Not two months after finishing last season, the Austrian Bundesliga returned on Friday with LASK taking on Austria Vienna in the second of two fixtures. After coming close to beating RB Salzburg to the title, LASK enters the season with brand new coach Dominik Thalhammer. They hope to forget their Europa League exit to Manchester United at the end of last season. In this match, LASK secured their first win of the season in a scrappy season-opener.
In this tactical analysis, we will explore the strategies new Austria Vienna manager Peter Stoger made on both ends of the field. This analysis will also include the tactics employed by Thalhammer for his LASK side.
Thalhammer made no adjustments to the classic 3-4-3 from last year. Alexander Schlager lined up in goal behind a backline of Philipp Wiesinger, Petar Filipović, and captain Gernot Trauner. Reinhold Ranftl and Rene Renner lined up on the outside of the midfield next to Peter Michorl and James Holland. Lukas Grgic came on for Holland after 36 minutes due to injury. Marko Raguz started at striker, flanked by Husein Balić on the left and new signing Andreas Gruber on the right.
Austria Vienna lined up in a 4-3-2-1 with Patrick Pentz in between the sticks. The centre-back partnership of Michael Madl and Maudo Jarjué played next to Stephan Zwierschitz at right-back and Christoph Martschinko at left-back. Stoger also fielded a new signing off the bench at left-back with Georg Teigl from Augsburg in the Bundesliga. The midfield consisted of Thomas Ebner, Maximilian Sax, and Manprit Sarkaria. Christoph Monschein led the front line beside Benedikt Pichler and Patrick Wimmer. One notable bench player for the away side was American defender Erik Palmer-Brown on loan from Manchester City.
While pushing forward, LASK looked to create overloads on either wing with their outside midfielders.
In this image, multiple LASK players flood the right side of the pitch. Ranftl pulls widest while Gruber and Raguz occupy the opponent half-spaces. Behind them, Grgic and Wiesinger offer alternative options from the midfield area. Austria Vienna does well here to cover most of the options, but in similar situations, the overloads create open space as a function of outnumbering their opponent. Spreading the forwards out across the width of the pitch stretches the Austria Vienna defence. The quick ball movement can expose the gaps in the thinner defensive line. The forwards from LASK stay narrow in the middle lanes while the centre-backs and midfield two work to create problems on either side.
In this transition situation, Gruber receives the ball some yards in front of the Austria Vienna defensive line. As Madl and Ebner move forward to close him down, Ranftl’s run from wide and Raguz’s run on the shoulder of Jarjue expose the space left behind. LASK put three forwards on their front line, and this creates problems for defenders. As Gruber drops deeper, he forces a defender to commit and leave space in behind.
This image provides an example of how movement while in an overloaded lineup can create chances. Balic has the ball, coming in from a wide position. Before he cuts inside to curl a shot just outside the far post, Renner makes an underlapping run on the left side, taking Ebner away from the ball. Without Renner’s run, Ebner would have been in prime position to challenge Balic cutting inside. Gruber and Raguz occupy the remaining defenders on the Austria Vienna back-line, so Balic has enough space to get shot off. Renner’s run shows how off-ball movement works to create space while in an overload situation.
LASK found the most success attacking on the left side of the pitch against Zwierschitz. As the Austria Vienna right-back liked to assist in the attack, he left space which LASK exploited as in the image above. Trauner recovers a stray pass and plays a pass through multiple opponent defenders to Balic in open space. Balic now has room to run at a scrambling Austria Vienna backline as they also must be careful of the other on-rushing forwards. LASK registered 46% of their xG total in the game from attacks down the left side as they looked to exploit the attacking tendencies of Zwierschitz.
Austria Vienna defensive adjustments
In response to LASK plan of overloading the front line, Stoger set his side up in two distinct defensive patterns depending on the location of the possession.
When the opposing centre-backs retained possession, Austria Vienna would revert to a 4-3-2-1 to defend as seen above. Monschein, Sarkaria, and Sax make up the upper triangle of the formation. These players stayed centrally to crowd the two LASK midfielders. Their positioning forced the centre-backs to either play a dangerous pass into one of the pivots or play down the wing. Behind the front three is another line of three consisting of Ebner, Wimmer, and Pichler. Ebner floats around the area as a defensive midfielder hoping to disrupt any potential passes near him. Wimmer and Pichler must stay wider to watch the runs of Ranftl and Renner. The two wider Austria Vienna midfielders were vital to Stoger’s defensive plan.
While Austria Vienna was comfortable to sit back in their 4-3-2-1, they did press the LASK centre-backs on certain triggers. Whenever one of Wiesinger or Filipović would receive the ball in a wide enough position, Austria Vienna looked to cut off ball circulation. As Trauner lays the ball off to Wiesinger, Sarkaria sprints to shut down the right centre-back. Monschein prevents the pass back to Trauner while Gruber comes over to stop the pass to Holland. This press was by no means hyper-aggressive, but it forced LASK to play into their opponent’s defensive plan. If the centre-back decides to pass down the wing, one of Pichler or Wimmer is available to shut it down. The only other option would be to play back to the goalkeeper. Austria Vienna’s goal from their pressing was to force play down the wing because they believed it easier to defend against crosses into the box than interchange centrally.
Here is one more pressing situation from Austria Vienna. As the ball gets played to Wiesinger, Sarkaria once again steps towards him. What is notable about this situation is the angle at which Sarkaria runs at Wiesinger. To shut the centre-back down as well as cut off the immediate passing lane into Grgic, Sarkaria runs along the passing lane between the LASK players. This gives time for Ebner to come forward and cut off Grgic. The smart timing and pressing structure of Austria Vienna helped force the LASK possession down the wings.
Once the ball would be played down the wings into the final third, Austria Vienna would shift to a back six. This transition serves to neutralize LASK’s outside midfielders. As Renner and Ranftl push into the final line of defence, the four Austria Vienna defenders maintain their line centrally. They deal with the front three while Pichler and Wimmer take on defensive roles on the outside. Austria Vienna forced play down the wings so that they could congest the middle of the field for incoming crosses. They attempted to close down as much space as they could in the final third, and as the only goal came from a set-piece situation, their plan worked to some extent.
Austria Vienna in possession
The story of Austria Vienna’s strategy in possession is one of two distinct halves. During the first half, the LASK press forced the Violets to rely on long balls and direct play. After LASK scored, Austria Vienna got more aggressive in possession by pushing more players up the field while attacking.
Before looking at the possession dynamics of Austria Vienna, we will first look at LASK’s press in the picture above. The front three of LASK pressure the two centre-backs and cut the passing lane to the left-back. Michorl steps out from the midfield to prevent a pass into Ebner. As Balic shuts down Jarjué, his angle makes a pass to the right-back unfeasible. LASK’s well-structured pressing scheme made it difficult for Austria Vienna to build out from the back.
The main target of the long balls, either from one of the centre-backs or the goalkeeper, was Pichler. In the image above, a well-placed long ball cuts through the two front lines of LASK and leaves a three-vs-three situation for Austria Vienna’s forwards. Monschein bagged 17 goals for the team last year, so putting him with two other attackers in this situation could be dangerous. Combined with Pentz’s 82% pass completion percentage for passes beyond his defensive third, Austria Vienna made the most out of its direct style. This style of play is not often very reliable or sustainable as it requires much more individual moments of skill to provide goal contributions.
This image comes shortly before Austria Vienna’s best chance from the first half. While not from a long ball, this counterattack displays the conservative nature of the away side’s first-half offence. As Sarkaria drives forward, there are only three players on the attacking half of the field. Sarkaria cuts inside and finds Monschein whose shot is saved by Schlager. It is not organized team actions that set up this chance but the individual talents in the attack. This strategy changed once LASK scored and Austria Vienna pushed for an equalizer in the second half.
This image provides a snapshot of Austria Vienna’s second half aggression. Zwierschitz on the ball aided the attack from right-back. They favoured this side with 45% of Austria Vienna’s xG coming from attacks down the right side. The front three of Austria Vienna make runs on the LASK backline as Sarkaria and Sax provide central options. This more aggressive positioning reflects the progression of the game, but it did not yield any better results. The highest xG chance came from a set-piece situation, but Austria Vienna should still be upset not to have scored.
LASK was ultimately the superior team in the match. This tactical analysis has explored Thalhammer’s buildup in this match as well as their pressing tactics. Austria Vienna structured itself in a way to counter LASK’s 3-4-3 lineup as well as the press. After LASK scored in the first half, this analysis focused on how Austria Vienna’s attacking strategy changed in the second half as they chased the game.