The Making of Adi Hütter: Exceeding Expectations in Austria and Ending Years of Hurt in Switzerland

Eintracht Frankfurt’s 2-1 win over Bayern Munich on 20 February 2021 solidified their hopes of earning a Champions League spot for the 2020-21 season. At the start of the season, they were seen as outside contenders, with a squad not as capable as the likes of RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach. 


However, the inconsistent form of their rivals combined with Frankfurt reaching a new level has given them a solid chance. Reaching Europe’s premier club cup competition would be another feather in the cap of their astute Austrian head coach, Adi Hütter, who has done fine work at the club since joining them in 2018. 


It’s rare to see Austrian coaches do well in the modern day, with Hütter being amongst the most notable name amongst Europe’s top leagues. There are others such as Ralph Hasenhüttl at Southampton and Oliver Glasner at Wolfsburg, while assistants like René Marić are growing in the game, but the number is still too low. Like other coaches, Hütter’s career in the game, too, started as a player, and it was at Austria Salzburg (now Red Bull Salzburg) where he made a huge name for himself.


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For an Austrian club, there are few greater feelings than beating a German side in European competition and that was exactly what made Hütter a hero in his nation and to his club. In the 1994 UEFA Cup on Salzburg’s run to the final, they beat Eintracht Frankfurt in the last eight, where Hütter scored the winner in the tie. They would go on to lose the final to Inter, but it was still a massive achievement for player, club and country. 


Across an 18-year playing career spent entirely in Austria, Hütter learned plenty and it was in his home nation that he would start his coaching career. His last club was Red Bull Salzburg, and Hütter would start work with their junior team, earning experience but it was at second-division club Altach – one that is also close to his hometown – where he truly started to grow as a coach.


Over three years at the club, Hütter’s eccentric style of football earned plaudits, and they had several near misses at promotion. With a compact defensive set-up and an old-fashioned style that revolved around directness, Altach were able to challenge the top but never quite go all the way, finishing third and second in his two full seasons in charge and narrowly missing out on being promoted to the Bundesliga. He left the club in 2012 to join fellow second-division side SV Grödig. It was here that his potential was fulfilled. 


Based in a small town and lacking any significant modern infrastructure, the odds were stacked against Grödig, but Hütter ensured his players kept their feet on the ground and focused solely on the task in hand. They had the look of an amateur club: a small stadium, a modest training facility and a staff that was easily accessible. But, when Hütter arrived, he made sure that they were on the way up. 


In his first season, the club were promoted, something Hütter couldn’t achieve in three years at Altach. The result came as a surprise. At the start of the season, Grödig were hoping to avoid relegation to the third division. In the summer of 2013, they were planning for life in the Bundesliga and squaring off against some of the country’s finest clubs.


“I am a person who tries to seek success and not to avoid failure. Sometimes you get hit on the head and lie on the ground. But you always have to get up again,” Hütter said during the season.


“If I manage to get promoted to the Bundesliga with Grödig, then of course it carries a lot of weight for me because nobody would have expected that. And dare I say, there is a lot of coaching work behind it. If it works, I’m very proud. Besides, as a coach, you can write a title on the autograph card and that is very important to me.”


If the previous season was a shock, Grödig’s first in the Bundesliga was even more surprising. In the top division, they showed more physicality, having a greater willingness to go in for aerial duels and the stats backed it up: they were right up there in the charts for most fouls committed and bookings received. However, they had the results too: three months into the season, they were sitting in second, ahead of Red Bull Salzburg and behind Rapid Wien. Their strength from set-pieces was evident too: no one in the division were as good as Grödig.


For a squad of players that mostly admired the greatness of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Grödig were quite the opposite in their own style of play, but that didn’t matter to them as long as their good form continued. Their games were filled with goals: 7-1 against Admira Wacker in the third game of the season, 4-3 against Wolfsberger, 3-2 against Austria Wien – all wins. And while that was there, the team also had a few major defeats: 4-1 and 6-0 versus Red Bull Salzburg and 6-3 against Wiener Neustadt. 


Despite that, the end result was mightily impressive. Just two years prior, this was a struggling team but, in the summer of 2014, they were getting ready for European football having finished third in the league and reaching the qualifying rounds of the Europa League. In addition to that, their finish that season enabled them to earn some much-needed funds for their infrastructure.


However, Hütter wasn’t present for their European journey. Instead, his reputation had grown so much in Austria that he was given the most prestigious job in the country: Red Bull Salzburg, where he made a name for himself when they were called Austria Salzburg. The move was a huge contrast to Grödig. While Grödig were growing, having a small stadium and limited training facilities, Salzburg were established, based in Austria’s third-biggest city with 31,000-seater stadium and a newly developed state-of-the-art training ground that took 21 months to build.

Red Bull controversially took over Austria Salzburg in 2005 but it wasn’t until 2012 and the arrival of Ralf Rangnick that they truly had a long-term, refined vision. Roger Schmidt was their first manager of the Rangnick era, and he created one of the most exhilarating teams in Austrian league history. A move to Bayer Leverkusen was too good to turn down, and Hütter was brought in as his replacement. 


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Hütter already had a solid reputation in Salzburg and that was only enhanced by his managerial exploits. A midfielder who had made over 200 appearances for them in the 1990s, there was optimism when he joined as head coach. His first challenge would come early in his Salzburg career: the task of taking them to the Champions League. Europe’s primary cup competition was a huge mountain to scale. Since Red Bull’s takeover nine years prior, Salzburg had never made it to the competition proper, the group stages of the Champions League. 


In previous years, Valencia, Shakhtar Donetsk, Maccabi Haifa, Hapoel Tel Aviv, Dudelange and Fenerbahçe had all gotten the better of Salzburg in qualifying rounds previously and for Hütter, the challenge was to overcome Swedish giants Malmö. After overcoming Qarabağ in the third qualifying round, there was hope that this could finally be their year. However, it wasn’t to be. The Swedes overturned a 2-1 first-leg deficit and won 3-0 at home and Salzburg’s Champions League curse continued (and would only end in 2020). 


The disappointment didn’t last long as they recovered well, but the job didn’t get any easier for Hütter, who would lose key players over the course of the season. Sadio Mané’s reputation was growing and he earned a move to Southampton in Hütter’s first transfer window. In the winter, midfielder Kevin Kampl and forward Alan departed for Borussia Dortmund and Guangzhou Evergrande. Despite that, results would follow and Hütter would eclipse the work of his predecessor, Schmidt.


Fielding a high-tempo 4-4-2, which was a bit of a contrast from his time at Grödig, he made one of Europe’s most exciting machines. Forward Jonathan Soriano was on fire, providing 46 goals and 20 assists in a single season, while his partner in attack, Marcel Sabitzer, who was on loan from Salzburg’s sister club RB Leipzig, provided 27 goals and 21 assists in all competitions. They were a lethal attacking force and that was evident from the start when they battered rivals Rapid Wien 6-1 in Hütter’s debut league game. 


In the Europa League, they put aside Celtic, Dinamo Zagreb and Astra Giurgiu in the group stage before falling to Villarreal in the Round of 32, but that could well have been different had they not lost key players in the January transfer window of 2015. The Austrian Cup brought a reunion for Hütter with two of his former clubs: Altach and Grödig, who were beaten in the last eight and last four of the tournament as Salzburg would go all the way, beating Austria Wien 2-0 in the final. 


Back in the league, a tally of 99 goals emphasized Salzburg’s strength as they would seal a domestic double – the first top-division trophies of Hütter’s career. While Salzburg believed Hütter was the man for the future, the coach himself saw things differently. That summer, more players would depart. Goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi and defenders André Ramalho and Stefan Ilsanker – all crucial to the first-team – would leave, while Sabitzer would return to Leipzig following his loan spell.


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Unwilling to be a part of a feeder team, and unappreciative of the player turnover, Hütter would depart just before the transfer season, and that perhaps justified his decision to go. His status was only rising, not just in Austria, but around Europe, and staying at a club that wasn’t keeping hold of his best players could well have made the job all the more difficult. He wouldn’t stay out of work for long, moving out of Austria for the first time ever in September 2015, joining Swiss Club Young Boys. 


In Switzerland, Basel were the dominant force having won the previous six titles in succession. Young Boys, meanwhile, hadn’t won a league title since 1986 and had been runners-up on five separate occasions since then. Playing with a high-intensity, high-tempo 4-4-2 that took hints from his Red Bull Salzburg days. He was also keen on integrating younger players, but the star was Guillaume Hoarau, formerly of Paris Saint-Germain and Le Havre fame. 


The 32-year-old benefited from his team and coach’s attacking vision. Just like Soriano at Salzburg, he was scoring at will, netting 18 times in 25 appearances across all competitions in his first season at the club. That tally went up to 25 in 30 the next season, but while the goals were rolling in, the title was still far away. Young Boys finished second in both campaigns, 14 and 17 points behind Basel, who’s record went to eight successive league titles.


Fans were enthralled by Hütter’s football and tactical nous, but without the silverware, it felt incomplete. The high-pressing and quick vertical progression of the ball made Young Boys an entertaining team to watch, but not good enough to win the league. The following season, 2017-18, was when it all begin to click for them. With Hoarau leading the attack, former Ajax man Miralem Sulejmani a key force in midfield and Steve von Bergen commanding the backline, they were able to take their game to the next level.


However, it was their shrewd recruitment that caught the eye. In the summer before, they lost key players like Yvon Mvogo and Denis Zakaria to RB Leipzig and Borussia Mönchengladbach respectively but replaced them with younger players that had potential for the future. The likes of Djibril Sow, Jean-Pierre Nsamé and Kasim Nuhu signed on permanently while Roger Assalé and Kevin Mbabu arrived on loan deals. Working closely with sporting director Christoph Spycher, a former full-back himself, Hütter was well-supported to match the club’s lofty ambitions. 


Hoarau continued his form in front of goal, netting 18 times that season, and his most important goal arguably came against Luzern in April 2018, an equaliser in the second half. That set-up the winner for new signing Nsamé, who’s 89th-minute winner in that game settled the title for Young Boys. Going into the game, they were 13 points clear of Basel, a position that was familiar to the reigning Swiss champions, but Young Boys knew a win against Luzern would win them their first title in 32 years and they jumped at the chance.


The success was a mammoth achievement and another feather in the cap for Hütter. At Grödig, he created a side that unexpectedly won promotion before an even more surprising finish in a European spot. At Red Bull Salzburg, he won the domestic double with an attacking force that caught the attention of the rest of Europe. At Young Boys, he ended a 32-year league title drought, something the likes of Vladimir Petković, Christian Gross and Uli Forte failed to do before him. 


That only led to greater attention, and a move to the German Bundesliga was confirmed, as he replaced Bayern Munich-bound Niko Kovač at Eintracht Frankfurt. This too, was a challenge and it was only made tougher after a poor start which included a 5-0 defeat to Bayern in the DFL Supercup and a run of four points from five games as well as an early elimination from the DFB Pokal – as holders – led to calls for his sacking. However, the recovery was sweet, and set the tone for the rest of Hütter’s tenure. 


That season, with an attacking force of Luka Jović and Sébastien Haller, they were able to reach the Europa League semi-final and lost to Chelsea. And after a difficult 2019-20 season, Frankfurt are back on track in 2021, with a very real possibility of reaching the Champions League.


Adi Hütter has been a coach who has often defied expectations and creating exciting teams. The 51-year-old has never managed in the Champions League group stages, and Eintracht Frankfurt, a club where he has been a revered figure and has already enjoyed a good run in Europe, would welcome their manager’s debut at their home.


By: Karan Tejwani

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / HASAN BRATIC / AFP