The attractiveness of the Austrian Bundesliga has increased significantly in recent seasons and with an average of 3.5 goals per match – the highest average of all UEFA leagues – it is easy to see why.
It is not just domestically where the goals fly in; Champions League matches featuring teams from the Austrian Bundesliga average 3.2 goals per game.
The recent success of Austrian teams in Europe demonstrates that the league doesn’t only provide some light-relief entertainment, but also that the quality of football has improved. Scouts have long identified the Austrian Bundesliga as a fertile breeding ground for talent.
The most notable example of this has been at Red Bull Salzburg, which has served as a springboard for many talented youngsters such as Sadio Mané or Erling Haaland. Salzburg’s training centre in Taxham is one of the most modern in Europe and with a philosophy that encourages the promotion of youth in both the Austrian Bundesliga and European competitions, Salzburg is the ideal place for the development of young players.
Despite a riveting back-and-forth battle between Salzburg and LASK for the league title this year, it is clear that the Red Bull side are streets ahead of the rest in terms of their on-field performance and off-field finances. The trophy has returned to the city of Mozart for six consecutive seasons.
Sharing a playing style with Europe’s elite
Under former Sports Director Ralf Rangnick, Salzburg developed a playing style and philosophy that became known for its press intensity. The high intensity of their approach means that Salzburg’s players are well-versed in the high press style popular amongst Europe’s elite clubs. This makes them very attractive transfer targets.
Three former players, Sadio Mané, Naby Keita and Takumi Minamino, are currently on Liverpool’s books and Jürgen Klopp praised Salzburg’s player development following their clashes in the Champions League, which included that memorable seven goal thriller at Anfield in October.
But it is not just this season’s Premier League champions-elect who are benefitting from the Salzburg talent factory. RB Leipzig, who share the same owner and currently sit fourth in the German Bundesliga, also boast seven former Salzburg players in their squad: Dayot Upamecano, Marcel Sabitzer, Konrad Laimer, Amadou Haidara, Hannes Wolf, Kevin Kampl and Peter Gulásci.
A quick look at Stats Perform’s Playing Styles framework highlights a number of similarities between all three clubs:
All three teams enjoy a high volume of Fast Tempo possessions, which are defined as possessions occurring in the opposition’s half where a player releases the ball to a teammate in less than two seconds, or when the player dribbles at a high tempo. In contrast, none of the teams look to progress the ball forward using long passes, which is reflected in their Direct Play outputs being well below their respective league averages.
Another team with a similar playing style is Dortmund, who recently secured the services of Salzburg’s Erling Haaland. The Norwegian broke numerous records in Austria, making him stand out amongst his peers.
— OptaFranz (@OptaFranz) March 25, 2020
Life After Haaland – A Closer Look at Salzburg’s Other Influential Players
With the exception Haaland, which player has had the greatest influence on Salzburg going forward this season? According to Stats Perform’s Possession Value framework, which attributes credit to individual players based on their positive and negative contributions in possession, South Korean forward Hee-Chan Hwang is one of the stand outs.
Hwang has a good eye for finding open spaces and exploiting them in decisive moments. He has been directly involved in 16 goals during the Bundesliga season so far – ranking him sixth in the competition. For nine of these 16 goals, Hwang carried the ball for more than five metres from where he received the ball. But the Korean is very adaptable and knows when to use his strengths at the right moments. In addition to his Bundesliga exploits, he was second in Salzburg’s scoring charts in the Champions League with 3 goals, in addition to contributing 3 assists.
Following Haaland’s January departure, there are now transfer rumours relating to Dominik Szoboszlai. The 19-year-old has appeared in significantly more on-field minutes during 19/20 (1791) compared to last season (927) and is on the verge of becoming a first-team regular. His technique has impressed many, particularly when running at high speed with the ball.
Szoboszlai completes 9.6% of his runs at high and very high speed – only striker Patson Daka has a higher rate at Salzburg. Along with his high speed, Szoboszlai also has an excellent pass rate for an offensive player, with 83% of his passes completed. In the final third he still completes a very strong 74.1% of passes. This not only puts him ahead of almost all his team-mates, but makes him one of the strongest players in his position in the league.
Another of Szoboszlai’s stylistic traits are his numerous take-ons. A take-on is an attempt by a player to beat an opponent while in possession of the ball. On average, Szoboszlai is involved in one of these duels every 22 minutes. Ten of these have taken place in the opposition’s box. His success rate in these advanced central areas needs improvement, but he’s giving opposition defenders something to think about by running at them directly.
Another young player enjoying a breakthrough campaign, Patson Daka, became the first player in Zambia’s history to score a Champions League goal in November. In the Austrian Bundesliga, the 21-year-old striker has scored 17 goals this season, 16 from open play. Finding high quality shooting locations is one of Daka’s key strengths. During 19/20 he has averaged 9 ball actions per 90 in the opposition box and his xG per shot value, 0.26, is the highest of any player to have attempted at least 30 shots in the competition.
If Hwang, Szoboszlai and Daka can continue to maintain their level of performance once the domestic season resumes, it seems inevitable that they will attract a number of suiters from Europe’s big-five leagues. However thanks to Salzburg’s intelligent recruitment and player development, the club have been able to successfully manage the departure of key players and replace them with their next crop of young, hungry players.
With the likes of Karem Adeyemi, Maurits Kjaergaard, Benjamin Sesko and Chukwubuike Adamu waiting in the wings, Salzburg appear to possess another generation already looking for an opportunity to make their mark on the Austrian Bundesliga.