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Analysis: How Ireland targeted Austria’s makeshift left-back

Kevin Wimmer had an evening to forget against the Boys in Green on Saturday.

Ireland's Jeff Hendrick, left, and Austria's Kevin Wimmer challenge for the ball.
Ireland's Jeff Hendrick, left, and Austria's Kevin Wimmer challenge for the ball.
Image: Ronald Zak

THERE WAS MUCH to admire about Ireland’s historic victory over Austria on Saturday.

We’ve already highlighted the performances of Ciaran Clark and James McClean, while save for one or two hiccups, the team defended superbly as a unit and scored one of the most beautifully constructed Irish goals in recent memory.

But without taking anything away from the achievement, it’s important to note that Austria’s inadequacies also played a part in handing Ireland the win.

Since flopping at Euro 2016, Marcel Koller’s side have been playing with a conspicuous lack of confidence epitomised by their best player, David Alaba, who looked completely out of sorts at the Ernst Happel Stadion last weekend.

Yet perhaps the most glaring issue of all is their problem at left-back.

As is explained in detail here, Austria are invariably a possession-based team with attacks heavily reliant on overlapping full-backs joining in, as neither Marco Arnautovic or Marcel Sabitzer play as out-and-out wingers, instead tucking in to provide support for lone striker Marc Janko.

The full-backs are expected to play virtually as wing backs when Austria are on the attack, so there is plenty of responsibility placed on the individuals in question.

Stuttgart’s Florian Klein, who plays right-back, is highly thought of, and generally used to good effect, even if he didn’t have the most influential of games the other night.

The main problem, though, is that since left-back Christian Fuchs retired from international duty, Austria have not had an obvious replacement for the Leicester player.

Some pundits have called for David Alaba — who usually plays left-back for Bayern Munich — to revert to the role, but Koller understandably feels his influence and technical prowess is needed more in central midfield.

Consequently, in recent matches, Kevin Wimmer, whose preferred position is centre-back, has been asked to fill in at left-back.

It hasn’t been the best of starts to the season for the 23-year-old at club level. His sole Premier League appearance for Tottenham came in the 1-1 draw with Arsenal, as he scored an own goal to give the Gunners the lead.

It hasn’t been much better for Wimmer on the international front. He made his full competitive debut for Austria against Wales last month, scoring an own goal as his side drew 2-2. He again failed to distinguish himself days later, as the Austrians lost 3-2 away to Serbia.

And against Ireland on Saturday, he looked very much like a centre-back playing on the left.

In the first half, not a lot of the play went down Wimmer’s side, so he wasn’t especially involved in the game. However, on the occasions when the ball did come in his direction, the Spurs defender looked distinctly uncomfortable, committing needless fouls and conceding possession cheaply.

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The youngster was also almost culpable for his side going behind, as he was caught ball-watching, with Jon Walters getting on the end of Robbie Brady’s cross but failing to direct his attempt on target in what was Ireland’s only real clear-cut chance of the first half.

wimmerlet

But while the opening 45 minutes were bad enough, the second period turned into a nightmare for Wimmer, as Ireland appeared to belatedly identify the player as a weak link and target balls into his area.

After the Walters let-off in the first half, this time, Wimmer was partially responsible for Austria conceding a goal. The hosts were on the attack, but the former FC Köln player went down far too easily under the challenge of David Meyler, allowing Ireland to counter-attack and eventually score through a brilliant James McClean goal.

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For once, Ireland seemed buoyed by taking the lead, rather than seeking to revert deeper into their half and attempt to hold onto what they had, as often tends to be the case.

Randolph continually kicked long balls in the direction of Wimmer, and both Hendrick and Walters caused him plenty of problems down Ireland’s right-hand side with their powerful running and intelligent hold-up play.

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targeting

Worse still, his main responsibility was to provide the team with width and attacking impetus down the left, as Klein managed to do sporadically on the other side, but Wimmer was completely ineffectual in this regard.

ineff

By the end of the game, the Tottenham man looked totally devoid of confidence, as his passes continued to go astray. Ireland, at times, appeared happy to let him have the ball, safe in the knowledge that he was not a huge threat, and as the final whistle approached, even his own teammates appeared to be ignoring him as an option out wide and instead tried in vain to thread the ball through the crowded central area.

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It was therefore no surprise when Wimmer was taken off on 78 minutes, as he seemingly struggled to cope with the pressure of the big occasion. Austria immediately looked more of a threat in attack, as they brought on an extra midfielder and went three at the back, with Janko missing one gilt-edged chance — a header from close range — on the brink of full-time.

Of course, Ireland continued to target the left-hand side after Wimmer’s substitution, with more space for Hendrick and Walters to exploit, and the two players duly obliged, carrying the ball down the right-hand side expertly on a couple of occasions and effectively running down the clock in the process.

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Losing on Saturday means that for Austria, World Cup qualification is looking very much like an uphill task even after just four games.

Following another dour performance, of which there have been a few lately, it seems a radical reshuffle is required. Perhaps Koller will finally relent and play Alaba at left-back, as the Wimmer experiment has patently failed, and will continue to do so unless changes are implemented.

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Paul Fennessy

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