Red Bull Salzburg have been struggling of late, with no wins in five matches, and so the pressure has been mounting on Jesse Marsch and his side. LASK, on the other hand, have been flying high. The small Austrian outfit have put in both strong domestic and European performances. Their European performances have now set them up for a clash with Manchester United. They have even managed to climb above Salzburg in the league in hopes to secure a UEFA Champions League spot. This tactical analysis will cover the tie between the two league contenders in the semi-final of the OFB Cup.
Red Bull Salzburg lined up in a 4-2-2-2 formation. The former MLS coach, Jesse Marsch, has swapped between this and a 4-4-2 diamond on numerous occasions throughout the year. Patson Daka and Hwang Hee-Chan both led the line and would look to supplement the goals that have dried up somewhat since the transfer of Erling Braut Haaland to Borussia Dortmund.
Valerien Ishmael set up LASK with their typical tactics. They are a 5-2-3 or 3-4-3 depending on the game picture. Big striker Klauss found himself starting on the bench in favour of Marko Raguz. Klauss scored a hat-trick in LASK’s previous match against Hartberg.
What was fairly evident from the outset was that each side were going to take no risks in ball possession. Both teams are renowned for their pressing, especially high up the pitch. An analysis of their pressing stats shows they have registered PPDA (passes per defensive action) numbers at around 6.6 on average throughout the league. This highlights how they prefer to put immediate pressure on the team with the ball in order to force turnovers and create dangerous chances.
Therefore both teams looked to miss lines and play into their second ball structures. These are well-organized teams who it seems have a plan in order to pick up the second ball. Salzburg’s consisted of playing into the net of their six offensive players. As can be seen below, due to their natural 4-2-2-2 organization, they created a pentagon-like shape to cover a large area where the ball is likely to drop.
This is a key facet of Salzburg’s offensive play. They look to play balls into these areas or in behind for direct penetration. If they don’t get the ball long enough, they can pick up any spare ball that drops in front. The players who make penetrative runs in behind often work back immediately if the ball isn’t played into space. Once the ball drops, the opposition can often be disorganized. Due to their shape, Salzburg has many players close together and can combine in order to take advantage of the opposition’s disruption.
However, with LASK sitting deeper on the pitch and constricting space in behind, the long balls for Salzburg were often played onto the LASK defenders instead of in behind the defensive line. This meant more second balls would drop in the midfield area. In particular, Majeed Ashimeru was excellent in reading where the ball would drop and establishing possession for Salzburg.
It was therefore intriguing to see how LASK went about controlling one of Salzburg’s strengths. With their 3-4-3/5-2-3 formation, they have two natural points of widths. The wing-backs and the wingers. However, both the wingers and wing backs would help out in second balls.
LASK had a fairly man-oriented press set-up for most of the match. Therefore it made sense for them to continue in the second ball phase. Both wing-backs would invert and man-mark the inside midfielders of Salzburg. These players being Dominik Szoboszlai and Masaya Okugawa. In this instance below, we can clearly see the right wing-back stepping inside onto Szoboszlai. This helped LASK to control the second balls.
As a result, neither team really gained ascendancy in the fight for the second ball that occurred throughout the majority of the match. For spells in the start of the second half Salzburg looked more dominant. However after the goal, last years Austrian champions began to play more directly in behind due to the back five of LASK being higher up the pitch.
Interesting positional aspects
Due to the frantic nature of the match, neither team had lengthy or continued spells of possession. Therefore it was difficult to see the key positional battles throughout the match. However, one intriguing aspect was the set-up in which LASK took when Salzburg had the ball. When teams line up with alternate backlines (4 versus 5 back), there is a decision to be made in regards to the wing-back and full-back positions. Some teams with five at the back will encourage their wing-backs to step onto the opposition full-backs when they have possession. As can be seen below, LASK did this on limited occasions.
However, on most occasions, the wing-backs of LASK would invert and mark the inside midfielders of Salzburg. LASK would then have a man-orientation with most of the backline, as the front three looked to keep Salzburg to one side in order to create a numerical equivalency. As we can see below, the central striker would force the centre-backs down one side. The winger would then take the full-back on that side. The central midfielders for LASK could then both jump onto Salzburg’s central midfielders.
The rest of the back-line would then be man-oriented, with two centre-backs taking a striker and the wing-backs inverting to mark Salzburg’s inside midfielders. We can see below how this meant that LASK had an extremely man-oriented and narrow shape. This worked well for the majority of occasions due to Red Bull Salzburg’s reluctance to engage in any real extended positional play.
Defensive Issues for LASK
Their man-oriented set up had two key issues that high-flyers LASK struggled with. Firstly, due to their man-orientation, LASK were particularly susceptible to fluid movement from the front two and inside midfielders of Salzburg. Often on occasions, they could pull the centre-backs into wide areas, as can actually be seen in the above image. These moments occurred mostly in transition and 2nd ball phases where the ball was regained by Salzburg.
In the image below, Salzburg win the ball after a LASK attack. Whilst one wing-back is inverted, the other wing-back was involved in the attack. This meant that the numerical advantage that LASK usually had with their three centre-backs vanished. As a result, LASK’s extra centre-back steps in to help with the two strikers and extra midfielder. Both strikers pull wide, opening a channel for Szobosolai to run from deep. Fortunately for LASK, his run wasn’t recognized. Otherwise, it would have been a certain one versus one situation.
A further issue that LASK had was in regards to how the defensive set-up differed to the attacking set-up. As mentioned early, without the ball, LASK’s wing-backs were often stepping inside into the inside midfielders of Salzburg. However in possession, naturally they were expected to take up wide positions. This meant that in transition, the inside midfielder’s of Salzburg would often find themselves free. In the image below, we can see both of LASK’s wing-backs who are high and wide as LASK look to build an attack.
Moments later, the Linz based side lose the ball. As all Red Bull sides typically do, Salzburg break quickly into the opposition half. Because both wing-backs are high and wide, they are nowhere near picking up the inside wingers of Salzburg. As can be seen below, this then creates an overload of Salzburg players in the centre against LASK’s. They play out of a tight three versus two situation in order to mount a strong counter-attack opportunity.
On the ball, you can then see Szobosolai picking up the ball, with his usual man marker just wider and outside of the picture. This created the platform for Salzburg to create a strong chance, very closely related in reality to the goal that eventually occurred.
The goal is a similar situation with four Salzburg players in close proximity in transition and both wing-backs out of the picture. They manage to miss out the midfield two and are left running three versus three at an unprotected backline. The speed of Patson Daka is too much for LASK, as he is slipped in and then cuts-back for Chan to finish.
With one goal down and a knock-out tie ticking down, LASK brought on big striker Klauss. They looked to hit the ball directly into the big Brazilian in order to create goalscoring chances. Salzburg did well to soak the pressure up, but rarely had any play for the last twenty minutes.
Salzburg managed to hold on in the end. Both managers game plans seemed to match up fairly well in reality. The superiority and speed of Salzburg’s attackers in transition was to be the deciding factor in the end.