It’s been two weeks since Liverpool’s Europa League opener away in Austria.
The much-changed Reds side ended up winning comfortably by the end, after what was a pretty dismal first half where they went in 1-0 behind – albeit to a quite stunning corner routine from LASK.
Darwin Núñez, Luis Díaz and Mo Salah were on the scoresheet in northern Austria, and Jürgen Klopp will be hoping for a slightly more comfortable performance this time around, welcoming another first-time opponent to Anfield – Belgian outfit Union Saint Gilloise.
READ MORE: Liverpool vs Union S-G – Match Preview
Who are Union Saint-Gilloise?
Union St. Gilloise (or Royale Union Saint-Gilloise, to give them their full name) are from Belgium’s capital – Brussels.
Historically they are one of the most successful football clubs in the country, winning the top prize 11 times, yet the last time they won the top tier of Belgian football was before World War Two (1934/35). They remained Belgium’s top dog in terms of titles until the 1960’s, when city neighbours Anderlecht became the dominant force.
It was in the same decade that the fall of the club occurred, and relegation to the second tier in 1963 sent Les Unionistes on a downward then upward then downward again spiral that would leave them at rock bottom – alternatively known as the fourth division. Much of their history has been spent bouncing around the divisions, struggling to solidify an identity on the pitch.
That was until Brighton’s somewhat infamous owner bought the club in 2018, as he looked to expand his ‘footballing portfolio’ and to a club within the European Union that would allow him to send many of the Seagulls incoming transfers who didn’t yet qualify for a work permit in a new-Brexit landscape or weren’t ready for Premier League football yet.
While the football on the pitch (more on that shortly) may not be what you see on the south coast of England, the ethos and strategy of the club is much the same – utilising undervalued markets, trying to find value and giving those players an environment to develop and showcase their skills in Europe before selling them for a healthy profit, whilst also being assisted with loans from their sister club.
The increasingly popular Kaoru Mitoma spent the 2021/22 season on loan there, as did Deniz Undav. Most recently the exciting Simon Adingra spent last season at the Joseph Marlin Stadium (which isn’t where Liverpool will be playing away to them, due to its 9,400 capacity, the away tie will be at Anderlecht’s Lotto Park, which holds 22,500).
During that time, they’ve gone from a mainly second division side to heartbreakingly close to winning the Pro League in 2021-22, spending 200 consecutive days at the top of the table before losing out to Club Brugge. Last season ended in dramatically tragic circumstances, winning in the 89th minute and on their way to league glory before Toby Alderweireld scored to take the title to Antwerp.
They’ve also qualified for European competition in back-to-back seasons after taking a 58-year hiatus between appearances, going to the Europa League quarter-finals last time out before going out to Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen.
Playing Style & Tactics
Union S-G had a managerial change this summer, moving on from Karel Geraerts and appointing former RB Leipzig U19 and Genoa coach Alexander Blessin. He’s started the season adequately, with four wins from seven league games (with one draw and two losses) and drawing their opening Europa League game at home to Toulouse.
They religiously play with a three at the back system, something that hasn’t changed from last season. In their fixtures this year, it has either been a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2. This allows them a solid defensive structure, ranked second in the league for expected goals against (0.83 per ninety, although they have been unfortunate and somehow conceded 1.29 per ninety). There is an emphasis on rigidness and a set structure when they are not in possession. The wingbacks drop into a back five, and set up a defensive wall across the backline, each player with a space to cover which they don’t stray from. There isn’t much emphasis on pressing (although it is something that they can do), instead they are happy to concede possession and sit in, asking you to break them down.
In possession there’s an emphasis on width. This is again a continuation of last season, Union S-G will look to get the ball out in transition to their extremely quick wingers, who love to take on their man. They’ll then look to get the ball central via a cross or by cutting inside. This season there has been an increase in central attacking, and new man Mohammed Amoura has added quality in both goalscoring and creation in that area (scoring twice on his debut vs. Cercle Brugge).
The data says they are the second-best team in Belgium when it comes to expected goals (expected to score 2.06 goals per ninety played), but this has been inflated by their six (yes, six) penalties in seven games so far this league season. While penalties do inflate their numbers in this department, it should be said that they get into the opposition penalty area more than any other team in the league, with their 32.3 toucher in the opposition box per ninety nearly a full 2 touches per ninety better than the second ranking side (Antwerp on 30.7). Union’s penalty fortune this season isn’t down to luck (okay, maybe some of it is), it’s by design.
The goals so far this season have come – so far – from German Dennis Eckert, with six goals in six appearances, but four of these have been from the spot (someone has to put them in, I guess?). But perhaps the most exciting attacking prospect is this summer’s arrival of Algerian international Mohamed Amoura (above), who joined from Swiss outfit Lugano, coming in to replace Leverkusen-bound Victor Boniface. With two goals in his first start (as mentioned), he looks like a handful for defenders with his movement and slickness on the ball.
Creativity this season has come from another African, Cote D’Ivoire’s Jean Thierry Lazare, who plays just behind the two attackers or further back in the midfield. He’s an extremely quick player with excellent ball carrying (ranking in the 98th percentile for progressive carrying and 94th percentile for successful take-ons compared to midfielders in the ‘next top 8 leagues’ on FBRef). He will run at his defender time and time again, and once he’s got into space he will look to find his man in space.
Perhaps the best thing about the draw was the reuniting of the Mac Allister brothers, with Alexis brother Kevin Mac Allister (yes, like the Home Alone character) moving to Belgium this summer from Argentinos Juniors. It brought this lovely moment when the players found out the draw.
He’s adapting well to life in Europe, playing nearly every minute available in the outside right centre back role in a back three. There should be a moving moment at Anfield on Thursday as the two face-off against each other.
Game Plan vs Liverpool
Liverpool may have got something of a fright in that first half in Linz.
It might have woke them up to the idea that they couldn’t just turn up and win this group. Union S-G are likely Liverpool’s biggest test in this group. They got to the quarter finals of this competition last year taking some big scalps along the way – including the now Champions League outfit Union Berlin.
The Belgians will be happy to let Liverpool have the ball and camp out in their half. They will look to frustrate the Reds for as long as possible before picking their moments to use some blistering pace to expose them in wide areas. It will be a game of counter attacking for Union and one they have done before.
For Liverpool this will be all about starting well and on the front foot. If they can score early, then it forces their opponent out and it’s then that you’d see Union probably struggle to get any sort of foothold on the game. Whatever the outcome, it will be an incredible moment for their players on Thursday.