FC Red Bull Salzburg went into the second round of the Europa League group stages against Scottish Champions Celtic off the back of three wins since their 3-2 win over RB Leipzig. Their run since beating their European rivals included a thrashing of Schwaz and Wolfsburg 6-0 and 4-1 respectively. Brendan Rodgers’ side were up against arguably their toughest opponents of the group stage and were hoping to come away with a point. In reality, this was a tactical battle between a defensive Celtic and an attacking Salzburg side. Attack versus defence. FC Salzburg were expected favourites and rightly so, but Celtic did not make it easy especially after going 1-0 up inside two minutes thanks to a well-taken goal by Odsonne Edouard.
FC Salzburg lined up in their expected 4-1-2-1-2 formation. Salzburg made three changes with Zlatko Junuzović, Fredrik Gulbrandsen, and Cican Stanković dropping out with Hannes Wolf, Takumi Minamino and Alexander Walke coming into the side. The midfield quadrant of Amadou Diawara, Xaver Schalger, Hannes Wolf and Diadie Samassekou were reunited once again.
Celtic moved away from their tried and tested 4-2-3-1 into a 5-3-2 formation to counteract the attacking 4-1-2-1-2. Captain Scott Brown dropped out due to injury with Youssouf Mulumbu slotting into midfield. The Scottish champions went in with the strategy of playing a low block, counter-attacking style and use the pace and physicality of Odsonne Edouard and experience of Leigh Griffiths.
Celtic Power: Youssouf Mulumbu
Youssouf Mulumbu was Celtic’s key man. The Congolese midfielder with only his second appearance for Celtic this season had much to prove in the absence of Captain Scott Brown. The midfielder was tasked with the responsibility of marshalling FC Salzburg’s midfield quartet. Mulumbu’s heat map shows the majority of his activity right in front of his central defenders sweeping across channels. Keeping Hannes Wolf quiet was high on Celtic’s agenda.
The former West Brom midfielder patrolled his defensive third with his interceptions and marking. For 55 minutes of the game, he was successful in thwarting FC Salzburg’s attack. As we can see below Mulumbu anticipated the ball’s movement and was able to intervene on more than one occasion. Rather than allowing Mikael Lustig to deal with Minamino, the defensive midfielder steps in between anticipating a pass from the Salzburg right back.
Not only did this prevent FC Salzburg from playing their natural game, but also denied them space to deliver low crosses into the box. Neither striker is proficient at heading but thrives on quick, decisive crosses or through balls.
Mulumbu tracked the forward runs of Hannes Wolf diligently. The young German midfielder has been an influential figure in the hole for Salzburg and keeping him quiet would limit the supply to Minamino and Moanes Dabour.
In both instances, we can see how closely Mulumbu tracks Hannes Wolf and Dabour preventing them from playing to their strengths.
Brendan Rodgers instructed his three central midfielders to sit in a low block and protect the defenders. He wanted to utilise Mulumbu’s strength and experience to understand and react accordingly. The plan was executed flawlessly for 55 minutes before the referee brandished a yellow card to the Congolese midfielder for a series of fouls. This limited Mulumbu’s participation due to his style of play. Youssouf Mulumbu was excellent in the middle of the park considering that it was only his second appearance. He broke up play superbly and looked extremely composed on the ball as Celtic seemed to suffer by scoring so early thanks to Odsonne Edouard’s brilliantly-taken goal.
FC Salzburg’s High Tempo & Full Backs
FC Salzburg were trailing 1-0 in the second half. Small adjustments were needed to break down a stubborn Celtic defence. If the first half was about patient build-up play then the second half was the complete opposite. Increase in tempo was Marco Rose’s message at halftime. His side started playing swift, agile passes to disrupt Celtic’s shape and organisation. The midfield started to press the Celtic defenders higher up the pitch.
The catalysts to this method were the high and wide positioning of the fullbacks. Both Stefan Lainer and Andreas Ulmer were outstanding in their overall play; interchanging passes with Hannes Wolf, Minamoto and Dabour to create different crossing angles. The rapid change of pace pulled Celtic’s players out of position and allowed them to penetrate their defence.
As we can see here, Amadou Diawara’s ball to Stefan Lainer pulls both Kiernan Tierney and Callum McGregor out of position and a quick cross into the box means the entire defence needs to shift left to cover the empty spaces. Hannes Wolf is allowed a free run and his cross to Dabour allows the forward to score.
Stefan Lainer was particularly impressive with his pace and presence constantly pushing back Kieran Tierney. His heat map clearly shows him making full use of the opposition half and the dominance FC Salzburg had over Celtic throughout the 90 minutes.
The second goal was identical with the exception of Andreas Ulmer turning provider and cross for the players in the box. Takumi Minamoto was the benefactor, who scored the decisive goal. Celtic’s defenders were unsure whether to track Hannes Wolf’s run or close down the left back. The disorientation allowed Ulmer’s cross to be attacked by three of Salzburg’s attackers creating a 3v2 scenario.
With Love From Austria
Celtic played well for a significant portion of the match but were eventually overrun by the tenacity and form of FC Salzburg. History has taught us that teams playing with a low block can rarely maintain their shape and energy for extended periods of time till the opposing team finds a gap to exploit. Rodger’s side managed to keep Salzburg at bay for 55 minutes before eventually falling to Marco Rose’s tweaks and adjustments in tactics. The former Liverpool manager is going through a torrid time as of late and will feel hard done by after his team put in a spirited performance but Austrian champions are the team in form and will be favourites to come through top of the group.