In some ways, Switzerland’s World Cup got off to a perfect start with a 1-0 win over Cameroon. In their second game against Brazil, the Swiss have three points under their belt and don’t need a shock victory over their pre-tournament favorites to keep their knockout hopes alive.
However, it was a tough win, Cameroon were the better team in the first half and were unlucky not to lead before the break before their European opponents scored through Cameroonian born Breel Embolo early in the second period and then choked life out of the game. game.
No one could rightly argue that the Swiss attack worked on all cylinders, but the answer to unleashing their potential is already within their ranks and is named Granit Xhaka. The captain won his 107th cap for Qatar and has been a key cog since his debut in 2011, as evidenced by playing every minute of their recent Nations League campaign, but it’s time to change his role in the team to turn them into legitimates rivals.
Xhaka has been a revelation for Arsenal this season and his transformation from persona non grata at the Emirates – where, at the height of his relationship with the Gunners’ fans, he swore and made sarcastic gestures towards them after being beaten against Crystal Palace in 2019 – to a beloved key figure at the top of the Premier League side is extraordinary.
This is a transformation for which coach Mikel Arteta, as well as the player himself, deserve great recognition. For most of his time in north London, the 30-year-old was a deep-seated midfielder, protecting four-backs and scoring little in the final period. But this year he was a liberated man.
He became an incredibly effective box-to-box midfielder as the No. 8 left midfielder, with Martin Odegaard occupying the same role on the opposite side. The number of passes he makes has dropped by around 15 per cent and Thomas Partey is now the closest Arsenal defenders can get possession of the ball, but the ones he makes are more telling. He makes more, has twice as many touches in the opponent’s box and has become an offensive force. He has already scored four goals – the same number as in the previous three seasons combined – in addition to a plethora of assists. And he covers more terrain than any of his teammates with his diesel engine.
In short, the 2022 version of Granit Xhaka is exactly the kind of player a timid Switzerland could use. Their 15 goals combined was the fewest of any group winner in the European qualifiers, and eight of them came in just two games against Lithuania and Bulgaria.
However, his role in the national team, as demonstrated by the World Cup opening match against Cameroon, is different. He brings balance and stability as a shield to the four defenders, thinking he can push them forward from defense. He still scores occasional spectacular goals – although perhaps he should score more – but he is less of a threat in the opposition half, with Xherdan Shaqiri, Djibril Sow, Ruben Vargas and others given creative responsibility for frontman Breel Embolo.
It’s a role that didn’t always suit the singing midfielder – he is talkative and there were rumors of a split from head coach Murat Yakin in June, where Xhaka’s comments about the team’s tactics were taken as criticism of his boss. Both men shrugged it off, but Xhaka seems to believe he has more to offer.
Judging by the opening match in Qatar, he’s right. He was quite solid in his role as a defensive back, but Cameroon continued to cut through the Swiss in the first half, with Eric Choupo-Moting and Karl Toko-Ekambi missing superb chances on balls that divided the defence. After the break, he helped his side starve the African side of possession which held out until the win, but a second goal with more tackles would have made for a more comfortable ride.
There were glimpses of him in attack – a long-range shot in the 11th minute flew high over the bar and he hardly doubted the outcome with another shot from outside the box in the final few minutes, but Andre Onana was equal to his weak, skimming strike. An early ball flew over the top of the ball, which was millimeters from Silvan Widmer’s stretch, but generally the brunt of the attack was on his teammates.
Switzerland won what they needed so maybe it’s hard to be overly critical but fix the roof while the sun is shining as they say. The Swiss have offered little in attack to worry group favourites, Brazil and perhaps even Serbia who are on the defensive, let alone any side they might face in knockouts.
They don’t require a complete overhaul of their tactical system, just a little less granite – if you want – and a little more cunning from Xhaka. He’s waiting to be unlocked and as Arsenal have discovered, the results can be transformative.