Red Bull Salzburg – Celtic: Salzburg adapt to ultimately overcome a determined Celtic defense (3-1)

The champions of Austria and Scotland faced off in this exciting Europa League group stage match. Red Bull Salzburg showed versatility to emerge as 3-1 victors, despite falling behind to Celtic in the opening minutes.

Salzburg came into this game in high spirits. A flawless domestic record was added to with a victory against RB Leipzig (3-2) in the opening group stage match. Having gone all the way to the semifinals stage last season, Marco Rose’s men are determined to go even further this season.

In contrast, Celtic have struggled domestically and their current fifth place in the league is a testimony to that. Even though they did come into this match on the back of victories against St Johnstone (1-0) and Aberdeen (1-0), manager Brendan Rodgers will have been under no illusions that an improved level of performance would be required if they were to leave the Red Bull Arena with any points.

Salzburg made three changes to their starting eleven from their last league match, but it presented only one change from their starting lineup against RB Leipzig, as Takumi Minamino replaced Fredrik Gulbrandsen up front in Salzburg’s customary 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield formation. In goal, Alexander Walke started in place of Cican Stanković, continuing Salzburg’s trend of rotating their goalies.

The fullbacks, Stefan Lainer and Andreas Ulmer, played in advanced positions – providing the width that is always missing in a diamond midfield. Diadie Samassékou sat at the base of the diamond with Xaver Schlager and Amadou Haidara providing creative outlets in central midfield areas. Hannes Wolf often drifted wide from his advanced midfield position to link well with Munas Dabbur and Minamino in the channels just in front of the Celtic back line.

Celtic made only one change compared to their line-up against Aberdeen. Missing their talisman Scott Brown through injury, the vastly experienced Youssouf Mulumbu was given only his second appearance of the season. Even though the personnel was maintained, the shape of the team was always going to be vastly different, Celtic surely expecting to be in possession much less of the time than they typically enjoy in domestic games.

Going behind early leads to lots of crossing by Salzburg
There was barely enough time to decipher Celtic’s formation – with the personnel suggesting a 4-4-2 – before Callum McGregor played a long ball into the channel for Odsonne Édouard in the second minute of the match. Édouard out-muscled André Ramalho as the ball was dropping and found himself inside the box with a golden opportunity to score. He showed great composure to slot the ball low into the far post and give Celtic a dream start to this match.

Whether it was their original intention or whether Celtic reacted to going ahead so early is hard to determine, but the men from Glasgow dropped into a 5-3-2 formation when Salzburg had possession – which ended up being their defensive formation for the rest of the game.

The three central defenders were flanked by the usually forward thinking James Forrest and Kieran Tierney as full backs to create a flat and narrow back five. In midfield Mulumbu was joined by McGregor and Olivier Ntcham in a narrow three set up to chase down the ball only once it had progressed well into Celtic’s half.

Leigh Griffiths partnered Édouard up front but in the defensive phase Griffiths sat deeper to cut out the ball from the Salzburg defenders to Samassékou. This tactic was successful in forcing Salzburg to work the ball wide to the full backs. Salzburg’s attempts to work the ball centrally from here were defended well by Mulumbu in particular who showed great timing in his tackling and intelligence in his positioning.

As a result, Salzburg had to resort to crossing from wide positions, but this approach was dealt with by Boyata with ease. The Belgian was commanding in the air and showed focus and a sharpness to get in front of the man he was marking to clear up any danger.

The intelligent movement of Dabbur – dropping off of Boyata into positions around Hendry – allowed him to link well with Schlager and Wolf. The Israeli striker was playing short direct passes between the three of them to work the ball into the Celtic box. While this approach was providing Salzburg with dangerous crossing attempts, Celtic were showing determination in defending this onslaught although as the half progressed it was clear that it would take a heroic effort to keep Salzburg out for the full ninety minutes.

Different half, same game
At the beginning of the second half it looked as if Salzburg had gone back to the beginning of their first half script – quickly working the ball to the advanced full backs and crossing the ball from wide. Only this time they did manage to get their desired result. In the 54th minute Minamino flicked on Lainer’s cross. Wolf managed to reach it at the back post and keep the ball in play before playing a low ball back across goal where Dabbur was to strike the ball past Craig Gordon in the Celtic goal and make it 1-1.

Celtic had been unable to resist the constant pressure from Salzburg and Brendan Rodgers reacted by replacing Griffiths with Scott Sinclair. Griffiths and Édouard had been poor up front, not showing the required energy levels to chase Celtic’s clearances and delay the ball coming straight back into their half. The introduction of Sinclair was intended to address this problem and try to give Celtic a foothold in the match.

However Salzburg were increasing the tempo and played more fluid after they finally managed to break through a stubborn Celtic defence. Another cross, this time from the left and low across the ground, found its way to Minamino only a few yards from goal. He was able to first get the ball from under his feet before poking it home. The home side were deservedly leading after 62 minutes.

Celtic want to get forward, but get punished for it
The following fifteen minutes, Celtic finally showed some desire to get players forward with the ball. On separate occasions Sinclair and McGregor dribbled the ball into the channel in an effort to have an impact on the match. Sinclair took on his man with pace, going past him with ease before getting a cross in. McGregor opted to cut inside and have a shot on goal which was blocked. The best either of these opportunities could muster was a corner from which Celtic did not threaten.

Salzburg’s approach while ahead remained unchanged. There was a little less emphasis on moving the ball forward as quickly but the tempo in their passing and central movement around the ball did not drop.

The reward came in the form of a third goal on the 73rd minute. A diagonal ball was played into the forever-advanced Ulmer. Forrest made a mess of his attempted interception, allowing the ball to bounce off him and stumbling to the ground. As he fell he took Ulmer with him and the referee awarded Salzburg a penalty and added to Celtic’s woes with a red card for Forrest. Dabbur made it 1-3 and put the result of this game beyond further doubt.

Both sides made substitutions in the final stages but none of these changes could make an impact on the game. Ryan Christie and Lewis Morgan replaced Mulumbu and Édouard for Celtic but these changes felt as much about closing out the game before the score got embarrassing. Zlatko Junuzović replaced Minamino and came the closest to making a mark – hitting the inside of the post with a strike from the edge of the box.

Salzburg’s superior technical ability and team cohesiveness prevailed in this interesting combat. Édouard’s early goal will mask for Celtic what was a continuation of their lacklustre performances that are becoming more regular. The stage of the game where Salzburg took a 2-1 lead gave a small window into Celtic’s inability to take control of the game and trouble the home side.

Salzburg have a clear preferred approach to play short, direct passes through the middle of the field but showed that they have plenty of ideas in backup if a team looks to nullify Samassékou as an outlet for the defense. In this match, the attacking ability of the full backs allows them to redirect their focus. This flexibility in their approach will surely see them trouble even the best sides in the Europa League this season as they attempt to shake off any suggestion that they are a feeder club inside a larger footballing machine.

The slider below contains various statistical match plots.

Neill Barclay (32) has taken an interest in tactical analysis for many years. Writing analytical reports on teams from his native Scotland and all over Europe for various sites alongside gaining experience of producing technical scouting reports at local matches. On a mission to visit as many iconic stadiums around Europe as possible but just as happy standing on the sidelines of a Highland League match. [ View all posts ]


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