After losing to Romania in September, Austria rolled off four straight wins before facing Northern Ireland on Sunday. The home side looked to strengthen its position at the top of Group B1 of the UEFA Nations League while Northern Ireland searched for a way to avoid the bottom spot. Ian Baraclough’s side lost in heartbreaking fashion to Slovakia earlier in the week, just missing out on qualification for the European Championships next summer. They bounced back nicely by scoring first through substitute striker Josh Magennis. Austria fought back, scoring two goals in six minutes to secure a 2-1 victory. This tactical analysis will identify the offensive tactics of Franco Foda’s Austria team and their opponents. The analysis will explore the changes either coach made throughout the match.
Foda chose a 4-2-3-1 for his side with Bundesliga keeper Pavao Pervan in goal. In front of him, Martin Hinteregger and Aleksandar Dragovic anchored the back-line next to Stefan Lainer at right-back and Andreas Ulmer at left-back. Stefan Ilsanker and Julian Baumgartlinger played in the defensive midfield line, the former moving to centre-back in the second half. Marcel Sabitzer played as the central attacking midfielder while Bayern Munich’s David Alaba flanked him to the left and Xaver Schlager on the right. Michael Gregoritsch was the lone striker for Austria. The two goal scorers, Adrian Grbic and Louis Schaub, came off the bench in the second half.
Baraclough opted for a 5-3-2 with Michael McGovern in between the sticks. Conor McLaughlin played at the centre of the back five with Tom Flanagan on his left and Daniel Ballard on the right. Captain Stuart Dallas of EPL side Leeds United played at right-back across from Shane Ferguson at left-back. It should be noted Jamal Lewis replaced Ferguson in the first half due to injury. Northern Ireland’s midfield comprised Ali McCann, Michael Smith, and Paddy McNair. Liam Boyce and Conor Washington started up front, although goal-scorer Josh Magennis would replace Washington in the second half.
Austria in the first half
Austria dominated possession in the first half, holding the ball for 71% of the opening 45 minutes. They relied heavily on their creative forwards to spark attacking opportunities.
The two pivots Ilsanker and Baumgartlinger provided support to the attack and helped funnel the ball into attacking players. Either floated around the back-line as Ilsanker does here. By moving to the right-back area, Lainer can move further up in the attack. During the first half, Sabitzer had the freedom to drift around the field, leaving his position behind the striker. Here, he drops much deeper, looking for a pass from Ilsanker. The back four and two defensive midfielders functioned like a typical 4-2-3-1 although life was easier because they faced little high press from their opponents. Baumgartlinger would move forward in attacks occasionally, but he and Ilsanker mostly remained in deeper positions.
When moving forward, Austria’s front four occupied central areas in the heart of the defence. This image shows each of the attacking midfielders and striker tucked into narrow spaces looking to receive a pass. Austria attempted to create goals during the first half through combinations among the forward players. The compact Northern Ireland defence outnumbered the Austria attack in central areas, so Sabitzer and the other midfielders relied on quick combinations to work through tight spaces. With their numerical inferiority, each forward made strategic runs in tandem with their teammates to create open space.
This image captures one of those tandem runs. Lainer had space up to the Northern Ireland midfield line because neither opposing striker pressed the fullbacks. As Ferguson stepped up to pressure him, Schlager made a run into the space where the opponent left-back would be. The angle for the pass was unavailable, but his movement dragged the ball-side midfielder out of position. Simultaneously, Baumgartlinger ran into the space immediately vacated by Schlager. These actions required awareness from all Austria players of their teammates’ runs to successfully progress the ball into and through the opponent’s final third. Movements and counter-movements from the Austria midfielders created space in advanced areas of the field with high densities of opposing defenders.
This image provides another example of these movements. Sabitzer moved around the field as he pleased, but he thrived in the space right in front of the Northern Ireland back-line as he does in this picture. As Alaba made a run into the space behind the right-back, Sabitzer steps in the opposite direction. As the two defenders nearest Alaba prevented a disastrous ball in behind, Sabitzer remained open to receive the ball. Gregoritsch struggled to get involved in many possessions during the first half as the three creative midfielders provided the bulk of the offensive options for Austria.
This image displays an example of the line-breaking passes Hinteregger and Dragovic played during the match. Either centre-back, when given time on the ball and space to step forward, would eye passes directly into the feet of forwards, bypassing the midfield altogether. The centre-backs jumpstarted attacks from the back-line, catching the opposing defenders off guard with these passes. The Northern Irish strikers failed to cut off passing angles as the team relied on the defence to collapse on the Austrian attackers once the ball progressed forward. Despite these dynamics, Austria failed to register a shot on target during the first half with a xG of .52.
Northern Ireland’s plan
Although Austria failed to score in the first half, Northern Ireland output very little offence as well. With only .1 xG, Northern Ireland attempted to hit on the counter from their compact defence.
Baraclough’s 5-3-2 was strict throughout the match. As seen in the image, each Northern Irish line played the central areas tightly as they disrupted Austrian attacks. Their defence matched up well with only four opposing attackers. If the ball reached space near the back-line, the midfielders collapsed in support and shut down most attacks. The strikers’ role in the defence was between a high press and low block. They would support the defence when needed, however, Boyce and Washington remained in positions ready to attack on the counter. They did not press too aggressively during the opening period, but similarly did not mark players in their defensive third.
Northern Ireland frustrated their opponents because their defence moved with the attack. As the ball circulated to either side, the midfield line and defenders moved accordingly. In this image, McNair stepped to Ulmer as Smith prevented an easy pass into Sabitzer. McCann shifted over slightly as do the ball-side centre-backs. Austria had no easy way to break the Northern Irish defence.
Offensively, Northern Ireland was tentative to commit too many men forward. Thus, they relied upon the strikers and one or two other runners to attack on the counter. Boyce was immense during the 66 minutes he played. He attempted and won the most duels on his team, and he won the most fouls for his team despite missing the last half hour. As seen in the image above, Boyce often dropped off the opposing back-line to receive a long ball and dribble forward or win a foul. There are two runners in the image above, but the Northern Ireland offence was isolated for large parts of the game.
This image provides another example of Boyce stepping deeper to receive a long ball. The away side played long-balls as the main method of attack throughout the game, involving the strikers early. Their midfielders did very little to progress the ball as the gameplan bypassed them entirely. Boyce won fouls and retained possession well, but Austria’s defence managed to shut down most Northern Irish attacks throughout the first half.
Foda made two important changes in the second half that changed the game for his side. The first came right after half as Dragovic came off for right-winger Reinhold Ranftl, changing the formation to a 4-3-3. Later in the half, Marko Arnautovic replaced Gregoritsch at striker and changed the attacking dynamic of the side.
As Ilsanker stepped into the back-line, Austria moved to a new buildup shape at the start of the second half. Baumgartlinger remained the deepest midfielder, but now Schlager and Sabitzer regularly played near their full-backs. The new shape in the image above aimed to exploit different attacking opportunities in a way they could not in the first half. Now, with dedicated wide players, Austria played down both flanks more frequently as this was the vulnerable area in the Northern Irish defence. They could get the ball into their creative-minded players earlier, as Sabitzer and Schlager got involved earlier in the buildup.
This image notes the positioning of Sabitzer and Alaba later in the game. At this moment in the match, Alaba moved into left-back as Ulmer left via substitution. However, the point remains that arguably the two most creative options took up deeper positions in the second half. Sabitzer, instead of playing the space right in front of the opposing back-line, stepped back to pick out passes into attackers. Foda leveraged the talent of his most creative midfielder in Sabitzer by getting him the ball sooner. Austria spread their formation more, and they relied less on central combinations for all attacking opportunities.
Replacing Sabitzer in the role of connecting the midfield to attack, Arnautovic played a vital role in reversing the one-goal deficit in the second half. The striker was much more involved in attacks than Gregoritsch as Arnautovic looked to receive balls from midfielders or defenders and filter them into the attack as seen in the image above. He also provided a better hold up option, which led to his assist for the second goal.
Austria’s strategy also changed slightly during the second half. Although touched upon earlier, Austria looked to play around Northern Ireland’s defence rather than through it. Sabitzer and Schlager moved into wider and deeper areas to push attacks through wide areas. In this image, Sabitzer passed to Lainer on the right after dribbling into the open space on the right side. This method was more successful as they doubled their xG from the first half and scored two goals.
Northern Ireland changes
Northern Ireland stuck to the same formation during the second half, although there were moments of increased aggression defensively. Boyce and Washington came off in a double substitution about 15 minutes into the second half, despite the former racking up 28 duels. Magennis and Gavin White reprised the roles of the players they replaced as the offensive strategy did not change significantly.
Although they remained in a 5-3-2 during the second period, there were moments of more intense pressing than in the first half. In this image, Lewis sprinted up from his spot at left-back to press Lainer on the ball. McCann stepped up out of the usual midfield line to cut the pass off into Sabitzer. The two strikers are out of position in the image after pressing an Austrian player on the opposite side of the field and the goalkeeper. In this situation, Austria played through the haphazard press easily. Two things are true here. First, Austria played through the press, which Northern Ireland did not organize well. This same quality contributes to why they did not press often during the entire game.
When transitioning from defence to offence, Northern Ireland continued to get the ball into their strikers quickly. In this image, Magennis runs onto a long ball and picks up a foul. The strikers, although different players, did the same job as their predecessors in the offensive scheme. Magennis scored his team’s only goal through a linkup between him, Whyte, and McNair.
The Northern Ireland strikers moved into different pockets of space than the places Boyce exploited during the first half. As seen in the image above, Magennis received the ball further to the right than in the centre. Austria’s change to a 4-3-3 meant Ilsanker and Baumgartlinger no longer covered for the full-backs when they aided in the attack. Thus, the space behind the Austria full-backs provided new opportunities for the Northern Ireland attack. Their formation did not allow them to benefit from the space on the wings. They did not scheme around possession play, especially down the wing. Northern Ireland’s direct style of offence stemming from their stout defence netted one goal to start but could not answer Austria in the dying minutes of the match.
Northern Ireland concluded a tough week of international football with their loss to Austria. They struck first in the second half but could not hold off the Austria attack who answered with two goals of their own to confirm their spot at the top of Group B1 in the UEFA Nations League. Austria struggled to create many attacking combinations resulting in shooting opportunities, but Foda’s halftime adjustment changed the tactics in his side’s favor. Northern Ireland favored a more defensive approach in their 5-3-2, relying on the strikers to attack on the counter. Their one shot on goal was just not enough to overcome a tough Austrian opposition.