Tactical Preview: LASK vs Liverpool

Our first Europa League challenge

Liverpool begin their UEFA Europa League adventure with a visit to Austria, where LASK awaits. Who are the opponents on opening night, and how might this game play out?

Background

LASK finished third in the Austrian Bundesliga last season, continuing their recent trend of European qualification under previous coach Dietmar Kuhrbauer. Disagreements over squad building – with the senior setup ballooning to thirty players – led to a surprising breakup, with Thomas Sageder taking the reigns. 

Despite this being his first season as a head coach, the 40-year-old is no novice. Following his own playing career, he took up youth squad coaching positions at Red Bull Ghana, RB Salzberg, and Wolfsburg, where he also served as assistant manager under Oliver Glasner. 

Philosophy

Sageder himself says it’s “too easy to call (him) a Red Bull disciple.” But his early games in charge of LASK have been defined by pressing and physicality out of possession – no side in the Austrian Bundesliga has won more tackles (14.0 per 90) or drawn more fouls (14.7 per 90.) LASK also ranks highly for fouls committed (15.2 per 90) and yellow cards (15 in the opening 6 league games.)

READ MORE: What Is Pressing? by Harry McMullen
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Team Shape

Typically the Linzers have adopted a 3-4-1-2 formation this season, defined by their captain and top goalscorer Robert Žulj. The 31-year-old wears the number ten, but plays like a false nine, orchestrating chances for his teammates but also regularly finishing them off himself. 

Ibrahim Mustapha and Moses Usor, the preferred options on the wings, stay narrow both in pressing and in attack. The width comes from LASK’s wing-backs, while the midfield and back three stand ready to defend against counter attacks. 

However, should the opposition look to sit deep and deny Sageder’s side space, they are also capable of scoring from range – such as midfielder Branko Jovicic’s superb strike that sealed Europa League qualification. 

Highlights HSK Zrinjski Mostar gegen LASK | LASK zieht in die UEFA Europa League ein

The obvious flaw of this is that, by asking the wing backs to push high and wide, LASK risk leaving large gaps for opponents to exploit.

This makes the team’s counter-pressing critical – they must win the ball back as soon as it is lost, or opponents have an easy target to counter. 

How will this game play out?

The tricky element to analysing these kinds of games is that teams often play very differently in European competition. Within the context of the Austrian Bundesliga, LASK are a top side, but against Liverpool they will be the clear underdogs. 

With the pace and directness they have going forwards, they may try to sit deep, soak up pressure and then hit on the break. The 3-4-1-2 lends itself to this, as it can easily become a 5-3-2 that shuts down space in the center – similar to Nottingham Forest’s approach in their recent win over Chelsea. 

No matter whether LASK tries this, or sticks to their usual high-pressure game, Liverpool will expect to dominate possession of the ball. Therefore, how Liverpool build up and create their goalscoring chances will determine the end result. 

READ MORE: What Is Playing Out From The Back? by Harry McMullen

Despite having just one specialist defensive midfielder in the side, the Reds have a multi-talented group to choose from in the middle of the park. The technical qualities of Dominik Szoboszlai, Alexis Mac Allister, and co will be critical to progressing the ball.

If Liverpool can control the ball, manipulate LASK into breaking their shape, and then get the forward players into 1v1 scenarios, they should have little trouble outscoring their opponents. 

One wildcard is LASK defender Phillip Zieris. He’s LASK’s only outfield player to feature in 100% of the team’s minutes so far. The 62” German center-back has scored twice so far this season and is an obvious menace from set pieces. This is where LASK will try to maximize their moments. Liverpool’s defensive set piece record slumped last season – typified by Real Madrid’s embarrassingly easy third goal in the first leg defeat – so this battle is worth keeping an eye on.

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Predicted Lineups

With such a large squad to choose from, LASK manager Thomas Sageder has had a few ever-presents. Zieris and Andrés Andrade Cedeño in defense, wing back René Renner, midfielders Jovicic and Sascha Horvath, as well as the aforementioned front three, are the usual suspects. The shoulder injury to Sanoussy Ba should see Florian Flecker start at right wing-back, giving this starting lineup:

With Trent Alexander-Arnold still out with a hamstring injury, Jurgen Klopp could keep continuity on the right side of defence. The left side is ripe for rotation; Virgil Van Dijk should come straight back in after his league suspension, while the newly-contract-extended Kostas Tsimikas could allow Andy Robertson to be rested. Given Liverpool’s expectation to dominate the ball, they may not need to play a bespoke defensive midfielder. Any combination of midfielders or the Reds’ potent front five could feature, with only the in-form Dominik Szoboszlai and talismanic Mo Salah nailed on to start. 

My expectation would be to see the excellent substitutes from the win over Wolves come in to start. Harvey Elliott, Luis Diaz and Darwin Nunez all made strong cases for themselves. The lesser-spotted Wataru Endo could stake his own claim as a safety blanket for an adventurous front five.

What can we expect?

LASK will know they are underdogs, but they also have the pressure of playing at home. Any attempts to seize the initiative will grant the visitors opportunities to open LASK up and create chances. Sloppiness, impatience, and wastefulness will be their main enemies to ward off. 

A physical, competitive game is on the cards. But with a clear gulf in quality, anything other than a Liverpool win would be quite the story. 

Pre-match, post-match, and reactions the following morning can all be found at youtube.com/@americanscouser.

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