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Mad Max Kruse embracing Die Eisernen of Union Berlin

Union Berlin

Beneath the cloak of controversies, in Max Kruse, Union Berlin have brought back one of the Bundesliga’s finest gems to the Alten Försterei.

If Max Kruse’s career had to be defined in two words, they would be – madness and magnificence. Both, undoubtedly in equal measure.

On his day, Kruse was as good as any of the several elite forwards that have graced the Bundesliga over recent years, if not better. A journeyman mostly by choice if not always, Kruse has come a long way from making his name at Millerntor-Stadion with FC St. Pauli after joining them on a free transfer from Werder Bremen.

The following years would see his impressive talents and performances take him higher up the Bundesliga ladder with SC Freiburg, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Vfl Wolfsburg and then back to Werder Bremen.

For all of his brilliance on the pitch, Kruse’s career has also seen several moments of controversy off of it. Some are rather strange and some just leave you with your mouth wide open in shock. All those moments could bring together a very entertaining book.

On the other hand, in spite of his injury problems and off-field issues, Kruse has remained one of the best forward players in German football. Now, the Iron Ones of Union Berlin are the ones witnessing his best form.

Recovering from a long-term injury at the moment, Kruse will return just in time to help Die Eisernen to push for European places and help further solidify their spot in the top-half of the table.

Big surprise for everyone at Union Berlin

“It was a big surprise for everyone. Everyone can see the quality on the pitch and everyone knew – alright, this is a type of guy. He’s doing some crazy things all of the time. We are happy to have him and we are mostly happy to have him, on the pitch”, said Christian Arbeit while speaking to the Bundesliga’s official YouTube channel on the club’s rise and Kruse.

While Union Berlin are most certainly happy to have him on the pitch, no doubt, his previous clubs felt just the same. To his credit, Kruse’s off-field issues never caused any major problems on the pitch, for the most part.

Kruse joined Union at the beginning of the 20/21 season from Fenerbahçe S.K. of the Turkish Süper Lig and was attracted by the prospect of donning the famous red and white of Union.

“I don’t really care what many people think. I certainly had the chance to choose a team that will play in Europe next season. But for me, there were other factors to consider as well.”

Kruse to Kicker after criticism of his move to Turkey from Bremen.

His situation at Fenerbahçe S.K. did not end in the best way possible as he decided to terminate his contract with the club after his wages had been unpaid.

“I’m happy to be playing in the Bundesliga again and to get to know a cool new club like Union, who have developed really well in recent years.” said Kruse, in an interview.

Safe to say that Union fans are really about Kruse playing in the Bundesliga again as well.

A muscle injury has kept him out of action since matchday 10, but before that, Kruse was a big part of Union’s early success in the season.

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Never too far from the headlines

If one half of Max Kruse’s life has been defined by headlines for all the right reasons, there is another part which has also included some rather strange ones.

Kruse has never shied away from his love for Poker and thankfully for him, he is quite good at it too.

Four years ago, in the summer of 2017, Kruse travelled to the entertainment capital of the world, Las Vegas. No prizes for guessing why he went there, of course.

After an excellent year scoring 15 goals in the league for Werder Bremen, Kruse continued his purple patch on the tables in Vegas.

Facing off against more than 300 competitors, Kruse reached the finals of the $1,500 Limit 2-7 Lowball Triple Draw at the World Series of Poker, eventually finishing fourth.

Even so, Kruse walked away from Vegas with a total prize money of almost 30,000 US dollars, a massive profit from his initial buy in of 1500 US dollars. This was not the first time he had travelled to Vegas. Three years before that, he had competed in a similar event and came away with nearly 36,000 US dollars in prize money.

Larger than life persona

When the stars are in his favour, Kruse almost always shines through on the pitch and off of it as well.

Aside from Poker, Kruse also enjoys a little bit of Nutella, perhaps more than just a little bit.

Back in 2016, at Wolfsburg, Kruse particularly relished eating Nutella at breakfast, spreading it in healthy quantities on his breakfast rolls.

While the initial report by German newspaper BILD remains unconfirmed, it was reported that the club’s chief Klaus Alloffs and manager Dieter Hecking had both spoken to Kruse about his habit, in a private meeting.

There was also the time where he once left his winnings worth 75,000 Euro in the back of a taxi. A string of other more damaging off-field issues meant that Kruse never got to showcase his talents on the national stage under the strict Joachim Löw, ahead of Euro 2016.

Nonetheless, this is something that the German media has largely come to accept as part of his larger than life persona.

Transforming Union Berlin

“Max Kruse – to be honest there’s no alternative.” said then Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp when asked who he thinks deserves to be declared the player of the year for the Bundesliga in 2014.

The former Mainz boss has always been an admirer of Kruse and even reportedly tried to sign him for Liverpool in the summer of 2019, before his move to Turkey. In that same summer, Kruse had also attracted interest from Bayern Munich, Borussia Monchengladbach and Borussia Dortmund. Such was the level of his performances for Werder Bremen in 18-19.

If he manages to replicate his form of pre-December for Union, Kruse may just be a contender once again for Bundesliga player of the year once again, in 2021.

Last season, Urs Fischer’s side forged a reputation for being a team tough to beat and one reliant on counter-attacks, long-balls and the set-pieces beauties from captain Christopher Trimmel.

The start of this season saw the introduction of Max Kruse into the starting XI and instantly, the impact was there for all to see.

In his first start for Union against 1.FSV Mainz 05 at the Alten Försterei, Kruse started up top in a 3-4-2-1 set up by Urs Fischer.

Instant impact

Scoring headers is not something Kruse usually does, standing at a height of 5’11, but that’s how he opened his scoring account for Union.

Whilst all of Mainz’s defenders inside the box were concerned with Sherlado Becker’s cross coming in from the right, nobody noticed that they had left Kruse unmarked at the edge of the box. Their fate was sealed then and there. The German ghosted into the box and planted a firm header at the back-post to give Union the lead in front of the 4,400 fans in attendance on the day.

Kruse’s inclusion in the starting XI meant that Union did not always need to play long and now had a strong presence between the opposition lines to dictate the team’s movements in the final third.

Kruse isn’t one packing a lot of pace, but what he can do is pick out runners with his clever passing and spatial awareness. Which is why the rest of the attackers benefitted from his inclusion in matches.

Match-winning displays

Against his former side SC Freiburg, Kruse assisted Robert Andrich for the equalizer in a 1-1 draw. Whilst the final pass may have looked like a simple one, Kruse’s mazy run into the left channel drew Baptiste Santamaria away from the centre of the pitch and created the space for Andrich’s pop at goal, which luckily resulted in the equalizer.

In the next two games, against Hoffenheim and Arminia Bielefeld, Kruse scored one and assisted twice.

Both goals were penalties which left Kruse just one short of equaling the all-time Bundesliga record for successive penalties scored. It was his unselfish nature, however, that came to the fore against Die Kraichgauer.

Receiving a pass on the turn inside the penalty box in space, Kruse rolled the ball across the face of the goal for substitute Joel Pohjanpalo to give Union Berlin the lead once again in the game after Mu’Nas Dabbur had equalised for the home side.

Soon after, he would turn assister once again, as Union capitalized on Hoffenheim’s high-defensive line. Kruse beat the offside trap with his well-timed run and while he was clean through on goal, he passed it to the Danish midfielder Marcus Ingvartsen, who then slotted in the third to score his first goal in Union colors.

Kruse proved to be instrumental in the game against Bielefeld, stringing passes together in the final third and finding the runs of the ever-energetic Becker, first for a pre-assist for Keita Endo and then for Becker’s goal himself. A thoroughly enjoyable game to watch for Union fans at home as it ended 5-0 in Union’s favor on the day.

The numbers backing it up

“Actually I never saw myself as a true striker, but my coaches saw something more than I did,” Kruse told DW in an interview when he was playing under Lucien Favre at Gladbach. “I’d say I’m something of hybrid, which is a bit of a trend at the moment. A ‘false nine,’ if you will.”

He has certainly played like one for Union as well. Picking the ball up deeper in midfield, Kruse has operated off the left channel and half-space quite often, which is where he has been most deadly from this season.

Kruse’s heatmap, courtesy of Sofascore

Despite playing lesser minutes than his peers in the league, Kruse still ranks highly for shot-creating actions according to football reference, with 3.86 shot creating actions per90.

In the eight games he’s played so far, Kruse has averaged either a goal or assist every 90 minutes. This figure will normalize as the season goes, nonetheless, it just goes to show how crucial he has been for Union this season.

His all-important equalizer in the 3-3 draw was a long-range effort with the outside of the boot as he arrived into the space in front of the Frankfurt defense and left Kevin Trapp with no chance as the ball swerved into the top-corner.

A rebellious player for a rebellious club

Union are famously regarded as a rebellious club in the Bundesliga. One that stands out from the rest for it’s way of doing things and it will always be so. Therefore, it is no surprise that Kruse has settled in so well into the city of Berlin, the culture of Union and the football of Urs Fischer.

Without Kruse, Union have still remained very solid and managed to sustain their impressive form early on in the season and as Kruse works his way back into match-fitness, fans of the Iron Ones will be eagerly awaiting his return.

All in all, it seems like a wonderful marriage. A wonderfully gifted player who is a little bit crazy shining in the club that prides itself on being a club for the crazy ones.

Union are the seventh club in the Bundesliga who Kruse has played for and if all goes well, at 32, it may just be that it is in Köpenick where the diminutive German continues to dazzle all before him once again.

Mad Max with his mad left-foot. Such a delight.

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