The winds of change are blowing for Austria’s football team. Following a disappointing Euro 2016, players have been quitting the international scene while head coach Marcel Koller is being questioned as never before. Georg Sander looks ahead to the Dublin showdown.
Sometimes just the beat of a butterfly’s wing that can trigger a series of other events. Such a thing seems to have happened this Austrian squad a little less than a year ago. After a furious qualification campaign for the Euros, Austria were even touted as a dark horse for the tournament. Some commentators warned that all the close wins in qualification could backfire at the Euros. And so, they did.
The fist signal of chaos after the finals in France was the withdrawal of Christian Fuchs. The left full-back, who won the Premier League with Leicester City in 2016, was no longer available – his private life now more important. Marcel Koller had a problem to solve as Austria awaited Georgia, Wales and Serbia in the World Cup qualifiers. Things got off to a bumpy ride with a not-so-glamorous win in the Caucasus (2-1), a draw at home to Wales (2-2) and a defeat in Serbia (2-3).
Koller experimented with the left side of his team, with Markus Suttner, from now relegated German Bundesliga-club Ingolstadt, and even centre back Kevin Wimmer from Tottenham. It didn’t work out. Irish fans will certainly remember the 0-1-win in Vienna, the third time Wimmer appeared at left back.
To outside observers, the obvious choice would seem to be Bayern Munich’s David Alaba but Koller prefers him as a central midfielder. This has meant a hardly-playing centre back has been playing on the left side, leaving Suttner so disappointed that he recently quit the national team.
Another choice is Red Bull Salzburg’s experienced left back Andreas Ulmer. He has been ignored up to now and his time was due to come against Ireland in Dublin. But after postponing his wedding twice – once because he was on call for the Euros at home last year – his future wife has likely said. ‘It’s now or never’, so he doesn’t travel to the Irish capital.
Koller has now lost two options on the left side. It’s possible that he will will switch to three centre backs as he did against Moldova in the spring but the Austrian fans have long stopped cheering for the Swiss in charge of the national squad. All these things, starting with Fuchs’ resignation, have damaged Koller in public opinion.
“So, Ireland will face a boxer on the ropes; angry, but without a clear tactical plan”
As I mentioned before, all the important victories during the qualification campaign for France 2016 were by very narrow margins. To get more in attack, the defence suffered – which explains why the clash in Dublin is such a game of fate for Koller. Here’s a more detailed look at the possible team to take on Ireland.
Goalkeepers and Defence
Not so long ago, Austria could boast keepers at Roma and Stuttgart. Not anymore. Daniel Bachmann never got a chance at Stoke, Heinz Lindner is just a substitute at Frankfurt, and Markus Kuster plays in the domestic league with Mattersburg. Kuster is talented but is a keeper of a club who battled against relegation the entire season.
Lindner will start, but he has his flaws especially from long distance shots. The defence most probably will consist of three full backs: Martin Hinteregger (Augsburg), Sebastian Prödl (Watford) and Aleks Dragovic (Leverkusen). Hinteregger is very good at opening the game, Prödl had a tremendous season in the Premier League and Dragovic is probably the weak point. Koller could also opt for Kevin Danso, also of Augsburg but the highly talented boy of Ghanaian descent, though born in Austria, would most likely only get pitch time to secure his services for Austria.
Ireland can profit from counter attacks and even shots from distance but could find set-pieces difficult. Watch out for Hinteregger. He interprets his role on the left side as playmaker and often likes to carry the ball deep into the danger zone.
Expect five players here. On the left side, it could be David Alaba, and on the right-side the highly-talented Valentino Lazaro from Salzburg. The centre could be formed by Florian Grillitsch from Bremen and Julian Baumgartlinger, Leverkusen. It’s possible that Alaba will be deployed in the middle, giving Bremen’s Florian Kainz a chance on the left side. It is not the best group due to yellow cards for Leipzig’s Ilsanker and Stoke’s Arnautovic, who has probably been the only player in the qualifiers who has evolved.
The one-and-a-half-attackers could be Bremen’s Zlatko Junuzovic, who may have a deeper role if Alaba starts on the left. The elder statesman Marc Janko, Schalke’s Burgstaller and Hannover’s Harnik are the other forward options and all three strikers are in good shape.
Ireland are likely to face an angry attacking midfield, but it’s also one that’s somewhat cobbled together. Sabitzer and Schöpf are injured, while Arnautovic and Ilsanker are suspended. Still there’s enough talent for counter pressing, which I would expect from the visitors to Dublin
Starting with either 3-5-2 or 3-6-1, Austria are likely to exert a lot pressure in the starting minutes to make a statement of intent. Ireland will need to be patient and have a good defence. We have learned from earlier games that the counter pressing and high-intensity attacking at the start shifts to impatience and a high error rate as the game continues. This will leave space between defence and midfield, and right full-back Dragovic who hasn’t had his best year.
It will be a game balanced on a razor-edge. If Ireland survive the first minutes, they should be in good shape. But it’s also possible that from this beat of a butterfly’s wing a year ago, Austria will ride a wave and overpower the home side. This is last chance saloon for the visitors, and the Irish have a real opportunity to put distance between them and a major qualification rival.
Georg Sander is Editor at Austrian football website 90minuten.at and has been freelancing for various newspapers and websites. Follow him on Twitter: @sander_georg