So far in my “Club and Country” updates, there’ s been precious little of the latter. Well time to rectify that and take a brief look at the national side that is, after all, the focus of this save.
As I mentioned in the opening post, Austria’s ranking starts somewhat higher than my previous attempts. Thanks largely to qualifying for Euro 2016, Austria kicks off FM19 as the 26th best national team in the world. This would intuitively seem like a positive, reflecting an improved standard of player immediately available to me; but it does come with downsides – not least increased expectation.
And those elevated expectations saw my job under early threat as we had something of a ‘mare in the new UEFA Nations League, where Austria start life in the “B” groups.
An opening 4-2 win over Northern Ireland in Belfast was the high point, as we then struggled to two draws with Bosnia and were embarrassed 3-1 by the Irish in the return game. The FA, having expected us to top the group, were distinctly unimpressed and were said to be considering my position. Before every game of qualifying for Euro 2020, the press were rife with rumours that a bad result would be my last. Thankfully, our form improved somewhat.
Although perhaps matters weren’t quite as straightforward as that table makes it appear. We only dropped points against Croatia – first a narrow 1-0 loss in Zagreb, then a tough 2-2 home draw where Alaba missed a pen and Pjaca scored a 94th minute equaliser.
But whilst performances and results against Croatia and Turkey in particular were pleasing, our efforts against the minnows were unspectacular and friendlies have continued to be a struggle.
Tactics have been inconsistent and I still wouldn’t say that I know our strongest team but the depth, or lack thereof, in the national pool is now clearer to me and I’ve formulated something of a plan going forward, including areas that are in need of long-term strengthening (all of them).
For now, the national team is playing the above. Whilst we started with a similar 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 to the club side, the performances and results clearly weren’t up to scratch. We struggled to maintain possession against decent teams and, even when creating chances, our finishing was horrible.
I started experimenting with a few different approaches and, given the pace that we have in advanced areas, looked to play direct on the counter. Sticking with a single striker through the middle, usually Gregoritsch, and looking for the pace of Arnautovic and Sabitzer in wide areas just didn’t work. Perhaps it was the match engine issues but nothing really ‘clicked’ until I went with a 3-5-2 against the Faroes.
We beat the islanders 4-0, as we’d expect, but I wasn’t content with the control in the middle of the field. Even against footballing minnows, I wasn’t happy leaving the space in front of our defense for the opposition to exploit and, as has long been my preference, switched to a flat back four with a DM for the next game. Dropping the #10 into central midfield allows the other two MCs to play wider and support the marauding fullbacks.
With the 4-1-3-2 proving an instant success against Macedonia and producing a 3-1 victory in a difficult trip to Turkey, I’ve decided to stick with it until it fails. Handily it suits nearly all of the players currently at my disposal.
David Alaba is clearly the standout star for the national side and I faced an early dilemma in where to play him. Putting him in midfield would improve our quality but fail to use our best player to the full extent of his ability. Playing the 4-1-3-2 and using a lot of the midfield workhorses available in the like of Laimer, Schlager, Ljubicic, Michorl and Baumgartlinger gives us a world-class talent on the left.
And with the reinvention of Valentino Lazaro as a right-back, we’re well covered on the flanks for the immediate future.
And there’s similar immediate strength at the back with Dragovic, Hinteregger, Wimmer, Maresic, Danso and Wöber all solid international players; whilst, unlike in previous versions of this save, we have some decent options in goal with Strebinger, Stankovic and Siebenhandl all respectable.
The problems come further forward. Arnautovic will be well-known to most and is a good, if inconsistent, option but, like Burgstaller alongside him, is 31 and in need of imminent replacement. Gregoritsch has proven hit-and-miss whilst Sabitzer, the Leipzig striker for whom I had high hopes, has been badly affected by an 8 month lay-off with cruciate damage.
A quick look at the squad for Euro 2020 reveals the problem. Ages are as follows:
Either at Rapid or identified at other clubs, I feel like we are already well-on with developing prospects for every position except up front. Which makes strikers a real and immediate priority for transfer activity and re-training consideration.
Before then, however, we have the small matter of the European Championships and a tricky group of Sweden, Serbia and local rivals Germany. With the FA expecting us to reach the Second Round then filling the gaps left by the likes of Arnautovic may well be someone else’s problem…