Elyounoussi in addition to players who went on to be Bundesliga regulars, Renato Steffen and Jean-Paul Boëtius. Journeyman Seydou Doumbia also arguably had the best season of his career under Fischer’s tutelage. While his teams are defensively alert it is evident that Fischer historically gets the most out of his offensive players.
Union consistently outperform their xG
When a side outperforms their xG to this extent it falls less on the tactical side of things and can typically be pinned down to individual ability. USA international Jordan Pefok has hit the ground running after joining from Young Boys while Ajax academy product Becker is playing some of the best football of his career transitioning from a winger to playing as the right forward in a 3-5-2.
Pefok (also known as Jordan Siebatcheu) thrived in Switzerland, almost averaging 0.5 goals a game in his time there and already has six goal contributions in his first six Bundesliga appearances. The 6’3 USA international has the perfect blend of clinical finishing and elite, selfless hold up play. The forward averages 5.15 aerials won per 90 and has an admirable work rate making 1.75 tackles and 1.64 blocks per 90. Pefok is on three goals despite averaging 0.09 xG per shot and also sits on three assists while only having an xA of 0.18 per 90. This highlights Pefok’s true vision and quality of pass as well as a cutting edge with his finishing. The American’s low drive vs RB Leipzig was a prime example of his precise finishing, while his play with his back to goal in the 6-1 demolition of Schalke was excellent and allowed Becker to thrive playing off of him.
The shot map above shows Pefok is a specialist in the box, with his goals and shots on target all coming inside, or just on the periphery of the 6-yard box.
Pefok’s partner in crime is 27-year-old Becker. The former Ajax youth product is the most in form forward in the Bundesliga so far and one of the most productive in Europe’s top 5 leagues, tallying six goals and four assists in seven Bundesliga games. Becker had played his entire career in the Eredivisie prior to joining Union in 2019, where he was signed off the back of his most fruitful season to date (which he is on course to surpass at his current rate of productivity) registering 17 goal contributions in 33 appearances for ADO Den Haag. Becker played a smaller role in his first Bundesliga season scoring three and laying on three assists before making himself a more regular figure in the starting XI last season, where he totalled 10 goal contributions in 28 games.
Becker has a great weight of pass and the turn of pace to beat an opponent and flash crosses across the box, as he demonstrated in the recent 2-0 triumph over Wolfsburg but it has been Becker’s finishing which has been outstanding in the early stages of this season. Becker has six league goals so far. However, he has not even accumulated an xG of 2.0 and he has 10 goal contributions from seven appearances so far despite only averaging an xG per 90 of 0.24 and an xA per 90 of 0.12. His last goal against Wolfsburg involved an exquisite first touch on his chest before slotting the ball beyond the ‘keeper and in the matchday prior he scored a terrific first-time side footed volley against Bayern Munich. The ability to score these types of goals as a forward can point towards genuine composure and elite technique as opposed to being pinned down to freak overperformance, as is often the case with some forwards who have flashes of overperforming their xG where they will score from difficult angles, but on closer inspection they miss chances where a quality forward would display more composure.
The shot maps above have highlighted how Becker has learnt to become a specialist in and around the box, in Union Berlin’s system. Becker is not wasteful and 100% of his shots in the box have been on target, often leading to a goal. His current strike rate would be very difficult to maintain however the fact Becker is regularly finding space in areas closer to the goal points towards the fact that he will continue to get high quality chances and therefore stands a much better chance of regularly contributing in the final third as opposed to a forward who is forced to take more shots outside the box.
Can it be maintained?
The simple answer is that this overperformance going forward likely cannot be kept up. However, if it is even close to being maintained then Union will still have the most efficient attack in the league by far. The main worry will be Union’s depth. The front two of Pefok and Becker has been the cornerstone to their unbeaten start but should injury strike or their form take a real hit, the replacement options are sparse with Fischer’s bench options either being unproven or simply lacking in quality in comparison with his favoured front two.
Last season, Freiburg managed to reach Europe while having an attack which was feeding of scraps and struggled to be expansive from open play. Union do not have this problem and like to keep the ball on the floor, with 76% of their passes being short. With an unexpected unbeaten start and amid a Europa league journey, Union fans have plenty to enjoy right now and should cherish it while it lasts. Having said this, their current form is unlikely to be a flash in the pan and the duo of Becker and Pefok stand an excellent chance of firing the capital side into another European campaign as things stand.