Why Austria’s versatility makes them a threat at Euro 2020

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As part of Group C, what some consider the easiest group of the lot, many had high hopes of Austria’s ability to achieve reasonable success at Euro 2020. The Austrians did not disappoint in meeting that expectation in their first match against North Macedonia, easing to a 3-1 win. What made Austria’s victory so incredibly impressive, was that they did it through players operating in unexpected roles, substitutes coming off the bench, and a variety of mechanisms for creating chances.

Coming into the tournament, a lot of the focus for Austria was on David Alaba and Marcel Sabitzer. And not just for their undeniable quality as the two standout stars in the team, but also for their versatility – the ability they hold to play in multiple positions. Having this versatility all over the pitch should make Austria an incredible threat at this summer’s tournament. Firstly, it gives Franco Foda the ability to change tactics and formation on a match by match basis. Expecting more of the possession against North Macedonia, Foda deployed Alaba as a centre-back and Sabitzer in central midfield. Together, they helped to control Austria’s possession and dictate the tempo of the game, and both even assisted a goal. But against a team where Foda might want to focus more on getting the most out of the attack and ensure he has two useful weapons further forward, he could play Sabitzer as a striker, and Alaba as the left-wing-back or left-winger in the team. Christoph Baumgartner could switch to central midfield instead of playing in the front two with Sasa Kalajdzic, and Austria should have enough depth at the back to deploy someone like Philipp Lienhart in Alaba’s stead.

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Meanwhile, RB Leipzig’s Konrad Laimer can play as a central midfielder, right wing-back, or number 6. This allows for greater variety in midfield and could potentially allow Xaver Schlager to have an advanced role in future matches. The Wolfsburg man loves to get forward and take shots from distance, and could be a useful attacking weapon should Foda want to push him forward and operate with Laimer or their captain Julian Baumgartlinger in defensive midfield instead.

Having this variety does not only make Austria more flexible and adaptable, but also potentially more dangerous. It becomes very difficult for opposition sides to adjust to the tactics of a team when those tactics are constantly evolving. This is why Italy ended up hurting Turkey so badly in the second half of the opening fixture at the tournament. In the first half, Italy were incredibly predictable and operated in the exact same way as their previous unbeaten 29 fixtures. In the second half, they let Turkey have possession, emphasized the right-side with a half-time substitution, and attacked with more urgency on the break. The result? 3-0 to Italy, with Turkey looking out of sorts. Austria can do the exact same thing, but with an even greater ability to hide their tactical identity and tactical nuisances heading into their next set of Group Stage fixtures.

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Against North Macedonia, Foda’s men played 3-1-4-2, with David Alaba as the sweeper in the back-three. Next match, they could easily play 4-4-2 with Sabitzer and Alaba in completely different positions. This ability to change tactics so seamlessly will make it impossible for opposition sides to truly plan how to stop Austria in advance. It will then become even more difficult when Foda can so easily make substitutions or tactical tweaks to change the match as it’s happening, which is exactly what he did against North Macedonia. In the second half, Martin Hinteregger and David Alaba swapped roles, allowing the Bayern Munich man more time on the ball in left half spaces, with greater proximity between himself and Austria’s other star man – Marcel Sabitzer. Foda also introduced Augsburg’s Michael Gregoritsch and former Stoke City man Marko Arnautovic into the match to cause disruption to Macedonia’s tired legs. Both tweaks paid off, and Austria gained control of the match to score two second half goals and win the match 3-1. And while Kalajdzic didn’t score in the opening game, his tally of 16 goals in 33 matches boasts well for his ability to find the back of the net in a future game. Austria can therefore hurt their opposition through multiple players in multiple positions, and those players can shuffle around the pitch to no disruption at all in Foda’s harmony.

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In the end, it was a great performance from Austria against North Macedonia, and one that shows so much promise for what they could achieve at this tournament. The fact that they can so easily change tactics or positions around and continue with the same control over the match speaks volumes to their chances at this summer’s tournament. In all the discussions about “dark horses” at the tournament, Austria has rarely entered the conversation. However, after their opening fixture and 3-1 win, that might have to change.

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