On 5th November, 2015, little Austria stood 10th in the FIFA rankings. A landslide campaign in the Euro qualifiers with nine wins and just one draw even turned the Alaba-led team into a dark horse for the tournament in France. What has happened since then? Georg Sander of 90minuten gives the view from the Boys in Green’s next opponents.
In October 2013, Ireland last took on Austria in Vienna. The Irish lost that game to a team that has little resemblance to the squad from the small Alps’ republic that later rocked a Euro qualifying group with Russia, Sweden and Montenegro. But the tactics were already similar. Marcel Koller, Austria’s Swiss coach has taught his team well by stabilising the defence, and encouraging them to press in attack. With Bayern-starlet David Alaba, he had his most important player and in the campaign to reach France, the manager found the rest of his starting XI.
Over two years in the Euro qualifiers he more or less trusted the same group. Alaba was joined by Werder Bremen’s Zlatko Junuzovic and then-Mainz, now-Leverkusen’s Julian Baumgartlinger. The captain was Christian Fuchs, former Schalke full-back and 2016 winner of the Premier League with Leicester. On the other side was Stuttgart’s Florian Klein joining the pairing of former Dinamo Kiew and now Leverkusen centre-back Aleks Dragovic, with his colleague Martin Hinteregger now with Augsburg. The attackers were Marc Janko, who’s now reguarly scoring for Swiss top-flight outift FC Basel; fed by Martin Harnik from Stuttgart/Hannover and Stoke’s Marko Arnautovic. The goalkeeper was Austria Vienna’s Robert Almer, who we all know from big saves against Portugal at the Euros.
“Why do we point out these eleven players? Because one central thing in Marcel Koller’s coaching philosphy is trust. If all of those eleven were ready, they’d play.”
But as the Euros came closer, some of the squad had problems. Dragovic was injured, along with Janko. Alaba also seemed to have issues with the expectation of being the outstanding star, instead of simply one of many in Munich. The group stages in France were something to forget. The opening game against Hungary was a mess and still nobody knows how the team didn’t concede a goal against Portugal. In the Iceland game, Koller made a mistake changing his 4-2-3-1 into something like a 3-5-2, a system the team had never played before against another national side.
Were there any alternatives? To be honest, hardly any in terms of players who could make a world-class difference. Austria has some good footballers who weren’t in the national squad but Koller’s trust in his preferred choices was too strong, the alternatives not good enough – to him. The focus on a high pressing 4-2-3-1 and on the same players made it easy for Hungary and Iceland to knock out Austria. And not all of the players were in their best shape in France either.
This World Cup qualifying campaign has brought Austria back to reality with a close 2-1 away-win in Georgia, a 2-2 home draw against Bale’s Wales and a 2-3-defeat in Serbia. Austria have scored two goals in each match so far, but the lack of a decent left full-back after Fuchs ended his career in the national team is hurting them. Marcel Koller is a very conservative coach. He doesn’t revolute, he evolutes. Martin Harnik has slowly been phased out, replaced by Leipzig’s Marcel Sabitzer and with pressing-machine Zlatko Junuzovic ageing, Schalke’s Allessandro Schöpf has become much more important.
The main problem now is that there’s no valid alternative to the Fuchs position. Koller tried Ingolstadt’s Markus Suttner who is obviously too weak, and this Autumn it was Tottenham’s Kevin Wimmer’s turn to be left full-back, which hasn’t worked out too well because Wimmer is a centre-back. And this has consequences. Alaba has to play much deeper when trying to start attacks, and if a weak left defender fails, the centre-back has to get in this position. The goals conceded against Serbia are the perfect proof of this point.
Besides the fact that the Austrian tactics are by now very much known and Koller can’t count on Junuzovic against Ireland, you also have to take Austrian media into account. There is no such thing as a grey zone. Either Austria have the best team, even better than Brazil or Germany, or the side is head-to-head with San Marino – there is nothing in between. This wouldn’t be a big problem if the players, and probably Koller himself, weren’t affected by it.
At the Euros against Hungary one got the feeling that the players truly believed in their own strength up to a level that made the team maybe a bit too self-confident, if not arrogant. Hungary and Iceland could then exploit this strange mixture of something like arrogance and then blank fear. To some observers, this could have been foreseen. There were some spectators pointing out that this focus on the same squad could backfire as soon as there were injuries or a fluctuation in the performances of some players.
Everyone could also see that only three out of the nine wins in the qualifiers for France were with more than one goal more than the opponents. And two of those wins were against Liechtenstein. So after the Euros the tactical focus was shifted to the attack, which has partly paid off. Austria have scored more goals but the defence has been weakened.
And this is something that Ireland can exploit. With a smart away tactic, they can hit Austria on the counter-attack, particularly down the right side. At the same time the Irish can’t be too sure about this one. The cheering home crowd in Vienna always pushes Austria, even when the team had far worse players. Remember the win against France in 2008? Austria has its problems as we’ve said – no left-sided defender and a high dependence on some important players – but by now they should have fully recovered from the Euros. And Ireland shouldn’t forget that this team used to be the tenth best in the world – just a year ago.
Georg Sander is an Editor at 90minuten.at offering a critical focus on Austrian football.