Euro 2024: Why Austria is the tournament’s biggest surprise

It is not uncommon to see certain teams emerge as dark horses or surprise packages at international tournaments, but few could have predicted that Austria would be the story of Euro 2024.

Placed in Group D alongside some tough opponents, it seemed as though Austria would have a hard time reaching the knockout stages.

Poland possesses one of the most lethal strikers of all time in Robert Lewandowski.
The Netherlands are loaded with talent, particularly along their backline. France is fresh off a World Cup campaign in 2022 where it finished as runner-up and is captained by superstar forward Kylian Mbappé.

After a hard-fought but disappointing 1-0 defeat against France on matchday one, it appeared as though the writing was on the wall for Das Team. So it came as a shock when Austria reeled off 3-1 and 3-2 victories against Poland and the Netherlands respectively to top the group and advance to the round of 16 of the Euros for only the second time.

The victory against the star-studded Dutch side – Austria’s first in 34 years – sparked wild celebrations amongst the squad.

“When you beat the Netherlands and win the group, then you can’t be that bad,” Marcel Sabitzer, who scored against the Netherlands, told

“To actually become the group winner in the end, that’s incredible,” said manager Ralf Rangnick. “The probability that both things will happen, us winning this game and at the same time France not winning (against Poland), whoever would have placed a bet on that would probably be a rich man or woman now.

“But that’s the great thing about football, that things like that happen.”

A unique style

Gernot Trauner of Austria scores his team's first goal against Poland. - Julian Finney/Getty Images
Gernot Trauner of Austria scores his team's first goal against Poland. - Julian Finney/Getty Images

At major tournaments, importance is often placed on grinding out a result no matter what. Every point counts in the group stage, while it’s ‘win or go home’ in the knockout rounds. Conservative styles of play can often be rewarded, but Austria has opted for more of a risk-taking mentality.

A vibrant, high-octane approach that features constant movement has made Austria one of the most enjoyable teams to watch at the tournament.

“You see that even when we rotate, nothing is missed,” added Sabitzer. “Everybody knows what they have to do in their position when they’re on the pitch.”

Austria’s transformation can be traced back to the appointment of Rangnick in 2022. The German coach is often credited with developing gegenpressing, a style of soccer that involves the relentless pressing of the opposition immediately after losing possession. He has influenced the likes of former Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp and Julian Nagelsmann, currently the manager of the Germany national team.

This approach can be incredibly tiring and leave Rangnick’s teams vulnerable defensively, but can be overwhelming for opposing teams to deal with and makes for a thrilling watch at a tournament where there has occasionally been a dearth of entertainment.

Austria scored six goals in their three group games – Group C’s England, Denmark, Slovenia and Serbia only managed to find the net seven times between them in six games.

Austria's head coach Ralf Rangnick celebrates victory over the Netherlands. - Petr David Josek/AP
Austria's head coach Ralf Rangnick celebrates victory over the Netherlands. - Petr David Josek/AP

Rangnick’s redemption

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Austria’s Euro 2024 campaign has been the reminder of Rangnick’s abilities as a manager.

The 66-year-old has an extensive coaching CV, having taken his first job in 1983.
He had various stints with German clubs such as Stuttgart, Hannover and Schalke but is best known for his work with Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg and German team RB Leipzig.

Both clubs belong the Red Bull GmbH conglomerate (RB Leipzig was only founded in 2009), with Rangnick being hired as sporting director of both clubs in 2012. He saw an extended period of success with Salzburg, winning the Austrian Bundesliga multiple times, while he oversaw the promotion of Leipzig from the fourth tier to the German Bundesliga.

He managed Leipzig on two separate occasions as well, leading them into their first match at the highest level in 2018. He also guided the team into the Champions League for the first time in its history.

Austria coach Ralf Rangnick and players celebrate after beating the Netherlands. - Annegret Hilse/Reuters
Austria coach Ralf Rangnick and players celebrate after beating the Netherlands. - Annegret Hilse/Reuters

After resigning from Red Bull in 2020, he had a four-month spell as manager of sports and development for Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow in 2021 before he was offered one of the biggest jobs of them all.

Rangnick was appointed as interim Manchester United manager in November 2021 after the 13-time English Premier League champions parted ways with Ole Gunnar Solskjær.

Tasked with turning around the fortunes of one of the biggest clubs in the world, Rangnick was handed the reigns until the end of the season but was unable to fully instill his footballing philosophy into his players and the team’s struggles continued, finishing sixth in the league. He was initially slated to stay on in a consultancy role at the club, but left United altogether at the end of the 2021/22 campaign.

Results were initially shaky when he was hired by Austria. The side was relegated to Nations League B, picking up only one win in the campaign. Form soon picked up though and Das Team booked its ticket to Euro 2024 after losing only one game in the qualifying stages.

Having weathered the storm in a difficult group and a round of 16 match just around the corner, Rangnick’s reputation is well on its way to being restored.

How far can they go?

Austria is set to take on Turkey on Tuesday, with the winner advancing to the quarterfinal. The match kicks of at 3 p.m. E.T.

A win would take Rangnick’s side into unchartered territory, having never advanced beyond the round of 16 at the Euros. The German wants to make sure that his players don’t get ahead of themselves and played down his team’s chances, but wouldn’t go as far as ruling out his team making a fairytale run to the final.

“I said a few weeks or months ago that I don’t think it’s very likely that we’ll become European champions,” he said when asked about the possibility. “I think the boys are all ambitious themselves, they want to get as far as they can. But it’s only possible step by step, game by game. And that’s how we’re going to approach the next few days, preparing ourselves the best we can for each opponent.

Despite Rangnick’s steady approach, his players are still riding on the high of winning the group.

“The emotions in our country and among those that were in the stadium were of course huge,” said team captain Marko Arnautović. “Our feelings on the pitch were, however, I think, even bigger. It’s an incredibly wonderful feeling. We can still be happy about it today and maybe tomorrow . Then the preparations for the round of 16 will begin.”

Time will only tell if Austria can win its first ever major tournament, but this nation has already shaken up the status quo at what has turned out to be an unpredictable Euro 2024.

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