Salzburg carried their fantastic form in the Ö. Bundesliga into the Europa League round of 32 first leg, as they battered a helpless Ajax side by 3-0. With a Jonatan Soriano brace and a Sadio Mané goal ultimately doing the damage in the tie. Ajax looked lost for ideas and couldn’t cope with the intensity of Salzburg, and eventually, class told. This match was a perfect example of the famous “hard work beats talent” phrase, which was visible through the game, and certainly made it entertaining to watch.
Counter-pressing and defensive structure
Salzburg’s game plan was clear from the start: to force Ajax into mistakes high in their own half and build attacks from a high starting position. They were very fast out of the blocks and pressed Ajax at a very high intensity, forcing early turnovers high up the pitch. Their man-orientated pressed worked well, and Ajax were clearly rattled and struggled to cope with it.
In this short clip, we see Ilsanker drop back to create a 3 v 2 versus Ajax’s initial defensive structure. Ramalho (right) is being pressed by Fischer using the blindside press, whilst Sigthórsson is using a cover shadow to block the vertical pass to Ilsanker, leaving goalkeeper Gulácsi free to pass to left centre-back Hinteregger.
Here we see Leitgeb moving towards Klaassen instead of Hinteregger as a passing option, and Hinteregger clips the ball into space between the lines. This is the first phase of Salzburg’s offensive pressing.
As you can see, Salzburg have overloaded the wide area. The clipped pass that Hinteregger has played into a crowded area shows that Salzburg have no fear of losing possession as their offensive compactness creates the opportunity to apply pressure. The nearest players press both the ball and any immediate passing options. The second nearest position themselves to engage the nearest man and use a cover shadow to prevent long balls, while the furthest, in this case Kampl and Leitgeb, block the furthest passing options. This forces a lot of turnovers high up the pitch. Ulmer’s high position results in Salzburg’s defence becoming a situational back three to cover the spaces left.
We see Salzburg lose possession of the ball almost purposefully as they’ve overloaded the centre. Again, they had created a good opportunity to press. Ilsanker presses the man in possession while Leitgeb covers him and blocks the supply to those between the lines. Mané and Kampl come inside and stop potential short passes in the half-spaces. In this case, Mané is on the far side, and so can blindside press a potential short option. One of the front two look for space in hope of a potential turn over, for this it’s Soriano, thus becoming the focal point in transition.
The two examples above were executed to perfection and shows how well-drilled Roger Schmidt had his players, and as a result, de Boer simply had no answer to Salzburg’s tactics, struggling for the entire night. Ajax’s main outlet, Daley Blind, was shadowed by one of the forwards and was immediately pressure as soon as he received the ball from one of the central midfielders.
Salzburg pressed with a five-man shape with inverted wingers when Ajax goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen, was in possession. This was to ensure that he couldn’t play to his centre-backs or Blind, forcing him to play the ball towards the two full-backs, which played into Salzburg’s hands as they suffocated Ajax in the wide areas.
As visible, Cillessen is in possession. Soriano arcs his run so Joel Veltman cannot receive the ball. Alan is in a good position to press Blind if he is to receive the ball and turn, while Kampl goes wide to press Moisander on the left. Off-screen, Mané is tight to right-back, van Rhijn, and so forces Cillessen to go to left-back Duarte (off-screen). With Christian Schwegler making strides forwards all game, Duarte was inevitably going to be met with intense pressure.
It was an energetic defensive performance by the visitors that aided them in transition. With the full-backs showing great enthusiasm to push forwards into the space vacated for them by their wingers, it caused huge problems for Ajax, forcing them backwards and slowing down Ajax’s usually fast transitions. It was a fantastic set-up by Schmidt, and was almost defensively offensive, something that the Salzburg fans appreciated and admired the whole night.
Attacking build-up, half-space movement and exploitation of space
Red Bull Salzburg’s build-up stems from the previous point on their counter-press. Although they possessed less technical ability than Ajax, they made the most of their abilities on the counter and passed with flying colours.
Let’s take a look at Salzburg’s attacking structure. You can see Salzburg’s front four remain in close proximity with one another. This helps them interchange positions when the ball has been lost as they aim to regain possession. Kampl is essentially the roaming playmaker; using his technical ability to link the midfield and attack to disorganise the midfield and defensive lines. Mané’s role in the game was to make use of explosive pace by making late runs and accelerate past Ajax’s defence. The wingers’ inverted movement created space for the full-backs to set up base in, restricting Duarte’s and van Rhijn’s influence. Jonatan Soriano was there to provide a presence in the half-space when pressing to regain the ball, and when it was recovered. It’s the Spaniard’s movement towards his own goal that enticed Ajax’s line towards him; allowing Mané the space to exploit in behind. Soriano’s partner in crime, Alan, would also take advantage of these movements as the attention was dragged away from him. Granting him the freedom to drift into the left half-space. If need be, Leitgeb and Ilsanker would offer themselves as passing options, if none were available.
This was especially successful due to Klaassen and de Jong’s reluctance to cover the movements of Mané and Kampl, forcing Blind to cover one of the two, this would result in a man being left opened. Occasionally, when Blind found himself in trouble, one of the centre-backs would step up to cover the space. This caused a chain reaction. Ajax’s full-back duo would have to come inside to fill in the space, creating space out wide for Ulmer and Schwegler to roam into.
Here is an example of Salzburg’s structure in game. Gulácsi has put the ball into an area between Ajax’s midfield and defensive lines, where they can quickly overload the area. Ajax however, allowed them time and left a huge space between the lines for Salzburg to exploit. You can see Kampl is heading towards the left half-space; this is so that the faster, less technical Sadio Mané has space to run into to face Duarte in a one-versus-one. Alan has taken on the previously discussed role of Soriano: picking up the recovery ball.
Kampl takes up the option of playing in Mané, but there is another important thing to note in this play. You can see Soriano curving his run, and this is a decoy run, but what’s interesting is the way that the Ajax defenders follow him, meaning that they cannot help Duarte in cutting out the pass and opens up space for Mané to run into. Mané eventually rounds Cillessen and puts Salzburg 2-0 up.
This continued throughout the game, and if Mané worked on the timing of his runs, Salzburg could’ve been more than two up at this point. De Boer was really naïve in the way that he allowed Klaassen and de Jong not to track back and allow Salzburg to continuously gain access to the half-spaces. Ajax’s defensive 4-4-2 high block lacked concentration, which played directly into Salzburg’s hands. This wasn’t the only weakness that Kampl could have exploited in this play alone. As well as using Mané in the still above, he could’ve used Mané’s run as a decoy and played through the onrushing Schwegler or Ulmer – varying on the flank. Salzburg used this to maximum effect throughout the game, and by the end of the first-half, they were cruising with a 3-0 lead.
Transitioning out of mid-block
One of the key factors in Salzburg’s attacking build up was their transitioning out of the mid-block. Ajax’s central compactness allowed Salzburg to use the full-backs as either options or a decoy. It also meant that because of Ajax’s attempt to move into space and dismantle Salzburg’s counter-press, it allowed Salzburg to overload a disorganised Ajax midfield – creating a huge amount of penetrable space for the visitors.
Again, I show the counter-press of Salzburg. Although they win the ball back, Soriano cannot bring the ball under control, and so the attack breaks down. What’s key here is the instant forward movement of every single Salzburg player into space where they can drag their man out of position. We see Ulmer and Mané making a sharp run towards the left flank in the hope that a man will follow them into a wide position, thus creating space for Soriano. With Duarte attracted to Kampl’s inverted movement, Schwegler can attack freely down the right. However, play is not facing his side, meaning that it would be a waste of energy for him to do so and would leave the defence imbalanced. So he drops back to create a back three. Ilsanker and Leitgeb sit back as a cautionary action due to a potential breakdown. Offering a short option for one of them to recycle the play or continue the attack.
The speed of Alan, Mané and the two full-backs made this very easy due to the overload between the lines which was pushing Ajax’s defence high and leaving space in behind for an aggressive forward run. The use of the mid-block is important for two reasons: had they chose to sit deep, it would’ve allowed Ajax the time and space to plug the gaps that allowed Salzburg to be so successful throughout the game. A high-block would have pushed Ajax’s defensive line so far back that there would be no space for runners to move into. The mid-block also allowed the counter-press in the right areas, as if it was unsuccessful, Salzburg would’ve had to the time to regroup due to their overload in both defence and midfield. The mid-block also allowed Salzburg to press in the right areas, as if it was unsuccessful, they could regroup in to due to player positioning.
Salzburg were in complete control throughout the entire tie and took full advantage of Ajax’s naïvety and lack of concentration, despite lacking the technical talent of Ajax. It was admirable the way they overcame the initial 3 v 2 overload in midfield, using Kampl and Mané as tools to unlock the Ajax midfield and run Daley Blind ragged all game. The scoring was capped off by a magnificent half-way line goal by Soriano – coming from another counter-press scenario – which was later nominated for the Puskás award. This game was certainly one to remember for the Salzburg fans, coming home with a 3-0 victory as underdogs, and is a result that Roger Schmidt will forever savour.