Off the back of the meteoric rise of RB Leipzig, RB Salzburg and their alumni such as Marco Rose, Erling Haaland, Naby Keita, and Dayot Upamecano (amongst many, many other coaches and players), I thought this might be a good time to look in detail at the league where some of them cut their chops in the professional game, the Austrian second division. I had relatively little knowledge of the league coming into this and thus wanted to take an approach that I would be comfortable with, by looking at the league through the scope of individual players and their qualities. The plan (and now that I’m going to share it, hold me to it) is to cover each position extensively by identifying the players who stand out and explaining what makes them stand out. I’ve only just started but have already found Austria’s second division to be fascinating and worthy of such attention as the diversity in tactical approaches, mixture in age and experience of players, range of size in fan followings, and questionable timing and subject of cuts from the TV directors all work to create a unique and engaging ecosystem.
If you haven’t watched Liefering but are aware that they are part of the Red Bull family and you have seen Leipzig or Salzburg dominate most opponents in their respective leagues, you might expect the same of Liefering and for their players to also perform with uniform excellence but that isn’t exactly the case. Liefering have been good this season but they are far from polished, particularly in their execution of the Red Bull game model of aggressive, intense, proactive football. It isn’t that surprising when you consider they field a squad that is consistently younger than their opponent’s in every position, though I suspect there may be a chicken and egg element to this with Red Bull timing their graduation of Liefering’s players to better teams such that Liefering remain good enough to not be relegated but not so good that they win promotion to the same division as their sister club, Salzburg. But, because they are part of the RB family, Liefering of course have some talented footballers in their squad, one of which is the Bosnian u19 international, Amar Dedic.
The 17-year-old right-back is very physically developed for his age, looking comfortable engaging in physical contests with opponents and still has plenty of time to develop even further. Dedic uses his body particularly well when making challenges, usually opting to aggressively knock opponents with his shoulder rather than gradually lean into them or use his hands to hold them. Though the Austrian second tier doesn’t have the intensity or physical attrition of some leagues, Dedic doesn’t shy away when those passionate moments present themselves.
The young fullback has been relied upon so heavily in his debut season in men’s football that almost a third of his matches this season came at left-back where he still managed to look relatively comfortable defensively and very comfortable in possession. He maintains a very open receiving shape even on the left side of the pitch despite tending to still use the sole or outside of his right foot to control the ball. His passing range at right and left-back don’t vary significantly because he plays such safe passes (more on this later) in his natural position anyway that you don’t notice much of a difference when plays on the left.
Regardless of the side of the pitch he plays on, he has a consistent aggressive, front-footed, occasionally rash, defending style where he closes space very early as opponents are receiving the ball if they have their back to goal. However, if an opponent is able to face him up he will be very deliberate in showing them down the line so that he can use his athleticism to win possession. This causes him problems occasionally as his posture is so closed that he struggles to adjust when opponents cut inside, and he could certainly afford to play with a more open body shape given he has the acceleration and speed to compensate. Unfortunately Dedic doesn’t quite show the hunger to win the ball that you might hope for, there will certainly be occasions in matches where you will question whether he could’ve intercepted a pass or blocked a shot if he had stretched that extra inch. However, when he is forced to take action in the box with a decisive tackle or clearance, Dedic usually does so reliably.
His function in the side isn’t to be involved at the end of possessions or chance creation, rather he assumes two primary roles, the first of which is to facilitate possession earlier in the buildup with his safe but effective passing to find teammates who have a greater passing range. I’m not particularly concerned about Dedic’s seeming lack of passing range as it is completely understandable given his age – repeatedly given the ball away by attempting difficult passes gives a manager a great excuse to leave a young player out of the team. Just ask Trent Alexander-Arnold: you have to win the trust of the staff, the fans, and your teammates as an inexperienced defender before you can take those risks. And this approach seems to be working for Dedic as he stands out for having played the third most minutes as the third youngest player in what is admittedly a de facto u23 squad.
The second way in which Dedic influence his side’s possessions is by driving beyond the opposition’s first line of pressure with the ball, which is his headline feature as a player. Dedic does in a very direct, vertical manner, taking just enough touches to retain control of the ball while often running at almost a full sprint. This approach can be incredibly valuable to his side’s ability to progress up the pitch, though it does result in turnovers relatively frequently as he runs so close to his top speed that he can’t change direction quickly or significantly enough to avoid opponents. He will often start these ball carries with a sharp change of direction and speed but his lack of disguise, or use of feints or tricks, along with the occasional erratic first touch, can make him easy to defend. He does sometimes use a reverse step-over or an Iniesta-style shift from one foot to the other to create separation from that first opponent but will rarely use those skills mid-carry to beat the second or third man. He could benefit from an individual training program putting him through a high volume of ball-carrying with dynamic stimulus that he has to respond and react to, such as a coach/training partner instructing him to carry the ball through a specific gate or pass the ball into a specific mini-goal, placing less emphasis on the pure speed at which he carries the ball and more onto his awareness, speed of play and change of direction instead.
One approach to getting the best out of Dedic would look something like Kyle Walker’s role at Man City where his athleticism is used primarily to control transitions with ball-progression responsibilities lying elsewhere in the side, but I think it would be a shame to coach out of Dedic the aggression he shows in possession. Until he gets the confidence to play more expansive passes, you might get more out of him and develop him further as a player by consistently creating space for him to drive into, through the team’s structure in possession. For example, the way Dedic carries the ball draws some similarities to Achraf Hakimi in my eyes, and Dortmund’s blueprint could be a good one to follow in capitalising on that ability. Either way, the combination of athleticism, aggression, and one-vs-one defending he possesses at such a young age should augur well at a higher level.
I understand Red Bull prefer to keep hold of their favourite players and progress them through their own system, and that Dedic still has two years on his deal, but players do occasionally slip through the cracks and, in Dedic’s case, there might just be a club out there with enough money to tempt Red Bull. With all of that said the most likely situation is that he finds minutes across both Liefering and Salzburg next season, but the Austrian clubs I am about to name would certainly benefit from taking the young fullback on loan while the international clubs mentioned may have the cash and will to sign Dedic permanently. Regardless, I tried to ensure the clubs I suggest would be good stylistic fits for the player, though those assessments were made more through data analysis than watching the teams extensively. Specifically, I tried to find clubs who dominate the ball, are proactive out-of-possession, and don’t ask their right-back to be heavily involved in creating chances to try to minimise the amount Dedic would have to adapt his game. Austria Vienna stands out as a good option in the Austrian first division with a comparable playing style and, though 33-year-old Florian Klein is asked to play more adventurous passes than Dedic, he is closer to the middle of the pack than the right-backs at Wolfsberger, LASK Linz or Rapid Vienna who also be good sporting fits. As I mentioned previously, Red Bull are usually careful about letting players walk off the production line before they’ve gotten their final coat of paint at Leipzig or Salzburg, but – of the players who have left Liefering over recent years – several have gone to the Swiss first division and German second division, so those leagues are worth investigating as well. Amongst the five or six teams with similar styles of play to Liefering, St. Gallen and Servette seem to have the right-backs with the least offensive output, though St. Gallen’s Silvan Hefti is the club captain at just 22 and Servette’s Anthony Sauthier does still make his way into the final third noticeably more often than Dedic. Over in Germany, the teams that appear to be pressing and keeping the ball are Stuttgart, Hannover, and Greuther Furth with Hannover’s 28-year-old Julian Korb looking like the player whose shoes could be most-closely filled by Dedic.
In an attempt to provide as much information on these players as possible and reduce the chance that anything I have failed to mention catches you off-guard, I have compiled every involvement (rather than hand-picking clips) for each player over the course of two matches, which obviously isn’t extensive but finds a nice balance between volume of video vs information. The matches are only hand-picked in the sense that they are all against the team of another player I was making a video for, purely for time/storage space efficiency.
At 27, Halbartschlager isn’t as glamourous of a name as the rest of the right-backs that feature in this blog, but he’s one of the best right now and with his contract up at the end of the month he could be a very interesting option for some clubs. He strikes me as the stereotypical “manager’s dream” in most aspects of his game – he is vocal and takes responsibility on the pitch, he plays with a great aggression with the ball, will play any position he is asked to, and (most importantly) he is available for selection every single week having missed just four games (three through suspension) of the past 107 in the league. He is the Azpilicueta of the Austrian second division, who plays with some extra risk on the pitch and – apparently – has a bit more personality off it.
Steyr aren’t the easiest side to stand out in as a player, particularly in the areas of play I was focused on when looking for players. They have the second lowest average possession in the league, and generally have quite a direct, combative approach built on defending on the edge of their box and absorbing pressure out-of-possession, they use vertical passes up to their physical striker and the subsequent second balls to advance the possession and rely on transitions to create many of their chances. In some matches it feels inevitable that they’re about to concede, only for the momentum to shift as Steyr land a sucker punch on their opponent, scoring against the run of play. Particularly when Steyr take the lead in this way, their opposition struggle to react.
Halbbartschlager doesn’t have the most athletic-looking build, but his first few strides are often quick enough to find separation, he covers ground well enough when he really opens up his stride, and he shows great endurance. He uses those attributes to best effect when making bursting runs from his own defensive third into the opponent’s box – with and without the ball – on counter attacks, though it is also apparent in his one-vs-one defending. The commitment he shows when defending on the ground through his sliding challenges and brave blocks is great, though it isn’t always replicated when he challenges for balls in the air.
Halbartschlager’s willingness to use all parts of either foot to drive with the ball contribute to him being so difficult to predict and defend against. Occasionally, he will also show some excellent turns and exits out of tight spaces using roulettes or cruyff turns in either direction to evade tackles or pressure. The final piece missing in this part of his game is some more awareness and better decision making when carrying the ball to cut out some of those occasions when he runs himself into cul-de-sacs, and/or fails to notice good passing opportunities. When he does make it into the final third, either by driving forward with the ball or by getting on the end of a through-ball, his delivery can be disappointing. He actually connects with his crosses well, usually making it difficult for the opposition to defend, but his strikes rarely result in shots due to a combination of a lack of movement from his teammates arriving in the box and a tendency to play these crosses into areas rather than with an intent to find a specific teammate. More generally, his ball-striking is reliable as well; he rarely mis-hits the weight of his ground passes, and when he does occasionally pick out the opposite winger with a long diagonal pass he plays the ball flat and accurately, making it difficult to intercept
Halbartschlager’s defensive style isn’t the most refined or pleasant to watch but he is usually very effective at denying opponents the opportunities to play in the areas they would prefer to. Though their approach in possession is generally about maintaining stability and being well-poised to react to any potential turnovers, Steyr do push their fullbacks quite high up the pitch in possession, so – in many turnovers where the opponent immediately plays the ball out to the wing – Halbbartschlager has no real chance to make a recovery challenge. That said, even when he does find himself in a decent starting position, he struggles to control the space behind him with his angle of approach and body shape. Steyr don’t usually hold a particularly high defensive line, and typically defend in a 442/4411 shape with the wide midfielders playing very narrow to cover the inside channels and the fullbacks staying wide, which significantly impacts Halbartschlager’s role when his side are in a settled defensive shape. Most of the situations he faces directly are very wide one-vs-one duels or moments where the ball is played into the box from the opposite wing and he has to shift across quickly to defend more central areas that the tucked-in midfielders can’t reach, fortunately he is very suited to those tasks.
You may notice that this is the only point where I will look at a fullback’s aerial ability in any detail and that is because I find it to be an increasingly muddy part of the game generally and for fullbacks in particular. So many teams are now playing aerial passes with no intention of a teammate actually bringing the ball under control and instead these passes have the sole purpose of presenting their own team with an opportunity to challenge for a second ball, at which point the opposition’s structure may be slightly disrupted. So, particularly in Germany and Austria where this approach seems most popular, the value of winning your aerial duels (for every position other than centre-back) is actually diminished unless you are consistently finding a teammate who isn’t immediately pressured. In other words, it is becoming increasingly important to find players who anticipate and react well to that second ball than ones who can consistently win the first ball, from what I have found. With all of that said, the difficulty Halbartschlager has with aerial duels is concerning. A combination of his tentativeness and seeming aversion to getting up before his direct opponent, and his inability to consistently judge the flight of the ball (which also affects his volleyed clearances unfortunately) lead to some very unconvincing moments in the air.
I’m not sure Halbartschlager would be able to consistently start in the Austrian first division but I think he could certainly be a valuable member of a squad and present little risk given his contract situation. I do worry about the struggles he may face adapting to a side that doesn’t present him with such a specific role defensively, though I don’t think he relies particularly heavily on Steyr’s possession or transition game and could actually perform better in a side that has a slower, less direct approach. Amongst sides that could potentially be interested in Halbartschlager, SCR Altach and Mattersburg (less so) look like the best fits.
More so than any other right-back in the Austrain second tier, aesthetically, Jurgen Bauer looks like he could be playing in one of Europe’s top-five leagues in terms of his physique and the way he moves around the football pitch, but elements of his tactical understanding and decision making will likely keep him well away from that level. That isn’t to denigrate him as a player in any way, it is solely to prepare you as a viewer for the way he can be so simultaneously elegant and frustrating. However, he has been one of the most effective players in his position this season, he is exceptionally quick, talented technically and – most importantly – can play at a higher level than what he is currently.
Bauer’s appreciation for his side’s structure and stability in possession, and the opposition’s organisation and his movement in relation to those two dynamics is what lets him down most frequently, but his pace and technical ability allow him to be devastating when all the pieces do come together. This issue often presents itself when Bauer is looking to make forward runs without the ball as he just won’t make a good judgement on what the consequences will be if his side do turnover possession so he will make runs that leave his side very exposed or opt to hold his position when his forward run could have most effectively disrupted the opposition. This is also influenced by SV Horn’s game model and the way they cover and control space through their positioning in possession, which is ambitious at best and incredibly naïve at worst. Given their standing as the joint-third worst side in the division with the second-best average possession (and having watched several full matches myself, I can confirm it looks exactly what you’re imagining) I would highly recommend that anyone with high blood pressure stays well away from their coming fixtures.
When everything does go to plan for Horn and Bauer though, they do play some beautiful, fast, vertical football on the ground that would leave any football fan purring. When Bauer makes it into the final third – through this quick combination play, which he seems surprisingly comfortable with as if he is better the less time he has to think, or through one of his weaving runs with the ball – his delivery can be inconsistent. He has played some exceptional cutbacks this season where it appears he is deliberately picking out targets in the box as opposed to just trying to play the ball into an area; however, his technique when trying to play aerial crosses is quite disappointing – most frequently because he will wait too long to play these deliveries and hit the first man, but even when he beats the first man his crosses usually lack the shape or pace to really threaten the opposition. It’s quite surprising given his success with every other ball-striking technique, he can drive low passes or play long diagonals with some success.
Fundamental to the success he finds running with the ball is the quality and consistency of his first touch, his low centre of gravity and balance, which he uses to “ride” tackles about as well as anyone, and his ability to reach his top speed over a very short distance. His understanding of when to drive with the ball. His relationship with right-winger Michael Chekoua – who excels in this area as well – leads to some incredible moments as they work in tandem with one attracting opponents to the ball, creating space other to roam into.
Defensively, Bauer’s strengths and weaknesses mirror his game in possession quite closely with him excelling when in direct opposition but struggling in situations that ask him to be aware of space and opponent’s movements. For example, if Bauer’s opponent is able to face him up and run at him, Bauer shines – he maintains a great posture with quick, sharp feet movements to constantly adjust and respond to the opponent’s movements until they commit and try to push the ball past Bauer at which point he can use a combination of his superior pace and athleticism to win the ball. When presented with 50/50s, transitions higher up the pitch, or opponents receiving the ball with their back to goal, he can be quite rash and foul the opponent or overcommit and allow them to bypass him. Similarly, he struggles to position himself or approach opponent’s such that he cover’s potential passing options and controls the space in front of him.
In looking for a side that suits Bauer’s characteristics, outside of Austria, I think England’s League One or France’s Ligue 2 could be interesting options for him given how the balance of physical intensity and tactical detail more closely align with his attributes than leagues of a similar standard across Europe. Aside from that, it would be preferable if the team played with a relatively high line to present Bauer with more opportunities to control transitions rather than maintain his concentration and anticipate runs around his own box. If they dominated possession to afford Bauer opportunities to make those late runs into the final third, and had a tricky right-winger and striker who doesn’t rely on aerial crosses to maximise what Bauer offers in possession, that couldn’t hurt either. In Austria, Austria Vienna’s aforementioned right-back Florian Klein is out of contract at the end of the month and they have a technically-sound right-winger in Maximilian Sax. Striker Cristoph Monschein has been scoring relentlessly this season, with only a few headed attempts creeping in. SCR Altach look like another good fit from a playing-style perspective but it’s hard to say what the squad will look like next season with centre-forward Christian Gebbauer and right winger Sidney Sam (yep, that Sidney Sam) looking like they’re on their way out. In England, Ipswich, Doncaster, and Burton could be good candidates, while Auxerre, Nancy, and Caen look to have the right profile in France.
Lukas Hupfauf is perhaps the most technically-refined and tactically-aware right-back in possession in what sometimes feels like a league of basketball teams in the form of Austria’s second division, strongly resembling its top tier and the back and forth nature of most of their matches. His speed of play, decision-making, comfort under pressure, and appreciation of space allow him to contribute to Wacker’s chance creation and ball progression in fairly unique ways whilst turning over possession at a rate you would expect of a much more cautious player.
Hupfauf is quick but will definitely struggle more in direct matchups against particularly fast and athletic opponents given he isn’t particularly physically-imposing. It may be that the only thing preventing him from possessing really notable pace is his unorthodox running technique where he takes short, frequent strides – likely a technical or mobility issue – and some progress could almost certainly be made in that area under the correct guidance. For Nuri Sahin, that development of his explosiveness over the first few strides from a standing start to create separation made the difference between struggling to make Dortmund’s starting XI and his move to Real Madrid a season or two later. Hupfauf’s stockier build does contribute to his impressive levels of balance and agility which allow him to avoid tackles at a peerless rate. Those attributes should aid his one-vs-one defending in a similar way but Hupfauf’s technical deficiencies in that area get in the way of those potential benefits.
Hupfauf’s standout technical attribute is his ball-striking – he has exceptional variety and quality in the way he delivers angled balls into the box from deeper areas, plays lofted passes over the opposition’s defense or how he shapes crosses running at a decent pace. He doesn’t seem to play many long passes across the ground or try to lofted or whipped balls into the channel, but most other passes are within his range. And yet, as impressive and effective as these passes are, it is his positioning within Wacker’s system and understanding that maximises the utility his team gains from his passing range.
What really makes Hupfauf stand out is the way he takes up an inverted position in Wacker’s build-up and in the final third to present himself with more passing options and more opportunities to get on the ball, without causing problems when possession is lost. To be clear, Hupfauf doesn’t just sometimes drift into an inside channel – it isn’t like Delph or Zinchenko for City – instead, in a significant number of Wacker’s possessions he will position himself right in the centre of the pitch, within the widths of the centre-backs, anywhere between his own box and the opposition’s. And Hupfauf will look just as comfortable and be no less effective than he is when he’s bombing down the wing to whip a cross into the box. You sometimes see it suggested that most modern fullbacks would be able to play in midfield given the all-action role they often perform and variety of skills fullbacks are now required to possess, but I have always pushed back against that idea and felt that the difference in angles that you receive the ball and the frequent scanning you have to do in central midfield vs fullback make it almost impossible to transition into midfield from right or left-back unless you played there extensively in your youth. My stance on that hasn’t changed, but I do feel I’ve found a fullback in Hupfauf who genuinely looks comfortable operating in almost all areas of the pitch, including central midfield, at this level (granted, he may be exposed at faster, more intense levels of play). Hupfauf’s trajectory will be entirely dependent on which coaches he is put in front of over the next few years and whether one sees this talent as a valuable tool or unnecessary complication, though he might have to improve when his team don’t have the ball to gain that trust.
Unfortunately, Hupfauf is an incredibly rash defender and both his timing and technique are consistently so disappointing that you will probably need to surround him by the right structure and give him a very clear and specific role to get the best out of him. His tracking of runs, positioning and reactions in the box, and starting positions are all fine but his defending of an immediate opponent is completely wild. On the odd occasion that Hupfauf times one of his “equalisers” to perfection it does look undeniably incredible – but, more often than not, his tackles demonstrate mind-boggling (think Sergio Ramos in El Clasico) levels of hot-bloodedness and total disregard for human life.
The best way to maximise his abilities is likely to play him as a wingback with a right-sided centre-back behind him who is comfortable covering the channels, or as a nominal right-back in a back four but with license to play much further forward and both drift inside or overlap his winger, thanks to the cover of a right sided midfielder dropping in to cover for him, similar to Liverpool’s structure. In James Jeggo, Austria Vienna have a defensive midfielder who excels at plugging gaps in the back four, but their centre-backs – Michael Madl and Alexander Borkovic – don’t look particularly happy when they have to cover wide areas. Also, transitioning from the defensively resolute Florian Klein (do you get a commission after the third name-drop?) to the error-prone Hupfauf might be painful for Austria Vienna. LASK Linz might be a better fit where Philipp Wiesinger is a mobile and athletic right-sided centre-back who is very adept at covering wide areas. Right(wing)back Reinhold Ranftl has three years left on his deal but looks a very saleable asset who also draws comparisons to Hupfauf, though Linz right-sided midfielder James Holland does struggle to cover ground and defend running towards his own goal.
“Right-backs in Austria’s second division” is obviously a very niche subject matter and I don’t expect there to be much interest in this, but recently I’ve been craving longer-form content and I find writing it myself to be a great way of satisfying that itch. I guess I hope there are at least a few people out there who have a similar itch to mine, and that this blog can scratch it.