SALZBURG, Austria — In the end, it was not meant to be for Jesse Marsch and Salzburg. Liverpool defeated the Red Bulls 2-0 in the final group stage match of the UEFA Champions League in front of an announced 30,188 spectators Tuesday at Red Bull Arena.
Salzburg knew it would be difficult to get the three necessary points to advance. Marsch, however, never left the impression of a coach feeling the pressure of a must-win game, and his team earned praise from its opponent after the match.
“They are very aggressive, they almost jump you,” Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp said about Salzburg’s playing style. “I couldn’t have more respect for what Salzburg are doing here, the way they play football.”
Marsch, former coach of Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls, already made history this season by becoming the first American to coach in the Champions League.
The Austrian press labeled Tuesday’s meeting between the teams “the match of the century.” That may be up for debate, but it was the biggest game in the still-young history of Red Bull Salzburg.
“I feel the support for sure,” Marsch said about the hype created around his performance at Salzburg. “This isn’t about me. It is about the club, the city, the people here in Salzburg.”
Salzburg qualified for the Champions League after winning the Austrian Bundesliga with former head coach Marco Rose last year. But under the guidance of Marsch, the side to another step forward in its development by remaining competitive in a very difficult Champions League group with Liverpool, Napoli and Genk.
Like all Red Bull teams, Salzburg presses high, always challenging opponents early to create turnovers. But there are variations in how the different Red Bull sides approach games tactically. Leipzig’s Julian Nagelsmann, for example, likes to play with three in the back and two attacking midfielders behind two natural strikers. Marsch, on the other hand, prefers to play with a midfield diamond, behind two natural strikers.
“We used it against Liverpool with the combination of a high press,” Marsch said of the diamond formation. “I think it works very well. Our match plan was very good, and the boys did their best to execute it. We always need to play with pressure, and with the diamond, it was excellent.”
They challenged Liverpool and had chances to take the lead, but Hee-Chan Hwang and highly-praised Erling Haaland left unfinished good opportunities to give Salzburg the lead.
“Salzburg were unbelievably strong, especially in the first half, but we were too,” Klopp said.
In the first 55 minutes, the match ebbed and flowed. Then Liverpool decided the game in a span of 48 seconds. First, Naby Keïta scored in the 56th minute and then Mohamed Salah struck in minute 57.
“We said we needed our best performance,” Marsch said. “I think this game would have been different if we had scored first. But in the end, the quality of the opponent is clear, and Salah’s goal was immense. It felt like a heavyweight fight.”
Despite the result, Marsch was quick to point out the positives.
“We were close,” Marsch said. “But it is incredible to see the development of this team, and at times, we were better.”
Now, Marsch and Salzburg will look to put the disappointment of the Champions League elimination into challenging for the Europa League this spring.
“We need to play there and test ourselves against the very best,” Marsch said. “Of course we want to win the competition.”
Marsch’s confidence is infectious, as was evident in the club’s final training session ahead of the Liverpool game. The head coach was spotted taking some players to the side and chatting with them about the finer details of the upcoming fixture. Other times, he yelled across the pitch in his distinct Austro-American slang.
Marsch has become a star both on and off the pitch in Austria by taking over a well-managed side that already seemed at the limit of its development and making it even better.
Is he too good for the Austrian Bundesliga? Clubs from across the border in Germany are closely tracking Marsch’s development in Austria, sources have told Pro Soccer USA. And the success of his predecessor, Rose, at Borussia Mönchengladbach will likely add to making Marsch a hot prospect.
But for now, he seems happy in Salzburg working with a team he has formed a deep bond with already.
“I am proud of the boys,” Marsch said. “I love this team.”