RB Leipzig vs Red Bull Salzburg: A confident Salzburg defeats its big brother in a thrilling finish (2-3)

The maturity of the Salzburg project led by Marco Rose was once again on display, this time with a victory in the very first ‘Red Bull Derby’. The Leipzig eleven with many squad rotations suffered from issues in their buildup structure.

Off the pitch, this ‘Red Bull Derby’ revives the debate caused by the controversial Red Bull corporate sports model and raises concerns over potential conflicts of interest. But when it comes to use of innovative tactics and dynamic performances on the pitch, it is undeniable that Red Bull has created two of the most efficient and exciting sporting projects in Europe.

Ralf Rangnick is back at the Leipzig head coach position for the 2018/2019 season while the club waits for Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann to arrive next summer, and one of his biggest challenges this early season is compensating for the departure of Naby Keïta to Liverpool. The club had already tried to prepare for this with the signing of Kevin Kampl last year, but Keïta’s absence still poses a loss in midfield creativity and press resistance that is hard to replace.

For now, Rangnick seems focused on Leipzig’s Bundesliga campaign, and his starting eleven against Salzburg reflected his priorities, featuring several changes in personnel due to squad rotation and injuries.

Goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi and midfielders Diego Demme and Emil Forsberg, who all started in Leipzig’s first three Bundesliga games, were replaced by Yvon Mvogo, Stefan Ilsanker and Bruma, respectively. Meanwhile, starting left back Marcelo Saracchi and striker Timo Werner are currently injured and were replaced by Nordi Mukiele and Matheus Cunha. Mukiele’s place at right back (his usual position) was occupied by Konrad Laimer. Despite all the changes, Leipzig maintained their traditional 4-2-2-2 shape.

Meanwhile, Salzburg find itself in a diametrically opposed situation, dominating the Austrian Bundesliga in impressive fashion. They have won the last five league titles and have enjoyed a perfect start to the 18/19 league campaign with seven wins in seven matches. As such, there is a good chance that Salzburg’s management and fans are more interested than ever in Europa League success, especially after yet another disappointing elimination from the Champions League qualifying stages.

Such intent was reflected in Salzburg using their strongest possible starting eleven, set up in a 4-3-1-2 midfield diamond formation featuring four young talented midfielders: Diadie Samassékou (22 years old) in holding midfield, Amadou Haidara (20) and Xaver Schlager (20) in central midfield, and Hannes Wolf (19) as attacking midfielder. Up front played Munas Dabbur—Salzburg’s top goal scorer—accompanied by the industrious Reinhold Yabo in the second striker position.

Salzburg’s structure in possession when pressed by Leipzig

First half: Confident Salzburg on the ball dominates a shaky Leipzig on the ball
The fundamental principles of both teams are similar: verticality on the ball, and intensity off the ball. Many teams prefer to play on the wings to more easily move forward on the pitch, but both Salzburg and Leipzig prefer to use their narrow formations to play vertical passes right through the crowded central lanes. This makes it more difficult to progress with the ball, but chances created through the center are generally of higher quality. Crowding the center lanes also means that if either team loses the ball when attacking, the players can quickly collapse onto their opponents to recover the ball. Quite the mean counterpress.

Counterpressing is just one of the many complexities of Leipzig and Salzburg’s systems off the ball. Whenever they take a defensive shape, both teams are well-known for setting ‘pressing traps’. They purposefully open gaps in their defensive formation to lure opponents into specific zones of the pitch. Once the hapless opponent moves into that zone, defenders quickly collapse onto the opponent to recover the ball.

All these tactical principles were on display in this game. Salzburg and Leipzig aggressively pressed their opponent’s buildup from the back, traded punches through the center and counterpressed upon losing the ball. The decisive difference in the first half: Salzburg’s players were far more confident and precise on the ball than their opponents.

Salzburg center backs André Ramalho and Marin Pongračić expertly resisted the Leipzig press and connected often with their midfielder and forwards. Meanwhile, Salzburg midfielders would constantly escape Leipzig’s pressing traps through confident passing combinations and dribbles through defenders.

But perhaps the most impressive Salzburg footballer on the ball was center forward Dabbur, who is much more than just a goal scorer. Against Leipzig, Dabbur excelled as a target man who can hold up the ball and lay it off to midfielders in advantageous positions. And with such a positional advantage, talented playmakers like Schlager and Wolf could make final passes that launched Yabo, Dabbur or even Wolf himself into space.

On the other side, Leipzig’s defense struggled on the ball, particularly the left side triangle formed by Ibrahima Konaté, Ilsanker and Mukiele. Salzburg attackers Dabbur, Yabo and Wolf smelled blood and smartly focused their pressing on that Leipzig triangle, constantly forcing them into mistakes and turnovers. Things were so bad in this area that an overworked Kevin Kampl—who nominally plays on the right side—often moved over to the left as a ‘false left back’ to help his teammates overcome the Salzburg press. Despite Kampl’s efforts, Salzburg’s first goal came from an Ilsanker turnover.

Salzburg’s excellence on the ball, however, only translated to a mere three shots during the first half. Leipzig’s defense was responsible for this. Despite their shakiness on the ball, they often excelled at defending the quick attacks of their opponents. But two out of those three shots resulted in goals. This reflects the style of play of both Red Bull clubs: it’s harder for them to produce chances because they play through the center, but the chances produced are usually big.

Late Leipzig recovery leads to a stunning finish to the game
Rangnick was unhappy with his team’s first half performance, and showed his discontent by using up all three (!) available substitutions at half time. Mukiele was replaced by Marcel Halstenberg, and the lackluster Bruma and Jean-Kévin Augustin were replaced Diego Demme and Yussuf Poulsen. If the rules had allowed Rangnick to make even more changes, he would have probably done so.

Leipzig completely reworked their defensive and midfield lines. In defense, Ilsanker and Koniaté played as center backs, with Upamecano and Halstenberg playing right and left back, respectively. Meanwhile, Leipzig’s new double pivot was formed by Sabitzer and Demme, with Kampl and Laimer playing the wide midfield roles.

Leipzig’s structure in possession in the second half, displayed against Salzburg’s medium block

Demme, a more press resistant pivot midfielder than Ilsanker, improved Leipzig’s ability to withstand Salzburg’s pressing and prevent turnovers. However, Leipzig players were spread so far apart that Demme still had issues connecting defense and midfield lines, and some dangerous turnovers still occurred.

On the other hand, Salzburg was very satisfied their 2-0 lead and opted to dial down the intensity of their pressing to conserve energy. They shifted over to a 4-1-3-2 defensive medium block, patiently waiting to recover the ball and create counters through the speed and ball-carrying abilities of Wolf, Haidara and Yabo. Only occasionally did they press Leipzig’s buildup.

With Leipzig still experiencing buildup issues and failing to penetrate Salzburg’s compact and organized defensive block, the match looked set to become an uneventful slog towards the final whistle. That is, until Salzburg’s left-back Ulmer mirrored his rivals and sloppily lost the ball when pressed by Laimer, who took advantage of the mistake to score.

It is in this moment where we could witness perhaps the biggest issue of the “Red Bull style of play”. The inherent verticality of the style is great at cutting through defenses but bad for controlling games. Salzburg needed to keep the ball for longer and slow down the rhythm of the game, but this team is not trained to defend on the ball. The only thing they could do is keep trading punches with Leipzig.  A now-motivated Leipzig kept pushing for the goal. Their insistence paid off when Poulsen brilliantly headed a Kampl cross into goal in the 82nd minute to make it 2-2.

But in the end, Salzburg would win the game with one final, brilliant punch. A curious attack featuring two backheeled vertical passes and some lax Leipzig defending allowed substitute striker Fredrik Gulbrandsen to score a last-gasp game-winner.

Leipzig has a bit of soul searching to do. While it is true that they did not field their strongest starting eleven, they need more midfield creativity and press resistance in their buildup if they want to attack through the center lanes and keep creating good scoring chances. Rangnick is yet to find a buildup structure that allows the team to get the ball to their playmakers and strikers up front in good conditions.

As for Salzburg, this match poses yet another example of the maturity of their project. Other than Ulmer’s individual mistake, this was as good a performance that they can deliver. The team has inherent, fundamental issues to control matches due to the nature of their youthful players and style, but Salzburg looks strong enough to enjoy yet another interesting Europa League campaign.

José Pérez (31) writes and talks about anything football-related: players, tactics, analytics, the relationship between football and society. Whenever he is not working on high-power lasers, he tries to keep up with all big five European leagues, but focuses particularly on La Liga. Outside of Between the Posts, you can find him arguing with people and posting analyses on Twitter or answering questions on Quora. [ View all posts ]


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