It was built up as one of the biggest 2. Bundesliga games of the season, two sides sitting just two points apart heading into Matchday 31. Both sides had been on a skid in terms of form with the pair winless in their previous five. So, based on the necessity to win the job seemed simple enough for Union Berlin and Hamburger SV. This tactical analysis will reveal how the clash turned out.
Yet entering the encounter, uncertainty remained around both sides. For Union Berlin, had the team run its race? Poor away form and a side which recently struggled to both attack and defend well. Hamburg couldn’t hold onto leads and opponents have been able to nullify the team’s limp attack.
What is clear that defeat wasn’t an option with the victor basking in the spoils. That team would be Union Berlin who lit up the second half and crushed a Hamburg side completely bereft of confidence.
Union Berlin were coming off a disappointing showing in Fürth where they were greatly outplayed and in many respects fortunate to get a point. Urs Fischer welded the axe for Die Eisernen making four changes to that side. Nicolai Rapp was sent off in the draw in his first start to the club with Michael Parensen his replacement. The changes in midfield saw Felix Kroos and Joshua Mees dropped to the bench in place of Julian Ryerson and Manuel Schmiedebach. Fischer also changed his striker as well with Sebastian Polter out for Sebastian Andersson.
Hannes Wolf also made wholesale changes to his Hamburg side after a dismal draw at home to Erzgebirge Aue. Gotoku Sakai and goal scorer Manuel Wintzheimer were shown to the bench in favour of Josha Vagnoman and Aaron Hunt. Wolf deployed a back three vs Union with Gideon Jung dropping into defence. Jung was the replacement for the suspended Orel Mangala. Vagnoman and Khaled Narey were the wing backs with Douglas Santos playing out of position as a six.
Pressing a high possession team
In the early stages of the match, a statement of intent has been laid out by the hosts. With the knowledge that they aren’t a side which dabbles in possession, they will look to force a mistake from Hamburg. Under Wolf, Hamburg enjoy playing with possession and are the league leaders in that category and we have seen over the course of the season teams will sit deep and allow Hamburg plenty of the ball. However, teams who have dared to press Hamburg inside their own half have been able to disrupt their rhythm.
We start with Lacroix in possession in the centre of defence looking for an outlet at wide. Someone who likes playing long diagonals to the wing-backs, Union have done a good job in cutting out the avenue of pass and he is forced to play to Rick van Drongelen.
Suleiman Abdullahi is applying the pressure on van Drongelen whilst Robert Zulj and Anderson are defending in a man on man set. The Dutchman is forced back to his goalkeeper.
With Julian Pollersbeck in possession, Union look to avoid giving the keeper an option to go short. Allowing Pollersbeck to go short would allow Hamburg retention in possession which will allow the visitors the ability to gain a stranglehold on the tempo of the game. Instead, excellent pressing by Zulj forces Pollerbeck long and down the middle.
Hamburg would win possession back in this sequence but it’s evident that Union were trying to make Wolf’s side uncomfortable in their own half. Although Fischer’s side didn’t reap the reward for effort in the first half, their gut running and pressing would pay off in the long run.
Union Berlin’s advantageous opener
As the teams emerged from the interval, neither team has been able to break the deadlock. Hamburg has a couple of half chances to take the lead but for the most part, Union had looked more likely. In a matter of moments, Hamburg would surrender the lead in unfathomable circumstances. Poetic of a team playing like the old dinosaur whilst being hammered into submission.
Hamburg get the second half underway and look to gain control of possession as they’ve done so many times this season. Union Berlin are pressing with relative intent but aren’t yet in a position to force a mistake. Jung plays the ball towards Leo Lacroix.
Immediately, Lacroix is looking to go centrally and does so finding Vasilije Janjičič. When the ball is played centrally, the Union players immediately converge and try to force Janjičič back to either the goalkeeper or Jung.
The pass isn’t particularly great as Jung takes possession, Abdullahi is applying a heavy press and attempts to win possession off Jung. A heavy, indecisive touch by Jung opens the door for Abdullahi who wins possession for Union.
As Abdullahi drives into the penalty area, Lacroix is forced into playing the ball carrier. Zulj is able to release off his direct opponent into a world of space. Abdullahi plays a good ball to Zulj who finishes with precision. A situation which didn’t look dangerous ended in the opener for Union who would then force the issue.
Hamburg’s sluggish transition
Midway through the second half and with the contest seamlessly slipping away from Hamburg, Wolf began to push more numbers forward. In doing so, leaving a fragile defence vulnerable and allowing Union to attack on the counter. But the inability to defend as a team become evident within the second half as players were more willing to push forward and neglect their defensive responsibilities as seen here.
At this stage, Hamburg’s potential attack has ended and Union are clearing. Seven Hamburg players inside the box as Union prepares to go forward.
In the centre of the pitch, Union have an abundance of space as Abdullahi takes possession. From the players that were in the box for the initial action, the numbers are even from both Union and Hamburg.
Abdullahi waits for support before playing the ball out wide, now Hamburg have numbers back and are intent on keeping Union pinned into the far side of the pitch. If Union were to play backwards they would be able to open up the fat side of the ground and exploit the tight spaced defending of Hamburg. Or they can use the tight space and attack down the channel where Christopher Trimmel is preparing to attack.
Bakary Jatta is caught napping and Trimmel is able to run into space where he takes possession. Trimmel will then play a ball into the middle where Abdullahi takes aim on goal. Whilst not resulting in a goal, a better defensive transition would’ve forced Union to play backwards from the wing position instead of exploiting a small pocket of space.
Signed, sealed and delivered
With under 10 minutes remaining, Union Berlin had played an excellent second half where playing intelligent football had gifted them the lead. Yet, the worst margin in football needed to be extended from Fischer’s perspective and his players would oblige him.
Hamburg who have looked shaky defensively in the second half are trying to clear, Janjičič is under the ball but whiffs any sort of clearance. Despite having a numerable advantage, an unfavourable bounce see’s Janjičič in trouble.
Substitute Polter wins possession but a poor first touch has him pointing the wrong way. Luckily he has support in Grischa Prömel and the goal scorer Zulj. Polter plays to the later.
Zulj looks to keep the play going with Hamburg’s defence all out of shape, his first-time pass finds Prömel who has a number of options. Prömel could wait for support to his left and create the overlap down the wing, he could also play Polter into space towards the 18-yard box. However, that would require plenty of ground for Polter to cover. Instead, Prömel attacks the Hamburg defence which continues to retreat.
Prömel is at the edge of the box and only now is the Hamburg defence closing in on the midfielder. With no real option, Prömel puts his laces through the ball which cannons off the post and in. Julian Pollersbeck left only as a bystander as Union extended their advantage.
A fixture which promised plenty gave us a number of questions and answers. Union were able to answer theirs with authority and now sit third in the standings. Paderborn loom as the biggest challenger for Union Berlin who sit above them in second, can Union make the move in the latter stages of the season?
A giant question must be posed to Hamburg, was sacking Christian Titz for Wolf really the right decision? Hamburg are now six games without a win and with disharmony within the squad, it would seem that club is imploding from within. With three tricky fixtures ahead including an away trip to Paderborn on Matchday 33. What seemed inconceivable at the start of the season, could become a cruel reality for Hamburg.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the April issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.