The Austrian Bundesliga is home to many promising, young prospects, with RB Salzburg housing some of the most exciting ones. With the likes of Patson Daka and Dominik Szoboszlai (both rumoured to join clubs from Ligue 1, Serie A, and the German Bundesliga), the Austrian powerhouse has no shortage of young talent. One of these players is Mergim Berisha, a 22-year-old German international.
After having spent the 2019 calendar year with SCR Altach, Berisha has returned to the club. He is a veteran of RB Salzburg’s UEFA Youth League-winning team in 2016/17. After scoring seven goals and five assists in the tournament, Berisha spent the last two seasons on loan at LASK and Altach before returning to Salzburg this January. In this tactical analysis, I will review Berisha’s strengths and weaknesses to create a scout report for the RB Salzburg prospect.
Berisha’s heat map helps display the difference in tactics between Altach and RB Salzburg. While Jesse Marsch uses a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 at the latter club, Altach uses a single striker lineup. Berisha played in front of a midfield four at Altach, but he had the freedom to roam when the team pushed forward in possession. Returning to RB Salzburg, Berisha played both at the striker position but also in one of the advanced midfield roles. In both sides, he favoured the left side as shown in the analysis below.
The chart above highlights Berisha’s importance to Altach. On either axis is the proportion of team goals accounted for by a player’s goals or assists. There are some outliers in each category, including the league leaders in goals and assists Shon Weissman and Michael Liendl. Few players account for a significant proportion of a team’s goals through both goals and assists like Berisha. He accounted for 27.9% of Altach’s goals this season, but only played 49.13% of available minutes.
To put this in context, consider a prolific player in a different league: Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian scored 19 goals and made 10 assists, 34.94% of goals for Liverpool this season. He did this in 84.09% of available minutes. If Salah had played 49.13% of the minutes, he only would have accounted for 20.41% of goals with this ratio. This does not mean Berisha belongs in Liverpool’s front line, but it is impressive, nonetheless. Berisha was vital to his loan side, scoring the most goals for Altach after half a season.
Finding open space
One of Berisha’s natural talents is finding open space. Positioning is an essential part of success as a striker. Weaving through defenders to find pockets of space helps create offensive sparks leading to goals. Berisha naturally seeks openings in the defensive half-spaces and area in between lines.
At Altach, the four supporting midfielders would often push up in attack when the ball reached the final third. This allows the striker to move around the offensive side of the field. Berisha fits the system well as he naturally prefers to operate in multiple areas of the field. The following images will help illustrate the different ways Berisha found openings in the defence while playing at Altach and RB Salzburg.
In the above picture, RB Salzburg are pushing forward on the counter. Altach’s right-back is caught out of position, and Berisha recognises this, making a deep run into the vacated space. Although he does not receive the ball in this situation, Berisha adjusts his width on the field to find a place to receive a pass.
In this picture, both RB Salzburg’s strikers are making runs into the box. Berisha fronts the defender, putting him in the perfect position to contact an incoming cross. Although he is not the paciest player, Berisha’s positioning helps make up for this shortcoming by finding open space. He ranked 11th in the league in total shots this past season despite only playing around 60% of the minutes due in part to runs like the one above.
In the above image, Altach has broken away with the ball, concentrated on the left side. Wolfsberg’s defensive line is slightly out of shape, with the left-back running back to cover for the open space. There is a large gap in the half-space, and Berisha drifts into the opening, ready to receive the ball. Finding the unoccupied area provides enough time for the German to control and score this chance.
In this sequence, Berisha’s off-ball movement is genius. Altach has the ball in the centre of the field with a heavy clustering of players from either side. Once again Berisha finds himself to the left of play. In the image, he is unavailable for a pass because the half-space between the centre-back and right-back is too narrow.
To fix this, he takes a couple of steps diagonally towards the ball. Defensively, the centre-back is now responsible, so the right-back recovers to the back line. This movement makes the half-space much wider, allowing Berisha to receive the ball, dribble into the box, and score. This is an example of how Berisha creates a goal for himself purely by manipulation of space.
This picture provides one of the best examples of how Berisha creates goals through positioning. Down 3-1 to Altach, Marsch put Patson Daka and Hwang Hee-chan in at striker pushing the German forward to an attacking midfield role. Berisha, highlighted above, positions himself in a small pocket of space in between three Altach players. As explored later, this space allows him to move the defence and create a goal. The German will commonly drop deeper into spaces to help facilitate ball movement and shift defenders.
Pulling defenders out
Situations like those above led to eight goals this past season, but the Salzburg forward is more often playing dangerous passes than runs. While Berisha’s capitalisation of open space is impressive, his recognition of defensive movements is similarly important. By making short dribbles, Berisha exposes passing lanes to make incisive passes for teammates. Instead of forcing a poor decision, he waits until the right moment to play a pass.
In this image, Berisha receives the ball between lines with few immediate options available. There are two Salzburg strikers on the same line as the Wolfsberg defenders, but they are near impossible to reach with Berisha’s current position. Instead of forcing a poor decision, he dribbles to the left, forcing one of the centre-backs to step up. Berisha’s dribbling creates space for the right striker to go through on goal. This lateral movement illustrates Berisha’s intelligence while on the ball.
The above image follows shortly after the last image from the previous section. Once Berisha receives the ball in the pocket of space, he dribbles towards the sideline. His movement draws the attention of both a centre-back and midfielder. As they approach to challenge the Salzburg forward, a passing lane appears where Berisha plays a through ball leading to a goal. He ranked second in the league in terms of second assists at four, and ninth in assists at five. He put up these numbers despite playing for two clubs and receiving inconsistent minutes.
This image provides another great example of Berisha’s short lateral movement and its effect on teammates. Receiving the ball here as a second striker, a couple of dribbles to the right attracts both the right-back and right centre-back. Patson Daka meanwhile continues his run, now available for a through ball in the middle of the field. Berisha does not have the pure skill or athleticism to beat defenders one on one. He substitutes for this with a deep understanding of how to pull the strings of defenders.
One final example comes from Berisha’s time spent at Altach. Even under a different tactical setup, Berisha receives the ball deeper, between the lines. Again, it only takes a few dribbles and a touch of patience to pull the Wolfsberg centre-back out of position. In two different systems, Berisha exhibited the ability to read and shift defenders while on the ball.
Having addressed the ability to occupy space and manipulate the defence, I will look at what Berisha offers in different phases of the buildup. At 186 cm, not only is he a threat from set-pieces, but he often provides a good target for long balls. Berisha has the strength to back down defenders and receive long balls.
While a team like RB Salzburg may rarely play long, Altach would play long balls from the keeper. With the possibility of another loan spell, providing a deep outlet could be important. While he is more than capable of receiving long balls, his precision in delivery is notable as well.
Here, Berisha is in a much deeper position than a striker would normally be during the buildup. He sees his teammate making a run into space and threads the needle into their path. Passes like these are the reason Marsch is comfortable shifting him to a midfield role.
This image is another situation where Berisha finds himself with time and space, deeper than usual. He opts here for a cross-field switch, finding a wide midfielder. The technique and skill behind this pass and others are special for a centre forward. If Berisha can increase his pass accuracy beyond 63.92% from last season, he has a proper case for consistent minutes at RB Salzburg. Moving forward in the buildup, Berisha’s crossing ability is solid when he finds space down either wing.
In Berisha’s cross map, once again his left-side-preference is clear. His 30.3% completion rate on 1.54 crosses per 90 puts him above average in either statistic. This is especially impressive given Berisha’s role primarily as a striker. The versatility displayed at different levels of the buildup phase speak to his ability to play succeed under two different systems.
Berisha still has some parts of his game he needs to improve. A lack of pace and guile dictates how he must play. He cannot run at defenders or create dangerous situations from dribbling. Similarly, he does not offer too much pressure on back lines because he lacks the pace to make strong runs in behind.
His ability to find open space and make line-breaking passes helps cover up offensive deficiencies, but he is a non-factor on the defensive end. He has very few ball recoveries in the final third as his pressing rarely leads to turnovers. His work rate on that end is also questionable. He too often ball-watches, resulting in few recoveries anywhere on the field. Berisha needs to put more effort into his pressing and cutting off passing lanes.
This image is one that precedes an RB Salzburg’s defensive sequence. Berisha here is the furthest up the field from his side. The camera pans towards the Salzburg goal, and there are nine outfield players working to recover the ball. Sekou Koita, the striker starting next to Berisha, even retreats to put pressure on the ball carrier. The German does not come back into play until his side regains possession. There are too many defensive phases like this where Berisha puts little effort into making an impact. His understanding of the game is clear through his offensive output, but his effort on the opposite end could use some work.
Berisha’s future is up in the air. RB Salzburg has a wealth of talented forwards, and there is time left in the transfer window. I would guess he does not spend all next season in Salzburg, whether that be through loan or sale. It must frustrate Berisha to not have consistent playing time at his level. He has the ability to make an impact in Salzburg or elsewhere.