As soccer slowly emerges from its persistent slumber, more and more countries have begun to restart and allow play to resume. The German Bundesliga has been chief amongst them, but this week we saw the return of their eastern cousins in Austria. More specifically we saw the return of Red Bull Salzburg, the original club and the one helmed by former RBNY patriarch, Jesse Marsch.
You may remember this Salzburg team from the viral video that went around during October of 2019, where we saw Marsch reminding his players they were contesting a “Champions League spiel” as they gave the UCL title holders Liverpool, all they could handle. Salzburg would later bow out of European football after just missing out on advancing to the Champions League knockout round and then being drubbed out of Europa League by Eintracht Frankfurt. For many in the public consciousness… that could be all you may remember of Salzburg. Yet they’ve still been active in their domestic league, and have gone through quite a few trials and tribulations in Jesse’s first year as the boss.
While the Austrian Bundesliga is still waiting to resume next month, the Austrian Cup final was contested Friday as Salzburg dispatched second division side Austria Lustenau 5-0 in a dominant performance. This was Salzburg’s second cup win in a row and 7th overall (all since the Red Bull Takeover). To be fair, winning this cup was probably the expectation when Marsch took the job. In a game highlighted by mistakes by Lustenau’s keeper, often forced errors due to the frantic pace of Salzburg’s attack, the result was never once in doubt. Getting the result, however, must feel like a weight lifted off the American’s shoulders.
Salzburg haven’t had it all their way this year, and a major factor is two of the teams most promising prospects left during the middle of the months long winter break in Austria. Sensational Norwegian striker Erling Håland left for Borussia Dortmund, and the engine that drove Salzburg for so long, Japanese winger Takumi Minamino, was also poached away by the same Liverpool side which had fought tooth and nail against Salzburg in the Champions League. These two players had spearheaded the attack that permitted Salzburg to launch full throttle against some of the best teams in the world.
When the Austrian Bundesliga and Europa League returned in February, the results did not follow. Until the Austrian league took another pause for the COVID-19 epidemic, Salzburg only won 3 of a possible 8 matches. This included two league losses, which was a feat that quite literally had not happened that year, with Salzburg’s last Bundesliga defeat coming on April 28th, 2019. For their impossibly high standards, Marsch’s club was reeling. Salzburg entered the COVID-19 break behind in the table and out of a direct slot to be named league champions, something that hasn’t happened since 2010-11.
Marsch’s team got a fortunate break this week when the current table leaders at the time, LASK, were found to be in violation of the strict quarantine training protocols by the Austrian Football Association, and thus docked points. The only question left is what now?
The loss of both Håland and Minamino have meant that the younger charges of Salzburg have had to step up. Kids that weren’t expected to grow into a role until at least 2020-21 are now being asked to hold off a stern title challenge from LASK. For his part, Jesse Marsch moved from 4-4-2 to a slightly different 4-3-1-2 in the immediate aftermath of their departure. Only to return back to the familiar 4-4-2 in the cup final victory. Patson Daka remains in the strike team, but his partner is now South Korean international Hee-Chan Hwang. The two have struggled to find goals in the same way that they had in the past. Okugawa has also been put into a more attack midfield than winger role, leaving his former slot to be taken up by Ghanaian youth international Majeed Ashimeru who has been more comfortable as a defensive midfielder rather than being committed to the attack.
For Salzburg, doubles are the expectation. Since the Red Bull takeover the club has won the domestic double six times. They’ve won the league ten times since the takeover as well, and Red Bull are well within their rights to demand an eleventh title in addition to the Austrian Cup. Salzburg are expecting Marsch to sort things out even after losing two vital parts of his team, especially with the long windows in between the sales. The truth of the matter is that Marsch should been expected to have developed a style or a rapport with the players he has in order to see out the season and put Salzburg in as good a position as possible to return to UCL. For all the success that Jesse managed to achieve while in UEFA Champions League, he wasn’t the boy who brought them to the dance. That was the charge of Salzburg’s last manager Marco Rose, current in charge of Borussia Mönchengladbach. Rose won not only a double in 2018-19, but the Bundesliga in 2017-18 and the UEFA Youth League in 2016-17 with Salzburg’s youth side. These are formidable shoes that Jesse is not just expected to fill, but surpass.
With only league games and no more European distractions, Jesse Marsch has ten games left to weather this storm. Including a poignant game to close out the season against LASK, the team which just had to forfeit their lead at the top of the table. Salzburg return to action on the 3rd of June against Rapid Wien as they endeavor to close out the season with their seventh domestic double since the Red Bull takeover.