Well as everyone has now reported they won 11 Belgian championships in a 31-year span between 1904 and 1935, making it the most successful side in Belgium pre-World War II; and last year they were promoted back to the First Division for the first time in 49 years.
Just for comparison, from 1900 to 1935, which covers roughly the same period, Rangers won the league 19 times, and Scottish cup winners seven times.
USG play at their Joseph Marien stadium, which is situated within Duden Park, which belongs to Belgium’s Royal Trust. However, due to their long history, the main entrance of their stadium is now a listed structure, which has made it impossible to update their ground. As a result, they will often travel to other football grounds for home games.
In competitive European games, it appears USG had only played one Scottish team before. This was in 1961, when they were defeated 5-1 on aggregate by Hearts. A few years later, in 1964, USG lost to Juventus 1-0 in the Inter-Cities Fair Cup.
Union-SG, despite its name, have never merged with any other club, making it a rarity amongst the top Belgium teams. It is currently owned by Tony Bloom, who is also the owner and chairman of English Premier League side Brighton (which makes it a type of merger?). However, it is their sporting director Chris O’Loughlin, who was appointed in 2019, who is often credited with turning them into title contenders.
However, this is a team in transition, and this year, Deniz Undav, their top-scorer, moved to Brighton, and 40-year old Karel Geraerts has been installed as the new head coach.
Their new manager Karel was previously assistant manager at USG, and tactically he appears to be more defensive minded than Felice Mazzu who left to join Anderlecht.
Though it is said he likes to play a 3-5-2, formation in this year’s pre-season it appears that this 3-5-2 formation is fluid, and it often changes to 4-4-2. His team is well drilled, and they play a compact press, with an eye for rapid, very direct counter-attacks.
Overall, this is a dangerous team, who are comfortable playing close contact football, and rapidly changing their game to playing the ball over the top, and hitting long diagonals to stretch opponent’s defensive lines, then changing their attack to direct passes through the middle. However, usually, most of their attacks come down the left side, which could favour Rangers.
USG’s tactics appear to reflect their manager’s playing style. In his playing career Geraerts (who played in central midfield for Brugge, and Standard Liège), won 20 caps for Belgium.
He coaches his players to be comfortable with the ball, and to not be stressed by teams who employ the high press.
Under pressure, Union Steve Gerrard (oops, sorry Union SG) are always moving, and their team has it drummed into them that they must be always available for passes, unlike some in our team, who often think football is ball watching.
For this reason, I suspect we might be chasing shadows for a while, and if anyone in our team is not working their socks off, we will not be able to control the midfield.
Up front, we have to very wary of their No. 11, Simon Adingra, who plays on the left wing. He can be quite a handful, but at 20 years old is still learning his trade. They also like to bring forward their defensive line (while keeping at least two players back), and we will have to watch out for their centre-back, Siebe Van Der Heyden, who is known to whip in some lethal crosses.
In many ways, to win against USG, we need our defenders and our midfield to work as a compact team, and our wingers to stretch and open their defensive lines.
Though this is not a team that will leave open huge gaps, and this could easily be one of the most tricky opponents we have faced in Europe. We now have two very tricky wingers, who can play on either side, who both require at least two defenders to stop them playing. This will create gaps for others, which should allow us to score a few goals.
As we have said before, sometimes the role of wingers is not to score goals, or to get assists, but to pull players around and create gaps that others can take advantage of. That is why we at IN are such big fans of Ryan Kent, but sadly these stats are not recorded.
For our back line Gio needs to do some serious thinking, especially about who will fill the critical left back and left center-back positions. Knowing Gio we are sure he has already done his homework, but in IN’s view the key to winning these two games against USG is we need a mobile midfield that can make themselves available, to take pressure off our back line, and feed the ball accurately to the forwards.
It is a tough call, but just now I would go with Ryan Jack. As we have already discussed, the problem is Ryan Jack is not yet back to being his old self, and Kamara is just too prone to ball watching when he thinks the other team are not world-beaters. So, for this match, Ryan just edges it, mainly because USG are not particularly fast, which should give Ryan, with all his experience, enough time to get into position.
To summarise, USG are no mugs, and they are a far better team than Malmo. However, Malmo were a bit more streetwise. So, it is difficult to say which of the two would win if they played against each other.
But with our extended run last year, our team are now a lot more savvy, and this is a game that we can win, we just have to play to our strengths, and show we are finally ready to play with the big boys.