Analysis: Red Bull Salzburg Stuns Anfield With Three-Goal Comeback in Agonising Defeat

The most anticipated match on Matchday 2 of this season’s European Cup drew two of the most tactically fascinating teams this season. Red Bull Salzburg, the young and highly capable underdogs took on a Liverpool side undefeated in over 15 Premier League games.

One of the reasons this tie was so fascinating was because it revealed how well Salzburg’s playing principles would match up with Liverpool a team with similar principles, albeit with stronger individuals and with more competitive experience in elite competitions.

Liverpool took an early 3-1 lead going into the 1st half, taking advantage of Salzburg’s nervy opening. The 2nd half proved different as Salzburg’s quality and speedy and vertical attacking saw them tie the game at 3-3, before Mohamed Salah put Liverpool in the lead again to eventually win the match.

Line-ups:

Erling Håland and André Ramalho were both replaced in the starting line-up due to illness and injury. Liverpool’s midfield remained as expected with Wijnaldum and Henderson playing in the no.8 role alongside Fabinho.

Red Bull Salzburg (4-2-2-2):

Stanković – Kristensen, Onguéné, Wöber, Ulmer – Mwepu, Junuzović – Minamino, Szoboszlai – Daka, Hwang.

Liverpool (4-3-3):

Adrian – Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, Matip, Robertson – Henderson, Fabinho, Wijnaldum – Salah, Firmino, Mané.

Liverpool Take Advantage of Salzburg’s Ineffective Pressing

Salzburg’s flat 4-4-2 structure proved problematic because of the 3-2 overload that Liverpool had at the base of their midfield. This allowed them to circulate the ball quickly and effectively throughout other areas of the pitch largely thanks to their numerical advantage deep in midfield.

The root cause of Salzburg’s issues was their defensive height. They chose to set-up their last line deep in midfield. However, they were unable to remain compact and were prone to collapses in structure because of Liverpool’s dribbling and passing in and outside of their block, taking advantage of their numerical advantage midfield and their superiority in 1-on-1s.  

Even when they had access to the ball higher up the field, Liverpool were able to bypass them with long passes from deep into wide areas, with Wijnaldum and Henderson doing well to help their side win the second balls. Up against an ineffective pressing unit and with plenty of space in-behind Salzburg’s last line, Liverpool were able to take a 2-0 lead.

Here Salzburg were left exposed because they were unable to deal with the Liverpool’s expansive shape and clever creation of overloads. Mané receives the ball from Robertson before attacking the space ahead of him diagonally. After entering this space he was able to combine with Firmino to open the scoring.
Example of how Liverpool’s central 3-2 overload created space for their full-backs by drawing the wide midfielders in-field, resulting in space opening up on the flanks.

Salzburg Compromise Occupation of Wide Areas for Central Areas

Salzburg pushed Minamino forward into a pure no.10 position, in behind the 2 forwards to presumably to mark Fabinho and decrease his influence and to also have an extra attacking reference in the centre during transition. Mwepu and Szoboszlai played as 8s and were instrumental in helping their full-backs close down the space on the flanks that Liverpool’s wide players had used to stretch the visitors so far.

Despite the switches, Salzburg didn’t get back into the game until they scored their first goal. Liverpool found space in-behind the defensive line, as well as time and space on the flanks through quick diagonal switches.  Because of Firmino’s positioning in-between the lines and the height of Alexander-Arnold and Robertson (inverting Salah and Mané’s positioning), Liverpool were able to remain expansive, compact and with many players ahead of the ball. This allowed them to control the direction and flow of possession hindering Salzburg’s counter-attacking approach.

Salzburg’s Tie the Game Thanks to Extreme Verticality and Excellent Individual Moments

Salzburg’s intensity remained  aggressive and and responded quickly to switches of play and defensive transitions. This allowed them to take advantage of Liverpool’s errors in-possession, which became frequent and lost control of the game between Hwang’s and Håland’s 2nd half goals.

The diamond midfield obviously allowed them less space and time in central areas, and Liverpool probably needed time to adapt and re-align to the change. Salzburg, because of this  attacked with more conviction in transition using combination play more confidently and showing composure in 1v1 situations going forward. For a time, Liverpool had no answer to Salzburg especially because the visitors were so direct, quick and precise with their combinations.

Hwang’s goal displayed the brilliance of their combinations and the individual skill, while Minamino and Håland both scored at the end of contrasting moves. Minamino scoring from outside of the box, after Liverpool were caught out on the counter. Håland’s tap-in ended a sequence of good diagonal movement and Salzburg were rewarded for their willingness to play forward as frequently as possible.

Liverpool Regain the Lead Through Salah and Regain Control Through Change of Shape

After Salzburg’s equaliser, Jürgen Klopp brought on James Milner and Divock Origi for Henderson and Wijnaldum, changing Liverpool’s shape to a 4-2-4/4-2-3-1 variant. Salah and Origi played high and wide and Mané and Firmino in central attacking areas. This adjustment improved defensive preparation, thanks to their balanced positioning in the central axis, allowing them to regain control when counter-pressing.

It paid off as Mohamed Salah scored a goal just 3 seconds after a regain. Liverpool’s counter-pressing was reinforced by the positioning of Robertson and Alexander-Arnold as wide midfielders rather than wingers. This meant that they were able to progress down the flanks without the positioning of their midfielders being compromised in counter-pressing situations.

The two full-backs didn’t have to advance too high anymore (Salah and Origi occupied the advanced wing positions), allowing Fabinho and Henderson to focus on playing in central areas only. Liverpool closed out the game with control despite the intensity of Salzburg’s intensity and threat in attacking transition.

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