A couple of days ago, Brother Salzburg's Twitter account revealed the Austrian side of Papa Red Bull's global soccer family is hosting most of the key members of the New York Red Bulls technical staff:
We are happy to welcome @jessemarsch & colleagues from @NewYorkRedBulls at @RedBullSalzburg ⚽️ #RedTogether pic.twitter.com/bqaLiFoDCq— FC Red Bull Salzburg (@RedBullSalzburg) December 3, 2015
This followed shortly after the real big news of the day at Red Bull Salzburg: head coach Peter Zeidler was relieved of his duties, less than six months after he was appointed.
One assumes Jesse Marsch and his team are in Salzburg to compare notes with their counterparts in Austria. There is evidence to suggest much is shared between the various clubs of the Red Bull global soccer enterprise: Marsch himself has said so; we've seen what looks like common thinking about set pieces; RBNY's recent dedication to celebrating home wins with its fans might be an idea borrowed from across the Atlantic. RalfBall is, at least for the moment, a global project.
But Zeidler's dismissal is a reminder that even under the progressive, fashionable methods and philosophy of Ralf Rangnick, success is not inevitable. And while the Red Bull teams may be playing RalfBall, this is still Papa's show and he remains a hard taskmaster - particularly hard on head coaches.
In fairness, we don't know whether Dietrich Mateschitz himself was responsible for the decision to let Zeidler go, and there were whispers about discontent within the squad - made credible by a difficult-to-conceal rift between defender Martin Hinteregger and the just-departed head coach.
Further, the task every season at Salzburg is the same: win the league and qualify for the group stage of the Champions League. The latter has yet to be achieved on Papa's watch, and is often cited as the primary reason the club has shuffled through 10 head coaches since Red Bull bought the team on April 6, 2005.
This year, Salzburg not only failed to make the group stage of the Champions League (yet again), but was also bounced out of the Europa League in the Play-off round. Zeidler effectively flunked the most important test of his first season in charge before the end of August. In the league, the team has been stumbling also: just one win in its last five games. That form has not been catastrophic - Salzburg will have the chance to go top of the table on December 6 if it can conjure an away win against SV Mattersburg...
Die Ergebnisse und die Tabelle. #SkyBuliAT #SSNHD pic.twitter.com/TsH1JIGnIW— Sky Sport Austria (@SkySportAustria) December 5, 2015
...but it is the second time this season Zeidler's squad has struggled for consistent results. The team opened the current campaign with a run of just three wins in its first 10 competitive games, and that stretch is the reason it hasn't had any European competitions to worry about since August.
Still, there was cause to imagine Papa might be patient with Zeidler. From this distance, the 2015-16 season looked like a rebuilding year for Salzburg. The squad that won an Austrian league and cup double in 2014-15 lost several players last summer, including erstwhile starting 'keeper Peter Gulacsi and influential midfielder Stefan Ilsanker. Those two were part of a group of five players snapped up by RB Leipzig, as Papa reallocated resources to bolster his German team's quest for promotion from 2. Bundesliga.
Zeidler was appointed to manage Salzburg after Adi Hutter - the coach who had delivered a double in his first year in charge - resigned. Hutter's departure was mutually described as amicable, but few could fail to see the pattern of the team's best players being sold, or moved over to Leipzig. (There has been no shortage of transfer activity at Salzburg: some estimates put the value of player sales over the past 12 months at around $25 million; acquisition costs over the same period have been estimated at approximately $4.5 million.)
Zeidler leaves a squad that has lost most of its biggest names from the successes of the last two seasons. One need not question Salzburg's ambition: the team's most recent signing, Dayot Upamecano, was reportedly targeted by some of the biggest clubs in England, and has been named among the "most exciting" U-19 players in the world by FourFourTwo.com. But it is a different sort of ambition from the typical European club with Champions League dreams: an ambition that requires a near-constant turnover of players as the best are sold and fresh talent is identified to replace them.
As Papa Mateschitz said himself in an interview with Kleine Zeitung earlier this year: "Players like Mane, a Kampl are just too good for Austria." (Sadio Mane brought in almost $18 million for Salzburg when he was transferred to Southampton in September 2014; Kampl, now at Bayer Leverkusen, was sold to Borussia Dortmund for around $13 million in January 2015.)
The current Salzburg squad numbers 31 players (per Soccerway.com). Twenty-three of those players are currently under-24. Ten of them are under-20. It has been rumored Adi Hutter wasn't thrilled by the prospect of having to coach a new crop of youngsters to the Austrian Bundesliga title every year. Indeed, he did reference the constraints he was working under publicly, as quoted by Sportnet.at in June:
When you lose eight top players within a year, that's for a coach not easy.
Zeidler, a long-time associate of Ralf Rangnick, was perhaps more inclined to see merit rather than madness in the policy in place at Salzburg. The same Sportnet article notes Red Bull demanded "unrestricted understanding and commitment" with regard to the RalfBall system, and Zeidler's primary qualification appeared to be the length of his association with Rangnick and his devotion to the principles now made the rule for Papa's Red Bull family. As Zeidler told Sportnet in 2013:
Ralf Rangnick and I have the same view of how we want to play
Zeidler is about as tactically aligned with RalfBall as any coach not named Rangnick can be. Give him a year to find the stars in the latest batch if signings, and see if they can crack the Champions League Group Stage for Papa in 2016-17. Or not: Zeidler didn't even get six months to sort out the squad.
New man Tomas Letsch, is the 11th head coach in a 10-year period that has seen RB Salzburg win six Austrian Bundesliga titles and the Austrian Cup three times. It is remarkably high turnover for a team that has enjoyed considerable and consistent success in recent years.
What does any of this have to do with the New York Red Bulls? Well, it is a reminder that while Papa has managed to implement and expand a consistent plan for his global soccer enterprise since the appointment of Ralf Rangnick in 2012, patience and continuity aren't traditionally the Red Bull way. And while RB soccer's new approach has, justly, delighted RBNY fans with both its intentions (invest in young players; develop stars, don't buy them) and its execution (aggressive on-field style; 2015 Supporters' Shield winner), Zeidler's firing serves to sound a note of caution: Papa hasn't changed that much.
Salzburg is approaching 11 years as a Red Bull club with its 11th head coach (and likely number 12 on the way: Letsch was promoted from managing the Salzburg reserve team, FC Liefering, and may simply be an interim appointment). RB Leipzig has had six head coaches since Red Bull founded the club in 2009. Red Bull Brasil is currently on its eighth coach since 2008, says Wikipedia. From Mo Johnston to Jesse Marsch (including Richie Williams' two interim stints as one appointment), RBNY has cycled through seven head coaches since the Red Bull takeover in 2006.
Across the entire Red Bull global soccer empire, as best this observer can tell, the two longest-serving head coaches in the history RB football are Hans Backe (three seasons in charge of RBNY from 2010 to 2012) and Peter Zeidler (three seasons at FC Liefering from 2012/13 to 2014/15). And Zeidler just got run out of Salzburg for failing to dominate the Austrian Bundesliga with a young squad in his first six months in charge.
RalfBall has high standards. Papa Red Bull, on occasion, seems to have impossibly high standards.
Jesse Marsch needs no reminding that he took over from a coach who had enjoyed unprecedented success at RBNY. He knows his appointment was a surprise. But if Marsch didn't know already, he knows now: as illustrated by Zeidler's abrupt departure, Papa's coaching changes are often unexpected, if what you are expecting is a preference for continuity and the long-term view.
We have just spent a season watching RBNY settle into the playing style and transfer policy that looks like it is the rule for all clubs in Red Bull's global soccer system. We have repeatedly been told the club is working to a long-term plan. But Papa's most recent actions say the more things change, the more they stay the same: RalfBall may be a relatively new system, but this is still the same old Red Bull.