Liverpool are back in the Europa League for the first time since Jürgen Klopp’s first season in charge of the club, all the way back in 2015/16.
Yet, after five consecutive seasons in the UEFA Champions League, the club have found themselves back in Europe’s secondary competition. While this isn’t the situation that Liverpool or their players want to be in, it does present fans with some interesting games in the next few months.
Group E has given the Reds trips to Belgium, France, and Austria. Not only does that mean that there isn’t an extensive amount of travel for Klopp and his management time to deal with, but they are also extremely easy and appealing destinations for fans to travel to.
The first game-week has presented a trip to northern Austria, to the country’s third-largest city – Linz.
Who are LASK?
LASK are one of Austria’s oldest football clubs – founded in 1908. They have only one won league title, back in the 1960’s, at the time becoming the first team outside of Vienna to win the Bundesliga. Their history has been littered with 'giant-killing' wins in European competitions – including defeating Inter in the 80s and Werder Bremen in the 90s (maybe something Liverpool should wary of).
Perhaps one of the most interesting periods of their history was their relegation in the late 90s. The lead-up to their eventual demise involved the club president fleeing and going into hiding in the south of France, taking a lot of cash with him, and leaving LASK having to sell their training ground and best players. The club didn’t make their way back to top-flight football until 2007, but since then have gone from strength to strength.
Playing style & tactics
The club qualified for the Europa League play-off round for the 2023/24 season through their league finish – third behind the dominant force in Austrian football, Salzburg in first and Sturm Graz. This left them with a tie against Bosnia’s Zrinjski Mostar, which they won 3-2 on aggregate.
Manager Thomas Sageder has had to deal with the sale of star man Keito Nakamura (below), who has been linked with a move to Anfield in the last few years, to Stade Reims in Ligue 1 for a record €12m fee. The Japanese attacker contributed to 18 (14 goals and four assists) of LASK’s 52 goals last season. His loss has been felt this season (albeit the sample size this season is small) with the side going from 1.69 goals per 90 to 1.57.
They have, though, found their feet after a slow start. Since an opening day draw at home to Rapid Wien and away loss to Sturm Graz, they have won four out of five, and drawn the other. They sit in third with 14 points, again behind Salzburg in first and Sturm Graz in second, who are already developing their own two horse title race.
In terms of formation, LASK have predominantly lined up with a three at the back, in either a 3-4-3 or 3-4-1-2 (although they did use a four at the back 4-3-3 in their league game on Saturday.
There is not a reliance on dominating the ball, in fact, they aren’t really that fussed at all if they don’t have the lion's share of possession – even at home. What they like to do is control the game in their own half, luring their opposition higher up their pitch before picking their moments to counter. LASK are one of the more direct teams in their league, putting together 2.57 passes per sequence, according to Opta (for example – Salzburg put together 3.3 per sequence, the highest in the league. The higher your passes per sequence, the more controlled you are perceived to be in build-up). LASK rank fourth lowest in this category, so, despite being one of the “better” teams in the league, their playing style is geared towards almost being an underdog, asking teams to come on to them before striking.
To play like this, they need to be solid defensively, and that’s something LASK are, and an area they have improved on so far this season. The side have conceded the third lowest expected goals per 90 – 4.46 – and conceded four goals in total. The club conceded 1.19 goals per 90 minutes played last season, in this short season so far it is down to 0.71 (although they are yet to play Salzburg). With the loss of their talismanic attacker in Nakamura, they’ve adapted well, changed the game plan to be more solid defensively and be more selective in the moments when they go forward in numbers.
When they do attack, they like to do so down the wide areas, using runners in behind to hit the by-line before playing the ball across goal for the striker or opposite winger. What LASK do in attack relies a lot on the pace of their wingers. The midfield will hold on to the ball and release the ball as late as possible as the runners look to time their run to perfection in behind full back and centre back. When LASK do have the ball against Liverpool on Thursday night, expect them to target the wide areas.
There is also individual talent throughout the side. Their talisman is midfielder Sascha Hovarth, who pulls the strings in the middle of the park, the one looking to hit those wide players in behind. He likes to sit deep and is the one that will be trying to break up play (he’s already been booked four times this season, which should give you some indication of the sort of midfielder he is).
Their man goalscoring threat is Robert Zulj – a proper German Bundesliga journeyman – who wears the number ten and plays exactly like one, popping up all over the final third and in the box to score.
He has followed up last season’s 11 goals with three already this campaign, taking some of the burden from Nakamura’s exit.
Both are experienced and seasoned veterans, but LASK are also littered with young attacking talent. They utilise the African market well, and even have their own promising Austrian striker in Elias Havel – who they poached from FC Liefering, Salzburg’s satellite club. Just look at his goal from the weekend (above).
Game plan vs Liverpool
On Thursday you’d expect Liverpool to dominate the game, and the possession.
Yet that won’t necessarily be a bad thing for the Austrian side, it’s what they ask their opponents to do on a weekly basis – try and break us down and we will hit you on the counter when doing so.
You’d expect Liverpool’s individual quality to be enough, but with LASK at their new 19,000 seater Raiffeisen Arena which opened this year, if Liverpool have an off night and rotate heavily, LASK will be more than willing to try and catch them out in behind.