Salzburg have secured some of the smartest football brains from neighbouring Germany, including one of Borussa Dortmund's key football figures. The club's Europa League run continues with a second clash against FC Basel.
"Our football is relentless," said Red Bull Salzburg's Oliver Bartlett.
The London-born Australian was one of the behind-the-scenes experts who helped mastermind Borussia Dortmund's recovery from near financial oblivion almost a decade ago. He was head-hunted by Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc after a recommendation from Sebastian Kehl whilst Bartlett was on national team duty at the DFB.
Bartlett hails from London with a German mother, but spent his childhood in the Australian city of Darwin where he developed an interest in track-and-field. His academic studies in biology eventually brought him to the Köln Sports University and he was appointed as Dortmund's fitness coach, combining his schedule with the German national team.
His role was to help give the players the athletic capacity to carry out the philosophy of the coaches. Klopp's back-to-back title-winning teams were largely constructed around a high-pressing model with lots of quick, dynamic sprints. The likes of Lucas Barrios, Shinji Kagawa, Mario Gotze and Nuri Sahin thrived on this strategy which brought the Ruhrpott side plenty of success on the domestic front.
Now at Red Bull Salzburg, Bartlett is part of an ambitious project led by former Hoffenheim and Schalke boss Ralf Rangnick, the club's sporting director, and former Paderborn head coach Roger Schmidt whom Bartlett describes as "one of the best up-and-coming German coaches around."
The attention on an Austrian Bundesliga team may seem odd considering the respective size and financial power the league. But Red Bull Salzburg have captured the eye in the Europa League for their intense, high-pressing style of football and a tendency to be involved in high-scoring matches. They've scored an incredible 93 goals in 27 league games this season, more than three a game.
Bartlett emphasizes the importance of Salzburg's strategy lasting for 90 minutes rather just small parts of the game. With former Barcelona man Jonathan Soriano and Alan as the two most advanced forwards, Salzburg have such a diverse range of attacking options, boasting two very complete and polished footballers.
One of the interesting ideas noted from Salzburg's taxing match preparation in training was the use of a clock. If the ball is not reclaimed after five seconds, the clock will ring. It's a way of ingraining a key strategy into the players' minds - that recovering the ball with haste is a top priority.
"We lay emphasis on recovering the ball. Ajax was a great example. They play in possession, moving the ball from left to right until a game opening appears - and we gave them no time, Bartlett said. "Their goalkeeper had the most number of ball contacts. Working as a team, we didn't let them use the ball as they wanted."
Ajax are not the only team to suffer the raw intensity of Salzburg's football - the Austrians also trounced the domineering Bayern Munich 3-0 in a winter-break friendly. All the goals came in the first-half. In addition, Salzburg also racked up a 3-1 victory over Bundesliga side Schalke.
While it may be easy to dismiss the scores from supposedly uncompetitive challenge matches, Pep Guardiola's side were only a week away from returning to the league campaign and therefore, in a normal training routine as they would be currently.
"I've never played in my career against a team that has played with such a high intensity as Red Bull Salzburg," Guardiola said after his side went down 3-0 to the Austrians. A week later, back to winning ways in the Bundesliga, he thanked Salzburg for providing his side with a winter wake-up call.
Salzburg – the new Dortmund?
Bartlett's old club Borussia Dortmund could only limp through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League with a depleted squad running on empty in three competitions. But there have been comparisons between Dortmund's pressing style under Jurgen Klopp and the intensity of Salzburg's team.
"Physically, we're on another level [to Dortmund]," Bartlett said. "Experience-wise not so much. Dortmund has been doing this for a couple of years. It's only the last couple of years we've been planning this."
Bartlett acknowledges a gulf in class and salaries between his old and new clubs, but says he'd still enjoy the chance to test Salzburg against some of the top teams from the German Bundesliga and other, wealthier European leagues.
Red Bull Salzburg still have that chance to go toe-to-toe with Europe's better sides in the UEFA Europa League. After a 0-0 draw at Swiss champions FC Basel, Austria's league-leaders welcome Murat Yakin's side for the second leg tonight (21:05 CET) with the tie hanging in the balance.
"We didn't invest as much as we could physically in the first leg," Bartlett admitted having seen Salzburg drop out of Champions League qualifying last August. "Even at 80%, it was good enough for a 0-0 draw. We should be able to give them a surprise on how we can maintain this pace for the full 90 minutes."
Elsewhere, Mario Gomez's Fiorentina face Serie A competitors Juventus at home (19:00 CET) after a 1-1 draw last week in the Last 16 of the competition. The only English club remaining in the tournament is Tottenham Hotspur who will need an impressive performance to turn around a 3-1 aggregate deficit overall when they face Benfica in the imposing Estadio da Luz (19:00 CET).
City rivals Sevilla and Real Betis (21:05 CET) will battle out another episode of their double-header with Betis holding a 2-0 advantage going into a home tie tonight.