After drawing 2-2 in midweek to UEFA Champions League opponent Lokomotiv Moscow, RB Salzburg travelled to the Austrian capital to face Austria Vienna, themselves hoping to qualify for European competition this season. Jesse Marsch’s side got the better of former Borussia Dortmund manager Peter Stoger’s Austria Vienna by a scoreline of 2-0 in favour of the away side. RB Salzburg dominated the match with 69% possession, with both goals coming in the second half of the matchday five-fixture of the Austrian Bundesliga. This tactical analysis will identify Austria Vienna’s defensive structure and how they attempted to counteract the RB Salzburg attack. This analysis will also explore Marsch’s offensive tactics from the buildup to the final third.
Stoger chose a 4-4-2 for his side with Patrick Pentz in goal. Manchester City-loanee Erik Palmer-Brown played next to Johannes Handl as centre-backs. Stephan Zwierschitz and Markus Suttner lined up at right-back and left-back, respectively. The centre-midfield pairing comprised Thomas Ebner and Alexander Grunwald. Benedikt Pichler flanked them on the right, across from Patrick Wimmer. Manprit Sarkaria and Christoph Monschein led the front line for Austria Vienna.
Marsch chose a 4-4-2, although more like a 4-2-2-2 in the game, with Cican Stankovic in between the sticks. Jerome Onguene and Andre Ramalho made the centre-back duo next to Patrick Farkas at left-back and Rasmus Kristensen at right-back. Mohamed Camara and Majeed Ashimeru took up central positions while Noah Okafor and Dominik Szoboszlai stayed outside. Sekou Koita combined with Mergim Berisha for RB Salzburg’s strike partnership. Future star Patson Daka came off the bench for the away-side to score the second goal for his team.
Austria Vienna defensive structure
To prepare for playing against a team like RB Salzburg who will dominate possession, Stoger created a solid defensive plan to sit back against the league leaders.
This picture displays Austria Vienna’s general defensive shape throughout the game. In the 4-4-2, the strikers never pushed too high out of position or pressed significantly. The midfield line moved coherently to either side as RB Salzburg attacked down either wing. Wimmer ran to Kristensen in the picture and the midfield line adjusted accordingly. The centre-backs stuck to a narrow positioning to combat the number of players RB Salzburg like to attack with down central channels.
The RB Salzburg forwards liked to work in the area between the defensive and midfield lines. Thus, when the ball progressed forward, Austria Vienna’s players compressed to eliminate that space. This image displays some RB Salzburg forwards in the area, forcing the opposing midfielders to monitor their movements and cut out any dangerous passing options.
This image provides insight into Austria Vienna’s defensive plan throughout the match. Berisha received the ball some yards in front of the box, and the defence collapses around him, leaving Kristensen open. The Violets remained content to cede space on either wing if they could congest central areas and make life difficult for the strikers and wide midfielders trying to create chances in the box. The midfield and defensive lines come together to limit the amount of space in which either Berisha or Koita could manoeuvre, forcing RB Salzburg to rely on wide crosses in the final third. Through much of the first half, the away-side frustrated RB Salzburg, who throughout the match only completed seven of their 24 attempted crosses.
One last image displays the intelligent positioning of Austria Vienna midfielders in the line of defence. Berisha dropped deeper to receive the ball, so Grunwald and Pichler prevented the pass into Koita positioned in between the lines. Ebner cut off Okafor’s passing lane, leaving Berisha with the option to play into Ashimeru arriving from his position as a defensive midfielder. As the ball arrived on the opposite side of the field in the sequence, Kristensen operated alone in the space allotted by Austria Vienna’s structure.
Salzburg buildup shapes
Although their 4-4-2 denied RB Salzburg a goal throughout the first 60 minutes of the game, Austria Vienna conceded from a Szoboszlai cross to the head of Berisha. Before getting there, RB Salzburg built out from the back in diamond shapes using Ashimeru and Camara.
Although stated above as a 4-4-2, RB Salzburg’s formation resembled more of a 4-2-2-2 with the two holding midfielders playing deeper roles. Ashimeru and Camara coordinated with the centre-backs to create shapes with which to manipulate the Austria Vienna defence. As seen in this image, one of the holding midfielders dropped back into the defensive line, creating a back three with the other taking the spot a one-man pivot would. The diamond shape allows the centre-backs to spread the ball on either wing searching for diagonal passes or central lanes to pass into. The pivot aided in ball movement, playing in between the forward and midfield lines of Austria Vienna.
As they created a virtual back three, the defensive line allowed Farkas and Kristensen to take up attacking positions deeper in the attack. In this image, Farkas provided width for RB Salzburg’s attack. The buildup shape worked with the full-backs out wide and the wide-midfielders drifting to the middle. Camara replaced Ashimeru in the pivot role from the previous picture, displaying the flexibility of RB Salzburg’s buildup shape.
Occasionally, Okafor or Szoboszlai dropped deeper to assist in the buildup for the team. Usually positioned further up the pitch, Okafor retreated to the same horizontal channel as the pivot to receive the ball from a centre-back. This tendency added variety to RB Salzburg’s sometimes stagnant buildup and spurred play along either wing.
As the ball progressed further up the field, Ashimeru and Camara followed the ball into more attacking positions. In this image, Ashimeru received the ball from Farkas on the right and dribbled toward the center of the pitch. Camara moved to join him in an advanced position as their side looked to exploit any open spaces. The positioning exemplified RB Salzburg’s aggressive attacking as the pivots could now assist directly in the attack with little defensive support behind. The defensive midfielders and centre-backs played important roles in the development of RB Salzburg’s attacks.
Salzburg midfield movements
The midfield duo of Okafor and Szoboszlai played in between the diamond and the striker pairing. They helped shuttle the ball from defenders into attackers and took part in attacking movements in central areas.
The two “wide” midfielders are the heart of Marsch’s system. As seen in the image and discussed below, they were catalysts for the RB Salzburg attack in varying central positions. Here, Okafor and Szoboszlai operated in the horizontal channel between the Austria Vienna midfield and defensive lines. While they had the freedom to roam in the center of the pitch, the two frequently ran to the highlighted pockets of space to help build from the back. Each exploited the space in between the Austria Vienna lines.
When pushing forward in attacking moves, Okafor and Szoboszlai created a square with the attackers as seen above. The midfielders played through balls into either striker or more often to the wide full-back in open space. Marsch hoped that the individual talents and link-up abilities of the players in the square could create havoc in the central areas often. However, Austria Vienna deserves credit for packing the middle and limiting the ability of Szoboszlai and Okafor to operate freely in these areas.
To stretch the defence with more effect, the midfield pairing dropped in front of the Austria Vienna midfield line in this picture. Both players still played the space between the lines while allowing Koita and Berisha more room to operate. With four players in advanced attacking roles, spacing was key. Okafor and Szoboszlai had to balance their vertical and horizontal positioning to create advantages with the strikers and full-backs.
This image provides an example of the focus on spacing. Szoboszlai received the ball toward the center of the pitch as Okafor ran to a similar area. As Okafor ran from the wide area, Kristensen moved in to exploit the space left behind. Similarly, on the opposite side, Farkas had acres of open space to receive a switch or provide a wide threat on the left. The strikers played the space between the defensive and midfield lines in this situation. Szoboszlai and Okafor were key components to balancing and sharpening the RB Salzburg attack.
Salzburg actions in the final third
Once the ball reached the attacking third for RB Salzburg, the away-side loaded the box with players to create chances. RB Salzburg’s steady buildup culminated in 21 shots in the game.
In this image, Farkas had the ball for RB Salzburg, and four teammates crowd the box for an impending cross. Ashimeru provided a central option if the cross was unavailable, and it is worth noting Kristensen did not join the box but stayed central for some additional defensive cover. The RB Salzburg forwards made differing runs in the box to insight and win one-on-one duels over a single defender instead of multiple.
These runs are clearer in this image. Okafor prepared a pass at the edge of the box as his remaining three advanced teammates made runs between defenders. Koita looked to receive a through ball off the shoulder of Handl. Berisha attacked the space between opposing centre-backs as Szoboszlai ghosted behind Grunwald near the back post. The forwards occupied different areas so as not to crowd any of their teammates and provide many attacking threats.
Another picture here displays the positioning of RB Salzburg’s players in the final third. Farkas stayed out wide with Ashimeru had the ball at his feet. The front four crowded the Austria Vienna defensive line, but each could make short movements into space if needed. Because the defensive line needed midfield assistance to mark the RB Salzburg forwards, Ashimeru received additional space and time at the edge of the box. This aggressive tactic resulted in dominating possession although Austria Vienna could have attacked on the counter more efficiently.
This movement exemplifies the manipulative effect the RB Salzburg forwards had on the Austria Vienna centre-backs. Daka and Koita cut their forward runs off and moved toward the center of the box in search of a cross from Kristensen. The centre-backs stop for a second, just enough time for substitute Masaya Okugawa to sprint past them and receive a through ball. His cross was inaccurate, but the pure number of players in the box created chaos for opposing defenders. Out of this chaos, the RB Salzburg forwards found space.
Austria Vienna intended to cede possession for large portions of the game. Their defensive tactics nullified most opponent crosses, but they could not hold off their opponents for the entire game. RB Salzburg’s shapes in the back opened passing lanes all over the field. The two wide-midfielders for the away-team played important roles in ball progression and attacking in the final third.