EURO 2024 Preview: Switzerland need spark from Xhaka to escape Group A

Switzerland have never made it past the quarter-finals of the Euros
Switzerland have never made it past the quarter-finals of the EurosProfimedia
At first glance, Switzerland may look boring and bland - on the football pitch at least - with the same team leaving no distinctive mark. But the truth is that the Swiss are gradually improving at the Euros. In 2016, they advanced out of the group for the first time, then three years ago they heroically made the round of 16 and almost the quarter-finals. Now, however, another push past the previous limits would be surprising.

Coach Murat Yakin must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when he learned in late November that he would get a chance at the tournament. Representatives of the Swiss Football Association even declared that he had their full confidence, but not that many national fans would have signed that statement. Not then, not now.

Yakin managed to win only four times in a relatively easy qualifying group, but they did draw five times. This was mainly due to the persistent problem of losing concentration in the second half. The Swiss were simply not able to bring the promising qualification matches to a successful end. If this had happened once or twice, the public would have passed it by with a wave of the hand. However, the repeated failures are already frustrating the supporters of the Alpine country.

At the moment, more things are against Yakin rather than for him. He has a lot to answer for himself, though. For example, back in December, he declared that Yann Sommer would be the number one goalkeeper at the Euros. Those words annoyed Phillip Degen, the agent of Sommer's national team rival Gregor Kobel. In the end, Yakin can be happy that Sommer has had a good season, but if Kobel had overshadowed him (which he may have partially done), the coach would have had some egg on his face.

But other aspects won't affect Yakin. It's not his fault that the younger generation isn't maturing as fast as the previous ones. So far the Swiss are not nearing the retirement home, but it is possible that in Germany the current mainstays will take part in their last dance. In particular, there is talk about the possible end of Xherdan Shaqiri's national team career, but it might not be only him with nine other players having already celebrated their 30th birthday.

The good news is that not only Sommer but also other leaders Granit Xhaka and Manuel Akanji met up for the Euros in good spirits - the same can be said of the three Bologna players, Dan Ndoye, Michel Aebischer and Remo Freuler. Switzerland fans are therefore hoping that individual spirit will prevail in the Stuttgart retreat over the chaos of recent months.

The road to the Euros

Xhaka confidently declared after the Group Stage draw that only 10 wins from 10 matches would satisfy him, but such ambitions were not match during the qualification campaign. Coach Yakin seems to have been blinded to this day. "We dominated the group," he boldly declared after the end of the qualifiers.

Switzerland finished second in Group I during the qualification phase
Switzerland finished second in Group I during the qualification phaseFlashscore

Really? We can only talk about dominance perhaps in the case of the first two matches, after which they boasted a combined score of 8-0. From there though, it unravelled somewhat. The Swiss conceded six times after the 80th minute, which led to four losses but the most shocking was the very first failure at home to Romania. Leading 2-0 heading into the final stages of the game, Romania were able to claim a 2-2 draw that dealt a deep blow to the confidence of Yakin's team. Since then, they have beaten only Andorra in competitive football.

The basic statistics suggest that the Swiss should have done things differently. During the qualifying campaign, only Portugal and France produced more shooting attempts. They also finished third in terms of shots on target and number of passes, as well as having the second-most possession of the ball. But at the same time, only two teams shot outside the posts more often.

The Swiss thrived on being on the ball and creating chances. So yes, they were indeed dominant from that perspective. However, perhaps that was to be expected in a group with Romania, Israel, Belarus, Kosovo and Andorra. And yet the Swiss finished second, five points behind the Romanians. Poor finishing and defensive performance even knocked them down to the worst-performing teams before the Euro draw.

With regard to personnel, the collapses of the Nati defence during 2023 were particularly striking. The impotence in attack was at least partially dampened by the emergence of six-goal scorer Mohamed Amdouni. However, even some of Yakin's offensive moves didn't make much sense to fans. In mid-November, for example, Switzerland could have secured early promotion against Israel. They needed to win, which could have been helped by a waiting Shaqiri on the bench. But he ended up sitting out the whole game. "I would have liked to give him a few minutes, but this was not a game for Shaq," the strategist tried to justify the icon's omission.

Coach: Murat Yakin

Neither of the Yakin brothers have been doing too well lately. Hakan - younger and more successful as a player - did not make a name for himself either in Switzerland or last time out in Istanbulspor. Murat has definitely made it further as a coach so far. But his greatest achievements are already in the past and another breakthrough doesn't seem likely.

After all, it's been more than a decade since his greatest achievements with Basel. In that time, Basel have twice dominated the Swiss Super League, reached the semi-finals of the Europa League, robbed Chelsea in the Champions League and showed the world Sommer, Fabian Schar and, above all, Mohamed Salah. However, Yakin's next trip abroad to Spartak Moscow ended after less than a year and since then, he never left his Alpine homeland.

After the surprise takeover from Vladimir Petkovic, the public finally looked forward to a kinder face with Yakin. The former was hopefully delivered to the press, the latter is debatable. In his Basel glory days, Yakin was known for his ability to prepare his team perfectly for the opposition, whereas the current defence is rather weak. In addition to that, the style of play is gradually approaching that of Petkovic - a style that many feel Yakin should have moved away from. However, even the not-so-loved Petkovic eventually achieved great success. The same feels unlikely for Yakin.

It would not be surprising if Yakin eventually loses perhaps his last asset - his ability to get on well with his charges. The likes of Xhaka is known to be unafraid to speak his mind. At first, this wasn't so much of an issue, but when the qualification woes came, and with them more of Xhaka's outspoken criticism, speculation began about how much control Yakin had over the group.

Yakin's contract is up after the Euros. At the moment, there is no sign of an extension. On the contrary, according to many, he's been out of contract for at least six months.

The team's driving force: Granit Xhaka

It's happening again and again. It's a toss-up whether one or the other personality with Kosovo roots will appear in this column. And even now, there would be reasons to favour Shaqiri, as he has scored or assisted 46% of Switzerland's goals in major tournaments over the last decade (nine goals and four assists). In addition, Shaqiri is the only player, along with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, to have scored at each of the last three World Cups.

However, the left-footed winger is getting more and more lost in MLS, it is not even certain that he will start at this tournament.

Granit Xhaka, in comparison, does not have that doubt hanging over him. Unlike Shaqiri, his move away from Arsenal hasn't led to a move out of Europe. In fact, it turned out to be no step back at all.

At the start of the season, the midfielders of Leverkusen were more likely to sing the praises of Exequiel Palacios. The Argentine reached his full potential and quickly gained recognition for his ability to win the ball. Xhaka looked like a calm metronome next to him, but his lack of dynamism did not impress as much as the aggressive all-rounder Palacios.

Granit Xhaka's form has been impressive this season
Granit Xhaka's form has been impressive this seasonProfimedia

But then the South American got injured, and the position of defensive midfielder was occupied by the equally reliable, yet not-so-run-of-the-mill Robin Andrich and Xhaka started to dominate the midfield. He still left the main offensive work mainly to Florian Wirtz and Alejandro Grimaldo, but his calmness on the ball and accurate passes had a pivotal effect on the overall interplay of Xabi Alonso's machine - only teammate Jonathan Tah had a higher passing percentage in the Bundesliga season.

The Swiss already dominated the number of through passes and that is before we talk about his eye for goal. He scored four this season, all of them pivotal, including the decider in the DFB-Pokal final. It's well-known how hot-tempered Xhaka can be. He's shown it several times at club level and in the national team. But equally, Xhaka clearly oozes charisma. He comes across as a natural leader and a pro.

"He is crazy when it comes to football. He looks at everything. On diet, drinking, rest, sleep. He's also hired a personal coach. Granit will do anything to succeed," the Guardian quoted Taulant Xhaka, the elder of the football-talented brothers, in its pre-tournament guide.

On the cusp of glory - Dan Ndoye

Basel's decline may have started some time ago. However, partly due to the departure of Dan Ndoye, RotBlau finished last season in their worst position since the late 1990s.

A year ago it wasn't that bad as FCB, with a talented winger in the squad, had a remarkable run in the Europa Conference League, which ended only in a dramatic semi-final defeat to Fiorentina. But then Ndoye left the north of Switzerland and headed to the Emilia-Romagna region.

The forward with Senegalese roots disappeared from Switzerland for the second time. The first time it happened before his 20s. At Nice, he was given chances mainly as a substitute, so he preferred to return home. After two years in Basel, he tried his luck again and this time he chose better. He fit perfectly into the team concept of Thiago Motta and his Bologna side.

In Italy and the Swiss national team, Ndoye has benefited from his adaptability and hard work. He can start not only on the right and on the left, but even in multiple positions. He is quick, dynamic, and skilful on the dribble and in one-on-one battles. His physical tools also allow him to quickly put the ball back and help the team fight for the rebound. Only nine players in Serie A have been fouled more often - very respectable for a player on the wing.

When attacking, Ndoye knows how to get into the right positions. He simply doesn't "have the numbers", which is a problem for a forward. This problem plagued him in Basel and it's still with him at Bologna. Even so, he impressed during Felsinei's successful season, which culminated in his historic qualification to the Champions League. And according to speculation, he was even scouted by Inter.

Yakin's confidence has been won by Ndoye since the autumn. He has gone from a substitute to a member of the starting lineup, perhaps eventually indispensable. If the coach really intends to continue the recent trends.

Likely lineup and tactical profile

Yakin's choice of formation has long stretched and, in a way, continues to stretch. In the end, it seems that he will indeed continue the transition to 3-4-3/3-4-2-1. He has only started to resort to it since the March friendlies - quite possibly under the influence of assistant Giorgio Contini. However, a return to a four-defender formation cannot ruled out.

Gregor Kobel can try as hard as he wants, but Yann Sommer is Yann Sommer. After an unsuccessful six months at Bayern, he's made a real name for himself at Inter. Moreover, he has legendary status with the national team after dumping out the French at the previous European Championships. So there's nothing to worry about here. Yvon Mvogo knows that too. The Lorient goalkeeper is 30 years old and has only been in the Swiss goal nine times (Kobel five times). Sommer can already think ahead to 100 national team starts next year.

Akanji, the now unquestioned leader of the Red and White's defensive lineup, who has not missed a single qualifying game, will not be missing from Yakin's starting lineup. Schar then assumed the same role at club level, playing a full game in preparation against Estonia and calming any nerves after his recent injury. Even so, the Newcastle stopper may have to settle for the bench. Nico Elvedi may be stagnating like the rest of Monchengladbach, but he's a bit more composed with Akanji than Schar and his robust physique is at least as good in aerial duels.

Manuel Akanji could be the defensive star for the Swiss
Manuel Akanji could be the defensive star for the SwissProfimedia

To Akanji's left we see Ricardo Rodriguez, who continues to withdraw from getting forward as he gets older. Rodriguez's left foot could find use in standard situations, but more likely only if Shaqiri happens to not be on the pitch. The change to a 4-3-3 formation will then move the Torino midfielder to his previously classic position of left-back.

On the right - either as full-back or wing-back - Silvan Widmer will operate. It's rather strange - Widmer almost missed the entire qualification, yet Yakin seems to have been waiting for him and now he's not even taking a proper replacement (Leonidas Stergiou can do it on the right, but he's primarily a stopper, while Kevin Mbabu, on the other hand, didn't get on the coach). The Mainz captain has come on in the spring, but even so, Yakin is taking a risk. Especially considering Widmer's injury history.

Yakin also has a clear horse on the other side of the field. A number of sites list Dan Ndoye on the Nati roster as a forward, but that reflects club reality more than national team reality. Not everyone is as sure about this choice at left wingback as Yakin is, and the same question marks as Widmer apply here, namely the lack of a backup plan (represented here by the necessary change of formation and the move of Rodriguez) and the ability to defend honestly. On top of that, Ndoye may be shaken by nervousness.

Who else besides Xhaka? Freuler has already done a lot next to his more famous compatriot. And just like at the last World Cup, it will be a battle between him and Denis Zakaria. Even with the Monaco midfielder's recent injury, Yakin is likely to be risk-averse and bet on both chemistry and Freuler's form from Bologna. The same can be said of the third Swiss from the fifth-best team in Serie A, Aebischer. If Yakin switched to a 4-3-3, only one would be left standing, probably Aebischer. Zakaria would secure everything from the back, Freuler would ride like a motor mouse (and traditionally pick up fouls to boot) and Xhaka would have more offensive freedom.

Even with the double pivot option, Xhaka will be the more offensive one and the one who will have more fun with the ball on the break. The main creative ace, however, remains inverted winger Shaqiri. Djibril Sow filled in as a playmaker at the Qatar World Cup, but injuries will keep him out of the Euros. As a result, Shaqiri is likely to be moved into midfield frequently, which should have a double effect. Firstly, it opens up space for Widmer and his midfielders, and secondly, Shaqiri intends to look for forward through balls.

What Switzerland lack is efficiency. They can't rely on Breel Embolo after a long recovery from a broken ACL. For Ludogorets' Kwadwo Duah, the place in the squad is itself a success. Amdouni, still not very experienced but productive in the qualifiers, will probably become the attacking number one, as he also made a name for himself in the friendly against Estonia in June.

Then on the left wing, it looks like Ruben Vargas. The winger will probably appeal to Yakin more than the slightly stagnant Noah Okafor at AC Milan. Vargas is able to help the inexperienced Ndoye with defending, but he can also be dangerous on the counter.


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