Coming off a midweek victory in the Europa League, LASK entered match day four of the Austrian Bundesliga with high spirits. Rapid Vienna and LASK are in the Europa League this year, drawn into groups with EPL sides Arsenal and Tottenham, respectively. With those big games on the horizon, a top-half clash occupied each side this past weekend. What could have been a tightly contested battle turned out to a 3-0 blowout in favor of the home-side. Rapid Vienna put on a clinic in front of a limited crowd and dismantled a hapless LASK side. This tactical analysis will dig into the losing side’s woes and how they worsened after a late red card. The analysis will also review the successful offensive and defensive tactics of Dietmar Kuhbauer’s Rapid Vienna.
Kuhbauer set up his side in a 3-4-3 with Richard Strebinger in goal. The back line comprised Maximilian Hofmann, Mateo Barac, and Filip Stojkovic. Maximilian Ullmann and Kelvin Arase covered the wide midfield areas while Dejan Ljubicic and Srdjan Grahovac controlled the central areas. Ercan Cara started at striker, flanked by Taxiarchis Fountas on the left and Thomas Murg on the right. Yusuf Demir, a 17-year-old attacking midfielder, came off the bench for Rapid Vienna as a notable substitute.
Dominik Thalhammer mirrored his opponent, choosing a 3-4-3. With first-team goalkeeper Alexander Schlager sidelined by a muscle injury, 20-year-old Tobias Lawal made his debut in Schlager’s place. Usual captain Gernot Trauner sat out this game, so the back three included Philipp Wiesinger, Petar Filipovic, and Christian Ramsebner instead. Peter Michorl and James Holland played in the center of the midfield while Reinhold Ranftl and Rene Renner covered the right and left, respectively. Husein Balic and Andreas Gruber played out wide while Marko Raguz led the front line.
Under their previous manager and now Thalhammer, LASK play an aggressive press. The front three have important roles within the defensive structure as the point of the press.
This picture provides a sense of how LASK pressed Rapid Vienna in the match. Once again, it started with the front three. In the opening minute of the game, Raguz forced Hofmann to pass to Stojkovic on the left. As the right centre-back received the pass, Balic moved to shut him down. The angle of Balic’s run is vital to attaining success with the press. He made the pass into the wing-back nearly impossible for Stojkovic by positioning himself in the passing lane as he makes the defensive move. The two central midfielders had the responsibility to watch the two Rapid Vienna midfielders; in this image, Holland sprinted to mark Grahovac.
This image reinforces the importance of pressing angles within LASK’s system. On the opposite side now, Gruber forced Barac into a long ball even though Ljubicic stood open in the center of the field. Gruber cut off the passing lane into the pivot and left the wing-back as the only available option to play short. Raguz and Arase prevented passes into Hofmann and Ullmann, respectively. Holland split the space in between Fountas and Ljubicic, but he cheated towards Fountas because Gruber cut Ljubicic out as an option. LASK successfully forced long balls through their system, but Rapid Vienna thrived on these long balls.
With their aggressive pressing, LASK maintained an extraordinarily high line. While Rapid Vienna had possession, nearly the entire LASK side stood in the opposing half of the field, shown above. A high line works for many teams, but it also leaves exploitable space behind for attacking runs and long balls.
Another effect of committing as many players forward to press is isolation. As Rapid Vienna broke through the high press, the back three of LASK struggled to cope with an inundation of attackers running at them. In this image, Hofmann dribbled ahead of LASK press, looking for a pass into one of his onrushing teammates. The three Rapid Vienna forwards forced the LASK centre-backs to scramble into defensive position, watch the forward runs, and stop the progression of the ball. The LASK press is vital to their game plan, but it is a high-risk style of play. They managed a 7.6 PPDA (a lower number correlating to more successful pressing) with the system, but they failed to convert that to offensive opportunity.
Rapid Vienna defence
Although LASK is notorious for their defensive style, Rapid Vienna maintained a pressing system like their opponents with a stricter man-marking system. The home-side boasted a competitive PPDA of 8.1 in the match, dropping to 4.0 in the second half. Although the numbers entailed a defensive assault, the Violets avoided committing too many players forward in the press to balance the aggression with solidity at the back.
Kara served as the point of attack in the Rapid Vienna press. After the striker chased Lawal into a pass to Filipovic, Murg shut the centre-back down while cutting off the passing lane into Wiesinger. Fountas stuck to Ramsebner on the other side as both Rapid Vienna midfielders marked their opposite number. Rapid Vienna, unlike LASK, put more emphasis on cutting off the pivots in the opponent’s buildup.
This image reinforces the focus of excising the pivots. As Ljubicic started deeper in the image, Murg cheated towards Michorl instead of Wiesinger. Grahovac marked Holland as Kara initiated the press on Filipovic. Rapid Vienna lacked the incredible energy and aggression of LASK’s press, but this was a strategic decision to limit the success of their opponent’s attack.
As stated at the open, Rapid Vienna ensured defensive solidity by balancing their press with their back line. Ullmann and Arase took part in the press occasionally, but mostly they played alongside the three centre-backs. This back five made long balls to the forwards difficult as two Rapid Vienna defenders converged on any encroaching pass. The LASK centre-midfielders took staggered positions in the image, but Grahovac and Ljubicic stayed with them still.
This image explains the reason Rapid Vienna wanted to cut circulation in central areas. Filipovic spotted Michorl unmarked in the centre and the midfielder received in space. As the Rapid Vienna players scrambled to recover, Michorl cut across the field before playing into Ranftl on the right. This movement and shifting leads to defensive openings as defenders run to cut off open runs. New passing lanes become available as central midfielders progress the ball, so Rapid Vienna wished to prevent either from retaining possession at the outset. Rapid Vienna’s smart pressing combined with defensive stability held LASK to .06 xG in the entire match.
Rapid Vienna long passing
LASK’s style of play invited long balls because these types of passes are usually more inaccurate and less productive than patient buildup. For Rapid Vienna, they planned to exploit LASK through long balls primarily into their striker, Kara.
Kara set the tone early as the dominant force in the Rapid Vienna forward line. At 6’4” and a muscular 194 pounds, Kara haunted the LASK defenders. In this image, he won a header over two LASK centre-backs and cushioned the pass to Murg. Fountas missed in front of goal in the chance following the picture, but the long ball and Kara threatened LASK the entire match.
Here, Kara used his strength to back down Filipovic. He heads the long ball into space on the left side for Fountas to run onto. The combination of physicality, awareness, and technical ability made Kara extraordinarily dangerous to LASK’s back line.
That awareness is clear in this image. With his back to Filipovic again, Kara drew a foul from Strefbinger’s long kick. Instead of playing through the LASK press, Rapid Vienna bypassed their defensive third on Kara’s head. Teams often choose either to play to their strengths or to the weaknesses of their opponent. There are plenty of examples of either situation, but occasionally these goals line up. For Rapid Vienna, their dreams came true in this match. Playing long nullified the dangerous LASK press while they maximized the abilities of their front line.
Every member of Rapid Vienna’s front three scored in the match, but Kara’s contribution in the game plan was immense. This last image provides an example of Kara’s athleticism and intuition. Substitute Demir played a ball over the top for Kara to run onto. Kara must hold the defender away, without fouling, while maintaining pace and control. He took some dribbles while staving off substitute-defender Stefan Haudum to win a corner. Kara finished the match with an absurd 1.07 xG to go along with .45 xA. His individual performance was incredible throughout the match, and he played a huge role in Rapid Vienna’s success.
Fountas the catalyst
Fountas was another notable contributor to Rapid Vienna’s success against LASK. His movement created chances for himself and others as he accounted for .7 xG and .66 xA out of Rapid Vienna’s incredible total 3.33 xG.
Positioned on the left of a front three, Fountas drifted away from the left-wing position to either receive the ball or pull defenders out of position. In this image, Fountas ran deeper to provide an option for Ullmann. Ramsebner followed his run, and Kara played off this by making a run into the space left behind. Fountas is a dangerous playmaker on the ball, so his movement toward the ball forced Ramsebner to decide between two actions: stick to Fountas and leave his position or stay and let a threatening player run at the back line.
Here, Fountas drags another LASK centre-back out of position. In an impossible position to make a pass, Fountas tried a jumping back-heel into a pocket of space that came off spectacularly. Three Rapid Vienna players faced two LASK defenders because of Fountas’ technical ability and magnetism.
In the last image, Fountas got a shot for himself by finding and moving into the open space in front of the LASK back line. Kara physically dominated the LASK centre-backs while Fountas drifted into dangerous positions. Rapid Vienna found offensive success throughout the match in large part from the contributions of the Greek left-winger.
Life after the red card
At a score of 2-0 in the 66th minute, Ramsebner received a straight red card for his challenge on Fountas. During the remaining portion of the game, Rapid Vienna doubled their xG for the match. LASK, instead of sitting back and accepting the loss, remained aggressive and sacrificed defensive duties.
With Ramsebner out, Kuhbauer switched his side into a 4-2-3 with Ranftl and Renner the makeshift full-backs. They sustained their pressing structure and high line, although both became less effective after losing the player. As Ranftl and Renner almost exclusively play as advanced, wide midfielders, they lacked the defensive abilities to guard against the Rapid Vienna forwards.
The combination of defensive ignorance and high line exposed tremendous gaps at the back. Here, Kara ran onto a long ball over the top with little difficulty. In the one-vs-one situation, Kara easily shrugged off Filipovic but missed the shot.
This second situation illustrates the extensive gaps at the LASK back following the shift in tactics. Fountas rushed onto another long ball, leaving the LASK defenders scrambling to recover. The amount of space between the Rapid Vienna forward and any opposition player highlights the mindset of the LASK team down the stretch of the game.
The reluctance to defend seriously culminated in Kara’s only goal of the match. Rapid Vienna broke forward in a two-vs-two matchup. Either LASK defender was out of position as both Kara and Demir fronted Renner and substitute Andres Andrade. Rapid Vienna could have scored at least two to three more goals in this match had their finishing been better.
Although a red card skewed the game even further in favor of the home team, Rapid Vienna dominated LASK. Each side used pressing tactics to differing extents, but Rapid Vienna had a much better offensive plan to bypass the LASK press and exploit their high line. Fountas and Kara thrived in the match as they helped Rapid Vienna score all three points in matchday four of the Austrian Bundesliga.