The picturesque alpine country of Austria will take part in their second European Championships in France this summer after breezing their qualifying group. It is the first time that the nation more famous for its alpine skiing than football has secured qualification via the qualifiers after co-hosting the tournament with Switzerland in 2008.
That maiden tournament was disastrous for the hosts after being drawn alongside ‘big brothers’ Germany, Poland and Croatia in Group B. In the first game, the Austrians went down 1-0 to Croatia, which was followed up by a 1-1 draw with Poland which set-up a tense finale against northern rivals Germany. Sadly for the hosts, the Germans ran-out 1-0 winners thanks to a goal from captain Michael Ballack to resign the team to an early exit.
The Austrians failed to reach Poland and Ukraine for Euro 2012 after finishing fourth behind Germany, Turkey and Belgium in the qualifying round which means this year’s tournament will be their first tournament for eight years.
We caught up with Austrian football analyst Tim Armitage to talk about the mountainous nations chances in June. The team kick-off their tournament against Hungary on 14th June and will be hoping for a positive result against their fiercest footballing rivals after facing each other a total of 136 times over the years.
Before we focus on Austria’s summer campaign, what is the state of domestic football nowadays?
At the time of writing, there a big question marks over the future of domestic football in Austria. Currently, the top two leagues are made up of just ten professional teams each. However, each year a host of clubs often fail in their proposals for a licence to play in these leagues, and have to make necessary changes or give up their positions and face relegation.
Christian Ebenbauer, a member of the Austrian Bundesliga board said, “Economically, Austria can only tolerate 12-14 professional clubs”. With previous plans to extend the Bundesliga to a 16 or 20-team league, or perhaps join Switzerland to create an Alps League, this seems extremely unlikely at this stage or ever in the near future.
The 2015/16 domestic season has been a fairly weak one in terms of performances, with Rapid Vienna’s victories over Ajax and Villarreal in Europe, providing brief moments of exaltation. Salzburg are set to triumph in the league once again, despite a less than stellar season, with Naby Keïta and Jonathan Soriano effectively carrying the side. Both Rapid and Austria Vienna have been left to dwell on a league campaign of “what ifs”.
After qualifying for the finals in style with nine wins and one draw, Austria seem to have been handed a favourable group – what do you think of the team’s chances in Euro 2016?
With Austria being drawn in a group with Portugal, Hungary and Iceland, I think it’s fair to say this was a great group to be drawn into and I expect Austria to make it to the knock-out phase. However, media reaction from Austria’s group rivals suggest that they also believe they have been drawn into a favourable group and therefore, it is vital Austria do not become complacent and instead take each game as it comes.
I expect that Austria could make it as far as the quarter-finals, but I worry about how they will cope against grittier, more experienced teams. It was evident in the recent friendlies, particularly against Turkey, that David Alaba can be physically taken out of a game and he is such an important creative outlet for this side.
Who do you see as the biggest threat in the group?
The obvious answer to this question would be Portugal – but I think it could be Iceland that are truly Austria’s biggest threat.
Iceland are a bit of an unknown quantity but it has been noted by Austrian media that their physicality could cause Austria issues. Gylfi Sigurðsson and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson are the two names that stand-out when looking through the Iceland squad and they were able to combine for nine goals during the qualifying stage. With support from Birkir Bjarnason and emerging star Arnór Traustason – who incidentally could move to Rapid Vienna this summer – there is a lot of talent to give Marcel Koller food for thought.
What is the Austrian media/public’s views on the chances in France – Are they optimistic of a good showing after such a strong qualifying campaign?
In March, I visited Vienna and was able to speak with several journalists regarding the national team and their predictions for the summer. Generally, I got the impression that there is an air of optimism, but on the whole they do not let themselves get carried away. There is a sense that if Austria play as well as they did during the qualifiers, then they could easily finish top of their group and go onto the quarter-finals or semi-finals. However, with the side having failed to even qualify for a major tournament in nearly 20 years, there is a slight edge of doubt to any optimism.
Against Albania and Turkey in March, the side were not as fluent as they had been during qualifying, and long domestic seasons could hinder their pressing style of play. If key players pick up injuries, back-up players have generally not had enough time to convince, and there has tended to be a big difference between the best eleven and an eleven that involves two or three alternatives.
Who were the stand-out players during the qualifying process and could be key to Austria’s success in France?
The Austrian squad flourished as a whole during the qualification for Euro 2016 and Koller has been rightly praised for getting the best out of the players. The likes of Marc Janko, Marko Arnautović, Zlatko Junuzović and Julian Baumgartlinger all enjoyed particularly successful campaigns and will be looking to replicate this form in France.
Since moving from Trabzonspor, 32-year old Marc Janko has enjoyed a renaissance both domestically and internationally. In all competitions for Sydney FC and FC Basel, the 6’4” striker has scored 36 goals in only 57 games, whilst for Austria he has amassed an impressive 26 goals in 52 games. The highlight of his qualifying campaign came away in Russia, when he scored an improvised, athletic effort to give Austria a vital 1-0 win.
Marko Arnautović has enjoyed a similarly successful period, with the 2015/16 season being a brilliant year for the 27-year old. Arnautović was recently awarded National Team Player of the Year, after a campaign that included three goals and two assists in the qualifiers. This didn’t come as too much of a surprise after reaching double figures in front of goal for Stoke City in the Premier League.
Zlatko Junuzović and Julian Baumgartlinger work best as a pair for the national team. With over 80 caps between them, Junuzović and Baumgartlinger are an integral component in Marcel Koller’s well-oiled machine. Junuzović’s dead-ball abilities and his eagerness to get forward, have seen him impress for club and country, with two goals and three assists in the Euro qualifiers and four goals and 11 assists for Werder Bremen. However, if it wasn’t for Baumgartlinger’s grit and determination in protecting his back-four, the attacking spirits in this Austrian team wouldn’t be afforded so much freedom. Many have come to understand that it is not David Alaba nor Marko Arnautović that is the most important player in this team: it is Julian Baumgartlinger.
As many readers will not know the team’s style, what kind of tactics do you expect the team to employ during the finals?
Austria were fortunate during the qualifiers as they suffered very few injuries to their best players. This allowed Koller to send out the same eleven men in the majority of their games and thus establishing a well-drilled unit.
The team generally sets out in a pressing 4-2-3-1 formation with Baumgartlinger anchoring the midfield alongside Alaba, but with Koller looking to get Alaba into more advanced areas, this is steadily becoming a 4-1-1-3-1 formation. The team often look to counter sides, using the pace and guile of Arnautović and Martin Harnik on the wings, with Janko the obvious target, looking to get on the end of any crosses that may come his way.
When defending, Baumgartlinger and Alaba are expected to get back to help their defence, with Martin Hinteregger and Aleksander Dragović not blessed with pace in the centre-back department. Harnik and Arnautović will also be expected to provide cover to Christian Fuchs and Florian Klein, with Arnautović in particular gaining many plaudits for his increased work-rate when tracking back.
The team is blessed with talent throughout and they have the ability to score from a variety of positions, in a variety of ways. Goals could come from a diagonal long-ball over the top to one of the wingers, or from a Junuzović set-piece. What is for certain, Koller will tinker the squad’s approach depending on their opposition.
What has been the reason for the Austrians upturn in results over the past few years?
I don’t believe there is an individual reason for Austria’s upturn in form. However, it was arguably “Projekt 12” that was the main catalyst for what is arguably one of the strongest Austrian squads in decades. The aim of Projekt 12 was to offer outstanding talents aged between 15-19 years old extra support and training. Started back in 2009, Projekt 12 has generally been a success and the current national team boasts nine products of the program, including David Alaba.
On the other hand, Marcel Koller has to be given huge credit for the work he has done with the national team since he took over in November 2011. He has established a tight-knit group of players that have an excellent understanding of the tactics he wishes to use. Considering this is the first major tournament Austria have qualified for since 1998, Koller is clearly a factor in Austria’s rise.
Are there any potential star players coming through the national team that we should watch out for in the future?
Austria are a nation that has a deep pool of youth talent and one of the main benefits of a relatively ‘small’ domestic league, is that these youngsters can be given first team experience from an early age.
In terms of starlets being used by Koller this summer, there may only be one or two players who fit this description in the current squad, but they may not see much game time in this tournament. Alessandro Schöpf of Schalke, despite already being 22-years old, is the player that Koller currently has his eye on for the future after recently making his debut in the March friendlies.
Alongside Schöpf, Marcel Sabitzer – also 22-years old- is a player who has the potential to catch the eye this summer. Sabitzer came through the youth ranks at Admira Wacker, before moves to Rapid Vienna and Red Bull Salzburg, and finally the switch to his current club, Red Bull Leipzig. Sabitzer can play on either wing or through the middle and impressed most during his time in Salzburg, where he scored 27 goals and assisted 21 times in only 51 games. With 16 caps for the national team, in which he has already scored three times, he may have to wait until the 2018 World Cup (assuming Austria qualify) to really make his mark in a national team jersey.
Below the full national team, Austria have a plethora of possible stars.
For the Under-21s there are: Daniel Bachmann (Stoke City), Philipp Lienhart (Real Madrid B), Christoph Martschinko (Austria Vienna), Tarkan Serbest (Austria Vienna), Louis Schaub (Rapid Vienna), Florian Grillitsch (Werder Bremen), Sinan Bytyqi (Manchester City), Valentino Lazaro (Red Bull Salzburg), Marko Kvasina (Austria Vienna) and Michael Gregoritsch (Hamburg).
Even looking at the Austria Under-19 side you can pick out the players for the future: Tobias Schützenauer (Sturm Graz), Manuel Maranda (Admira Wacker), Sandi Lovrič (Sturm Graz), Marco Krainz (Austria Lustenau), Konrad Laimer (Red Bull Salzburg), Philipp Malicsek (Admira Wacker), Xaver Schlager (Liefering), Dominik Prokop (Austria Vienna) and Arnel Jakupović (Middlesbrough).
The future for the Austrian national team could be even brighter than it is now.
A huge shout-out goes to Tim Armitage for agreeing to the interview and answering in such depth. If you are a fan of Austrian football please be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his work on ‘Football Radar‘ where he works as an Austrian football analyst.