On Thursday the two most popular Red Bull clubs came face to face in a competitive fixture for the first time in their brief histories. That’s right, Europa League match-day one pitted RasenBallsport Leipzig against another Red Bull-owned club, Red Bull Salzburg. It proved to be an exciting match-up as Ralf Ragnick’s Leipzig actually came into this fixture as underdogs against Marco Rose’s Salzburg. Salzburg, on the brink of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League earlier this month just missed out and had to settle for Europe’s second-tier competition.
In terms of form, Leipzig came into this game on the back of a 3-2 win over Hannover 96, while Salzburg defeated St. Pölten 3-1. Gulbrandsen, who scored a late third goal in that game, did the same in this one, ending a magnificent counter-attack to break Leipzig hearts despite their comeback from 2-0 down to 2-2. It was a solid defensive showing by Salzburg who nearly let themselves down after their errors cost them two goals. However, their cohesive performance shows how ready they are to make up for last season’s semi-final defeat and push again for the title. Leipzig, on the other hand, have several tactical and team issues to fix if they’re serious about going deep into this season’s Europa League competition. It was a disappointing performance for them and it wasn’t helped by the lack of Timo Werner and Emil Forsberg.
Anyways, without further ado, let’s explore the tactical battle that took place on the night:
RB Leipzig (4-2-3-1): Mvogo; Laimer, Upamecano, Konaté, Mukiele; Kampl, Ilsanker; Sabitzer, Cunha, Bruma; Augustin.
Red Bull Salzburg (4-1-2-1-2): Walke; Lainer, Ramalho, Pongračić, Ulmer; Samassékou; Haidara, Schlager, Wolf; Yabo, Dabbur.
First Half: Leipzig’s Direct Attacking Approach Fails
Leipzig spent the first half trying to attack directly, using a series of long passes into Jean-Kévin Augustin, who was their target man on the night. Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konaté, the two Leipzig centre-backs were the players who primarily played balls into Augustin and the forwards around him. As the ball was played upfield, the forwards attempted to win the second ball or go into counter-pressing mode before continuing their attack. Their 4-2-3-1 system required the three forwards behind Augustin to remain compact. Kevin Kampl, meanwhile, would venture forward too, in order to add an extra player to the attack. Salzburg, however, were well prepared to defend and win the aerial balls. Also, it wasn’t ideal for Augustin to play as a target man with Poulsen, a more suitable option, on the bench. Poulsen has the ideal physical traits of a target man and without him, their long ball approach failed. Augustin was isolated throughout the half, and his team-mates were unable to outnumber and regain the ball from the dynamic and aggressive Salzburg defence. Leipzig suffered as a result.
Their approach was very simplistic and there were no variants aside from the width that Konrad Laimer provided on a few occasions. Laimer played at right-back, and only when Salzburg’s players were out of position did he have the time and space to progress down the right flank when given the ball. However, no goal-scoring chances came from his runs as he was always closed down eventually. At left-back, it was Nordi Mukiele who took up that position – a player who is naturally right-sided. With Marcelo Saracchi unavailable and Marcel Halstenberg just returning from a long-term injury, Rangnick had no choice but to play Mukiele in that position. This meant that he couldn’t carry the ball up and down the wing and it was easy for Salzburg to show him inside and force sideways or backwards passes. So except for Laimer’s presence, Leipzig’s attack hardly troubled Salzburg’s defence throughout the first half.
Salzburg’s Set-Up: Compaction, Coverage and Connections
Salzburg started the game in their usual 4-1-2-1-2 structure which allowed them to congest central areas both in and out of possession. Their compact shape and ball-oriented movement gave them the upper hand because they were always well prepared to respond to what was required in each phase of the game
As Leipzig were so predictable on the ball, Reinhold Yabo and Munas Dabbur would allow Upamecano and Konaté time on the ball as their passing carried little to no threat. They would position themselves directly in front of those players to prevent any passes into midfield, while Hannes Wolf remained close to Leipzig’s deepest midfielder, Stefan Ilsanker. Amadou Haidara, Xaver Schlager and Diadie Samassékou were tasked with marking players who entered their respective zones. This created problems for Leipzig as they had no way to access any central midfield zones to play in, reducing them to only one ineffective variation in possession, as mentioned above. Salzburg were well protected in all zones and their players maintained connections with each other, allowing them to provide coverage whenever a Leipzig player broke through. Yabo and Dabbur could move from the centre out to the half-space when the ball was played out wide to Leipzig’s full-backs. Wolf and Samassékou were both positioned in the central axis, and Schlager and Haidara were in the half-spaces. This meant that when the ball was played wide, they had two players in the half-space closest to the ball carrier and the rest of the team, tucking in to congest the centre. As the ball-near striker blocked the pass from the full-back, back to the centre-back, either Schlager or Haidara could move out to the wing to press knowing that they were covered in behind. The full-back, Laimer or Mukiele would then be forced sideways or backwards or into speculative long balls towards their front line.
Other times, when they were in favourable counter-pressing situations higher up the field, by having access to the ball, Salzburg would go right ahead an put pressure on Leipzig. In fact, this is how they opened the scoring in the 20th minute. After Yabo lost possession trying to control a long pass, Salzburg went straight into a counter-press. As Haidara stepped up to press Mukiele, the left-back played the ball infield to Ilsanker who misplaced his back-pass into the direction of Dabbur, who pounced and put Salzburg 1-0 up. At that moment, I thought of Jürgen Klopp’s famous quote that counter-pressing is the best playmaker. Well in that situation, counter-pressing literally was the playmaker as it resulted in the opposition assisting Dabbur’s goal.
Upon regaining possession, Salzburg usually did what they do best and counter-attacked at exhilarating speed; but how did they play when they had possession and there were no opportunities to counter? I’ll go into detail on that, but first, let’s look at how Leipzig defended in such situations.
Leipzig’s pressing was man-oriented and this is how they executed it. Augustin, playing as a lone striker, he was usually the first one to press Salzburg’s centre-backs when they had the ball, forcing an action from them before either Bruma or Cunha could push forward and press the other centre-back and force the ball sideways. In midfield, Samassékou, playing as a number six, was usually marked by whoever was positioned as Leipzig’s number ten (usually Cunha but sometimes Bruma. Sabitzer remained on the right). Haidara and Schlager were usually positioned closer to the halfway line, only dropping to support their full-backs in possession. Sabitzer and Kampl usually followed those two and sometimes Leipzig’s shape mirrored Salzburg’s midfield diamond, with Ilsanker marking wolf at the base of it. In these situations, Leipzig prevented Salzburg from playing out of the back through the centre. They couldn’t use their full-backs in this situation as Leipzig’s players could pass on their opponents, adjust to the ball and press the full-back.
Instead, Salzburg played long passes into their forwards just like their opponents did, except they were set-up much better, allowing them to win seconds balls or to counter-press immediately. They played with two strikers rather than one and had Hannes Wolf right behind them.
Schlager and Haidara’s support was also crucial in allowing them to create triangles around the ball every time it was played upfield. Unfortunately, their counter-press focused approach meant they almost never established themselves higher up the pitch, which meant that had very few shots in the first half. However, they did grab the second goal, soon after Dabbur’s. As Walke had the ball scanning for his passing options, Schlager dropped into the number six area alongside Samassékou. Unfortunately, Kampl was out of position meaning Salzburg had an extra player in behind Augustin and Bruma. Walke played the ball into Schlager, who was the free-man, and attracted Sabitzer before he passed the ball to the left-back, Ulmer, who received the ball without the pressure from Sabitzer. Herein lies the flaw of a man-oriented press as Ulmer received the ball it drew the opposition full-back, opening up space, which Dabbur dropped into. Upamecano followed, which in turn opened up space where he was supposed to defend and Salzburg used that space after a series of combinations to put Ulmer through on goal. He crossed for Haidara to put Salzburg two goals ahead and punishing Leipzig for a short lapse in concentration caused by Kampl’s positioning. The result was that they were constantly dragged out of position and easily opened up by a Salzburg side who are specialists at creating space and combining through central areas. This play didn’t happen again and Salzburg continued to defend efficiently, both teams going into the half-time break created only a few chances. It was just that one team went into half-time happier than the other.
Second Half: Clever Substitutions and Tactical Adjustments By Leipzig
Ralf Rangnick brought on Diego Demme, Yussuf Poulsen and Marcel Halstenberg at half-time in place of Bruma, Jean-Kévin Augustin and Nordi Mukiele respectively.
Leipzig made an adjustment in possession to prevent Salzburg’s pressing from forcing them into rushed long passes. Ilsanker usually would move into the back line as the ball playing centre-back, with Upamecano and Konaté pushing slightly wider. This allowed their full-backs to push further forward, knowing that they had cover from their centre-backs. Diego Demme played in the pivot and Leipzig now had a 3-1-5-1 shape, giving a real problem to solve for Marco Rose. I don’t want to get excited and say Rangnick is a genius but this move was very practical and chess-like, as he swiftly analysed where his team was lacking and found how he could create space and optimise their long ball approach. Demme’s positioning in the pivot meant Leipzig now had a 4v3 advantage over Salzburg’s forwards while the inclusion of Halstenberg gave them width and Ilsanker moving into the backline allowed the Leipzig full-backs (now wing-backs) to move into midfield. Actually, they moved even further forward at times, pinning back Salzburg’s full-backs. With Poulsen upfront pinning back Ramalho and Pongračić, The game was now 3v3 in midfield, Leipzig having the upper hand because of the aforementioned 4v3 with Ilsanker dropping into the backline. So how did this affect the game?
First of all, it gave the backline more time and space to play accurate passes into their target man. And the fact that Poulsen was now on the pitch made the long passes more effective. They now had a player who could hold up play in advanced positions and players behind him who were connected enough to counter-press well enough (compared to the first half). Salzburg dropping off created two problems for them. Firstly, it made Poulsen more dangerous as he was closer to goal and it made their counters less dangerous as they were so far away from goal (also Leipzig had sufficient cover in midfield to stop them). Secondly, their long ball approach was now dependent on Leipzig’s mistakes to work (which it did as I’ll explain), because they no longer had the luxury of an extra man in midfield. Without true wingers, they had no players to exploit the space outside of Leipzig’s back three. They still managed to create chances in the second half as Leipzig were prone to making errors within their new structure, with Upamecano being the culprit on basically all of these instances. He would get dragged out of position leaving Leipzig exposed in their right half-space and right flank. All of Salzburg’s chances came from him being out of position. The winner that they scored, however, was slightly different.
Errors, Equalizers and Last-Minute Winners
But still, the tides had turned and Salzburg were on the back foot. Leipzig got back into the game through a Laimer goal after Ulmer gifted him with the ball. Demme with time and space on the ball (again, that diamond created around Salzburg’s forwards worked like a charm), hit a diagonal pass to Laimer who had pinned back Ulmer. Ulmer was first to the ball and controlled it but failed in his clearance, allowing Laimer to steal the ball and score. The second goal came when Leipzig took advantage of Salzburg in defensive transition. Halstenberg who received the ball after Ilsanker switched play to the left, beat the substitute Minamino in a 1v1 out wide. This caused the full-back to press Halstenberg, opening up space in behind him which Kampl made a run into. Kampl then received a pass in space and played a brilliant cross into the box for Poulsen to head in the equalizer. It was a brilliant goal, but Salzburg must’ve been ruing the negative effect their compact structure had when they lacked access to the ball whilst pressing. It was too easy for Halstenberg as he received the ball with a lot of space to attack and only one player pressing him.
Leipzig were full of errors on the night and threw away the game in the 89th minute. After a clearance by Salzburg, they had the chance to stop a Leipzig counter-attack because of their numerical advantage at the base of their formation. They couldn’t do this and Salzburg scored a peculiar goal in which the assist and the assist of the assist were both (admittedly very sexy) back-heel flicks. Gulbrandsen was on the end of the assist to finish calmly in the position Upamecano was caught out of for probably the fifth time in that half alone. It was wild celebrations for Salzburg as they trumped their German neighbours 3-2 in the first-ever Red Bull Derby. Leipzig, on the other hand, left the field frustrated by their own errors.
Salzburg triumphed over Leipzig in what was a tactically interesting game. Leipzig were well set-up in the first half to prevent Leipzig from creating chances. They also did brilliantly to score two out of three of their shots. The first a brilliant counter-pressing move that gifted Dabbur a goal, the second a blend between Salzburg’s slick combination’s and Leipzig’s defensive incompetence. The second half was even more interesting as Leipzig’s substitutions allowed them to force Salzburg deeper and take advantage of the space they were now afforded to play their long ball game. Ultimately, Ulmer was responsible for the first Leipzig goal but collectively the whole team was at fault for the second goal, which came from a well-executed move by Leipzig. In the end, though, Leipzig were the masters of their own downfall as they failed to stop Salzburg’s counter when they really should’ve and were left devastated after they could’ve held on for a draw. After the game, it was reported that Mukiele and Augustin’s behaviour had caused friction within the dressing room and they were promptly dropped for the Leipzig’s following fixture. How that impacted their first-half performances? I can’t say but they were both liabilities for Leipzig while on the pitch and I wonder what might have been had Halstenberg and Poulsen played from the start.