Wolfsberger AC did not get off to the best start to the 2020/21 Austrian Bundesliga. At seventh in the table, Ferdinand Feldhofer’s side suffered from fixture congestion as they prepare for Tottenham in the Europa League round of 32. Their match against RB Salzburg was more sentimental for the league leaders as they bid farewell to their rising star Dominik Szoboszlai as he departs for Bundesliga side RB Leipzig during the impending transfer window. Wolfsberger spoiled the day with a surprising 3-2 victory over RB Salzburg in a stunning performance on matchday 12. The game started slowly as either side failed to score in the first half. Jonathan Scherzer opened the scoring for the away team before they doubled their lead one minute later. RB Salzburg equalized the game before the 70th minute, but Eliel Peretz provided the goal that downed the defending champions. This tactical analysis will review Jesse Marsch’s formation change in this game and how he did not stray far from his usual tactics despite the new shape. The analysis will break down Feldhofer’s gameplan against RB Salzburg and how Wolfsberger exposed weaknesses in their opponent’s defence.
Marsch chose an unusual 4-1-3-2 with Cican Stankovic in goal. Maximilian Wober and Andre Ramalho combined in the back-line between Rasmus Kristensen at right-back and Albert Vallci at left-back. Zlatko Junuzovic played centrally behind Mergim Berisha, Szoboszlai wide-left, and Enock Mwepu wide-right. Patson Daka and Noah Okafor started up top, although Berisha moved to striker after Luka Sucic came on for Okafor.
Feldhofer set up his side in a 4-3-1-2 with Alexander Kofler in goal. Luka Locoshvili and Dominik Baumgartner played at centre-back with Scherzer at left-back and Michael Novak opposite at right-back. Sven Sprangler, Mario Leitgeb, and Matthaus Taferner played in the centre of the pitch behind Michael Liendl in an advanced number-ten role. The strike-partnership comprised Dejan Jovelic and Dario Vizinger.
RB Salzburg’s new shape
Marsch and RB Salzburg are renowned for the 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 formation that they trot out in most games regardless of competition. Against Wolfsberger, Marsch changed the shape, but the alteration only slightly changed their tactics in the match.
The change was most clear during defensive phases as seen in the image above. The two strikers took up similar positions, but usual striker Berisha dropped into a midfield line with Mwepu and Szoboszlai while Junuzovic played alone in a deeper spot. The new shape makes more sense on the offensive end, as Berisha can play from deeper and pick out passes to runners in behind. Szoboszlai can roam around the final third, assisting in ball progression and attacking moves. Mwepu can move back to assist Junuzovic in the buildup phases as a more defensive-minded midfielder. On the opposite end, the three advanced midfielders left Junuzovic isolated in front of the defence, leaving open space in front of the RB Salzburg back-line where Wolfsberger midfielders could operate.
One of Marsch’s focuses for his squad is an intensive high press to squeeze opponents out of possession. With the midfield-three behind the strikers, the pressing structure changed slightly. The two strikers still pressed the centre-backs as seen in the image above. Daka forced Locoshvili into a pass back to Kofler while Okafor made an arced run to prevent a pass to the opposite side of the field. The midfielders did not have enough players to cut off every option in their line. Berisha and Mwepu split the difference between three players, prepared to immediately pressure any who received a pass. In general, Berisha focused more on the ball-side pivot with the wide midfielder on the ball-side shading toward the full-back. The new pressing structure was effective at higher points but also left Junuzovic alone to sweep up behind the midfield-three.
During phases of possession, the formation resembled a 4-2-2-2 when Mwepu dropped deeper to assist in ball progression as touched upon above. The strategies in the final third remained mostly the same which will be expanded upon in the next section.
More often during the buildup phases, one of Mwepu and Junuzovic dropped into a traditional pivot spot to facilitate progression. RB Salzburg focused on getting the ball into the full-backs in advanced positions, so Mwepu and Junuzovic put pressure on the central areas opening space in wide areas. Here, Mwepu forced the two strikers to respect his position as a central midfielder in the middle of the field where he would a larger range of dangerous passes than does a full-back in a wide area. Junuzovic in the image played higher toward the full-back on the ball, providing an outlet for linkup further up the field.
RB Salzburg’s tactics leveraged the attacking abilities of their full-backs, especially for Kristensen, whose defensive acumen leaves a lot to be desired. The two circled players above show the full-backs in open space in wider areas while the attackers and midfielders occupy Wolfsberger’s retreating midfielders and centre-backs. The sheer number of players in RB Salzburg’s attacks could overwhelm teams with the full-backs firing crosses into loaded boxes.
RB Salzburg in attack
Despite the new shape, RB Salzburg’s attacking tendencies remained similar to that of their other games in a more traditional 4-2-2-2.
This image highlights the basic structure of the attack, although there are some nuances to this basic strategy. Kristensen and Vallci provide width on either side, serving crosses into the box for any of the attackers to score. Kristensen delivered the assist for the first goal on the foot of Berisha among four RB Salzburg attackers in the box. Berisha, Okafor, and Daka put pressure on the Wolfsberger centre-backs and midfielders with their presence on the edge of the box. The fourth forward Szoboszlai is deeper, given more freedom to drift around the open spaces in front of the box. The Hungarian would also get in the box to get on the end of crosses, but he similarly loves a long shot clear by the goals in his highlight videos. Mwepu in the image dropped deeper toward Kristensen, providing an outlet to the right side while also covering more than Szoboszlai.
This situation highlights the effect RB Salzburg’s forwards can have on the creation of space in the final third. Here it is three, but Marsch likes to get up to four runners on the back-line, which makes problems for the opposing defence. In this image, Berisha and Okafor make similar runs toward the left-wing. Berisha runs in front of Novak at right-back while Okafor runs into the left half-space. These two runs attract the attention of Baumgartner and Novak, leaving Daka free to receive a line-breaking pass in a dangerous position. By playing three strikers, Marsch wanted to take advantage of the space manipulation abilities of three different players.
When the ball would quickly switch from one side to the other, one of RB Salzburg’s full-backs would pinch into a more central position as Kristensen did above. With a full-back in open space in front of the box, RB Salzburg presents a dangerous situation to defences as someone must step out to shut down the full-back while four attackers run riot in behind. Kristensen had a more direct pass into the box by pinching into the center. The position also creates more passing lanes because the wide space is vacant while Daka can step off the back-line into a tiny pocket of space. The full-backs were key in the final third for the league leaders.
The image above highlights one key run RB Salzburg looked to exploit against Wolfsberger and in most of their games. When one of their full-backs, here it is Vallci, steps into a wide and advanced area, he draws the attention of the opposing full-back, here that is Novak. This position allows one of Berisha or Daka to make a diagonal run into the wide space behind the full-back. Wolfsberger made a good adjustment here as Taferner pressured Vallci while Novak stepped back to cover Berisha’s run.
When Okafor came off for Sucic in the second half, Berisha moved to striker and he had different tendencies than Okafor in the position. While Daka and Okafor would occasionally move wide, Berisha moved into the wider areas more often. His passing range means he can provide positive contributions without just making runs in the box. When he moves out wide, he leaves space for a midfielder to make an underlapping run while the full-back provides an outlet behind.
Wolfsberger displayed aggression and confidence from the outset in their gameplan, attacking the open spaces in RB Salzburg’s formation while implementing a high press against one of the most dangerous teams in Austria.
Feldhofer was unafraid to commit players forward in his press in a similar structure to his opponents. Jovelic and Vizinger pressed the strikers while Liendl played near the pivot and forced the ball wide. Either of the wide midfielders pressed the full-backs immediately if they received the ball with Taferner taking on Vallci in this situation. The other two central midfielders cheat toward the ball-side, watching any options further up the field. Leitgeb and Novak worked together here to mark the retreating midfielders, looking to help RB Salzburg progress the ball.
Wolfsberger had the most success on the attack when advancing the ball quickly into the final third. Because RB Salzburg committed so many players in attack, they left their back-line vulnerable to quick moves. The press, although risky, provided Wolfsberger the occasional opportunity to capitalize on RB Salzburg’s mistakes. Other teams like LASK and even Bayern Munich to a much greater extent found success attacking RB Salzburg quickly upon receiving possession.
Liendl was a key piece for Wolfsberger knitting the play together. With Junuzovic alone defensively in front of the centre-backs, Liendl could maneuver into pockets of space and play through balls into the strikers. Here, he cut the ball past two RB Salzburg players into the feet of Jovelic. Wolfsberger’s midfielders were clinical and sharp with their passing in the game, which allowed them to move through RB Salzburg’s suffocating press in central areas.
Along with the sharp passing, Wolfsberger’s players have a great understanding of their teammates’ movement which benefitted their offensive possessions. In this image, Jovelic dropped off for a header which he directed back to Scherzer. When he came deeper, Liendl replaced him behind with a run into open space. Liendl did not receive a pass, but the rotation is emblematic of Wolfsberger’s preparation for the match. Their possessions and passing moves were smooth with few misplaced passes. The players seemed to click with each other, just waiting for the finish to arrive.
The RB Salzburg press compressed parts of the field but left some open spaces for Wolfsberger to exploit. This image shows one of two spots where Wolfsberger had the most success. Marsch’s formation change left Junuzovic alone covering the centre-backs, so RB Salzburg left space open between the attacking midfielders and defenders. Liendl found success in those spaces, running into pockets to receive and play passes. Taferner provided some dangerous situations by getting the ball deeper but dribbling through RB Salzburg players. The lack of a second defensive midfielder like Mohamed Camara left the space uncharacteristically open.
This image shows the second area where Wolfsberger found some success, usually on counters. RB Salzburg’s offensive full-backs are often the source of some issues in defence as they leave gaping areas in behind. Wolfsberger lacked the width of other teams to attack these areas as much, but Vizinger and Jovelic recognized these areas when available. Here, Vizinger received a long pass behind Vallci, leading to the second goal.
Wolfsberger designed and executed an effective strategy to attack RB Salzburg’s inefficiencies. Combined with Marsch’s tactical change moved the formation slightly, although the attack remained largely the same. Defensively, the 4-1-3-2 left vulnerable spaces for Wolfsberger to attack, but RB Salzburg still managed two goals in the second half with opportunities to score more. A tidy performance from Wolfsberger saw them rise to the top half of the table.