Red Bull Salzburg have impressed in Europa League action this season under new coach Marco Rose and his assistant, former tactics blogger Rene Maric. Rose and Maric were given first-team roles after guiding the club’s Under 19s to UEFA Youth League success last season, and have enjoyed a remarkable debut season in charge, winning the Austrian Bundesliga in impressive fashion, and finishing runners-up in the Austrian Cup. They also reached the semi-finals of the Europa League, knocking out Real Sociedad, Borussia Dortmund and Lazio before falling to Marseille.
One player who has really stood out under the new management team is the 25-year-old Kosovan midfielder, Valon Berisha (£0.72). Berisha generally occupies the outside left midfield berth in Salzburg’s 4-3-1-2; he has also played wide left in a more prosaic 4-4-2. Berisha notched up five goals and one assist in the Europa League, and also netted four in the Austrian Bundesliga, mostly from the penalty spot.
Salzburg’s midfield shape is fluid and designed to play to their two strengths: verticality and counter-pressing. They often look to play through the centre, making full use of their diamond midfield shape’s many different angles and combinative possibilities.The back four circulate the ball from side to side looking to open up and exploit gaps in the opposition defensive block by playing the ball long towards a striker, or the attacking midfielder who plays at the tip of the diamond. This encourages lay-offs onto which the deeper midfielders, including Berisha, can run and find space. Berisha also makes diagonal runs from outside in, arriving in the opposition box and looking to find another late runner arriving in space.
Salzburg’s compact shape allows for quick combinations in and around the final third. They tend to play in tight spaces and, with two strikers, one attacking midfielder and the outer midfielders making forward runs, they can turn the opposition quickly through one-touch passes, one-twos, lay-offs and through balls. Berisha’s skill on the ball, his ability to play quick give-and-go’s under pressure, and his physique, which makes it difficult to dispossess him, make him ideal for this style of play. Salzburg tend not to play in the wide spaces as the first course of action but, when they do, width comes from the full-backs overlapping, and Berisha has an excellent understanding with left-back Andreas Ulmer.Berisha is also crucial to Salzburg’s pressing and counter-pressing play. An opposition pass out towards the touchline is a key trigger, and Berisha patrols the left-hand wide and half spaces with energy and tenacity, often making tackles or interceptions that allow Salzburg to counter. He works hard up and down the length of the pitch, happy to drop deep to assist Ulmer or press high with the left-hand striker deep in the opposition’s half. His movement, having won back the ball, is inside towards the central space – this both adds numbers to Salzburg’s central attack and opens up the wide space for Ulmer to move in to. This also means that Berisha is central if the full-back is able to overlap and pull the ball back – Salzburg tend to cross low and towards the penalty spot or top of the penalty area, encouraging players to run into the space ahead of the opposition’s back line as they drop off. Berisha’s second goal against Borussia Dortmund, coming from a low, pulled back cross from the right-hand side as the Kosovan arrived late in the box, was a quintessential Salzburg goal.
Strong, hard-working, skilful, and tactically intelligent enough to work within a system that demands much of him, Valon Berisha is rightly making a name for himself in Austria. Given RB Salzburg’s reputation for developing players who go on to achieve success in top European leagues – Sadio Mane, Naby Keita, and Dayot Upamecano to name but three – and Berisha’s superb season under an astute and sophisticated manager, the Kosovan is at exactly the right stage in his career to make the same jump.