At a pivotal moment during the Austrian Bundesliga season, both Sturm Graz and Salzburg still have aspirations of their own heading towards the culmination of the season. Sturm Graz fighting to make the Europa League play-off spots, whilst Salzburg themselves have the Bundesliga title within their sights.
Salzburg have come out of the quarantine break on top form, securing the OFC Cup with an emphatic 5-0 win in the final, as well as following that up with a 2-0 win over fellow title contenders Rapid Vienna, and finishing with a 0-6 away battering to Hartberg. Sturm Graz however, have not seen as much success as their opponents, suffering 2 losses since the restart; with a 1-2 defeat at home to Wolfsberger AC followed by a 4-0 thumping by Rapid Vienna.
From kick-off Salzburg’s players charge forward into the opposition’s half with great pace, in order to put Strum Graz on the back foot straight away. They do this by spearheading the attack with their main forwards – the striker [Hee Chan Hwang] and the two wide players [Adeyemi & Daka] play narrowly across the front line, with all three of the forwards instantly making runs beyond the three centre-halves of Sturm Graz, in order to stretch the narrow space between these defenders for another teammate to exploit; usually Dominik Szoboszlai. Szoboszlai can be seen operating in the central of the pitch as he is the primary playmaker for the team. It can be seen evidently that he follows behind the initial phase of attacking, spearheaded by the forwards and full-backs. Szoboszlai can always provide himself as a passing option for any of the attacking players by simply making a change of direction making himself easily available.
Due to the fact that the wide player have tucked in narrowly within the half-space of the pitch, Salzburg’s full-backs can push up much higher to fill in the space vacated by the wingers, further putting more pressure on opposition’s defence. With Salzburg’s forwards occupying the oppositions three centre-halves, the full-backs can go man-to-man with the opponent’s full-backs, ensuring that there’s pressure on the defence in all positions at all times.
Sturm Graz Struggle To Break Out Of Pressure
Salzburg maintain a high press on Sturm Graz for the entirety of the match, which is apparent in the average positioning of either team’s players. Salzburg average positions for their defenders is on the halfway line, with all the other offensive players taking up a position inside the opposition’s half. Their forwards in particular can be seen hanging around the edge of Sturm Graz’s 18-yard box.
This is in complete contrast to Sturm Graz, who are completely pinned back into their own half due to the immense pressure of Salzburg. Looking at the average positions taken up by their forwards, it is clear to see that they hardly made it past the halfway line, let alone anywhere near the Salzburg goal, resulting in them being able to cause very little going forward, and making very little opportunities for Salzburg to worry about. This impotence in front of goal is evident in their chance creations metrics, with them totaling 18 attacks with 0 shots. Their only 2 shots both came from direct set-pieces from outside the box, with only one of the shots being on target and subsequently going in.
Sturm Graz Lack Composure Out The Back And Repeatedly Put Themselves Under Pressure:
Sturm Graz resist Salzburg’s onslaught of pressure and defend effectively as a compact unit, only for them to aimlessly clear the ball forward whenever they win back possession. In this situation here, Kiteishvili (10) is the furthest Sturm Graz player up the pitch, yet he is halfway within his own half. Nevertheless, Avlonitis (5) chooses to lump the ball up the pitch, away from any of his own teammates, and straight into the Salzburg’s possession. Even though this provides his side a slight relief from the relenting attacks, because he is clearing it into an area unopposed by any of his teammates, it means that Salzburg are easily able to push Sturm Graz back towards their own goal.
If Sturm Graz maintained more composure about themselves and attempted to play out the back with a bit more precision, this would allow them to retain more possession in safe areas where they are not under constant threat. This could clearly be executed in the above scenario, where Spendlhofer is available to the left of Avlonitis under no immediate threat. From here he can carry the ball forward into space ahead of him, and bring his team up the pitch. Additionally, there are two clear passing options ahead of him, down the middle and further down left wing. If these are done then at least Sturm Graz can return the pressure to Salzburg and make them work to get the ball back. Instead, the ball is gifted back to Salzburg, plucking the clearance out of the sky under no pressure.
The second goal Sturm Graz concedes comes exactly from a situation like this, where the ball is just cleared forward without a thought, when several safe and easy passing options are on. Here the defender is being pressured by only one player who is behind him goal side. In front of him are 4 friendly players unmarked by any opposition. Again a simple short pass here would allow Sturm Graz more safe possession by playing the ball out to the left full-back who has the whole left side of the pitch free to carry the ball to, whilst allowing the rest of the team to push up the pitch without having to sacrifice possession. In the situation the ball was cleared out, landing straight at the feet of a Salzburg player. Within two passes, Salzburg are back in front of Sturm Graz’s goal, with plenty of space outside of the box. The ball is subsequently played into Szoboszlai who drills a shot into the bottom left corner.
Salzburg Heavy Use Of Over-The-Top Passes And Lateral Passes
In order to break down the defensive deep block of Sturm Graz, a lot of sideways movement and balls played over the block were necessary by Salzburg. In total they played 320 lateral passes, equating to 44% of their overall passes completed. Due to the wide forwards occupying narrower positions within the half-spaces, the Sturm Graz full-backs tuck in to mark them. This opens space down the flanks for the Salzburg full-backs to attack. As seen above, Salzburg would heavily utilize the long diagonal ball between the full-backs, in order to quickly get inside those pockets of space down the wings.
The heavy use of lateral passes is further seen from the pass combination map, where it shows the most common combination for Salzburg was across the backline when recycling possession, and trying to quickly move the ball side to side, in order to break down the Sturm Graz deep block.
Sturm Graz’s Disciplinary Issues Hinder Themselves
After just 24 minutes of play, Sturm Graz receive their first red card of the game, due to a high tackle from Spendlhofer which sees him sent straight off the pitch without caution from the referee. Down a defender Jäger drops in from midfield into defence, leaving Sturm Graz playing a 5-2-2 formation. They already lacked any presence in the midfield, and now with a player less there Sturm Graz really struggled to retain any possession. Out of possession, the team can be compact, with the full-backs tucking in narrow to close eliminate space either side of the 3 centre-backs. In theory, whilst in possession, these full-backs can move up into midfield to make a 3-4-2 formation, bolstering the midfield, and providing width in attack.
Executing this for Sturm Graz was ineffective, as whenever they managed to break forward in attack and bypass the heavy press by Salzburg, their attacking players were left isolated due to a lack of support from wide positions. The situation depicted above was common from Sturm Graz in the few attacking phases of play they did manage to conjure up. The two forwards and midfielders would come forward with the ball in central positions, leaving space down the flanks for the full-backs to push up into, giving width to the attack and stretching Salzburg’s defence. However whenever Sturm Graz found themselves in these good positions, the support out wide never arrived, forcing the play to be focused towards the congested zones, subsequently resulting in Salzburg winning back the ball every time because they could easily double-up on a single Sturm Graz player.
In the 71st minute Sturm Graz receive their second red card of the game, from a late tackle by central defender Donkor who had already been cautioned once by the referee with a yellow card. Due to this Sturm Graz have to reshuffle positions once more, now dropping another midfielder Ljubić, into defence, subsequently meaning that a striker needed to be dropped back into midfield.
This left them playing a 5-2-1 formation, with just the one forward tasked to put pressure on the Salzburg players recycling safe possession, whilst the two in midfield screen across the backline for added protection.
Ultimately by this point, the game was gone for Sturm Graz, having struggled to keep it competitive when it was 11 vs 11, now being down two men made it near impossible for them to contain Salzburg. Time and time again would Salzburg overrun the incapable two-man midfield with ease, or they would simply just drop back, inviting Salzburg forward with no pressure all the way up to the Sturm Graz 18-yard box. In these positions, the wide players for Salzburg are tucked in narrowly alongside the striker, whilst midfielders make runs from deep into central attacking positions. Focusing all this play down the middle, allows Salzburg to keep Sturm Graz extremely narrow, as their defence goes compact in order to eliminate any space for the attackers. By doing this, however, Salzburg have the entire flanks of the pitch to themselves, where the full-backs can operate the entirety of the wing under no pressure whatsoever. This means that the Salzburg players can arrive down the wing unmarked and in acres of space to receive the ball and attack into. A through ball can be played in behind the line of defence down either side, for the full-back to drive in a ball across the face of goal and behind the backs of the defenders.
Having already secured a Champions League position for next season, an emphatic victory like this only further boosts Salzburg’s confidence and chances in securing their sixth consecutive Bundesliga title. Coming back from the break, a lot of teams look slow to get the ground running again, which if anything, will play into the hands of Salzburg who have come back looking unstoppable. With star player Dominik Szoboszlai finding the best spell of form of his career, on his day there are very few teams in the league, if any, who have the personnel able to contain him. Only 6 months on from the departure of ace wonderkid Erling Haaland to Borussia Dortmund, it seems that Salzburg already have their next star player firing on all cylinders. For Sturm Graz, this may seem like an indication that they’re not quite up and running to the levels they need to be after the break, and with a tough fixture list ahead of them comprised of teams all positioned higher than them, their hopes of making the Europa League play-off spots seems less likely.