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30 Jun 2018

Switzerland: Are they the World Cup’s dark horses?

Switzerland: Are they the World Cup’s dark horses?

Switzerland have a habit of being an awkward opponent to face due to their defensive solidity. Could they spring a surprise in the knockout stages?

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Resilient defence

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Xhaka and Shaqiri escape bans

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Verdict

Reuters/MURAD SEZER

Group E looked a foregone conclusion for many before the tournament, with most people tipping Brazil to win it comfortably. Canarinho, the most successful team in the history of the World Cup, went undefeated on their way to the number one spot and will face Mexico in the next round. 

Another team pulled through the group without losing a game too. Switzerland have become something of an awkward opponent for many at the World Cup, finishing above France in their group in 2006 and being the only team to beat Spain at the 2010 edition. 

Once again, they showed that they are no pushovers in holding Brazil to a 1-1 draw in their opening match and beating Serbia to second place. Their reward for that hard work is a round of 16 tie against fellow Europeans Sweden.

Switzerland may sound like one of the easier teams to beat on paper, but there are plenty of reasons why they have the potential to go further than some might expect at the tournament.

Resilient defence

Despite their lapse of concentration in the game versus Costa Rica when they conceded twice, Switzerland have a great defensive record. In qualifying for the World Cup, they kept six clean sheets in their ten games and conceded just seven goals.

At the heart of their defensive solidity is goalkeeper Yann Sommer. The Borussia Monchengladbach stopper endured a tough season for his club as he conceded 52 goals, but he has been in imperious form for country. 

Reuters/LUCY NICHOLSON

Against Brazil, Sommer pulled off some important saves to keep Switzerland in the game before they scored their equaliser in the second half. 

Last time out against Costa Rica, he was unfortunate to concede a last-minute penalty as it ricocheted off the crossbar and onto his head. 

Later in the match, he made a stunning stop low to his right at the beginning of the match to deny Cristian Borges in what could be save of the tournament so far. French newspaper L’Equipe, in fact, named the Swiss stopper as their goalkeeper of the group stage.

The team in front of Sommer is set up to deny the opposition, too. Valon Behrami works effortlessly to protect his back four and is a nuisance for attackers. 

Neymar found that out the hard way against Switzerland as Behrami relentlessly hounded the Brazilian for the entire game, committing several cynical fouls.

His partner in midfield, Granit Xhaka, is also one for aggressive tackles in the central area. This duo provides the work rate that the team needs to shut down their opponents’ midfield creativity.

Reuters/MARIANA BAZO

Across the back four, it is Manuel Akanji who is the key man. After a great few seasons at FC Basel, Borussia Dortmund signed the 22-year-old for a reported €18 million in January. That a side like Dortmund are willing to bring the Swiss international shows the ability of the young centre half. 

In the World Cup so far, he has shown why the German side showed such an interest in him. Akanji boasts a pass success ratio of over 90% and has averaged the second most tackles per game in the Switzerland squad, behind only midfield workhorse Behrami.

Switzerland’s ability to keep sides at arm’s length for much of the game gives them a great way to win matches. Against Serbia, they stayed in the match for as long as possible before snatching the game in the last few minutes.

Xhaka and Shaqiri escape bans

Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri both scored second-half goals in their key match against Serbia in Group E. Following the celebration of both goals, several Swiss players celebrated by folding their hands over to represent the Albanian two-headed eagle. 

Xhaka and Shaqiri, both of Kosovar Albanian heritage, were charged with displaying political symbols and could have faced a two-match ban.

Both escaped with a fine. Manager Vladimir Petkovic will be grateful that his two goalscorers from that night received such a light punishment. 

Shaqiri, who plays with the Kosovo flag stitched into his boots, has been the standout player for Switzerland this tournament. Not only was his winning goal against Serbia vital in eventually securing second place in the group, but he has been the live wire in attack.

Reuters/IVAN ALVARADO

Every meaningful Swiss attack from open play seems to go through Shaqiri. He is hungry for possession. He wants to take on his marker and get shots away. He really looks like the player that wants to put himself in the shop window during this tournament and earn a high profile move.

It looks like he might get it, too. Liverpool will reportedly sign the 26-year-old when the World Cup finishes to bolster their ranks.

As for Xhaka, he doesn’t have the flair of his countryman, but he has just as much work rate. The Arsenal man polarises opinion amongst fans, but few can deny that he can mix it with the best on his day. 

His goal against Serbia is a contender for goal of the tournament, such was the power and the control with which he struck the ball.

If Switzerland are to progress, it will be their two creative forces in midfield and attack that get them there.

Verdict

Switzerland first face Sweden. Given that before the tournament they were expecting to face the world champions Germany, Petkovic and Co. will not be too displeased. 

Sweden will still be a tough test. Mexico looked like one of the dark horses in Russia, but Sweden demolished them 3-0. 

The Swiss will approach the game as they always do - by throwing caution to the wind. And who can blame them? If the game is level with half an hour to play, Switzerland will fancy themselves to bag a late goal and see off the Swedes.

They will be rewarded with a quarterfinal tie against either England or Colombia, a much more tricky fixture, but one they will have a chance of progressing through. 

England might struggle with a compact, defensive opponent. They snatched victory at the death against Tunisia, but Switzerland have more quality.

Underestimate them at your peril, Switzerland didn’t come to Russia just to make up the numbers.

Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss all the action from Day 15 of the World Cup in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.