Those records keep tumbling. Their longest top-flight unbeaten run (now 11) was extended. This is the first time they have gone unbeaten in five Bundesliga away games. Add to that, of course, the big one – this was their biggest ever Bundesliga win, at the home of one of German football’s iconic clubs in front of a sold-out, 62,000-plus crowd. Union Berlin are not a curio, not a fleeting story and more than a minor irritant to the Bundesliga’s established order.
Saturday’s 6-1 win at Schalke took Union level on points with Bayern Munich at the summit, planting their flag again in unexpectedly high grounds, just as they had done in getting to the top flight for the first time in 2019, and in becoming Berlin’s preeminent force over the larger and more well-heeled Hertha, having beaten their city rivals four times in a row (including, with some comfort, in this season’s opening match). They will face the next challenge from the best possible angle; next week, they meet Bayern in Berlin.
There will be plenty of time to savor that; the anticipation and preparation in the days leading up the game, the atmosphere on the day and the game itself, at a venue in the Alten Försterei where the champions have never lost in three previous visits but have had a couple of rough rides. Let’s get back to the Saturday just gone first, though.
Schalke might only be slowly and steadily climbing back to respectability, from years of sporting and financial embarrassment, but they remain a huge name and a big deal, as their crowds prove. This was the first time Union had ever beaten them and though the circumstances – and expectations – of both may have changed since they last met 18 months before, this was a bona fide feather in Köpenicker caps.
It wasn’t just the result, emphatic as it was, but the manner. Union got the perfect start when Morten Thorsby – yes, they can sign players from Sampdoria these days – nodded in after a set-piece routine, one of the cornerstones of Urs Fischer’s tactics since promotion in 2019. Yet they didn’t have it all their own way. Schalke responded with spirit and desire, Frederik Rønnow making saves from Simon Terodde and Malick Thiaw before forming Unioner Marius Bülter’s equalizer from the penalty spot.
Spirit and desire might have also been bristles from the cliche brush used to tar Union in the past, but regular watchers of the Berliners will know they are so much more, so much smarter than that these days. They hit back before half-time, with Jordan Siebatcheu laying one on for Sheraldo Becker, the Bundesliga’s joint-top assist offering a goal to its joint-top scorer.
Janik Haberer rattled one in from way out (which goalkeeper Alexander Schwolow might have done better with) and Union had scored three goals from just five first-half shots. Becker scored again 25 seconds into the second half and, just like that, the game had drifted far from Schalke’s reach. “After it went to 4-1,” said Fischer, “the game was only going in one direction. The result was a bit harsh in the end.”
Inwardly he should have allowed himself a glow of satisfaction, even if there was little evidence of it from the outside. His team were brutal, cold and unforgiving, not the cuddly club of football fables. They even had their quicksilver substitute to bring on and kill the game in the closing stages, with the nippy Sven Michel pouncing on an error from the Milan-bound Thiaw before applying an even better finish in the 90th minute. This was the kind of ruthless, play-within-yourself-and-show-your-class-at-the-necessary-moments win that is straight out of the Bayern playbook.
Everything Union does smacks of preparation, rather than romance. The collaboration between Fischer and Oliver Ruhnert, the managing director, is one of their greatest strengths. Losing their first-choice strike pair in the past eight months – Max Kruse unexpectedly returning to Wolfsburg in the winter, and top scorer Taiwo Awoniyi joining Nottingham Forest in the summer – could have been a hammer blow. Instead, Union dealt with it swiftly and smartly, and look to be in a better position than ever.
A drama never becomes a crisis. Siebatcheu was plucked from Young Boys (where he scored 42 goals, won a Swiss title and netted a Champions League winner against Manchester United in two seasons) for an initial €6m, less than a third of the fee Awoniyi was moved on for.
The US international – known as Pefok, his mother’s maiden name, when he plays international football – has hit the ground running and brought the best out of Becker, a Dutch-born Suriname international who has always been quick and lively but is stepping away from his journeyman image in a stellar start to the season. The pair (with Michel as first change) gives Union an amplified counter-attacking threat.
They may well need that against Bayern. But Julian Nagelsmann will be thinking about countering Fischer as much as the Swiss is doing likewise. There can hardly be a bigger compliment.
Bayern weren’t able to show the clinical edge that Union did this weekend, dropping their first points of the season against the nearest they have to a bogey team, Borussia Mönchengladbach. Really, they dropped those points to Yann Sommer, with the goalkeeper making a Bundesliga record number of saves for a game (19!) either side of in-form Leroy Sané bagging a late equaliser, after Marcus Thuram’s first-half goal. “As always,” sighed Nagelsmann, “Yann Sommer played excellently against us.”
Borussia Dortmund recovered from their humiliating reversal at home to Werder Bremen with a single-goal win at Hertha, with Anthony Modeste heading the winner. The real star was Modeste’s former Köln teammate Salih Özcan, making his debut following a pre-season injury, providing the cross for the 34-year-old’s winner and bringing the grit which could make BVB’s season. “It’s not important to him that football looks sexy,” said Edin Terzic, Dortmund’s head coach. “Salih was the key today.”
As Sebastian Kehl, BVB’s sporting director, gave an update on Sébastien Haller after his testicular cancer diagnosis (he is doing “very well”, said Kehl), Hertha’s Marco Richter made his comeback as a substitute after recovering from the same illness and almost crowned his cameo in fairytale fashion, hitting the crossbar from range.
Leipzig got their first win, with a Christopher Nkunku brace too much for Wolfsburg. Domenico Tedesco’s next task is to deal with unrest among the non-playing members of the squad, including Emil Forsberg. The coach believes the swiftly escalating schedule, starting with the delayed Pokal match with Teutonia Ottensen on Tuesday, will make the situation “take care of itself, and then the world will look different”.
Among the weekend’s finest sights was Mario Götze getting his first goal back in the Bundesliga (and seventh against Werder Bremen, his favorite opponents), as Eintracht Frankfurt won a seven-goal thriller at the Weser, in which Randal Kolo Muani was outstanding for Tottenham’s future Champions League opponents, setting up Götze brilliantly before scoring himself. And Werder? The must-watch team of the Bundesliga so far.