Red Bull Salzburg: How to make the most of interceptions

This season’s Champions League was the first edition to ever feature Red Bull Salzburg (RBS). The Austrian Bundesliga winners had qualified directly to the group stages where they were set up against KRC Genk, Napoli, and Liverpool. The outcome of these fixtures and the resulting 3rd place finish might have been foreseen even before the first kick off was taken but the way Die Mozartstädter went down swinging sure was a nice ‘surprise’.

The campaign showed that the Austrians had the capability of annoying both Napoli and Liverpool with their persistent will to attack and drive the transition game directly towards the opponent’s goal. In the end the effort was not enough to overcome the quality of either side but the sheer will to keep going was fascinating – e.g. the team turning a 0-3 to 3-3 at Anfield and the team talk delivered by coach Jesse March that surfed in the following days.

What stood out for me what also some of the tactical output that RBS had because of their style of play and the interaction between the players within the prefered system. This article is meant to take a closer look at what the players behind the first line of pressure were doing and how they were able to turn the interception of the ball to an offensive transition.


Red Bull Salzburg often (66 % of the time) chose to set the team in a 4-4-2 variant. Mostly opting for a diamond shaped  midfield formation – especially when organising the team offensively. This often gave them a central overload and more ways to control the center when playing from the back but also when needing to counterpress a lost ball or intercepting the ball when the opponent is playing into their organization. 

Passing pattern v KRC Genk (6-2, Salzburg)
Passing pattern v Liverpool (4-3, Anfield)

Staggering the positioning in a ‘diamond’ (or sometimes ‘box’) will provide a short and quick pass-connecting structure to be used in the tight areas that are created when the ball is played into the overlapping team-organizations.

This ability to quickly connect the passes after intercepting the ball and play away from the intervention zone is a clear strength in the RBS structure and style of transition play. Most of the time the players displayed a high understanding in where the other players were without even (seemingly) looking in their direction.

Whenever a team is punching out of it’s league and plays against high quality teams this ‘socio-affective superiority’ is surely a factor that needs to be on the point.

Overloading the mutual help zone

Obviously, the structure goes very much hand-in-hand with some of their main principles of vertical, direct play towards the opponent’s goal but also gives the advantage of another strong principle in the RBS game: To overload the mutual help zones to (the man on/off) the ball.

In other words this principle is about contolling as much of the space around a duel to increase the chances of winning either the second ball or to give a teammate the best options of linking the ball away from the area where the ball is intercepted.

Any Red Bull team can easily be described as having a ‘swarming’ movement around the pitch. This way of moving as a unit at a high pace to control the space around the ball obviously requires a high level of interdependence with the knowledge of the primary references to act upon.

Especially when the opponent tries to play longer passes this overloading-principle is evident.

Long ball play over the first line of pressure and cover
Backchecking is focusing on the ball - getting in front of the nearest opponent
Minamino gets into the mutural help zone and creates an overload
Ball is headed to his feet, laid off, played deep - directly into offensive transition

Being first into the mutural help zones by out-reacting, out-sprinting, the nearest opponents also provides the opportunity to re-gain momentum with a second wave in the same transition sequence. As pictured underneath the ball is intercepted a second time by Minamino and played first time into the central space after the first trough ball is blocked by a Genk defender – thus creating a new chance to break through on goal with a high, broken defensive line in front of the ball.

Interception in the wide area with quick connection to OT
The blocked through pass is regained and quickly shifted to an open center space.

Lastly this overload also allow RBS to counterpress in a very effective way. At seen below against Napoli, the Austrian side are very aggressive when losing the ball and quickly move in a collective manner towards the ball. Nearest player directly towards the ball and again; the surrounding players try to ‘squeeze’ the area around the ball to create a quick connecting network of passing lines away from the intended interception.

Ball loss: Sprinting towards the ball, following up on lay off
Nearest player get in front of opponents in mutural help zones
RBS players have an overload around the ball and use it to play out and into a new transition

Forward defending

The RBS side more often than not have a forward thinking mindset with the intention of forcing the opponent to make a mistake. As opposed to ‘waiting’ for the opponent to make a mistake. This (sub-sub-)principle sometimes creates some terrible team structures off the ball. It seems more chaotic than organized but you cannot help but enjoying the mentality and courage.

Maximilian Wöber with clear man orientation - having no obvious regard for the unbalance.
Interception in front of the opponent - space to drive the ball
End product: Creation of a 4v3 in opponent's half.

The difference between the two selected examples is obviously the starting point of the two players intercepting the ball. The defenders (above) having a more space oriented man marking – stepping close to the attacker in their nearest space/zone. Midfielders (below) having a more option oriented zonal marking – often staying in between a least two options.

The main priority in both cases is however to make a clean steal of the ball. This playing style does not flurish when the game is stopped due to a free kick – this will only give the opponent time to re-organize with better time to get into position.

DM Junuzović starting in between positions and reaches when the ball is played.
Getting in front of the reciever and playing the first touch to the last line - creating a run on goal.

One touch interceptions

As mentioned before: The ability to be on the front foot and exchange quicker passes with each other to exit the zone where the counterpressure is expected to be most aggressive. One way that Red Bull Salzburg are trying to unease the opponent when intercepting the ball is by playing a one touch pass instead of approaching the duel more man on.

LB Ulmer intercepts with one touch on the ball and follow the interception up by sprint past the ball.
By creating a forward facing line to the ball, RBS is able to break into space within three seconds.

Numerous events of this principles occurs when RBS are intercepting or trying to win the ball in a duel. The overload in the zone around the ball is being used to simply ‘dotting’ the ball to a team mate who then often has a new line of options to choise from – creating a pattern of quick exchanging passes until the ball is played away from the counter-pressing opponent’s and launched into space by a pass or driven towards goal.

An imprecise kick from GK Allison is intercepted and played one touch back into open space.
Briefly creating an offensive transition against an offbeat defensive line.

To sum it up

Eventhough we do not know for certain how the game of football will evolve in the future, we do know that the game of football is not slowing down. Quiet the opposite. This is also evident with the type of players that emerges; having the strength and capacity to play the game with many high intensity actions.

For me the Red Bull clubs sees this tendency and builds upon it but also reminds me that the game of football is a brain game. I am without a doubt biased towards the ‘Red Bull football approach’; I find it not only entertaining but also inspirering. They have made a clear vision of how they see the game with a strong correspondence to how they play the game – without compromising the style of play who ever their team is up against. You may not agree or like it but you must respect it.

Red Bull Salzburg shows the value of having the mentality of putting the team first in order to create this high level of interdependence and thus creating the best possibilities of having the socio-affective superiority that is needed when a team – like Red Bull Salzburg – wants to play such an ‘open’ game with a possible full exposure of the errors that might be made.

If anyone wishes to know a bit more about Red Bull Salzburg, I would like to recommend the series that Red Bull has produced about Red Bull Salzburg. The documentary is called ‘JEDER.MANN – This is Salzburg’ and can be found at Red Bull’s website.

Nikolaj Hørby Kjeldsen
Head Coach U-17, AaB







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