NOT every club that finds itself in a restart position seeks to cling to the past at all costs. When the energy drinks company acquired ownership of Austria Salzburg in 2005, they didn’t just change the name and the kit colours. They sought to declare that the rebranded Red Bull Salzburg was a “new club with no history” and attempted to have the foundation date emblazoned on the badge switched from 1933 to 2005 – only to have that move vetoed by the Austrian FA.
More than the product being promoted, it was the rejection of the club’s traditions, the dispensing of the deep purple, the gauche manner in which it was made plain new money would matter, that had supporters fizzing. It was all too much for one band of followers, who formed a breakaway club that now plays in the Austrian third tier.
It is inarguable that the financial backing provided by Red Bull has given wings to the Austrian Bundesliga club, which plays under the name FC Salzburg in UEFA competitions because of sponsorship restrictions. The team could be a bird of prey for others because of its gilded makeover. Salzburg will face Celtic in the Europa League on Thursday as a result of losing 5-1 on aggregate to Malmo in the Champions League play-off round – an outcome that leaves their owners still desperately seeking a way in to the continent’s top football table.
However, the match-up of these teams made international news not as a result of anything on the park but as a consequence of a Swedish newspaper, Aftonbladet, being forced to apologise for an article that led off: “Austria has not only given us Josef Fritzl and Adolf Hitler. There is also Red Bull Salzburg, the most hated football club of our time.”
On the park, at least, their efforts now earn them universal admiration. Following a period during which they hired and fired and bought and sold with destabilising abandon – the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Giovanni Trapattoni and Lothar Matthäus being paraded in front of the cameras – they have developed an admirable ethos and core philosophy which is attributed to the recruitment of German strategist Ralf Rangnick two years ago.
In tandem with coach Roger Schmidt, now replaced by Adi Hutter after the former was enticed away to Bayer Leverkusen during the summer, the pair set about signing dynamic young players suited to the extraordinary high-tempo, high-pressing game that produced a masterclass in Amsterdam earlier this year. Ajax dropped down into this last 32 Europa League tie after finishing above Celtic in the Champions League, but were dropped from a great height by Austrian opponents who cuffed them 3-0 on their own patch. “We lost every 50-50 ball and they tactically outplayed us. I can’t remember something like this happening before in Amsterdam,” said a shellshocked Ajax defender Niklas Moisander.
Salzburg hunted down Ajax with up to four, five and six players breaking on to the Dutch team’s backline. It allowed them to progress with a 6-1 aggregate win that meant they won ten straight games in the Europa League last year… though they were then ousted by Basel. On the back of a 3-0 friendly win over Bayern Munich in January, even Pep Guardiola was moved to say: “In all my career, I have never seen a team play with such high intensity.”
Celtic manager Ronny Deila acknowledges there are similarities between how he would like his team to play and the approach that has been drilled into the Salzburg squad. “They have spent a lot of money on young players and have worked a lot of years on this system and their coach ended up going to Bayer Leverkusen. You can see how they’re doing now as well, they’re doing well with a very aggressive and hard pressing team. But the change in the regime in Salzburg is maybe a little bit like what has been happening here as well. But they play in the way I like to see. Which means we need sharp and fit players to play against them, and we need to be brave in the head as well.”
The differences between Salzburg and Celtic could be as crucial in determining the outcome this week as the similarities, however. Hutter has sought continuity, aiming to further develop the Schmidt style, not change it. Deila is seeking to change profoundly the team and personnel he inherited. That would necessarily be the case were he able to call on the Salzburg front two. Brazilian Alan Carvalho and Spaniard Jonathan Soriano netted 57 goals between them as Salzburg romped to a league and cup double, scoring 110 goals as they swept aside all opponents in the ten-team Bundesliga.
“We have to defend very well,” says Deila. “We didn’t get a lot of training when we had so many matches but now we’ve been working for a full week. I think a lot of it is about consistency, and in the team selection, especially in defence. It’s important to keep the players injury-free so we can work with the same players all the time.”
Yet, after effectively twice exiting the Champions League this season, what became plain is that the players with which Deila was forced to work before the club’s recent recruitment drive were lacking. In giving debuts to new striker Stefan Scepovic and winger Aleksandar Tonev and being able to field fit-again Scott Brown yesterday, Celtic will be refreshed going into their latest continental sortie. However, while Salzburg had a £12 million spend in the summer, Deila was restricted to the £2.4m he spent on Serbian Scepovic. Mind you, there was a curiosity in Salzburg’s summer arrivals. A £9m outlay is attached to Belgian winger Massimo Bruno. Yet he has only arrived on loan from RB Leipzig… a club he joined from Anderlecht in the summer.
Why would second-tier German club RB Leipzig make a massive outlay on a youngster and then deny themselves access to that player for the first year of his contract? Well, the RB just happens to stand for Red Bull, who just happen to bankroll the club through a “sponsorship” deal. It isn’t murky, just business, of course. If not the business of football as folk in Malmo might understand it.