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Rangnick's Austria pile more woe on Nagelsmann

Jonathan Harding Reporting from Vienna
November 21, 2023

Julian Nagelsmann and Germany’s last game of 2023 came against a neighboring team under the guidance of a former mentor. The narrative between the two coaches was impossible to ignore.

Vorschau zum Test Laenderspiel Oesterreich-Deutschland .
Image: Frank Hoermann /SvenSimon/picture alliance

Neither Julian Nagelsmann or Ralf Rangnick could sit down for very long. Right from the start, the pair paced their technical areas, lamented refereeing decisions and shouted instructions. They weren't quite in sync, but given their shared history it would have been no surprise had they been.

The element of surprise came from seeing them in opposing dugouts for an international friendly. In 2019, when Ralf Rangnick moved upstairs at RB Leipzig and Julian Nagelsmann arrived as head coach, the current situation was unimaginable. Together with his greatest coaching student, Rangnick was going to shock the world with his style of play. The reality, four years later, is a reminder of how quickly things can change.

In Vienna, Rangnick showed the master still had something to teach the student as Austria beat Germany2-0. Perhaps, this was just the wrong opponent at the wrong time for Nagelsmann. After all, this is the fourth time Nagelsmann has faced Ralf Rangnick as a head coach and he has yet to register a win.

Austria vs Germany friendly
Time is of the essence for Germany and Nagelsmann with EURO 2024 fast approachingImage: Leonhard Foeger/REUTERS

Both Marcel Sabitzer and Christoph Baumgartner’s goals were perfect examples of how Rangnick wants his side to play — get the ball forward quickly and shoot as soon as possible. Leroy Sane’s red card certainly helped Austria, but it was never in doubt what the plan was.

Germany’s plan though, remains unclear. The Kai Havertz experiment at left back continued, without noticeable improvement, while the right side of the defense looked like an open invitation for Austria’s attackers. Florian Wirtz's omission was curious, Thomas Müller's introduction felt desperate and Sane's red card the perfect symbol of a team short on control or connection.

Connected coaches

Julian Nagelsmann was keen to stress that Germany’s game against Austria was not a case of "Julian vs. Ralf", but the narrative around the two head coaches is impossible to ignore. These two figures are deeply connected, but now moving in different directions.

Rangnick has been changing Austrian football since he took over in the middle of last year, pushing for his high pressing, aggressive attacking and shot-friendly style of play to be introduced across all ages. Six of Austria's starting eleven had played or still play for a Red Bull club, and the opening goal was a perfect example that Rangnick's approach is already working.

"It doesn’t make sense not to unleash the players," Rangnick said.

And Austria have been unleashed. The men's first team recently secured qualification for the EUROs and have lost only once this year.

"Rangnick has given us a new way of thinking. We don’t panic anymore," said Christoph Baumgartner.

Not that the game against Germany gave them much reason to worry. Even before Sane's sending off, Austria looked the more composed and comfortable side, a sign perhaps of just how much this team has matured.

Nagelsmann, meanwhile, was left pacing his technical area in frustration. Having returned from months in the wilderness following his dismissal from his dream job at Bayern Munich, Nagelsmann is here to try and keep Germany's head above water and make sure the EUROs end respectably for the hosts.

His push to keep things positive and create a more relaxed environment for his players — music has been blasting out during training sessions — has been admirable, but when the head coach talks of "not falling into the role of the victim" it’s clear the situation isn't optimal.

Same old problems

Indeed, Germany's issues are as familiar as they were six months ago: a midfield lacking balance, wingbacks incapable of defending and attacking and central defenders who can't go a full 90 minutes without making costly errors. 

As Mats Hummels said before the Austria game: “If we can balance out both parts [attack and defense] then we’re a top team."

The reality is though, that Germany have not found that balance in a long time. Against Turkey, Germany only offered 20 good minutes and then collapsed under an intimidating atmosphere. In Vienna, Germany didn’t even offer that much before they went down a man. After that was just damage limitation.

Austria vs Germany friendly
Germany have star names, but aren't commanding the respect of the football worldImage: Christian Charisius/AP Photo/picture alliance

"The red card for Leroy sums everything up, the frustration, the disappointment — in ourselves," Ilkay Gündogan told ZDF after the game. "We made it far to easy for Austria to create chances and score goals, it just wasn't good enough. It can't get any worse, maybe that's the only positive aspect right now."

And so, Ralf Rangnick’s Austria made sure Germany ended a sobering year with back-to-back defeats, leaving Nagelsmann to lament the fact "it's as though when we go out on the pitch we are individual fighters and not a united team."

In 2023, Germany won just 3 of their 11 games, losing 6 and conceding a whopping 22 goals — an average of two per game. Few would have imagined this, but it is very much the hole Germany and Julian Nagelsmann find themselves in. The question remains, can they find a way out by next summer?

Edited by: James Thorogood