In-depth Analysis: How Red Bull Salzburg U19 Reached the UEFA Youth League Semi-finals

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the suspension of the UEFA Youth League in March, Red Bull Salzburg returned to action against Olympique Lyon in the quarter-finals of the competition, scraping through a 4-3 victory before getting knocked out in the semi-final by eventual winners, Real Madrid. It was a disappointing end to their campaign, with many touting them as one of the favorites for the title.

Despite having scored the joint-most goals in the competition (29 goals in 10 games), it was ultimately their defensive problems which were decisive in stopping them from winning the competition for the second time, after Marco Rose won it with his Salzburg team in the 2016/17 season.

This analysis will highlight some of the key tactical aspects of this Salzburg team.

Formations (Last Two Matches)

As expected, it is clear to see that this Salzburg team adopts the trademark Red Bull style of play. The 4-3-1-2 or 4-diamond-2 formation is one which has been used several times in the past by the club – Jesse Marsch’s Salzburg side have used it a few times over the past season, most notably in their UEFA Champions League tie against Liverpool, while Marco Rose’s UEFA Youth League winning team also adopted the formation to great success.

The formation in itself is not of utmost importance as there are several variations which occur in the base staggering. This is mainly due to the flexibility of the system, which, when out of possession, is often a result of the ball-orientated spatial coverage which this team uses. This is because in a ball-orientated marking style the point of reference is the ball itself, where it could go and how to prevent it from hurting the team in that specific situation, therefore, requiring players to be more flexible when pressing than they would in a man-orientated marking style where the primary focus would be on controlling a specific opposition player, for example. Although it must be noted that situational man-orientations do exist within their pressing system, with one example, amongst others, being when the 10 marks the opposition 6 in the opponent’s first-phase build-up.

Red Bull Salzburg’s Press

Many of the basic principles of Red Bull’s game model are instantly recognizable within Salzburg’s press. The goal of the press is to win the ball early and high up the pitch. They want to be proactive when defending and press the opposition as fast and aggressive as possible without fouling to deny the opponent time and space to build-up cleanly. There are small distances between the players in their structure and consequently a high level of vertical, horizontal and diagonal compactness.

They also have strong central and half-space occupation, while the 4-diamond-2 allows for good natural staggering with players occupying different heights on the pitch, helping to increase the coverage of space within the structure as well as the additional lines of players resulting in more waves of defenders which the opposition need to break through to advance the ball. Ultimately, the effects of this is that Salzburg dominate the central zones, making it very difficult for the opposition to progress through while leaving space out wide.

Salzburg’s positioning in their pressing structure is generally quite efficient. Not only are they compact but the players’ distribution within the structure ensures that they are close enough to opposition players (allowing them to press opponent as quickly as possible), to potential passing options (allowing them to ‘lurk’ and intercept passes played into their structure), to their own teammates (allowing them to cover if a teammate steps out to press), and also to open spaces (allowing them to win any loose balls).

When the opposition have the ball in first-phase build-up, Salzburg are already positioned high and ready to press. Salzburg’s strikers stay quite vertical in relation to the center-backs and block passes forward into the structure. At the same time, the 10 controls the space behind the first pressing line and limits passes into the opposition 6, while the two 8s are not specifically orientated to a man but instead occupy the half-spaces, thereby maintaining access to press any passes centrally, passes into the half-spaces or, as often is the case, passes wide to the fullback.

Although the goal is to be aggressive and win the ball as early as possible, they do not blindly chase after the ball or go full force in the first phase of pressing. Instead they maintain their balance, control the space and passing options, create access to potential passing options and wait for a trigger to apply more intense pressure. Common pressing triggers include mistakes from the opposition such as poor body positioning, bad passes and loose touches, but also when the passes are played into specific areas or players.

Due to the strong central occupation and the resulting space in the wide areas, opponents are often conditioned and encouraged to play wide when building out from the back, with Salzburg anticipating this and setting a trap on the opposition fullback. A trap is essentially forcing the opposition into a specific zone where the team can press in a very coordinated and organized way to win the ball back or hinder the opposition’s progression. The benefit of setting this trap wide rather than centrally is that the touchline acts as a limiting factor as the player doesn’t have that 360-degree radius of options, like he would in the center of the field.

Once this ball is played wide, it is a trigger for Salzburg to press and they immediately try to overload the space around the fullback with a ball-orientated shift. Due to the near-sided 8’s positioning in the half-space and the access this creates to the fullback, it is his job to ensure immediate pressure is placed on the ball. The near-sided striker will usually curve his pressing run to guide the center-back to play the ball wide, and once this has happened, he will continue his movement towards the fullback, using his cover shadow to block off passes back into the center-back or goalkeeper.

The 10’s role is also important as he can block passing options into the middle as well as put pressure on the center-back if the fullback is able to play the ball back, since the striker continues his run towards the fullback and therefore wouldn’t be able to provide this immediate pressure. The 6, far-sided 8 and far-sided striker will all move towards the ball, providing cover with efficient use of their positioning and cover shadows, lurking on potential passes into the structure which can be intercepted or blocked off, and just ensuring that there is no escaping the trap. The backline will also shift accordingly. At times, the near-sided fullback pushes up to press depending on the situation but will generally cover passes into the opposition winger if he stays wide or drops to support his fullback.

It is important to consider the dynamic of the trap. Since Salzburg anticipate that opponents will have difficulty in trying to play through the center against their diamond structure and are likely to play wide, it brings in a certain element of predictability which helps the timing of Salzburg’s shifts, ensuring that as soon as the ball is played, they are able to attack the ball-receiver immediately, closing the space around him and limiting his time on the ball.

Also, since the fullback is generally quite static when receiving the ball and Salzburg’s players are in motion and not having to make changes in direction, it further limits the fullback’s decision-making in that situation as once he receives the ball and looks up he will see a completely different picture than when the pass was played and will have to orientate himself again. This effect is further enhanced if the pass is played directly from the goalkeeper to fullback due to the greater distance the ball has to travel and can also lead to more dangerous counter-attacks as the possibility of Salzburg winning the ball cleanly from this situation is higher.

A key feature of Salzburg’s press is the coordination of the shift and how connected they stay. In general, it is almost like they are pressing in a net-like structure with the whole team moving collectively to the ball instead of isolated chains, thereby maintaining good local compactness around the ball and strong cover. The result of all this is that opponents struggle to constructively build out from the back since Salzburg have strong access to options around the ball, with every pass posing a risk for a turnover and dangerous Salzburg counter-attacks. As a result, opponents are often forced to play long balls down the line or forward towards a striker or target player, with Salzburg generally being able to deal with these situations favorably.

At times in the latter stages of games, Salzburg even get away with ‘false’ pressing, where, despite not being physically able to execute the press with its usual intensity, the opponent still does not take advantage, even of supposedly easy forward passes or combinations to progress the ball. This has to do with the psychological effect that the press has on opponents and due to the fact that after several previous intense and successful presses from Salzburg, just the suspicion of another one is enough to force the opponent to play it long, sometimes aimlessly.

Furthermore, some teams opt to skip building out from first phase all together and will play it long immediately and try to get numbers close to the ball to win the second balls. By doing so, they overplay Salzburg’s front pressing lines altogether and thus avoid the possibility of ball losses deep in their own half. Lyon used this strategy and were successful to an extent, leading to a penalty (which was retaken twice and saved each time by Daniel Antosch) and Lyon’s third goal.

Naturally, as a result of creating such a strong overload near the ball, the far-side is underloaded, presenting an opportunity for opponents to exploit the open space with switches. Often though, the nature and intensity of Salzburg’s press ensures that this is a difficult task. Attempts to switch with a long diagonal pass require good execution, while Salzburg’s far-sided fullback can also leave his position to intercept the pass and apply immediate pressure, with the remaining back three shifting to protect the space behind him. Attempts to switch play with short passes into Salzburg’s structure and then out to the far-side are also difficult but present the most opportunity as Salzburg are most vulnerable in these situations.

When the opposition is able to pass the ball into the spaces between the lines, Salzburg aggressively narrow the space around the ball. At times it is almost like the structure is collapsing around the ball and generally ensures they win the ball swiftly and can counter instantly. However, at times they over-commit to the ball-near zone or are unbalanced positionally, making them very vulnerable to switches into the ball-far spaces which are completely vacated.

They have conceded many chances and goals out of situations like these, where the opponent is able to work the ball to a player in the ball-far space. The far-sided fullback is often the one isolated in these situations, with opponents creating overloads and combinations, dribbling inside to work off a shot or crossing to a teammate in the box.

Despite the success of the high press when the opponent is building from first phase, Salzburg are prone to defensive errors and generally look much weaker defensively in their own half. Both goals conceded against Real Madrid came as a result of poor defending and individual errors, while the same could be seen in the game against Lyon. This is a clear area in which the team needs to improve as they are sometimes unbalanced and unorganized when dropping off into their middle and defensive third or when dealing with switches into ball-far spaces as explained above.

Defensive vulnerabilities.

Red Bull Salzburg’s Dangerous Transitions

The Red Bull philosophy is known for its effective and aggressive pressing game with a big focus on dominating transitions, and this Salzburg team definitely adheres to that. After losing the ball, they counter-press and apply pressure instantly. Once they win the ball back, they look to counter and are very dangerous.

The success of Salzburg’s counter-press is reliant on their overall positioning before the moment they lose the ball and attempt the counter-press. In possession, Salzburg’s structure is still quite compact which means that players are close enough to one another in order to press together as a unit upon losing the ball. If the positioning is not optimal or Salzburg are unbalanced when losing the ball, then the counter-press will not be effective, leaving them vulnerable to being outplayed, losing challenges, committing fouls and quick counter-attacks.

On the other hand, a good structure with proper positioning and compactness means that they have good numbers around the ball and can progress forward immediately. The strong central and half-space occupation naturally results in the team prioritizing the more central corridors over the wider corridors when transitioning into attack. This is favorable because it ensures strong connections between players since they are closer together, leading to quicker and more accurate passes which are easier to control, ultimately resulting in Salzburg counter-attacking directly towards the opponent’s goal as quickly as possible using dynamic combinations and fast vertical progressions (something Jesse Marsch describes as quick play).

Even when in possession of the ball, Salzburg’s players are proactive and anticipate potential ball losses. Upon losing the ball, they move collectively towards the ball-carrier and space surrounding the ball to try win it back, instead of immediately trying to defend the space behind themselves. To simplify in a way, it could be said that Salzburg take a step forward when losing the ball rather than taking a step backwards. This helps to improve defensive stability as it drives the opponent backwards, preventing them from quickly gaining space forward and executing dangerous counter-attacks. Furthermore, the opponent has to orientate himself upon winning the ball and is therefore prone to being pressed, while his teammates will also be in the process of opening up space to establish an attacking structure, therefore leaving them vulnerable.

Due to the strong overloads that Salzburg create around the ball and the access this creates to opponents, with players ‘lurking’ and covering most options around the ball, it often allows Salzburg to win possession back ‘cleanly’ through interceptions rather than tackles. Even when winning the ball through tackles, it is cleaner due to the numerical superiority around the ball and no residual pressure from the opponent after the tackle since one player can tackle and another can take the ball and start the counter.

Also, in general, effective counter-pressing results in ball-recoveries higher up the pitch with the players already in attacking positions since they just lost the ball and therefore are within a shorter distance to the opposition’s goal. Ultimately, this all leads to faster, better and more dangerous counter-attacks.

Lastly, a benefit of the diamond is that the distances between players are shorter. What this often allows is for players to have access to press backwards upon the team losing the ball and Salzburg use this effectively. On some occasions, the 10 or strikers pressed backwards, winning the ball and initiating a counter.

Counter-attacks.

Red Bull Salzburg’s Build-up

When building out from first and second phase, it seems Salzburg maintain the same goal as with their offensive transitions – to reach the opponent’s goal as soon as possible. Although there are some aspects of positional play, they do not opt for patient and structured build-up (the type of build-up we are accustomed to seeing in a lot of the dominant teams these days). Instead, the team’s build-up revolves around verticality, fluid attacking movement and dynamic combination play, aiming to attack with pace and break the opponent’s shape with the least amount of passes possible.

Just as with their counter-attacks, the team want to progress through the more central areas and half-spaces rather than out wide, with the diamond providing many different angles and combinative possibilities in order to play in these tight spaces between the lines. The back line will circulate the ball, looking to open up, exploit gaps and break the lines of the opposition defensive block with penetrative passes forward. Once these balls are played, more advanced players will look to turn and head towards goal or combine with one touch passes, one-twos, lay-offs and through balls. If these progressive passes are intercepted, Salzburg usually have good numbers around the ball to counter-press as explained above.

If unable to play through the lines of pressure, they are willing to go wide with diagonal passes out to the fullback. The fullbacks play an important role since they are often the sole providers of width on each respective flank. Once the fullback receives this pass wide, he will look to progress and find passing options back inside, often diagonally towards the strikers or 10.

Directness and vertical play in build-up.

Salzburg do not seem to keep possession for the sake of keeping possession. In fact, since their counter-press is so strong and the resulting counter-attack is so deadly, at times it seems as though they deliberately cede possession by playing it long towards the strikers centrally. These long passes are usually met with high resistance from the opponents, but Salzburg’s structure in these areas ensures good presence and they anticipate these ball loss situations well, opening up the possibility of winning the second ball or counter-pressing the opponent to win the ball close to their goal. Also, it is difficult for opponents to win the ball back cleanly in these situations, resulting in lots of clearances and Salzburg regaining possession of the ball.

Furthermore, the strikers are intelligent in their movement and look to bind center-backs and at times even fullbacks with their positioning in the opponent’s defensive chain. If passes into the strikers are successful, the strikers can run through on goal or are able to combine and lay it off for the advancing 10 and 8s. These lay-off passes are particularly valuable as the receiver usually has good dynamic and generally has his field of vision open towards the opponent’s goal, allowing good through balls and the creation of goal scoring opportunities.

Adeyemi, in particular, is key in their offensive process. He is a big threat with his pace, dribbling and outstanding ball-carrying abilities, especially in transitions, while his movement and positioning is very intelligent, often having a knack for timing his runs perfectly to receive through balls behind the opponent’s defensive line. There is also end-product to his game, and he ended this seasons competition with 3 goals and 7 assists.

The verticality and lack of patience in the build-up is also one of the reasons the fullbacks do not advance too high down the flanks in attacking phases. Salzburg do not try to patiently put together 10 or 15 passes before advancing as some very positional play orientated teams do in order to ensure players have time to organize themselves properly and also prepare the rest of the defence in case of turnovers.

As explained, there are many fast and direct attacks which often move on the verge of losing the ball, resulting in there being not many situations where the fullback can advance in a stable manner, with some attacks being so fast that providing support with the right timing becomes difficult for the fullback. Although fullbacks advancing higher in attack would actually be beneficial since it would offer more width, better spacing and lead to less ball losses when the gaps become so tight centrally, it is just not worth the risk.

In the semi-final, Real Madrid adopted a 4-4-2 formation when Salzburg were building from the back. Their press was fairly passive at times, often dropping off into a mid-low block with good vertical and horizontal compactness between the chains and a fairly position-orientated style. In a sense, it seemed as though they recognized the strength of Salzburg in the transitions and looked to limit this by allowing Salzburg possession of the ball in build-up and forcing them to try and break Madrid down. Also, by not committing higher, they mitigated the risk of exposing spaces between the lines, helping to combat against Salzburg’s strong compactness and occupation of central zones and therefore limiting their attacking and transitional play in these areas.

This played a big role in Madrid’s victory as Salzburg’s build-up became quite ineffective. Madrid’s midfield line would hold their positions, shift and block passes into players between the lines. The front two also used their cover shadows effectively to prevent dangerous passes from the center-backs into Madrid’s block. Furthermore, Salzburg’s 6 dropped into the back line in build-up in order to create a numerical superiority against Madrid’s two-man front pressing line. This pushed the center-backs wider and lead to more passes wide into the fullbacks which for Madrid was more favorable than passes into the center and half-spaces.

Salzburg lacked the necessary movements and switches in order to open up the spaces between the lines and, as a result, were forced to play long balls forward which were dealt with quite well by Madrid as the compactness ensured they could win second balls and escape potential counter-presses.

It must be noted that Madrid scored very early in the game and were 2-0 up at half-time, further enabling their more cautious approach.

What Do The Stats Say?

Upon analyzing the stats, it is made even clearer the extent at which Red Bull’s philosophy is running through this team and reinforces a lot of what I have described in this article so far. Firstly, as mentioned in the introduction, Salzburg scored the joint-most amount of goals in the competition, averaging 3.03 goals per 90 minutes, while also conceding the most goals out of the semi-finalists – Salzburg, Ajax, Benfica & Real Madrid – with 18 goals conceded, averaging 1.88 per 90.

Offensively, Salzburg had the least average ball possession (47%) and least number of passes per 90 mins (288.79) out of the semi-finalists, but also executed the greatest number of through balls (101) in the whole competition. This helps to portray the nature of their offensive game and the fact that they aim to reach the opponent’s goal with the least amount of passes possible using dynamic combinations and vertical play, while the other semi-finalists opt for more patient and structured build-up patterns (for context, Ajax average 469.47, Benfica average 428.43 and Madrid average 386.39).

Salzburg averaged the most amount of ball losses per 90 mins (122.37) and in total (1172) in the competition. This is not only representative of the very direct nature of their offensive game, but also the fact that they make games chaotic, but in a controlled and purposeful way, with their pressing, counter-pressing and counter-attacks. This results in lots of transitions, which is what Salzburg want since they are set up to dominate these transitions, and therefore leads to higher numbers of ball losses and turnovers.

They also had the greatest number of defensive duels (788), interceptions (443) and fouls (166) in the competition, with the 17.33 fouls and 46.25 interceptions per 90 minutes being the highest out of the semi-finalists. This further illustrates the very transitional nature of their games, while also highlighting the nature of their press since they create strong compactness around the ball with good access to the opponents, potential passing options, teammates and open spaces, ultimately leading to more defensive duels, interceptions and fouls.

Lastly, their PPDA (7.13) is the lowest out of the semi-finalists, illustrating the intense nature of their press. PPDA or Passes Allowed Per Defensive Action is defined by Wyscout as “a metric that can quantify the extent and aggression of high presses employed by teams”, with a lower value representing a more aggressive press since less passes were allowed before a defensive action was made.

Conclusion

This Salzburg team displayed all the qualities that you expect to see from a Red Bull side. They play with intensity that few teams in the competition could match, and the speed and risk-taking in their offensive game combined with their high pressing and counter-pressing always ensured that their games were eventful and full of goals.

The team is made up of a talented group of players, with some close to making the step up to the first team or becoming regular starters in the coming seasons. In the end, poor defensive errors and a blunted attack against Real Madrid cost them a place in the final and a shot at winning the competition for a second time, but it goes without saying that this UEFA Youth League campaign is likely to have helped take these players a step further in their development. Ultimately, that is what matters at youth level.

By Juliano Sequeira

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