Who doesn’t love the Europa League? Where no-one knows who they are playing and you’d be hard sold to find a fan or a team who doesn’t love dancing across Europe to play teams that no-one really knew even existed. But that’s Manchester United’s fate and in LASK they face one of Austria’s oldest.
For what will be the first time in their history, Manchester United face LASK in any European competition which is more down to the Austrian side than the Red Devils. Because while the Red Devils were celebrating their first league title in 1908, LASK were being created. The brainchild of Albert Siems, LASK was founded in 1908 as Linzer Sportclub. An amateur football club, at the time, it was re-named eleven years later to Linzer Athletik Sport-Klub (short form Linzer ASK).
But it took years before the club made its first appearance in the top-flight competition thanks partly to the many wars the Europeans decided to wage on the world. Yet the 1940/41 season in the Third Reich run Gauliga Ostmark was LASK’s first appearance for the world. The Gauliga Ostmark was, for those interested, introduced by the Nazi Sports Office in 1938 after Germany’s forcible occupation of Austria and it replaced the Nationalliga as Austria was renamed Ostmark.
That was part of an even bigger footballing chain where the winner of the Gauliga Ostmark was sent to the German Bundesliga, and the bottom three were relegated to the second division. It’s here that LASK plied their trade, for one season, and got relegated in their very first season and then disappeared off the map.
Little is known about what happened to the club between the 1941/42 season and the 1950/51 season where they popped back up in the first tier. However, the period after that was inconsistent, to say the least with them struggling to perform in their first five years, but under new management and ownership, the club slowly improved and won their first league title in 1964/65. They became the first Austrian club outside Vienna to do so and added the domestic cup in the same season.
That’s the best thing that ever happened to the club. Because after that inconsistency plagued them with finishing 7, 4, 8, 4, 4, 5, 12, 6, 9, 6, 7, 4 and 10 over the next thirteen seasons with their eventual relegation in 1977/78 when they finished 10th. Things never changed with them producing a masterclass in inconsistency with two more relegations between 1978 and 1989. But, it’s also when they managed to produce the second-best thing that ever happened to the club, beating Inter Milan in the 1985/86 UEFA Cup.
LASK would go on to lose on aggregate but they were an ever-present in the UEFA Cup between 1980 and 1988. They would never finish higher than the second round however, before relegation and financial issues hit the club hard. In an astounding order, LASK were promoted, stayed up for seven years, saw their owner disappear which put them on the verge of bankruptcy which forced relegation, saw them barely survive and get promoted back in 2007.
(That’s not the end.) Another forced relegation in 2012, the imminent threat of bankruptcy (again), then another relegation to the third tier saw them taken over by the “Friends of LASK”. Since then, the club have done relatively well and incidentally got themselves promoted back to the top tier in the same season that Manchester United won the Europa League under Jose Mourinho.
Three years on and the LASK are challenging for the title, and are the Magellan’s of their world, with the round of 16 the furthest the club has ever managed in any European competition.
Formation and tactics
For all their issues over the years, one of the biggest reasons for LASK’s inconsistency was not their owner disappearing, although that played a part, but because of the manager roundabout. Since 2010, the club have had eight managers with the longest one spending 1490 days and effectively transforming the club into its modern version.
The other six haven’t helped its cause but under Oliver Glasner, LASK formed an identity. Attacking football, with a physical edge to it and more importantly with them doing it via free-transfers and minimal spending. But Glasner made it work with an offensive style of play with the club comfortable either with or without the ball.
It saw them average about 60 goals a season in the first two years but then issues in his third year saw the club struggle. LASK fail to perform but a change to their back three works wonders and its the formation that new boss Valérien Ismaël has kept. The back three has helped their cause with it causing offensive overloads once the wing-backs join the attack whenever needed.
Defensively, the team tends to press the opponent but never recklessly. They read the situation and use it to their advantage with it starting right from the top. It’s a lot like gegen-pressing with them looking to regain the ball as soon as possible and counter. Furthermore, under Glasner, the club moved from just zonal to a mixture of zonal and man-marking. It saw a considerable improvement defensively and stopped them from conceding too many chances.
But with Glasner leaving for Wolfsburg over the summer and him being replaced by former Bayern star Valerien Ismael, many expected LASK to struggle. That hasn’t happened and instead, he’s exceeded expectations both domestically and in Europe, with the club amongst the top contenders to win the playoff for the title.
For a team that has focused on free-transfers and minimal spending to help them move forward and find a path to compete, somehow LASK have found the right players. Marko Raguz is a great example with the Austrian thriving in the Europa League with five goals in eight games so far. That’s despite playing a large portion of his minutes off the bench with him their impact sub. The 21-year-old has found the net six times in 26 appearances (excluding Europa League) despite playing only 50% of the minutes available.
The same, however, doesn’t apply to Klauss, with the forward netting 17 goals in all competitions but he has struggled in Europe and yet his form coming into the game is on point. The 23-year-old walks into the game with six goals in his last five league games and has been lethal for the club. However, none of that would be possible without either midfielder James Holland or goalkeeper Alexander Schlager.
Holland has missed three games all season and has been a key presence in midfield for the club since he signed for them in 2017. But the real star is Schlager, who is very well regarded in Austria with his 13 clean sheets a key reason why LASK are title challengers this season. It’s also earned him a call up to the national team.
Manchester United’s approach
It’s a tough one for United but given the quality they have and the run of form the Red Devils are on right now, this game shouldn’t be an issue. LASK, however, do have enough in them to cause problems for the club and it’s not one they can treat like a lackadaisical kick-about. However, Igahlo’s presence upfront should help in the absence of Anthony Martial but their real problem will be their creativity if Bruno Fernandes doesn’t play.
If he does, then well and good. But if he doesn’t, Manchester United might actually struggle.