Jesse Marsch Tactical Analysis - RB Salzburg 2020-21 & FM21 Tactic
Jesse Marsch is one of the most buzzworthy managers in the world of football at the moment. Since taking over at Red Bull Salzburg, the American has developed a reputation as a tactical innovator and one of the most exciting young managers in the game. However, it’s not as though Salzburg’s record is anything out of the ordinary from previous managers. The buzz and attention surrounding the former MLS superstar is instead much more about how Marsch’s tactics and coaching styles have been out of the ordinary. His open communication regarding his coaching philosophies and principles of play has also been welcome, and only increased the manager’s growing reputation. Here is a tactical analysis of Jesse Marsch’s Red Bull Salzburg.
SYSTEM OF PLAY:?
Marsch is part of a growing list of managers who speak less about formations and more about player roles within a certain style of play. This allows Salzburg to be more flexible in adjusting their system, personnel, and player roles depending on the opposition. Although Marsch has used what would be described as a 4-3-1-2 or 4-4-2 Diamond structure in the past, the 4-2-2-2 seems to make the most sense for the style of play and the pressing mentality he encourages. A 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-2-1 can also be options for Salzburg, but these may be reserved more for Champions League or Europa League matches in which they are playing against higher quality opposition. When in the Austrian Bundesliga, they typically switch between the 4-2-2-2 and 4-3-1-2, which can change on a game by game basis. In fact, Marsch’s team are so flexible within these two systems that they might use one as their shape with the ball and the other as their shape without the ball. These systems are also the two that the American coach tends to use as the basis for his presentations at conferences, which he has been very open to delivering to coaches around the world.
In midfield, Zlatko Junuzovic, Enock Mwepu and Mohamed Camara have been some of the most consistent names, with Mwepu more likely to play in an advanced role on the right in the 4-2-2-2 and sometimes allow the team to advance into that shape when they play 4-3-1-2. Dominik Szoboszlai could do the exact same thing when he was at the club, often starting to the left of the midfield three and then venturing forward when the opportunity presented itself. Salzburg haven’t missed a beat without their starlet though, who became the most expensive Hungarian player ever in December 2021 with his move to Leipzig. Szoboszlai was a versatile member of the team and netted 7 goals with 7 assists in his 19 matches before departing for Germany. But Salzburg have maintained their positive form, winning all six of their games since his departure
Another attack-minded star in the side is the young Serbian-born Mergim Berisha who can play on the wing or upfront. Berisha’s form in front of goal has been exceptional, particularly in the UEFA Champions League where he overcame the magnitude of the competition to score 4 goals in 6 matches, helping Salzburg earn their place in the next round of the Europa League. Upfront, the African duo Patson Daka, and Sekou Koita failed to make the same mark in the Champions League, but have been battling all season long for the Austrian league’s Golden Boot. Sekou’s only started eight matches, but he’s scored fourteen goals. Daka on the other hand has bagged thirteen in his thirteen appearances. When combining Daka, Koita, and Berisha together, they contribute 3.13 goals per 90 to Salzburg’s team in the league (FBRef, 2021), an absolutely outrageous amount that gives Marsch’s team a guaranteed goal threat at all times. This is very important, given that they’ve sold Erling Haaland, Takumi Minamino, Hee-Chan Hwang, and now Dominik Szoboszlai all within the past year. So those are the players and some of their stats, but that’s only one small side to the story. Let’s get into more of this tactical analysis and examine exactly how Jesse Marsch sets his team up for success.
PRESSING FROM THE FRONT
In a webinar attended with The Coaches’ Voice, Jesse Marsch told us “Being more aggressive is always better than being more passive.” This high tempo, aggressive philosophy directly relates to just how much desire his team has to win the ball back. Unlike some teams that press from the front, Salzburg are actively trying to win the ball on both tackles and interceptions, not just in an attempt to force the opposition out of play or into a bad pass. Then when the team win the ball, they don’t want to keep it for prolonged periods of time. Instead, they press vigorously and intensely to go “all in”, win the ball on a tackle, and look to score. Marsch prides his team on this pressing mentality, particularly how intense he wants his team to sprint and how collective the approach becomes. The Austrian giants never press with just an individual sprinting their heart out to try and win the ball. It’s always a collective process. In fact, Marsch has even adopted something that he calls “Sal’s Theorem” based on something his New York Red Bulls player Sal Zizzo said to him about this togetherness. Essentially, Sal Zizzo said to Marsch that the difference between winning 3-0 and losing 3-0 could come down to the team pressing together, or not. So as soon as the first player pressures the ball, everyone else must go together at that exact moment. The data analysts at the club capture statistics such as number of sprints both in and out of possession, the speed of those sprints, and the amount of time it took for players to react after the first player pressured the ball, to ensure these principles are being maintained in matches. This attention to detail holds the players accountable in maintaining this philosophy each and every game.
INTENSITY + BODY POSITIONING TO FORCE TO THE MIDDLE
Given the nature of what they look to do with their pressing (score goals), it’s very natural then that Salzburg attempt to force the opposition back toward their own goal. This is done through careful body positioning and angling, cutting off passing lanes in wide areas, and forcing the opposition into central channels instead. This has obvious benefits for the verticality they wish to achieve in attack, and also implications for their ability to actually score goals from their pressure rather than just being ‘all talk and no action.’ Their press is also much more ball-oriented than man-oriented. This means that four to five players may surround a small section of the field at one time (where the ball is), even if there are fewer opposition players around the ball worth covering. As per the example image, Salzburg surround the opposition players like a pack of wolves, cutting off all wide and forward options, forcing them into a bad pass toward the middle of the field. You can also see in the example image how the team form not just one, but two diamonds to shut down space. Diamonds are an excellent shape for pressing, as they work to mitigate every option a player may have in possession (forward, backward, left, and right). For greater context, the example was also taken from a match in which Die Roten Bullen were playing 4-2-2-2.
They may also opt for a 4-3-1-2 (4-4-2 Diamond) structure, in which a lone attacking midfielder is tasked with stopping the other team’s defensive midfielder from playing. Marsch has openly spoken about how in their first UEFA Champions League match against Liverpool in 2019, he changed the system from 4-2-2-2 to 4-3-1-2 when the team were down 2-0. One of the primary reasons for this change was the desire to stop Fabinho from playing out from the back and dictating the tempo of the game. Conveniently, it was Takumi Minamino who made the shift inside and then dominated the second half as Die Rotten Bullen clawed their way back to 3-3 (until a late Liverpool goal won it). The change in system didn’t stop the Reds from winning the match, but it was highly successful in mitigating Fabinho’s role in the build-up.
HOW THEY SET UP ON GOAL KICKS
When setting up their pressing structure on opposition goal kicks, Salzburg make their 4-2-2-2 shape very narrow, actively preparing for the ball to travel to either side. The defensive midfielders are more likely to start in an even more compact position (closer together), working together to cut off second or third passes and mitigate options available in central channels for longer ones initially. The fullbacks hold more true to their position and stay wide, as only one of them will be involved in the initial press. Finally, the centre-backs communicate about the positioning of the opposition forwards and decide who is to keep a watchful eye if the opposition are playing with a lone striker. This may then change and shift as the ball goes across to one specific side. If the fullback is required to join the press higher up, the centre-back that started with the opposition striker may move over to cover the space or player vacated by the fullback. Communication is also key in establishing what side the ball is likely to be played to, so that the team can react as a unit as quickly as possible. By looking at the image, you can probably guess which side the opposition want to play to – the left, as they have positioned their attacking midfielder and striker to that side.
The striker and right attacking midfielder here work in tandem to shepherd the opposition player back toward their own goal as the first two involved in the press. The central midfielders have also moved up into advantageous positions before the opposition midfielders even have time to react to their movement. They’re not just looking to cover space and opposition players around d the ball, they’re also thinking about where they’ll be when their teammates inevitably win possession. You can also take notice of the left attacking midfielder, who is in a great position to get on the end of a cross should Salzburg win the ball. Conveniently, that’s exactly what happens. The Austrian giants win the ball, cross it in and score immediately.
This all happens within seconds of winning the ball, and the cross itself happens milliseconds after the right attacking midfielder makes the tackle. This means the opposition defenders have no time to react, as a wide-open player is easily found and able to smash the ball into the back of the net. When Marsch says that he pressures the opposition not just to keep possession, but to score goals, he really means it. This is a classic example of exactly that. But more impressively, in both of the examples we’ve presented, you can also see the collective nature of the eleven players working together. The centre-backs for example have very specific roles to fulfill based on the movement of the ball and positioning of opposition players, even if they are never the ones doing any pressuring. They may still become important if the opposition are able to escape the press and thump a long ball forward. Their key task would then become about winning the ball in the air and stopping the opposition from gaining any momentum, before recycling play and helping their team restart the attack. Whenever Jesse Marsch speaks about his pressing approach, he always speaks about it as a collective process, and it is clear to see how they achieve that, and why it’s so important to their success.
The final topic of note when it comes to their pressing structure is what Jessie Marsch describes as “the net”. The net is typically used as a method of counter-pressing, by which all ten outfield players remain in close proximity to one another and form various triangular shapes surrounding the player on the ball. Fullbacks in the team also remain reserved rather than taking a gamble to rush forward or stretch the field. They stay behind the ball, covering opposition players who might become dangerous should the other team win possession. This means that they have a greater ability to attack vertically, without ever needing to rely on switches of play or horizontal runs. Ideally, Salzburg are never in a position where they actually need to create this net and rely on counter-pressing, if everything is going well for their counter-attacking. So with that, let’s move onto how Salzburg attack and why Marsch’s team might just be one the most exciting attacking outfits in Europe.
QUICK ATTACKING TRANSITIONS
Falling in line with their high-intensity pressing, Salzburg don’t waste any time in attack. Even when they win free kicks, they typically look to play the ball right away and catch the opposition off-guard, rather than several players hovering over the ball discussing their plan. They’re also not the type to roll around on the floor after being fouled, often looking to jump right back onto their feet and keep the momentum going. This is all part of the mentality that Marsch has imposed upon his players. They play like a team of energizer bunnies, relentlessly racing around the field. With this mentality and intensity, they score a ton of goals, and can genuinely be one of the most entertaining sides to watch in Europe.
Although they can score a variety of goals, almost every single goal they score happens as a result of heavy sprinting somewhere in the move, their attempts to create chaos in the box, or both. Firstly, Salzburg look to flood the box with as many players as possible. Many of their goals are scored through the forwards and attacking midfielders linking up with each other in and around the box, whether they be cut-backs or balls driven across the six. As you might expect with a team deploying quick attacking transitions, there’s also a lot of verticality to their play in possession, relying heavily on dribbles toward the middle of the pitch, vertical runs off the ball, and through balls. As they advance toward the box during these quick transitions, it’s common to see Salzburg flooding the eighteen with as many as four or even five men inside of the box at once. This allows the team to have a greater likelihood at getting onto the end of passes into the danger zone, in addition to loose balls and rebounds from blocked shots. Their verticality also comes into play when they are unable to attack at speed, again often against teams who sit very deep and invite Salzburg to have more of the ball. In these scenarios, they look to create the net, remain in close proximity, and utilize central channels rather than wasting time switching play with horizontal passes.
Along with flooding the box and the net structure, many of their goals are scored immediately after winning the ball back, often involving a heavy sprint from one individual surging up the field as others join. With the emphasis on sprinting out of possession, it’s no surprise that they do an awful lot of sprinting in possession. Mwepu and Berisha in particular love to dribble the ball forward at speed, as the strikers make darting runs away from the defenders and attempt to advance into space. Koita is also electric both in and out of possession and maybe the next Salzburg man to move to a big European side. But importantly, it seems as though Salzburg are able to maintain the same mentality, style of play, and intensity regardless of players moving onto other clubs. Part of that is down to their tactical flexibility, which we speak about next.
One of the most essential elements to Marsch’s Salzburg is the flexibility that he deploys with his team. They may need to change systems or player roles within and between games and so it becomes important for all of their players to be versatile. The left and right midfielders (i.e. the likes of Mwepu, Szobozlai, Minamino, etc.) have the most important job when it comes to their flexibility, as they are most likely to be moved around. Szoboszlai for example played as a number ten, a left attacking midfielder, and a left-sided central midfielder in a three before he left for Leipzig. As already mentioned, their changes of shape can also differ based on the phase of the game, meaning whether Salzburg are in possession or out of possession. If they utilize a 4-2-2-2 in defense, the right and left-attacking midfielder may take turns drifting inside to fulfill a number ten role in an attacking 4-3-1-2, as the other drops deeper into the midfield line for purposes of counter-pressing.
This flexibility means that Marsch can make tactical tweaks whenever required, whether they be changes of system, roles or both. Although this may sound complex, these adjustments are often very minimal in practice. For example, the change in shape from 4-2-2-2 to 4-3-1-2 only requires a few players to adopt slightly different positions, and operate a matter of inches from the type of positions they were operating in before. Further, Salzburg always keeps their back-four structure in-tact when it comes to their system, furthering the simplicity behind their tactical tweaks.
Their tactical flexibility also comes into play regarding their personnel. Die Roten Bullen often relies on a lot of young players, and Marsch has the ability to be overly cautious about how many minutes he gives these players. Other than a relatively consistent back four and goalkeeper, they don’t rely on the same figureheads each and every single game and they always give their young players a chance. In a team where the same set of players play every single match, it can often be very difficult to maintain the same level if one or two players are taken out of that system. Marsch instead gives all of his players a chance to shine, and often in multiple different positions. This allows the team to grow together as a unit and ensures that if someone like Szoboszlai is taken out of the side, several other players know exactly how to fulfill that same role and can more easily come in to replace him.
Red Bull Salzburg are currently one of the most tactically intriguing sides in Europe, under the management of Jessie Marsch who is always open to sharing his methodologies with the public. Their tactical flexibility requires much in the way of footballing intelligence from the players, but it also means that they can continue to sell their stars without disrupting the harmony or their performances. Marsch’s team rely heavily on pressing, counter-pressing and quick attacking transitions. This high intensity, the high pressing mentality is continuously reinforced by Marsch and his coaching staff, even through data analytics to hold the team accountable. For all of his innovations and coaching expertise, Jessie Marsch may soon be on his way to a bigger club. But for now, Red Bull Salzburg are one of the most exciting sides to watch in Europe, and can be proud of all that they’ve accomplished in such a short time with their American manager.