UEFA Champions League 2020/21: RB Salzburg vs Bayern Munich- tactical analysis
In what was set up as an enticing tactical battle between two superb managers, RB Salzburg took on Bayern Munich in Austria in matchday three of group A in the UEFA Champions League. Jesse Marsch and RB Salzburg as a club are famed for their pressing tactics, and so against a Bayern Munich side so polished in their build-up, an interesting battle was predicted.
We did indeed get to see an interesting battle between the two teams, and as expected, the main talking points seen from the game were RB Salzburg’s pressing scheme, Bayern Munich’s build-up, and the perhaps cruelness of the scoreline. As a result, in this tactical analysis, I will mainly focus on the pressing used by RB Salzburg throughout the game, and examine how it interacted and affected Bayern Munich’s build-up.
Using a similar premise to Lokomotiv Moscow, RB Salzburg opted for a very narrow 4-3-2-1 formation, with Sékou Koïta acting as a striker with Dominik Szoboszlai and Mergim Berisha sitting as narrow inside forwards. Bayern Munich lined up in their usual 4-2-3-1, with Joshua Kimmich and Corentin Tolisso in midfield along with Thomas Müller in his more advanced usual role.
RB Salzburg’s pressing scheme
We can see the general ideas and principles around RB Salzburg’s pressing scheme below. The key focus of Salzburg’s pressing scheme was to restrict Bayern’s ability to play in central areas, and therefore force the ball wider. The lone striker would apply pressure on the centre-backs, and when given certain triggers (which we’ll discuss) would cut off one side of the pitch with his cover shadow. The inside forwards had the role of limiting access to the ball near pivot while also remaining compact in the half-space. The ball-near central midfielder would move across to press the Bayern full-back if a pass was played.
Throughout the game, RB Salzburg’s inside forwards seemed to be more oriented towards cutting off the lane to the pivot, and so protecting the half-space was a role also assumed by that ball near central midfielder as well as the next midfielder along.
We can see an example of those ideas in this example below. The inside forward stays very narrow and cuts access to the ball-near pivot, while the striker waits for his cue before pressing from the direction the ball has come from. With both immediate options taken away from the Bayern centre-back, the easiest option becomes the unmarked, but still pressable, full-back. The nearest central midfielder begins to move wider in order to be in a position to press the full-back, and so the half-space is protected by the other midfielder.
The half-space wasn’t particularly well protected throughout the game, but Salzburg were able to press Bayern once they received in the half-space often which allowed them to deal with the threat. We can see in this example, due to the inside forward being so narrow, the midfielder behind him can afford to commit himself more into the half-space.
We can see a similar example here, where the inside forward remains narrow to focus on the pivot, while the striker prepares to cut the lane to the far centre-back. Again, due to the positioning of the inside forward, if needed, the central midfielder behind can cover the half-space more and vacate his current space.
We can see an example here where the ball is forced into a full-back. The nearest central midfielder moves higher to press, while the inside forward remains in a narrow position in order to cover the incoming pivot. Again then, protection of the half-space isn’t prioritised by this player, and so the central midfielder shuffling across is tasked with the role of occupying this space. Naturally then, finding ways to switch the ball often was vital, but this wasn’t something we noticed an awful lot of from Bayern, which is in part credit to Sékou Koïta’s pressing as a striker.
With Salzburg’s main aim being to force Bayern wide, it obviously makes sense that they were able to achieve a stable structure in wide areas, and we can see an example of such a structure below. The nearest inside forward becomes slightly more active in the pressing here, but the ball still goes to the full-back, who is pressed by the nearest central midfielder. The full-back and centre-back are pushed higher here to deal with Bayern’s dropping forwards, and the central midfielder has shuffled across to deal with the half-space and is also within pressing distance of the central pivot if needed.
We see a nice press here where Manuel Neuer goes straight to the full-back, which means Salzburg can become much more orientated on the pivot rather than protecting the half-space. The nearest central midfielder presses in, and the full-back has no available options, meaning Salzburg can recover the ball and attack, with their pressing structure allowing for a front three to be available to attack upon the regain of possession.
Finally, on the subject of triggers, Salzburg’s press was generally triggered by a pass from one centre-back to another across the back line, particularly when the pass enabled the receiving centre-back to occupy the half-space. We can see an example of a passage of play here which demonstrates these triggers. When a centre-back has initially received from a full-back, Koita would hold his position and be passive, not engaging in the press and instead, adding further solidity to that central area. Again, the inside forward follows the pivot actually in the opposite direction to where the ball looks to be going.
When the ball is played across to left centre-back David Alaba, Koita engages in the press and makes this arced movement to cut the lane back to the centre back, which now locks Bayern’s build-up into one side of the pitch. The central midfielder here is caught in two minds between the full-back and half-space, but Bayern simply play wide which allows some pressure on the full-back.
Leaving the half-space open?
Not prioritising occupation of the half-space is not something often seen from teams, especially when defending against positional play dependent teams such as Bayern Munich, and Salzburg had varying success in such situations. We can see an example below where Salzburg don’t occupy the half-space well at all, and a Bayern Munich midfielder is able to receive before being placed under pressure by a frantic midfielder. As we will discuss in the next section, Bayern were able to exploit this lack of occupation of the half-space at times.
We can see another example where the half-space occupation is dependent on a midfielder shuffling across and pressure from the centre-backs. When played quick enough, Bayern were able to create overloads in these areas by committing a central midfield player into this area, and so Salzburg were playing a risky game at times.
Something which was picked up on though is that the very idea of doing this may have been to force Bayern into committing a central midfielder higher as a plus one, as this in turn harms their rest defence. The half-space was even left open so obviously at times that Salzburg could well have been setting traps around the half-space, and we can see an example of this below.
The central midfielder usually occupying the half-space (Mohamed Kamara) initially moves slightly higher to deal with Joshua Kimmich, who dropped to move away from him. Once he stopped following Kimmich, he seemed to realise the space that was left but didn’t commit to an urgent sprint to close the space down, and instead slowly jogged back towards his position. This allowed a free lane for the ball to travel through, with the near central midfielder staying wide.
We can see here though, that once the ball is played into the half-space, Salzburg are able to collapse around the space and have adjusted their structure, with centre-back André Ramalho now higher and pressing the receiving player. Pressure came from all directions which helped to limit the attackers passing options, and Salzburg hunt the ball down within two passes in a wide area, before they then try to transition to play the central striker through immediately, a strategy which would have worked if not for Bayern’s excellent offside trap.
It is difficult to tell if this was just a good adjustment from Salzburg or a pre-planned idea, but pressing traps in the half-space are certainly a high risk/high reward strategy. The opponent has the benefit of increased field of vision and passing options which makes them more difficult to press, but these advantages are only the advantage for the in-possession team, and so if the pressing team wins possession, they have more options.
Much of Salzburg’s chances in the game came from transitions, and so it would not surprise me if traps such as this or similar were planned to benefit these transitions.
Bayern’s build-up was probably not at its usual best, but it showed its usual quality in moments, and this was ultimately enough to allow them to win the game. Bayern would occasionally form a back three in order for the pivot to try and escape the cover shadow of the inside forward. This usually had little effect, as the Salzburg striker was able to prevent passes going back into the back three, and the lack of a pivot to mark meant the inside forwards got more aggressive in their pressing duties.
Thomas Müller was up to his usual tricks of using well-timed movements to overload the half-space, as we can see below where they can easily gain access to the half-space through the full-back, after the pressing midfielder is caught in two minds. Müller and Coman create a 2 v 1 on the Salzburg centre-back within the half-space, and the two can combine to potentially progress the ball. Bayern here though are missing their height within their structure, and questions must be asked on where Robert Lewandowski is in this image. There is the potential for the ball to be played into Müller first so that he can lay it on to Coman who can then provide height, but this isn’t executed.
Bayern’s second goal though was a typical brilliant move around the half-space, with that kind of pattern mentioned above now used. Bayern work the ball out to the full-back who is pressured, but the central midfielder is unable to get across to cover the half-space lane following a switch in play. Müller occupies the half-space, but Pavard plays longer to Lewandowski. Müller continues his run towards the occupied centre-back, and Lewandowski on his first touch flicks the ball around for Müller, who crosses to force an own goal.
This is actually a common combination that the pair use, and we can see an example against Borussia Dortmund below involving the same players. A laser pass from Pavard reaches Müller, who is now facing the opposition goal and in a higher area, with Lewandowski just behind. This example shows the diagonality benefits the half-space has, with Müller now able to receive and immediately play a forward pass into Lewandowski’s path, who runs onto the ball and gets into the box easily. Bayern then have Serge Gnabry in the area but they cannot find him.
Bayern grew into the game in terms of build-up as is evidenced by their final barrage at the Salzburg goal, and they started to engage the Salzburg centre-backs more and more as the game went on, which was only exacerbated when Salzburg moved to a back five late on. We can see an example below of Bayern breaking the Salzburg press with a simple pass into the half-space, which is created using ‘double width’, which is where two players supply width, in this case, the winger and full-back. This helps to stretch the half-space and Müller is of course ready to receive in this area. We see the nearest presser is a centre-back, and Bayern even threaten a run in behind him with another midfielder.
As was concluded by most people who watched the game, the scoreline didn’t reflect the performance of RB Salzburg, who were dangerous in transition thanks to their out of possession tactics, as shown within this analysis. On the overall balance of things, Bayern were probably deserved winners and found a way to grind out the result thanks to some good combinations between technically excellent players, and again found a way to overcome a difficult pressing structure from the opponent.
Mohamed Kamara had a difficult job of moving side to side and occupying the half-space from a defensive point of view, but it was a promising performance from the 20-year-old. Salzburg naturally tired as the game went on, which led to them adopting a back five, shortly after which they conceded from a set-piece, which will have disappointed Jesse Marsch. The American though will certainly be catching a few glimpses from Germany and European clubs, and I can’t imagine it being too long until we see him exit Salzburg for a new challenge.