This article will be the third installment in what is effectively a case study in reactive tactics. The Hungarian national team is playing the 2052 European Championships with yours truly at the helm. In the first game, we kept the Czech Republic to a draw, whereas the second game saw us effectively nullify the mighty offensive power of the Spanish national side, gaining a second draw. In this final game of the group-stage, the Magyars take on an old adversary; the Austrian national team.
The bare facts
Our starting lineup in this match saw a few mutations compared to the game versus La Furia Roja. First of all, after having served his suspension for his stupid red card, Richard Nagy reclaimed his spot in the starting lineup, displacing Janós Farkas. Secondly, I decided to replace Csaba Barkovics in the forward line with Zoltán Süli. The former is potentially our best forward, but during the clashes with the Czech Republic and Spain, he proved himself ineffective. Süli offers a different dimension to our team’s style of play. Barkovics is a fast and mobile threat, always looking for space to take a shot, yet he is a diminutive influence in the air. Süli is stronger in the air and less likely to take shots from impossible angles. This particular switch should help us keep control of the ball more easily by the added aerial presence in the forward line, as well as seeing less wasteful shooting from long range.
Our third opponent during the 2052 European Champions was Austria. The Austrians had lost their first two games, and they were effectively eliminated from the competition. Spain had delivered them a 3-0 beating, whereas the Czech Republic had beaten them equally comfortable with 2-0. In the preliminary table, we were trailing the Czechs by a point, so we needed a win to qualify, regardless of the Spains vs. Czech Republic result. Austria however, were no pushovers, as their squad will show you.
While a part of the Austrian team is still active in the Austrian Bundesliga, this is a league which is probably a fair bit stronger than the Hungarian domestic league. The Austrian manager and former Athletic Bilbao legend Aymeric Laporte could also call upon a number of star players, active for some of Europe’s finest.
Austria’s main star was obviously David Moser. The 26-year-old playmaker had been a stalwart at Tottenham before making a big transfer to La Liga’s Valencia. His creativity and passing-range made him one of those rare players who can unlock a tight defense with just a few elegant touches and the odd flash of brilliance. He would need to be tightly marked to prevent him from influencing the game.
Energetic left wing-back Marco Steindl was another danger-man in the Austrian setup. His style of play was often more reminiscent of a more South American origin than his Austrian heritage would indicate. He would maraud down the flank and look to get involved in setting up attacks. Austria’s legendary goalscorer Michael Achtzehn often got on the end of a Steindl cross. Achtzehn would need to be contained, preferably by shutting down his main supplies Steindl and Moser.
The Austrian’s possessed a sturdy defense as well. Apart from the aforementioned Steindl, it consisted of the formidable duo of Michael Gritsch and Ulf Altebäumer in the central area. The right wing-back position was not as strong, but three of the four Austrian defenders could have been classed as quality. Fortunately for us, Altebäumer was suspended, which meant we “only” had to deal with Steindl and Gritsch.
In an unprecedented move that showcases a lack of imagination, much like the Czech Republic and the Spanish before them, the Austrians were likely to field a 4-2-3-1 formation. Their setup would be similar to the Czech Republic’s as they lacked the raw offensive power of the Spanish. Their lethal poacher Michael Achtzehn should be leading the line, with the support coming from three runners in behind him. I was surprised to see they had opted to field Bülent Şenyurt in the #10 position behind Achtzehn instead of David Moser. I didn’t mind, Şenyurt was a slow player and could be picked up by our defenders and midfielders.
Our three-man defense consists of two players on stopper duty and one on cover duty. The players on stopper duty are likely to step out and pressure the players in the attacking midfield stratum, whereas the two ball-winning midfielders are also likely to drop back and help out defensively. This defensive movement and positioning, in turn, frees up the wing-backs to deal with the Austrian wide men while receiving cover from at least one central defender on their flank.
Since we really needed a win, the idea was to play on Overload until we got a goal, at which point we would drop into a Control mentality. Sitting back and inviting Achtzehn to run at us with crosses coming from Steindl and Moser did not seem like a smart plan. Achtzehn had amassed an impressive track record in the Serie, including a fair few goals against my own Racing Roma side. The Overload tactic combined with the usual Opposition Instructions should hopefully prevent the Austrians from using their offensive firepower.
As I mentioned earlier, we needed a win. While we had performed admirably so far, we were also in third place, which would result in elimination from the competition. Regardless of the outcome of Spain vs. the Czech Republic, we needed to beat Austria to reach the second place and preferably by a margin of three goals. Should we beat Austria and the other game ended in a draw, the goal difference would be decisive. From the Hungarian perspective, either Spain or the Czechs needed to win their game so , here was less of a burden on our offense to produce goals.
During the match
The first half
Besides trying to score an early goal, the Overload mentality serves a secondary goal; playing a more advanced line, which in turn presses much higher up the pitch in an effort to disrupt the Austrian build-up from the back. The Austrian forward Michael Achtzehn should be kept as far away from the Hungarian defense as possible, so he could not maneuver into a position where he could exploit his superior pace. During the opening stages of the game, the ploy appeared to be working.
The passing chart for Austria’s opening-phase clearly shows that their passing inside the Hungarian was quite atrocious. The Austrians got into the box on two occasions before being smothered by a host of Hungarian defenders. The disruption part of our setup was working wonders so far, as David Moser was forced to drop deep to pick up the ball, whereas Steindl’s feared crosses into the box were limited because the wingback was unable to venture further forward than just past the half-way line.
Offensively, we were not quite as good as I had hoped. While we maintained pressure on the Austrian defense, we lacked the creativity or all-round quality to breach this dogged Austrian defense. When a Hungarian did manage to maneuver into a position where he might cause some trouble for the defenders, our players often made the wrong decision or failed to reach a team-mate.
This video shows how the Hungarians played a short-passing and relatively fast-paced brand of football, which resulted in our #7 Krisztián Végh darting away from his marker into space. When Végh cuts inside, he could objectively pick a pass towards any of the three Hungarians near or on the edge of the box. Instead, he opts for a cross-pass towards the second post, where the Austrian defender Gritsch can clear the ball.
In a similar move, our wing-back Mátyás Tóth had time on the ball inside the Austrian half. Instead of taking his time to pick a cross, he just whips the ball into the Austrian penalty area, hoping for a won header by Zoltán Süli or Dávid Magyar. I suppose that is the downside of the Overload mentality; players do not take their time but move about with a sense of urgency, which can result in rushed crosses and poor decisions like the ones above.
Eventually, we got a bit of a lucky break. The constant pressure on the Austrian defenders and the barrage of crosses flying in caused them to make a mistake. This wasn’t a result of tactical nouse or brilliant scheming; it’s the law of large numbers. When you launch a dozen of crosses into the penalty area in a short period of time, sooner or later one will land properly or a defender will make a mistake.
In this instance, the Austrian defense caused a penalty by shoving one of our players. It’s a silly mistake to make, it’s actually incredibly lucky that it happened but who gives a flying fuck, right? It’s a major chance and one we capitalized on. Zoltán Süli gathered his courage, stepped up and slotted the ball past the grasping hands of the outstretched Austrian goalkeeper Christoph Hager; 1-0 to Hungary and we were virtually through to the next round.
At this point, I was actually unsure how to progress. I know I had initially set out to get that early goal and then drop back, but on the other hand, why invite pressure onto our team when the current tactical setup appears to be working? After a brief internal struggle, I ultimately opted to keep the tactical setup intact. Austria wasn’t doing shit so far, as long as they didn’t alter their tactics, I shouldn’t be changing mine.
That last-minute, split-second decision paid off, though only just. For most of the remainder of the first half, we kept the Austrians at bay with relative ease. Their main offensive threat Michael Achtzehn was isolated in the forward line, and our early pressuring disrupted the build-up play from the back. A few minutes before the break, the Austrians made a tactical change, altering their formation to a 4-4-2. I wanted to address this change during the half-time break, and it nearly cost us.
The new configuration of the Austrian midfield caused them to overload our flanks, with the wingbacks Stefan Coen and Marco Steindl overlapping the wide midfielders and creating all sorts of trouble in a few minutes time for our wing-backs Richárd Nagy and Mátyás Tóth, both of whom were caught out of position high up the pitch a few times. This resulted in one chance for Achtzehn, who fortunately found himself hindered just enough by Gábor Sárközi to squeeze off an effective shot. 0-0 at half time but we got lucky towards the end.
Spain held a 1-0 lead against the Czech Republic, which meant we had leapfrogged over the Czechs to take second place in the group behind La Furia Roja. We needed to win this game though. Another draw would see the Czechs qualify with 4 points from 3 games. We also needed to mind our goal difference as the Spanish lead was not an insurmountable one. The preliminary table looked like this.
The Austrians were out of this regardless of the final result, but they did seem overly eager to grant us a few more goals. In fact, they had moved into a more offensive 4-4-2 formation to give their prolific forward Michael Achtzehn more support in the front line. I opted to preserve the lead and drop to a Counter setting while simultaneously lowering our defensive line a bit extra. The at times frightening pace from Michael Achtzehn was not to be underestimated. It would also keep our wing-backs further back, allowing the defenders and ball-winning midfielders to help them out when dealing with overlapping Austrians.
The second half
At the start of the second half, the Austrian manager Aymeric Laporte had further strengthened his squad to play in a 4-4-2 formation. Oddly enough, he had replaced his enigmatic but brilliant playmaker David Moser with the more defense-minded Robert Friedberger from Admira Wacker Mödling. Presumably, the idea was to whip the ball in from the flanks, which would negate the need for through-balls from the center of the pitch. The ineffective #10 Bülent Şenyürt was replaced by an actual right winger, the pacey Kevin Weidinger from Austria Wien entered the fray. Inside forward Marc-André Brock was moved from the right flank to a more central position to support Achtzehn.
I did not see it fit to make any substitutions or alter my formation; with a lower defensive line and a far more conservative mentality, I was certain our wing-backs would not wander as much out of position while receiving cover from either the central defenders or the ball-winning midfielders when dealing with the wide threats. Our plan almost immediately paid off as we created a few opportunities.
This is a typical Hungarian break. Short passing, high pace, nice movement and ultimately, no end-product. I fear this is where the level of quality of our squad is hindering us. They are not that good at dealing with the pressure of making split-second decisions, and at times their first touch is atrocious, which wastes precious time.
This is another prime example. Everything is done right, except the final touch. Twice in this instance even, as the rebound is wasted because of an appallingly bad first touch. Meanwhile, Spain had taken a 2-0 lead versus the Czech Republic, which meant a draw in that game was looking far less likely.
I figured a second goal here would clinch it for us and ventured into a Control mentality to generate a bit more pressure on the Austrian defense, which was already creaking. I forgot to factor in the pace of Michael Achtzehn, which nearly cost us dearly. I’ll come back to that in a bit. Upfront, I brought on Ferenc Király for Zoltán Süli, who was effectively eliminated from the game by the Austrians.
Király would offer a bit more pace and hopefully a bit more goalscoring prowess, which was much needed. Still, I did mention that Michael Achtzehn was forgotten and that he nearly punished us for that. I forgot that with a more controlling mentality also comes a higher defensive line.
That’s Michael Achtzehn pouncing on a long-range cross-pass that sailed right over our defensive line. The prolific goalscorer in both Austria and the Italian Serie A should have leveled the score and put Austria back into the game but was ultimately denied by a heroic charge forward by St. Johnstone keeper Krisztián Antal. It’s safe to assume we quickly dropped back to our Counter mentality and lower defensive line while calling Kenny Loggins because we had escaped the danger zone.
When we dropped back into our Counter mentality, thanking our lucky stars that we were still ahead, business as usual resumed. Austria lobbed a lot of crosses into our penalty area. We cleared said crosses and launched ineffective counterattacks. According to Einstein “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I suppose that means that both Laporte and myself were insane for trying to stick to the plan. I’m not sure about Laporte, but in my case, it was painfully clear that I had no effective Plan B in this situation.
The passing chart for the second half again shows you that Austria’s offensive plan was woefully ineffective, apart from the moment where we allowed Michael Achtzehn the space he craved for. When we kept it tight at the back, the Austrian strategy of just lobbing high balls into our penalty area proved utterly ineffective. Hungary was through with the current score and did not need to risk giving away more space. We did create a decent chance when our wing-backs tried to get involved more. They were instructed to sit narrow and cut inside when they had the ball, further constricting the space. A nice side-effect was that they effectively functioned as deep-lying inside forwards at times.
When the opportunity arose, the wing-back tried to get in behind his Austrian counterpart to wait for a through-ball. In this case, Király managed to find the space where our wing-back was running into, at which point our previous problem popped up again; poor finishing of the chances we created.
Our strengthened defense was able to hold the Austrians at bay though, which ultimately saw us win the game 1-0. Spain had scored two extra goals, beating the Czech Republic 4-0. These results also meant we had qualified for the second round of the European Championships, scoring a mere two goals and winning just a single game. Talk about being minimalists…