Sweet triangles and high balls: where Switzerland thrive and struggle

Sweet triangles

The past four goals Switzerland have scored in this tournament have come from their left side. In terms of buildup play, they are the most lopsided team remaining in the tournament, directing 45% of their attacks up the left flank and 21% through the centre. With the left-sided centre-half Ricardo Rodriguez often stepping forward to join the attack, combining with Michel Aebischer and either Dan Ndoye or Ruben Vargas on that flank, opposition teams have found themselves suddenly overloaded, most notably Italy in their 2-0 humbling in Berlin last Saturday.

So you just reinforce that flank, right? Well, of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Switzerland’s coach, Murat Yakin, is a keen chess player, and while the similarities between the two sports are often overdone, what chess does teach is the ability to structure and build an attack, to use your own pieces as a screen or a deception, to unbalance your opponent’s position before quickly shifting the point of attack. Unlike England, heavily reliant on Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham, Switzerland’s seven goals have been scored by seven players.

The key to Switzerland’s success is thus not so much the direction of their attacks as their flexibility. Aebischer, a central midfielder for Bologna, starts on the left but frequently comes inside to draw defenders away. Granit Xhaka, an expert at finding the pressure points in a defence and adjusting his lines of attack accordingly, plays searching passes out wide or into the channel. Well-drilled triangles move the ball from A to B while taking defenders out of the game. England’s markers need to be hyper-alert without getting sucked out of position. The communication between defenders, recognising when to pass a player over to another marker, has to be spot on.

One other thing to note: ironically, given their flag, the Swiss do not like a cross. Excluding set pieces, they have only made one aerial cross into the penalty area all tournament. Instead, they prefer to pass the ball into dangerous areas – see Aebischer teeing up Remo Freuler against Italy, or Freuler for Ndoye in the 1-1 draw against Germany – or to get in behind the defence, using the pace of Vargas, Ndoye, Breel Embolo or Kwadwo Duah. The 13 through balls they have played is the most of any team in the tournament.

The watchmaker

Arsène Wenger once observed that Xhaka was an expert at playing what he called the “moderate-value pass”. Not the spectacular, defence-splitting assist. Not the dreamy Hollywood diagonal. Nor the simple sideways pass beloved of stat padders the world over. Although he can of course play all three, Xhaka’s real strength is the pass before the pass: the crucial but often unremarked moment of progression, unlocking everything that follows.

Bayer Leverkusen discovered that spectacularly during their Bundesliga title-winning season. Xabi Alonso realised that the best way to use Xhaka was not as a conventional No 8 driving towards goal, or as a quarterback spraying mid-length passes, or as a pure recycler, or even as a centre-half, where he was briefly stationed by Unai Emery at Arsenal. Instead Xhaka intentionally seeks out the most crowded areas on the pitch, takes the ball and moves it on, drawing defenders to him and creating space elsewhere.

Before the last eight only Toni Kroos, Aurélien Tchouaméni, Antonio Rüdiger and Gonçalo Inácio had completed more passes into the final third this tournament. Only Kevin De Bruyne has made more through balls. And then of course you have Xhaka’s hunger to win the ball back, his close-quarters tackling and grappling, his long-range shooting and his leadership qualities. The temptation for England will be to try to crowd Xhaka out, cut off his supply, get in his eyeline. Needless to say, that is exactly how he likes it.

Granit Xhaka

Less, not more, of the ball

Of the eight teams who made the quarter-finals, only Switzerland did so with less than 50% possession. Their pass completion percentage was also the lowest of those sides. All their opponents – even Scotland and Hungary in periods – had sustained spells on the ball. So, how do Switzerland manage?

The initial press is smart and fierce. Italy – albeit a weirdly deep Italy – could barely get out of their own third. Only Spain of the eight quarter-finalists committed more fouls, and Switzerland’s two most prominent reducers, Freuler and Ndoye, play primarily in the opposition half. If you break the initial press quickly enough Switzerland can be countered, as Scotland did successfully. But after a few phases Yakin’s team settle back into a tight back five, exactly the kind of shape England have often struggled to break down.

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High balls and free-kicks

Squeeze at the pressure points, however, and there are rewards to be reaped. For all the aerial prowess of Manuel Akanji and Fabian Schär in defence, as a team Switzerland have won only 40.6% of their aerial duels, and have conceded 10 shots resulting from set pieces. In the Wembley friendly of 2022, England’s two goals came via a defensive error and a handball penalty after a corner.

Yann Sommer can also be pressured. The Internazionale goalkeeper has had to make only six saves all tournament, but against Germany he palmed Robert Andrich’s shot into his own net, an error that did not count for statistical purposes because of a foul in the buildup. Meanwhile, if England cut off his passing options, Sommer will be forced to kick long, and Switzerland have given up possession 80% of the time when this happens.

The final mountain

The gulf in experience between the sides is vast, depending on how you want to look at things. Switzerland’s squad is the oldest remaining in the tournament, with an average age of 29.6 once you weight for minutes played. The midfield pairing of Xhaka and Freuler have started 50 games for Switzerland together. England’s likely duo of Declan Rice and Kobbie Mainoo have played a grand total of 338 minutes in each other’s company.

But by the same token, only one of these teams have been past a major quarter-final. For consecutive generations of talented Swiss sides, breaking into the business end of a tournament has been the insurmountable obstacle, a question of belief as much as ability. And – you may need to sit down for this bit – Switzerland are one of the few teams in world football with a worse shootout record than England: played five, lost four. When they met in the 2019 Nations League finals, England won 6-5 on penalties. Talk about a complex.

The Guardian