Austria’s outstanding win over the Netherlands changes shape of the tournament

Ralf Rangnick’s young, hungry side storm past the Dutch to secure top spot in Group D

Marcel Sabitzer scores Austria's third goal during the Euro 2024 Group D match against the Netherlands at the Olympiastadion in Berlin. Photograph: Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images
Group D: Netherlands 2 Austria 3

Austria galloped to a 3-2 victory over the Netherlands in Berlin, topping Group D with one of the outstanding performances of the European Championships. The result means France, Portugal, Germany and Spain are all now in one side of the knock-out draw – but if the other side consists of teams like Austria then it’s not as weak as it might appear.

Ronald Koeman had seen how Austria stormed Poland in the opening 20 minutes but was helpless to prevent the same thing happening to his side in the initial stages at the Olympiastadion. The Austrian fans behind Bart Verbruggen’s goal were celebrating the opening goal after just nine minutes.

The Dutch defenders outnumbered the encroaching Austrians as full back Alexander Prass crossed from the left – but none were picking up Marko Arnautovic, who prepared to apply the finish from 12 yards. That was until Donyell Malen, tracking back heroically, flung himself towards the ball, straining every sinew to intercept. Malen’s outstretched toe got to the ball before it reached Arnautovic, only to stab it into his own net at the near post.

It was the seventh own goal of a tournament which is on course to match the Euro 2020 haul of 11 – a tally which itself was more own goals than had been scored in all the previous Euros combined. Possibly the trend towards more own goals has to do with the increased prevalence of low driven crosses that bounce off defenders before they have time to react, rather than floated far-post crosses which were easier for intercepting defenders to direct away from goal.


The Dutch tried to rally and five minutes later Cody Gakpo teed up Tijjani Reijnders with another low cross but the midfielder miscued his shot wide. A few minutes after that Malen had the chance to atone for his own goal, but he shanked wide after being put through the Austrian defence by Reijnders’s clever pass. These were terrible misses but it showed Austria could be got at, and on 41 minutes Gakpo produced another cross for Memphis Depay, whose looping header bounced off the base of the post.

In the 35th minute Xavi Simons had come on to replace PSV’s Joey Veerman, who did not look injured, but who had lost the ball with 16 of his 29 touches. You had to feel sorry for Veerman, who was forced to pay the bill for the chasing his team had taken in the first half.

Netherlands' Donyell Malen reacts after scoring an own goal to give Austria the lead. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

Simons soon made a difference. Just after half-time he found Gakpo in the left channel, and the Liverpool winger cut expertly inside his marker and curled right-footed into the far corner for the equaliser.

But the Austrians quickly struck back with a beautifully crafted goal. Intricate play down the left set Florian Grillitsch running to the byline and his cross back towards the penalty spot was met by Romano Schmid with a spectacular diving header into the bottom corner.

The goal was just reward for Austria’s persistence and tempo. If you had to sum them up in a word it would be “insolent”, running all over the place, poking their nose into your business. What a horrible team they are to play against.

In this way they are the opposite of the sad, shattered Manchester United team that drifted to a sixth-place finish under Ralf Rangnick in 2022. We’re told that the Manchester United players simply didn’t buy into Rangnick. Some people may have thought that was because the quietly-spoken, somewhat academic German coach lacked the charisma to impress the giants of Old Trafford.

Austria’s performances suggest instead that for the United players, disrespecting Rangnick was a defence-mechanism. They wouldn’t have been fit enough to play like this. It’s no coincidence that Cristiano Ronaldo, the United player least able to run and press, was the most openly contemptuous of the coach. For him, the Rangnick style meant total footballing irrelevance. Of course he rejected it.

For Austria’s young hungry players – and even for old hungry players like Arnautovic – Rangnick was offering them a way to become relevant. The last time they had a half-decent international team was 40 years ago. The ultra-collectivist ethos has taken them to heights they have never seen any Austrian team reach.

Romano Schmid of Austria scores his team's second goal. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

The usual question mark over such a high-energy playing style is: how long can they keep it up? Maybe that was why Rangnick surprisingly dropped three of his regulars – including his star attacker Christoph Baumgartner – to the bench. Like Baumgartner, Konrad Laimer and left back Philip Mwene were one yellow card away from missing the prospective second-round tie, but preserving their energy levels was as big a consideration for their coach as avoiding suspensions.

Baumgartner and Laimer had both come on by the time Ronald Koeman threw on Wout Weghorst for Malen. Within four minutes the big man had knocked a cross down to Depay, who controlled and athletically volleyed home. The referee initially disallowed for an imaginary handball, but accepted his error following a VAR review and awarded the goal.

Sadly for the Netherlands, either they were intoxicated by their own exultation or the extended pause for the VAR review had broken their concentration. No sooner had play restarted than they produced an immediate defensive disasterclass to lose the game.

First the midfield was slow to track back, leaving the defence exposed against another Austrian swarm. Then Virgil van Dijk took up a position three yards behind the rest of his defenders – lowering the offside line, and opening the door for Marcel Sabitzer to sneak in on the left and then, as Van Dijk moved to intercept a cutback, finish high past Verbruggen from a narrow angle.

“Ohhh, wie ist das schön” sang the Austrian fans, “Ohhh how beautiful, it’s a long time since we saw anything like this, so beautiful ...”

It has been a long time – probably the last time they saw anything this beautiful from their team in a tournament was when they beat West Germany 3-2 in Cordoba in the 1978 World Cup. That Hans Krankl-inspired win came too late to save them from elimination. This time they’re going to the next round as the winners of Group D.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer