Tactical analysis of Red Bull Salzburg’s excellent 3-0 win over Ajax at the Amsterdam Arena last week in the Europa League.

  • By Ryan Ferguson
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salzburgThe first leg between Ajax and Red Bull Salzburg evoked reticence from many commentators, with a tight game expected by all. The Austrian side played fearlessly throughout the group stages and brought an unbeaten record to Amsterdam, whilst Frank de Boer spoke of his desire to attack the competition after his side were eliminated from a Champions League group shared with Barcelona, Milan and Celtic. An entertaining game was in prospect, but few could have predicted the startling show which transpired. Ajax were stunned by their alert opponents, lacking ideas and the space in which to express them. Salzburg were brave, confident and committed in executing with panache the innovative gameplan of head coach Roger Schmidt. In ninety enthralling minutes, they provided a definitive blueprint for beating de Boer’s Ajax.

Schmidt, the former Preußen Münster coach in his second season at Salzburg, was strangely defiant in his pre-match press conference. Whilst acknowledging the history of Ajax and praising de Boer’s side for their recent victory over Barcelona, Schmidt said Salzburg were in town to win. “We want to play our usual style in this match,” the coach told assembled media. “We must push ourselves to the limits and enjoy two great matches in sold-out stadiums.”

Indeed, his side used every drop of effort whilst enacting the kind of adventurous strategy rarely seen in domestic Dutch games. From the very first kick, Salzburg did not allow Ajax to settle; their bold intention and tireless industry clear for all to see. Ajax aren’t accustomed to opponents charging at them with ruthless abandon, and were flustered by the frank temerity of Salzburg. A crucial part of Schmidt’s gameplan involved dragging Ajax far out of their comfort zone, which was achieved by compressing space high up the field and restricting their many playmakers time and space in which to dictate. Salzburg, extremely well-coached and committed, chased in packs and forced early mistakes from the hosts. Any attempt by Ajax to direct play in accordance with their trademark philosophy was met with stern rebuttal. Salzburg destroyed any Ajax flow, rhythm or tempo at source before exerting their own artistry on the game. The dye was cast. The Ajax players were rattled. The Arena became restless.

It was obvious that Roger Schmidt had studied his opposition in great depth, because he was seemingly aware that a majority of Ajax’ ball conservation is derivative of short-passing between the goalkeeper, his two central defenders, midfield metronome Daley Blind, and the attacking wing-backs on either side. Accordingly, Salzburg set-up camp at the very heart of this territory, with brazen intent and loud iconoclasm. Schmidt deployed a daring 4-4-2 formation which more often resembled an adventurous 4-2-2-2 and occasionally morphed into an all-out 4-2-4. The onus was placed on the strike partnership of Alan and Jonathan Soriano to nullify passes between Ajax defenders Veltman and Moisander, whilst the audacious wing duo of Sadio Mané and Kevin Kampl compressed home wing-backs Van Rhijn and Lerin Duarte out of the game; Salzburg marking man-to-man and thusly dominating an area in which Ajax usually incubate attacking ideas.

Furthermore, a pair of midfield grafters, in Christoph Leitgeb and Stefan Ilsanker, sealed gaps and provided a firm foundation to the intrepid gameplan. Salzburg applied relentless pressure deep in the Ajax half, often forming a blockade on the edge of Jasper Cillessen’s penalty area. Ajax were unable to play the way they love, the way they admire, perhaps the only game they know. They were initially complacent, wanting the time and space so regularly afforded them in Eredivisie games. But Salzburg were entirely devoted to blocking-off every tributary to which Ajax could look for a way out. When Cillessen, Moisander and Blind were unable to form the genesis of attacks in their usual calm and stylish manner, Ajax were truly shocked. In the aftermath, de Boer heaped praise on the opposition, stating that “only a few teams can play like Salzburg did. We could not play our own game because they put us under constant pressure.”

Ajax became flustered, panicked, nervy.

It wasn’t long before discomfort translated into deficit. On thirteen minutes, a rattled Moisander relinquished possession when a rushed pass towards Duarte squirmed harmlessly out of play. Salzburg took a quick throw-in, feeding Mané, who with quickness of mind had eluded Blind centrally. The young Senegalese winger drove at a sluggish Ajax, shifting possession to Alan inside the box when eventually confronted by Van Rhijn. As the potent striker cut inside, a rash challenge from the discombobulated Veltman resulted in a penalty kick, which Soriano rolled coolly into the bottom corner. Salzburg had the lead which their valiant play richly deserved.

The Austrian side grew even further in stature, if that were at all possible. From the restart following Soriano’s opener, six Salzburg players decorated the circumference of the centre-circle, primed like sprinters at the start of a race. Ilsanker, clearly a leader of this burgeoning team, waved his arms frantically, cajoling and inspiring yet more intensity like a defensive back in the NFL. When the referee eventually blew his whistle and the ball was played back to Blind, he was confronted by a charging wall of four animated Salzburg players.

Ajax did not know what had hit them, nor where to turn for solutions in the heat of battle.

Salzburg went for the jugular, playing an expansive brand of direct yet technically-superb football. After twenty minutes, they doubled their lead, when Bojan was shrugged off the ball and one firm pass from Kampl dissected three Ajax players and put Mané through on goal. The Amsterdammers found themselves in a ragged defensive shape, allowing the lively forward to round a tormented Cillessen and stroke the ball into an empty net. At 0-2, the Dutch Champions had a proverbial mountain to climb, but Salzburg were insistent in disallowing them even a mere toehold at its base.

Essentially, the game was reduced to a 6-vs-6 contest within one half of the pitch. Cillessen, Van Rhijn, Veltman, Moisander, Duarte and Blind struggled to maintain static and stagnant possession against the perpetual motion of Alan, Soriano, Kampl, Mané, Leitgeb and Ilsanker. When Blind, a phenomenal player who has flourished since assuming the regista berth in de Boer’s system, did receive the ball, all potential avenues for progress were restricted. All too often, he was forced to play risky balls around the corner and back to his central defensive teammates rather than zip vivacious passes into De Jong and Klaassen. I’ve seen Ajax agitated, frayed, even ragged at times. But rarely have I encountered them so stunned and thoroughly devoid of ideas. Kolbeinn Sigþórsson had just 20 touches of the ball in sixty minutes of play, whilst maintaining a 53% pass accuracy; stats which not only reflect Ajax’ inability to find their main forward regularly, but also his thorough isolation when in possession. I can barely recall an instance of Sigþórsson, De Jong or Klaassen touching the ball in a purposeful attacking manner.

In this regard, perhaps Ajax are a little inhibited by their own immense history. The spectre of Total Football, and it’s near-scientific intellectualism, lingers large in the Ajax mythology. But that system, pioneered by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, relied on instinctive calculations of space and probability in order to maximise efficiency, conserve energy and map the most conducive route to goal. It was direct and spontaneous. Nowadays, Ajax could be perceived as too predictable, preserving possession without much purpose beyond honouring a rich identity and placating those who so ardently believe in it. In no way is this a criticism, because I truly admire the deep philosophical machinations of Ajax Amsterdam. It’s truly unique as a football club. But, occasionally, they can be too dogmatic for their own good. Salzburg demonstrated that with ruthless clarity.

Don’t let defensive domination detract from Salzburg’s attacking aptitude, however. The same front four which pressed the Ajax backline so feverishly also have tremendous technical ability. When their interminable defensive work yielded possession, the ball was played on the floor with verve, desire and panache. Kampl, whose shock of blonde hair stands out just as much as his poise on the ball, is a rising star of Austrian football. Alan starred with Fluminense in Brazil before moving to Salzburg, where he has ran amok since 2010. Soriano honed a prized reputation with Barcelona B, regularly topping the scoring charts in a team alongside Thiago Alcântara, Oriol Romeu and Cristian Tello. These are quality players of impressive acumen.

A fine demonstration of that skill arrived after 35 minutes. Soriano gathered the ball after another squandered Ajax attack and paced barely over the halfway line before unfurling a drive of sensational technique. At the peak of personal confidence and athletic ability, Soriano launched a shot which spiraled in a tight parabola, arching poignantly over a desperate Cillessen and into the sagging net from fully fifty yards. It was a wonder strike. It was a stunning sight. It was a death knell for Ajax.

In the physicality of Salzburg, we see another pillar of Schmidt’s new blueprint for defeating the Dutch side. Bojan, delicate in possession, was crowded-out routinely; Viktor Fischer was hustled and coaxed into ineffective positions; Duarte was barged aside by Mané prior to his goal. Whilst Ajax were fragile and hesitant, Salzburg were firm in the challenge. This lack of grit and strength is a uniform problem throughout the Eredivisie, which prides technique over muscle with commendable stoicism. However, on the continental stage, these deficiencies are often exposed, especially when the pretty football is elusive.

Frank de Boer may be learning this the hard way, but he is undoubtedly learning. Part of what makes him such a phenomenal coach is the immense dexterity with which he can tweak aspects of his team, his style, his system. Against AZ in the league last weekend, a slight change in focus was evident, no doubt precipitated by the Salzburg thrashing; Christian Poulsen playing ninety minutes and adding brawn to the midfield. European football undoubtedly calls for such a firm anchor in midfield, and the experienced Dane will likely feature in Austria this week.

One other remarkable aspect of the first leg was Salzburg’s ability to maintain such a searing pace throughout. In the second half, there was very little relaxation despite a three-goal lead. Even as Duarte and Sigþórsson were jeered from the field, Salzburg kept chasing. Even as de Boer deployed Lesley de Sa and Ricardo Kishna, Salzburg maintained the gameplan. Even as full-time approached, they played with exceptional hunger. It was an exercise in exquisite discipline. Ajax never looked like cracking the code, let alone mustering a clear-cut chance. In fact, Schmidt’s side had opportunities, through Kampl and Alan, to completely kill the tie. It could all so easily have been over.

But this is Ajax. They can never be underestimated. In recent years, they’ve formed a monopoly on the Eredivisie and lead it comfortably this term. Just three months ago they ended the twenty-eight game unbeaten run of Barcelona with a performance of similar intensity as produced by Salzburg. Frank de Boer embodies the club ethos wholeheartedly and is close to writing his name alongside that of Michels, Cruyff and van Gaal in Ajax lore. Far be it for me, or anybody else for that matter, to lambaste such a fine team.

Rather, the first leg was a fine demonstration of what an inspired set of confident players can achieve with the foresight of a progressive coach and the ambition of a growing club. A number of Red Bull players were invincible on the night, intoxicated by the highest form of self-confidence. It was a special night for Salzburg; the kind of night which any club experiences from time-to-time and which serves to create and so illuminate its history. When watching, there was a certain miasma about the game, about Roger Schmidt, about Salzburg, which informed of epochal achievement to come. Though obviously devoid of the same hyperbole, this was a defining moment for Salzburg just as beating Liverpool 5-1 at the Olympic Stadium was for Ajax in 1966. The context may be different, but the sense of pride, satisfaction and accomplishment felt by the victor is transferable. The thorough shock of the defeated is similarly palpable. In venturing to Amsterdam and thumping the great Ajax, Salzburg came of age on the European stage. Perhaps they will advance to greatness just like their forebears.

In the first leg, Salzburg demonstrated a new blueprint for beating Ajax. A number of different ingredients boiled perfectly in the pot: adept coaching, raw ambition, complete dedication, serious talent. Ajax didn’t help themselves; at times they were complacent and stubborn. Ultimately, it all clicked into place like a dream for Roger Schmidt, who wrote one of the most enthralling chapters in Salzburg history. It was an illustrious evening bathed in mystique and celebration for Salzburg; the type of evening which is replicated very rarely.

Nonetheless, a lot of clubs will try to duplicate this blueprint. A lot will fail. Sure, many teams have similar coaching ingenuity, equal ambition and even greater talent at their disposal. But few teams are regularly blessed with the formidable sense of historical awakening which provided grist for Schmidt’s plan. Salzburg are going places. Ajax just happened to stumble across their path towards destiny.

Ryan Ferguson (23 Posts)