FM Experiment | Bottom At Christmas | Season 3: Union Berlin

It’s safe to say Big Sam Allardyce’s second attempt to keep a team bottom of the league at Christmas didn’t go to plan in 2023/24. His Schalke side suffered a shocking run of form that saw them relegated from Bundesliga in last place, 12 months on from leading Southampton to survival. So which teams are available to him for season 3?

Bottom At Christmas Season 3

The situation on Christmas Day saw Big Sam with a few intriguing options to choose from. Middlesbrough – a team we led to survival in the same challenge last season – looked doomed in the Premier League with just 7 points from 18 games and 9 points from safety. Las Palmas were bottom of La Liga with 8 points but only 3 from safety. Cremonese were bottom of Serie A with 10 points and also 3 from safety. Troyes propped up Ligue 1 and were a huge 10 points from safety. And Union Berlin were bottom of Bundesliga with 13 points but just 2 points from safety.

Back To Bundesliga!

After last season’s dismal conclusion, Big Sam was keen for a bit of Bundesliga redemption. So he decided to take over at 1. FC Union Berlin, who were very lucky to survive in 2024 but are very much in touch this time around, with them only trailing 11th-place Wolfsburg by 5 points. And, unsurprisingly, morale was absolutely in the bin.

Big Sam again walked into a club that somehow had no money despite the great finances available in Bundesliga, with just £3.3m in the bank balance and £2.1m in the transfer budget. Annoyingly, they’d also loaned one of their better midfielders Morten Thorsby to Pumas and another Paul Jaeckel was off to Leipzig for a new club-record £9.5m, leaving 19 first-team players.

That meant midfield was a key priority, which Big Sam filled by loaning in Hannibal then signing Patrick Berg for £4.5m from Chelsea. He also loaned in PSG attacker Datro Fofana and Liverpool defender Strahinja Erakovic.

With those additions, Big Sam went for a slightly unusual 4-4-2 formation, which is probably a reverse Brazil box? Keys to the team will be Berg and Rani Khedira in midfield, and hopefully Sheraldo Becker, Abel Ruiz or Fofana can find a few goals.

Tricky Start To Life At Union

Big Sam’s first Union match was a trip to Hoffenheim and it started just as his Schalke role started, with a 1-1 draw thanks to central midfielder András Schafer’s late equaliser. A big game followed as they travelled to 16th-place Darmstadt with most of the new signings making debuts. But it was an existing player that made the difference as Ruiz came off the bench to nick a 1-0 win from the penalty spot. That moved Union out of the relegation places by 1 point, but they lost Becker to damaged cruciate ligaments for 9-11 months!

The first game without him saw his teammates score twice, including Fofana’s first for the club, but annoyingly their opponents Stuttgart scored 4. They then lost 2-1 at Leverkusen to an Adam Hlozek brace, which plunged Union back to the bottom of the league. Big Sam slightly tweaked his tactic to move to a diamond, which worked nicely as they were slightly lucky to defeat 5th-place Gladbach 2-1 thanks to a Ruiz double. But that was quickly forgotten with a 5-0 thumping at Dortmund.

A Month Of Relegation Deciders

Union’s survival could swing on 4 big games in March. First up was a must-win at home to Hannover and Union delivered. They dominated by 14 shots to 3 and scored twice through strikers Fofana and Ruiz to move 5 points clear of relegation. However, Big Sam knew all too well that meant nothing with 10 games still remaining.

They lost 2-0 at 14th-place Hamburg then Schafer’s strike nicked a 1-1 at home to Wolfsburg. But another huge game took Union to 16th-place Freiburg with several key players injured. They led early as Fofana scored inside 8 minutes, only to immediately concede. And they looked to have lost it as Freiburg scored after 88 minutes, but substitute Jordan Siebatcheu stepped up with a massive injury-time equaliser. That kept Union 5 points clear of Freiburg and 6 points clear of Darmstadt with 8 games remaining.

8 Games For Survival

Just like last season, an international break came just at the wrong time as Union had picked up 5 points from their last 4 games. Their run-in was really tricky, especially the final 3 games, but there were a couple of games that were must-wins.

First up, they delivered by far their best performance of the season against Eintracht Frankfurt led by a masterclass from the exciting Fofana. The striker opened the scoring on 22 minutes, laid on the second for Ruiz and doubled his tally after 33 minutes. Frankfurt scored just after the break but Fofana wrapped up his hat-trick 2 minutes later to seal a huge win. Although the visitors will be disappointed to have wasted 19 shots.

That lifted Union to 14th above their next opponents Eintracht Braunschweig, who’d lost 6 on the bounce. And Union made it 7 thanks to 3 goals in 10 second-half minutes. Braunschweig led but Ruiz scored 2 in 2 minutes then a Schafer strike inspired a comeback and 3-2 success. That lifted Union to 13th and 6 points of 16th-place Darmstadt, so it was still far from over.

Now the fixtures got really tricky with games against three of the top six and both the top two, but the form of the teams below Union should suggest that they had a great chance of tasting survival.

First up was 6th-place Koln, who scored inside 5 minutes. But Fofana responded 6 minutes later and Union had the best of the game but couldn’t find a winner. Darmstadt lost 2-1 to Bayern, so Union edged 7 points clear of them. They lost 2-0 at Mainz then somehow beat 2nd-place Leipzig 3-1 led by Fofana’s opener and a Schafer brace. And that result officially kept Union Berlin up, moving them 9 points clear of the drop with 2 games to go. And what a win this was!

The season rounded out with 3-0 losses at champions Bayern and at home to Bremen. But Union still sealed a 13th-place finish in Bundesliga and Big Sam was delighted with his team’s turnaround. However, they stayed up with the second-fewest goals scored in Bundesliga (36) and only 3 teams conceded more than their 59. Elsewhere, Freiburg were relegated despite having 2 of the NxGn top 10 wonderkids and spending £35m on a player from Bayern!

The star man of Big Sam’s reign was probably Fofana, who scored 8 and got 4 assists in 15 games. Ruiz finished the season with 13 in 35 but played terribly in the last few fixtures, Schafer got 6 goals and a club-high 6 assists and loanee Hannibal got 3 assists and a 7.3 average rating in the final 5 games. But only 8 Union players scored a goal all season!

So Big Sam now has a 66% record of saving teams bottom of the league at Christmas from suffering relegation. But what challenge awaits him in 7 months’ time at Christmas 2025? Join us next Wednesday to find out!

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