PREVIEW: Are Austria the real EURO2024 underdogs under Ralf Rangnick?

Austria: a nation which always seems to show up at the EUROs, but never seems to really do anything; a side which has traditionally either failed to qualify or simply made up the numbers; a team which, until now, has been fairly anonymous. But something is brewing in Austria – and it’s something really quite exciting.

Football has been played in Austria for 124 years. In that time, their record has been… patchy. Despite success at early World Cups including a bronze medal in 1954, they’ve not progressed past the group stage at that competition since – and they’ve not even appeared at the World Cup finals since 1998. 

What about the EUROs? They’ve been a little more consistent in terms of appearances, but they didn’t feature at a European Championship until 2008, when they qualified automatically as joint hosts. Since then, though, they’ve appeared twice, and are verging on being a part of the European furniture.

That said, they haven’t exactly been good. In fact, they failed to win a game at the EUROs until EURO2020, beating North Macedonia and Ukraine on their way to their first ever knockout tie, which they only very narrowly lost to eventual champions Italy. 

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So, there are signs of progression from that alone – but they’re an entirely different beast now. 

Managed by Ralf Rangnick, the man who masterminded the rise of RB Leipzig and ruffled corporate feathers at Old Trafford, Austria are playing some frankly excellent football. 

Things didn’t look great right from the beginning, though. Rangnick’s first game was a very impressive 3-0 win over Croatia, but they wouldn’t win any of their next five games, all of which came in what was a very poor Nations League campaign. After that poor run, though, things started to click. 

In the 14 games since then, Austria have lost only once – a 3-2 defeat to Belgium. That was their only defeat in EUROs qualifying, leading to automatic qualification after finishing second and a whole nine points ahead of closest challengers Sweden. 

They’ve not taken their foot off the gas since then either, racking up some seriously impressive results, including a 2-0 win over EURO2024 hosts Germany and a 6-1 drubbing of perennial dark horses Türkiye. This is an Austria side playing better than they ever have before; and it’s safe to say they’ve picked the perfect time to find their form. 

They’ll certainly need those results to carry over into the EUROs, too; playing as well as they are, they’ve not exactly been blessed with an easy ride. Finding France in your group would be daunting enough. Looking further down to find the Netherlands and Poland is – well, it’s just a bit unkind. 

But make no mistake about it: Austria are not going to roll over for the traditionally bigger sides, because, crucially, they play some tremendous football. 

It’s certainly a Rangnick team; there’s an emphasis on high pressing, organisation and ball retention. Width tends to come from the fullbacks, with the likes of Marcel Sabitzer and Konrad Laimer coming further inside to help keep the ball and add some more central creativity.

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Those names are obviously talented ones and there are some other excellent players in the squad; guys like Kevin Danso, Florian Grillitsch, Patrick Wimmer, Michael Gregoritsch and Premier League cult-hero Marko Arnautović are all technically excellent footballers. But Austria don’t really have a star – and that’s testament to Rangnick and the football they play; they are, perhaps more than any other side in this competition, more than the sum of their parts. 

But there will be some big misses. Xaver Schlager is recovering from an ACL tear he sustained in May and won’t be in the squad. Perhaps more strikingly, though, there will be no David Alaba in the side either. The man who has defined much of the recent history of the Austrian national team, Alaba also failed to recover from a ligament injury in time to be included in the squad. 

Those two will be big misses, but it’s a squad more than capable of playing good enough football to really put the cat among the pigeons in what is a very tough group.

What’s unknown is whether Austria will be able to translate excellent form in qualifying and friendlies into a tournament setting, but based on how they’ve performed since the end of 2022, there’s no reason to suspect they can’t surprise a few people. 

Everyone loves talking about dark horses. It was Türkiye at EURO2020, and we all know how that went. But Austria really have flown under the radar and could be a side who go much further in this tournament than they ever have before. 

One thing is certain: their first game against France on the 17th of June will be a huge test, but if they can pass it, the sky really could be the limit for Ralf Rangnick’s underdogs. 

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