Austria ponder 'The Alaba question' ahead of must-win game vs. Iceland
"Only worms and mice bore witness to Austria's training on Monday," wrote Vienna-based broadsheet Der Standard about the behind-closed-doors session at base camp Mallemort in the south of France. No mole, then.
The Austrian media have been left in the dark about Marcel Koller's plans for the must-win game against Iceland in Paris on Wednesday. The 55-year-old has so many options that no one has been able to predict the line-up with any certainty. But what Koller doesn't have, on the flip-side, is a settled, functioning team. Too much has gone wrong for that. Or, to put it more charitably, not enough has gone right.
A point against Portugal was the minimum the side needed to keep their last 16 hopes alive, and they got it, just. The players and the manager appeared happy that their defensive strategy had worked on Saturday, even though it had mandated Austria playing a long-ball game that did nothing for them in the final third.
"We have to make sure that we get forward and do something in attack, because we can do that," Marko Arnautovic said. The 27-year-old has had no impact on the left of midfield so far at the Euros, having been too busy protecting the back four to find much time on the ball in the opposition half.
"We know we have to take the fight and the mentality we showed in defence and show it upfront," Arnautovic added. "We need to wear our hearts on the sleeve and prove ourselves."
"We have the ability to score, but today the priority was not conceding," his teammate Martin Harnik said after the Portugal game. He, too, had struggled to get anywhere near the box in the second game. Against Iceland, though, goals are a must: "The only thing that helps us is a win," Harnik said. "It doesn't matter how we do it."
Austria's determination to reach the knockout stages by defeating an opponent that, according to Koller, is universally seen as "uncomfortable and tough" cannot be faulted. But what about their class? If they are to succeed in getting behind the Icelandic defence -- "the key is to have a strong passing game," said Stefan Ilsanker -- they need to solve an unexpected conundrum: The Alaba question.
David Alaba is Austria's one genuine star but the 23-year-old had an unbelievably poor game in an advanced central role against Portugal. His passing rate was 53 percent, he only won 27 percent of challenges and, overall, he looked completely lost in his free role behind Harnik. He did not look best pleased when he was substituted just after the hour and later told German TV station ARD "he wasn't happy," while denying rumours that he was carrying an injury.
Alaba's loss of form has shocked Austrians. He was earmarked as the nation's hero in France but his performances have been so uninspiring that he's come close to being seen as a problem. Koller tried to protect him, explaining that the man who plays left-back for Bayern Munich was struggling to adjust to his midfield role and had, in any case, done well enough as a No. 10. But that's not the whole truth.
Midfield colleague Julian Baumgartlinger, perhaps Austria's most solid performer in the competition so far, told laola1.at that Alaba was maybe trying too hard to make things happen by himself: "He's putting pressure on himself, because he's a great, ambitious sportsman. Sometimes, you have to tell him: 'Man, you don't have to force it so much.'"
It's a hard balance to strike. Now that Zlatko Junuzovic is out injured, Alaba has to be Austria's main creative force in the centre but he can't run the show by himself. He's not that kind of player; not yet, at least.
"I don't see him as a central midfielder," his former Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes told Sportmagazin. "For that position, you need skills that he hasn't got yet. For me, he's the ideal left-back, the best in the world in that position." Austria have a left-back in captain Christian Fuchs, however.
On Tuesday Kronen Zeitung asked readers to vote in an online poll as to whether Alaba should be left out against Iceland. A couple of weeks ago, posing that question would have been inconceivable, a bit like Portugal thinking about putting Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench.
As well as Baumgartlinger and Ilsanker have done as a partnership in front of the defence, Alaba cannot be benched, though, not in a game of this magnitude. Nevertheless, the mood back home is such that Ilsanker, a squad player who's played himself into contention for a second consecutive start, felt the need to strongly defend Austria's golden boy.
"[Alaba] is the best player we've had for a very long time, it was he who got us to France to begin with," Ilsanker said. "I don't understand all this fuss, why is everybody having a go at him? I'm sure he'll provide plenty of joy for us in the course of the tournament."
Ilsanker's backing for Alaba reflects well on himself, since he would be a direct beneficiary of the Bayern player losing his midfield spot and, overall, the camaraderie in the Austrian squad is noticeable. Competition for places has intensified after the horror show vs. Hungary and successful rearguard action against Portugal's Ronaldo-led attack but the mood has not darkened ahead of the all-or-nothing appointment with Iceland.
But the recriminations would come thick and fast if Austria's best team for decades were to fail at the first Euro 2016 hurdle. The time is now for Alaba & Co. to do justice to their potential.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.