New coach: This is how Nenad Bjelica is tactically restructuring 1. FC Union

As of: December 7th, 2023 7:46 a.m

Union’s new coach Nenad Bjelica wants his team to play dominant football. The first game against Braga showed that there is still a long way to go, even if minor improvements could already be seen.

Translated into German, Nenad Bjelica’s first name means “the one you don’t expect,” according to Wikipedia. That fits pretty well with how most people reacted when Bundesliga soccer club Union Berlin introduced him as their new coach a week and a half ago. The Croatian was only known to real connoisseurs in Germany.

That’s why there was a lot of criticism. Bjelica is a nobody, said “Sky” expert Lothar Matthäus. Even before Bjelica’s first game, he expressed doubts as to whether he, as a Bundesliga newcomer, would be up to the task at Union.

“Bjelica fits Union,” said Wolfsburg coach Niko Kovac. They played together for the Croatian national team. Kovac did not explain what kind of football to expect under his former teammate. Bjelica himself was clearer at his inaugural press conference: “We want to dominate playfully.”

No advertising for Union’s team

In Nenad Bjelica’s first game as Union coach, the team got a point that felt like a wasted victory. The Iron Men played in the majority for 60 minutes, but offered a weak performance. By Till Oppermannmore

No dominance in Braga

Bjelica showed how he wants to approach this tactically on his debut in the Champions League against Braga: the new coach turned Urs Fischer’s 5-3-2 into a 4-1-4-1 system. The plan: Union should be better staggered in order to win the ball further up the field and create more scoring chances through the double team on the wing.

At least the latter worked when left-back Jerome Roussillon prepared left midfielder Robin Gosens’ goal. The team was still miles away from playful dominance. Although Union played in the majority for a long time, the Portuguese dominated the game. A frustrating evening for Nenad Bjelica, who had to admit: “With our lack of self-confidence, it doesn’t really matter which system you play.”

There is great uncertainty

Especially after the equalizer, which followed a bad pass from Robin Knoche, his Union players were visibly afraid of getting the ball. Instead of playing in the dangerous spaces in depth, they chose safety passes. Union didn’t play to win, but not to lose.

Exactly the opposite of what Bjelica wants from his teams. He also said when he took office that he was a trainer who didn’t always need 50 contacts. This means: His teams should always play directly in front of the opponent’s goal and with few passes. This style of play is difficult to imagine with Union: Hardly any players currently dare to make risky passes.

Union’s new coach Nenad Bjelica relies on discipline

Nenad Bjelica will be the new head coach of 1. FC Union. Although he is still completely unknown as a coach in Germany, he appeared confident during his introduction. The Croatian relies on discipline and wants to play dominant football. more

Bjelica sucht Mut

Maybe that’s why Bjelica was happy that Union’s away game against the mighty FC Bayern Munich couldn’t take place last weekend. “The game cancellation was good for us,” he said in an interview with “Sky”. His players were able to recover and he used the time to make it clear to them what he expected.

In the public training units, Bjelica relies on various offensive forms of play. It was always about playing quickly in depth and how the players react to their own and opposing ball losses.

Especially in these switching situations, Union is too vulnerable defensively and too harmless offensively this season. The bottom of the table, Mainz, is the only team in the league that has not yet scored after an opponent lost the ball. That should change – ideally against Borussia Mönchengladbach, if Union wants to score at home at the Alte Försterei for the first time since the first match day.

Higher pressing requires more speed

To achieve this, Bjelica will probably rely on a back four again. Compared to the five-man chain, it offers several advantages for his game. Because more players are positioned further up the field, the opponent’s game build-up can be started better. Higher pressing promises to win the ball in dangerous areas and a shorter route to the goal.

This has consequences for the selection of personnel: If a team presses far forward, their defense has to move up too. Central defenders with speed deficits like Robin Knoche, Leonardo Bonucci and Diogo Leite would need a fast partner.

This increases Paul Jaeckel’s chance of playing in central defense: As long as Danilho Doekhi is missing, he is the only defender with the necessary speed to protect slower teammates.

New additions needed

So it’s no wonder that Bjelica is already openly talking about reinforcements in the winter. Union also needs new personnel on the wings if the coach continues to rely on his 4-1-4-1. On the left, Roussillon and Gosens harmonized excellently in Braga, while on the right Kevin Volland was lost in an unfamiliar position.

David Datro Fofana would be a possible alternative against Gladbach; in the next transfer phase, Union should add to this position and sign a classic winger. At least at the headquarters, Bjelica already has what feels like a new addition: After the portly Lucas Tousart played in Braga, Andras Schäfer can be expected again against Gladbach. His qualities in tackling, passing and dribbling expand Nenad Bjelica’s possibilities enormously.


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