1. FC Union Berlin fought their way to an important, and useful point through their goalless draw away in Freiburg in their first competitive fixture of 2024. The game itself was marked by at least one unbelievable stop by Frederik Rønnow in Union’s goal but was also notable for the confident debut of Kevin Vogt at centre-back, as well as the first Bundesliga start for Mikkel Kaufmann up front.
SC Freiburg: Atublou – Sildilla, Ginter, Gulde, Makengo – Weisshaupt (83. Höler), Eggestein, Röhl, Grifo (83. Phillip) – Sallai, Gregoritsch
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranović (88. Trimmel), Knoche, Vogt, Leite, Roussillon (69. Gosens) – Haberer, Král, Aaronson (69. Schäfer) – Volland (90. Tousart), Kaufmann (69. Behrens)
The starting XI
In his press conference midweek, Nenad Bjelica had spoken of how happy he was with his squad, dismissing the truths and lies of ins and outs as an irrelevance. As he also showed a certain bullish confidence going into a tie that had yielded 16 goals the last three times it had been played. Yet few expected such a radical start to 2024 from the Croatian. Out with the old was his favoured back four, and in with the new was Kevin Vogt, the ink barely dry on his contract, at the middle of a back three alongside Diogo Leite and Robin Knoche.
They were flanked by his trusted wing-backs, Josip Juranović and the new captain, Jérôme Roussillon, on the right and left respectively, with a midfield pair of Alex Král and Janik Haberer.
Following his goal, and all-round excellent performance last weekend against Bielefeld, Brenden Aaronson was given the space to play in the lines between midfield and attack, where he joined Kevin Volland and, in his first Bundesliga start, Mikkel Kaufmann.
Freiburg held at bay by Rönnow
The 1,700 travelling fans were under few illusions prior to kick off. Union’s prerogative had changed since the optimism of pre-season. They were now in a dogfight, and though it may have lacked some of the wildness of Union and Freiburg's more recent encounters, the match they saw would have reassured them that their side were at least up for the challenges presented. They were at least up for the fight.
And in their newest signing there were several reasons for optimism. Vogt, of course, has played over three hundred Bundesliga games and, as Bjelica said before kick off, this was nothing new for him. He certainly looked the part, and he took his first touch, stepping up from the penalty spot to side-foot a speculative ball into the box away, like he’d been there forever.
But it was somewhat emblematic. Freiburg had much more of the ball in the opening phases, and they could have made more of moments such as when Vincenzo Grifo wafted a ball in towards the head of Merlin Röhl five minutes in, or when Vogt headed away before Roland Sallai could get his head on another Röhl cross. They were sitting back, inviting Freiburg on to them. Union couldn’t get the ball down, but when they got it they would give it away again.
And their strikers were as if in orbit around the edges of the earth at time. Kaufmann found himself the target of Král’s long ball after 20 minutes, but when it came he was alone, only his two markers to keep him company.
Union’s best moments came through the tireless Juranović down the right; his ball to Aaronson after ten minutes was weighted almost perfectly, and the shot hit with his laces, ten minutes later was tricky, but straight at Noah Atubolu. Maybe it was little coincidence that he would find a little more space on his side because that was also where the hosts were concentrating their own attacks.
Sallai hit a ball in from there for Grifo to head at goal, but he was hindered by a stunning reflex, point blank Rønnow save, somehow reacting like lightning, beating the ball away over the bar before he could blink.
Rønnow smiled when asked about it after the final whistle. “You’ve just got to try and react,” he said, the only answer possible to an impossible question.
Sallai himself had an even better chance with half an hour played, heading Ginter’s headed cross wide of the near post by millimetres, with Rønnow, for once, flat-footed. He only had to hit it on target, and he knew as much afterwards, it was written all over his face.
Union were to step up as the half wore on, with Haberer covering acres in the middle, snuffing out spaces behind him, trying to find them ahead of him, and the wingbacks getting more and more of the ball. Juranović shot over after Roussillon’s intervention on the opposite flank with ten minutes of the half to play.
Rønnow would stop Röhl being able to shoot on goal with the half almost up, but by that point it looked like both sides had either succumbed to the cold or been lulled into a kind of watchful malaise.
The referee, Christian Dingert, blew the whistle without pausing for thought to wind things up.
Union grow in confidence, but the game remains goalless
Roussillon won a corner not long after the restart, the culmination of doggedness and the refusal to let Freiburg out of their own right hand corner, but from it the hosts broke and it was only Aaronson’s pull-back of 7 that stopped them in their tracks. The Smerican got a yellow card for it, but it was probably worth the card.
Indeed, Bjelica said that the most important thing was to some away with another clean sheet. “A point is a point, especially in a relegation battle” he said, knowing that if his side had ridden their luck at times, they had also fought like dogs for one another.
There was even greater danger shortly after when Röhl burst into space down the middle, a move that led to Grifo trying to pull a header back for Michael Gregoritsch to volley, but they’d tried to do too much and Union happily brought the ball away again. Five minutes later it took a strong Juranovic challenge on Sallai to clear, the Freiburg attacker going down in the box, and the referee holding up play for an eternity to see if a penalty would be given.
If that was tense, it was nothing to a few moments later when Grifo bent one with his right foot from the edge of the box that was heading right inside the back post, but Gregoritsch, growing frustrated and keen to add to his three goals this season, got a boot to it, only to change the course of the ball’s flight, sending it wide instead.
Union seemed to take that as a sign. They finally countered, through Roussillon on the left and Volland, first, on the right, the move ending with the captain steering a header at Atubolu. They were now putting Freiburg under a little more pressure. After Leite slapped a cross into the box that was put out for a corner Bjelica brought on András Schäfer, Robin Gosens and Kevin Behrens for Kaufmann, Roussillon and Aaronson.
Schäfer was immediately involved, and Union were growing in confidence, passing the ball about at pace, trying to work their way up from the back. Král was finding more and more time to pick his passes forwards, and again Juranović had a chance, dragging his shot just wide of the back post with 13 minutes to play.
Bjelica spoke of the need for his side to be more courageous up front, saying that he was sure Union had the quality needed to do so, but he also acknowledged that today the focus was on a different target.
At the back, Vogt was there ever and again, always talking, always in the right place at the right time, imbuing his new team-mates with renewed confidence. He said later that, though there was still much to work on, he was happy with the result. “A point in Freiburg... it doesn’t matter how...” before saying that “as a defender” he’d always be happy with a clean sheet. Rønnow would still have to make another stop from Röhl, even if his shot on 82 minutes was straight at him.
Following the appearance of Trimmel, on for the indefatigable Roussillon (taking the armband straight away) Bjelica would bring on Lucas Tousart as the five minutes added on were ticking away, but there was time still for Rønnow to pick one final long cross out of the sky. He clutched his shoulder having landed awkwardly; another blow taken during another superb performance. If Union owed their point to anyone, then it was to the great Dane.
“It’s not yet perfect,” he said at the end with typical self-deprecation, but he knew that even if it seemed like a small step, Union had taken a big point today.