After finishing the previous season with six straight losses, Sturm Graz brought in Christian Ilzer to steady the ship as manager. He did just that as his side entered matchday six of the Austrian Bundesliga without a loss. Dominik Thalhammer led LASK to an entertaining 4-3 victory over Ludogorets in the midweek Europa League after losing to Tottenham earlier in the competition. Although the visiting side has a history of let-down performances in the league following European matchdays, LASK did not disappoint on Sunday.
Sturm Graz went down to an early goal from Husein Balic, followed by a late goal from Johannes Eggestein, on loan from Bundesliga side Werder Bremen. This tactical analysis will examine the pressing tactics of either side as they grappled for control in the game. The analysis will explore the offensive tactics of both teams to identify the competitive advantages each exploited.
Ilzer chose a 4-3-1-2 for Sturm Graz with Jorg Siebenhandl in goal. Gregory Wuthrich and David Nemeth made up the centre-back pairing between right-back Sandro Ingolitsch and left-back Amadou Dante. Jon Gorenc-Stankovic played at the centre of the midfield beside Andreas Kuen and Stefan Hierlander. Top goal-scorer Ivan Ljubic lined up behind the striker duo of Jakob Jantscher and Kevin Friesenbichler.
Thalhammer selected the usual 3-4-3, like Arsenal under Mikel Arteta, with Alexander Schlager the goalkeeper. Captain Gernot Trauner anchored the back-line with the help of Andres Andrade and Philipp Wiesinger. The midfield comprised Peter Michorl and Lukas Grgic in the centre, flanked by Rene Renner and Reinhold Ranftl. New-signing Eggestein led the front-line with goalscorer Balic at left-wing and Andreas Gruber at right-wing.
LASK high line
LASK is notorious for its high pressing tactics, and this game was no different. With an absurdly low 6.1 PPDA, LASK forced Sturm Graz into playing long passes instead of building steadily from the back.
The press started with the front three. In the image above, Gruber arched his run from the right to cut off the passing option to Wuthrich. Eggestein played slightly deeper in this image, cutting the passing lane into the midfield. Balic on the left split the distance between the centre-back and right-back, but Siebenhandl could not play any easy progressive pass. The awareness of the front three was key for the success of LASK’s defensive plan.
After initiating the press with the front three, LASK’s midfielders pushed up to eliminate further options. As seen above, Renner stepped up to press Ingolitsch on the ball while preventing the pass into the advanced opponent behind him. The wide midfielders provided wide support with the press while the central midfielders monitored any central options. In this situation, Grgic took a midfielder out of the equation further from the ball. Eggestein stepped deeper to mark Gorenc-Stankovic to cut off all easy short options to progress the ball. LASK wanted to choke possession from their opponents, so, although not a strict man-marking system, the team had to communicate and move to cut off any options Sturm Graz had to progress the ball.
One result of the high press is an extraordinarily high line. This image shows LASK’s back-line advanced at the edge of the centre-circle. The centre-backs had to match their teammates’ aggression to compress space for the Sturm Graz attackers to operate. They wanted to eliminate space in which long-balls could easily arrive. Playing that high of a line is dangerous because a good through ball puts an opposing attacker one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
Another result of the high line and LASK’s defensive system is occasional defensive isolation for the centre-back. When the ball progressed quickly, Sturm Graz often found situations of three-vs-three in the attack as no other LASK players were in the immediate area. This picture displays a situation in which LASK found themselves at a numerical disadvantage in the back-line. Following a throw-in, Sturm Graz quickly shifted the ball to Friesenbichler, who played a weak ball into Ljubic free in the box. An excellent piece of goalkeeping from Schlager combined with a poorly taken finish baled LASK out here. When the press falls apart, LASK left themselves vulnerable at the back.
Sturm Graz direct play
Sturm Graz capitalized on the defensive frailties of LASK by playing with speed. They had only seven possessions of longer than 20 seconds out of 109, but still managed 12 shots with one xG.
As LASK left themselves open at the back, Sturm Graz thrived on the counter throughout the game, but particularly in the first half. As in this image, Sturm Graz played into the strikers early after regaining possession. Friesenbichler played the seam between centre-backs, running in behind Andrade, who was slightly further forward than his centre-back teammates. The two strikers looked to exploit the space behind the wide centre-backs on the counter.
One tactic Sturm Graz players used to progress the ball was a passing combination up-back-through with the strikers. In this image, Kuen played the ball into Jantscher, who passed back to him slightly to the left. Jantscher’s presence pulled Wiesinger up to mark him, so Kuen played a lobbed through ball Jantscher could not reach. The pattern worked well for Sturm Graz in the game, functioning to provide advantages through the manipulation of the opposing defenders.
In this second example of the passing pattern, the play started deeper. Friesenbichler dropped further to receive early in the possession but played back to Ingolitsch. Andrade drifted slightly forward, leaving space into which Ljubic ran. Ingolitsch played the ball over Andrade, which LASK intercepted in this situation. The quick progression exchange exposed LASK’s isolated back-line.
Although touched upon earlier, Sturm Graz looked to involve their strikers early in possessions to aid in ball progression. Their movement into deeper positions drew opposing defenders out of position and created numerical advantages quickly. Here, Jantscher dropped off to receive a ball which he quickly played to Ljubic. Andrade was out of position, and Trauner committed too early to Ljubic. Friesenbichler missed a one-on-one opportunity with the keeper following the moment in the image, but situations like these came from the early involvement of attackers.
In situations where Sturm Graz avoided long balls, they attempted to bypass the LASK press quickly. Ingolitsch found Gorenc-Stankovic open for a second amidst the LASK press, who played a quick ball to Friesenbichler. The striker’s pass did not find its target, but this direct play looked to break LASK’s press while capitalizing on their occasional defensive isolation.
Sturm Graz press
Sturm Graz employed a high press like their opponents, however, they were less aggressive.
Sturm Graz’s press, like their opponent’s, started with the front three. The three most advanced players for the home-side pressured the centre-backs and pivots in the system. Comparing the above image to earlier, it is clear Sturm Graz was less assertive with their press. There was much more space for the LASK centre-backs, however, Grgic in this situation was unavailable in the buildup.
In this image, more players pushed forward to press LASK. The front three appeared as the most advanced players, with the strikers pressing the centre-backs. Ljubic marked the ball-side pivot to avoid easy ball progression through the centre. Kuen assisted the attackers by pushing toward Ranftl, who received on the right. The wide-midfielders for Sturm Graz watched and reacted to the actions of their opposing midfielders Renner and Ranftl. Although its press was less aggressive, Sturm Graz’s defensive goals were similar: cut out the involvement of deep midfielders and force long balls.
One key difference between LASK’s press and Sturm Graz’s was the position of their back-line. While LASK played a high line, this image shows Sturm Graz’s more conservative positioning. The defensive line lied deeper in the formation, with the help of Gorenc-Stankovic providing defensive cover from the midfield. As a result, Sturm Graz dealt with long-balls more effectively while also leaving some open pockets of space that LASK exploited in front of the back-line.
LASK in the wide areas
In possession, LASK leveraged their 3-4-3 in the wide areas to create overloads and provide multiple attacking options. During the match, about 80% of LASK’s attacks came in wide areas for 1.31 xG.
The basic buildup formation of LASK can be seen in the above image. The back three spread the field while the two central midfielders supported in the buildup. The wide midfielders would drop deeper to jumpstart attacks down either wing. However, many of LASK’s attacks bypassed building out from the back from long-balls or recoveries on the other side of the field. Thus, the central midfielders received few passes from any of the centre-backs and played minor roles in the buildup.
LASK focused on stretching the back three to create space in wide areas. In the image above, the Sturm Graz press concentrated on the left side of the field leaving Wiesinger in acres of space on the opposite side. The centre-backs in space can then play directly to the wide midfielder on their side and transition to the final third.
The first goal came through an attack on the left flank. The combination started in the image above between Renner and Balic. Eggestein drifted left to provide an extra attacker down the flank but balanced the attack by moving centrally as Renner made the overlapping run. Each of the LASK attackers garnered attention from different Sturm Graz defenders, so their varying depths and vertical lanes forced adjustments. Sturm Graz’s midfield occupied central areas leaving their full-backs to cover in wide places. Thus, the combination of three LASK attackers on the left-wing created an offensive advantage.
One place LASK looked to get the ball early in the buildup was the wide area in front of the full-back. Renner and Ranftl manoeuvred into these areas often and had the amount of space shown in the image above. LASK’s wingers put pressure on the opposing full-backs so they could not step out to mark the wide midfielders. Outside of the occasions when Renner and Ranftl dropped to assist in possession, Sturm Graz midfielders took central positions and left wide spaces open.
The space in front of the back-line is also a consequence of Sturm Graz’s defensive positioning. As explored earlier, Sturm Graz’s back-line played at a shallower level than LASK. While retaining a high press, they left space in which the LASK attackers found space to receive. Substitute striker Marko Raguz received the ball in front of the Sturm Graz centre-backs in this image before moving possession to the left flank. LASK looked to exploit the open spaces in Sturm Graz’s defence to filter attacks toward wide areas.
In a tightly contested match between two top four sides, LASK put two past Sturm Graz who lacked the clinical finish to score one of their 12 shots. Although dropping points early in the season, LASK leaves matchday six ranked third in the Austrian Bundesliga table after challenging for the title a year ago. Sturm Graz fell to fifth after only their first loss of the season. This analysis examined the ways LASK and Sturm Graz used different defensive gameplans and how each reacted in possession.