Ralf Rangnick’s Austria have qualified for the 2024 European Championship.
A 1-0 win over Azerbaijan in Baku tonight (Monday) secured their place in next summer’s finals in Germany. For Austria, it will be a first international tournament since Euro 2020. For Rangnick, who endured such a miserable time as interim Manchester United manager in the second half of the 2021-22 season, it is validation of a shrewd career move and reward for 18 months during which his players have shed their caution and set out in a new direction.
In June last year, he inherited a team from Franco Foda which had failed to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar. They were playing dour football in front of half-full stadiums. Now those grounds are full and the Austrian public is paying attention.
The opportunity to qualify for a tournament staged in his home country was a natural incentive for Rangnick when he accepted this job. Within the Austrian squad, he also recognised a core of players to whom his coaching was suited. Many within the group — then and now — have either played within the Red Bull club network of which he was the architect, worked with coaches influenced by him, or otherwise been exposed to his footballing principles elsewhere.
The result was a squad conditioned to play his high-pressing, high-energy style, but which had in-built understanding for its tactical demands too. It was a well-timed marriage.
Under Foda, who coached the side for four and a half years, Austria were a counter-attacking side with a defensive mentality and a direct approach. Foda had a disciplinarian streak, too. The combined effect was to inspire frustration among players, particularly those used to competing at the top of their domestic leagues. It made Austria a strange side; they were efficient, but rarely stirring.
Tom Middler, host of The Other Bundesliga podcast about the Austrian game, describes the conflicting nature of Foda’s reign: “He had an oddly impressive statistical win rate. But if all you saw of his Austria was the brave extra-time defeat by Italy at Euro 2020, then you’ll have been totally mis-sold.
“Austria were absent of ideas, they played conservative football which occasionally got results, but it was awful to watch and left the feeling that Austria’s best talents were being wasted.”
Derby Days: Austria Salzburg vs Red Bull Salzburg
Sebastian Prodl, who won 73 caps for Austria and now works as a pundit for his homeland’s Servus TV, describes the immediacy of Rangnick’s impact: “The German Bundesliga is very popular in Austria and everyone knew Ralf Rangnick, his methods and his past. He moved to Austria, that was really important.
“He also developed a really strong relationship with his players and became aware of all of their personal situations. It’s had a really positive effect and it’s been good for Austrian football to have such a big personality.”
It has been beneficial in two senses, Prodl believes. Rangnick’s appointment has brought attention and focus, but it has challenged the country’s footballing habits and developed its expectations: “Austrian players are quite laid back. That’s how we are as a country. When giving 80 per cent is enough, we give 80 per cent. Rangnick has changed that; he’s made the federation believe in continuous qualification.”
The difference on the pitch was startling.
In Rangnick’s first game, Austria beat Croatia 3-0 away. They withstood heavy pressure, but their goals were neat and direct, full of the positivity that had been lacking.
Whereas Foda’s football could sometimes be so cautious as to embolden weaker opponents — they suffered dreadful losses to Latvia (1-0, 2019) and Israel (5-2, 2021) under his watch — that victory over Croatia was full of risk and, ultimately, reward.
Following a creditable 1-1 Nations League draw with France, David Alaba expanded on that sense of the team being liberated, by taking a less than subtle swipe at Foda: “It just shows that maybe we’re fed up with playing a certain kind of football, like we’ve always had in previous years.”
Results in the autumn of 2022 did not always reflect the improvement. After that defeat of Croatia in May, they endured a five-game winless run that included Nations League relegation. But they were narrow losses, to powerful opponents. Austria were defeated by Denmark twice, France and, in the reverse fixture, Croatia, but competed in a way that kept the public in their corner.
That is partly because Rangnick’s arrival has alleviated long-term frustration. Gerald Gossmann, who writes for Austrian publications Die Zeit and Profil, says that mismatches between coaching philosophy and the players available have often restricted what the country can achieve:
“Austria has more players in top international leagues than ever before. But they require the right system in which to work. In other words: a modern coach and more style of play. Until now, the country has remained well below its potential.
“It’s been a concern in Austrian football for a long time. We have had courageous and attacking players, but a cautious, wait-and-see coach. Ralf Rangnick is the antithesis to that.”
It explains the change in mood.
The atmosphere around the Austrian national team traditionally veers between optimism and despair. It last peaked ahead of the 2016 European Championship but, as recently as November, just 18,000 supporters turned up to watch the friendly against Italy, in a national stadium that holds 48,000.
They did win that game though, and the curve has been ascending ever since.
Rangnick’s Austria had gone undefeated for most of 2023, beating Sweden home and away, and holding Azerbaijan, Estonia and Moldova at arm’s length to reach the brink of qualification. On Friday, less than a year after that Italy game, 47,000 tickets were sold in just two and a half hours for their match against Belgium at the same venue, Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadion. Austria lost 3-2 but it was hardly a meek showing and plenty inside the ground seemed to admire its intent.
The tone matters.
Austrian football can be provincial in nature and that presents a challenge. Many supporters have a club-first mentality, according to Middler, and need little persuasion to lose interest in the national team. Rangnick’s willingness to give opportunities to players from the Austrian Bundesliga has helped with their engagement and that too has been in contrast to his predecessor.
“For some reason, Foda had an almost complete distrust of the domestic players,” says Middler. “Rangnick has more faith and I think that has helped the fans to connect a bit more.”
Red Bull Salzburg goalkeeper Alexander Schlager is now first-choice for his country. Sturm Graz’s Manprit Sarkaria and Alex Prass are also getting regular call-ups. Salzburg’s Samson Baidoo and Rapid Vienna’s Matthias Seidl and Marco Grull are all in the current squad.
But where the national team play is another part of Rangnick’s drive to capture the country’s mood.
Many fans remain dissatisfied with the Ernst Happel, which has long been due for renovation. The floodlights went out during Rangnick’s first game there, against Denmark in June 2022. The match then almost had to be postponed after a metre-deep sinkhole appeared in the centre circle.
Plans to stage games at Rapid’s Allianz Stadion have so far faced opposition from local ultras, but two of this qualifying campaign’s matches have been held at LASK’s brand new 20,000-seater Raiffeisen Arena in Linz, 200km (124 miles) west of Vienna.
It was clever. While also sharing the national team around the country, staging games against lesser nations in smaller stadiums has been part of Rangnick’s attempt to build a better connection. And it is easier to do that in a livelier atmosphere, with fewer empty seats.
According to Prodl, that Rangnick has managed to exert that kind of influence is another virtue of his personality — and of his being German.
“Because he’s not Austrian, he is not afraid of the Austrian politics,” Middler says. “He’s not afraid to put pressure on Rapid Vienna. He’s able to touch that political aspect. I think that’s quite brave.”
It is another aspect of his management.
Infrastructural improvements and investment in training facilities remain important to the future of Austrian football, and those are battles that Rangnick has experience of, and which he has fought and won at club level in the past. But that will be another part of the journey.
For now, though, it is enough that there is a journey at all. Austria have a direction and now they have a destination.
Special report: Inside Ralf Rangnick’s spell as interim manager of Manchester United
(Top photo: Christian Hofer via Getty Images)