How impressive Switzerland emerged from disarray

STUTTGART, Germany — Though nobody knew it at the time, a series of meetings in Düsseldorf at the start of the year healed the relationship between Switzerland coach Murat Yakin and captain Granit Xhaka, and would ultimately lay the foundations for the team’s success at Euro 2024. The duo now return to the city for Saturday’s quarterfinal against England at the Arena Düsseldorf.

It’s where Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Xhaka has a home, and where the two debated how the national team could move forward after a disastrous run in qualifying threatened to derail their chances of making this summer’s finals. One win in seven games saw them cede top spot in the group to Romania, but they squeezed through as runners-up, two points ahead of Israel, and there were calls for Yakin to be sacked.

High-level discussions followed at the Swiss Football Association. Eventually, it was decided that Yakin would continue, but he would have to make changes. Those changes, in part, were decided in meetings with the team’s leadership group, which includes Xhaka.

“We are glad to have a coach who listens to us and who wants to talk to us,” Xhaka said of those conversations. “During the last eight months, he came to see me several times. We met in Düsseldorf, we had dinner together and drank some wine. We are both ambitious and we want to be successful.”

Switzerland returned to a 3-4-2-1 formation, which the players — including Xhaka and Manchester City’s Manuel Akanji — preferred, having slogged their way through qualifying with a back four. Yakin had surprisingly switched back to that formation against Portugal at the last World Cup, when they suffered a humiliating 6-1 loss in the round of 16. That result sparked an immediate return to a back four, but a poor qualifying phase and a breakdown in Yakin’s relationship with Xhaka led to those showdown talks and the restoration of a three-man backline. Since then, they’ve compiled an eight-game unbeaten run on their way to the last eight of the Euros.

“The Xhaka problem was a big issue and when they managed to clear that and start again, it made a big difference,” former Arsenal and Switzerland defender Johan Djourou told ESPN. “[Yakin] had to make the changes because he was so focused on a 4-3-3 that did not work.

“The players are suited to the new system and less exposed in defence. All those aspects were important for the players to feel comfortable. When you have players who are comfortable, it’s always better for the coach. He showed that he understood the ideas he had maybe wouldn’t work, and he was happy to change — and that’s a great sign.”

Swiss journalist Valentin Schnorhk told ESPN that aside from the formation change, “guys like Xhaka and Akanji wanted a more proactive approach, as they are used to with Leverkusen and City.”

So far at Euro 2024, this proactivity has helped Switzerland beat Hungary, draw with Scotland and hosts Germany (who needed a last-minute equaliser in the final group game) and then power past Italy in the round of 16, winning 2-0 and limiting the Azzurri to just one shot on target.

Yakin, a strong centre-back with FC Basel as a player who was part of a Swiss side managed by Roy Hodgson, has subsequently seen his reputation restored — and not just because of the team’s performances on the pitch.

The 49-year-old has earned fans outside of Switzerland for his swept-back greying hair, his fashion sense and, above all, his choice of glasses. He has worn two different, but distinctive, pairs at the tournament: a set of retro glasses with a black frame from the Zurich optician label Götti, and a semi-transparent pair from the Swiss designer brand Nirvan Javan.

“He has a natural charm and he can play on it when things are going well,” journalist Daniel Visentini told ESPN.

Fans of Northern Ireland may remember Yakin as the person who sent them 9.3 kilograms of Swiss chocolate after they kept Italy out for 93 minutes in qualification for the 2022 World Cup, helping Switzerland book their place in Qatar. Others may remember him as the brother of Hakan Yakin, who scored 20 goals in 87 appearances for Switzerland while playing for Grasshoppers, FC Basel and Young Boys, among others. Yakin, though, will be remembered in his own right after this summer, although there are other components to this Swiss team.

Xhaka (129 appearances), Xherdan Shaqiri (124) and Ricardo Rodríguez (119) are the three most-capped players in the nation’s history. Their experience has been huge around the team’s base in Stuttgart, but more important has been the winning mindset established by Xhaka, Internazionale goalkeeper Yann Sommer and City’s Akanji.

“Having league champions from the Italian, German and English leagues is hugely significant,” Yakin said in a news conference this week. “They have been able to pass on their winning mentality to others.”

Yakin also highlighted the role played by the three Bologna players in his squad — Remo Freuler, Michel Aebischer and Dan Ndoye — who all helped the Italian side qualify for the Champions League next season. At the centre of this Swiss side, though, is ex-Arsenal man Xhaka.

Everything goes through Xhaka. He has had 320 touches so far in Germany — Akanji ranks second on the team with 250 — and came into the tournament on the back of a remarkable campaign with Leverkusen, winning the double in Germany and reaching the Europa League final. Often criticised during his time in the Premier League, he is brimming with confidence ahead of the game with England after losing just two of his 64 games this season with club and country.

“It was always easy to single Xhaka out [at Arsenal],” Djourou added. “I think the incident that people didn’t like is when he came off and threw his shirt, but when you look at his commitment all through the years at Arsenal, there’s never a moment where you can say this player doesn’t want it.

“He always was there, present — even when he had a bad game, even not feeling well, even getting abused by fans, he always showed up and gave his best. What is different now is he had this experience at Arsenal, being scapegoated sometimes, and that his coach now loves him.

“[Leverkusen manager] Xabi Alonso gave him the key and he is playing beautiful football and the tactical aspect of the game suits him perfectly. It shows the influence he can have on a team. He is a key point of the success, not only because of his quality but his aura as well.”

i?img=%2Fmedia%2Fmotion%2F2024%2F0704%2Fdm 240704 COM SOC Analysis What are Englands major weaknesses ahead of the Switzerland game GLOBAL 20240%2Fdm 240704 COM SOC Analysis What are Englands major weaknesses ahead of the Switzerland game GLOBAL 20240play


What are England’s major weaknesses ahead of the Switzerland game?

Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens break down some of England’s vulnerabilities ahead of their quarterfinal match with Switzerland on Saturday.

Schnorhk and Visentini both believe England will face the best Swiss team ever. They have now reached the knockout stages of the last six major tournaments, although they have never been beyond the quarterfinals. Djourou, who won 76 caps for his country between 2006 and 2018, still wants to see this team take the next step.

“The best team is always the one that goes further,” he continued. “It depends how you judge. We have been knocking on the door of doing something great. For me, when we went toe-to-toe with Argentina in 2014 in Brazil [losing in extra time], that was when people understood Switzerland are not to be taken granted for anymore.

“Is this now the best team? It has great potential, but is hard to asses because every game, every journey, needs to be assessed on how good the opponent is. I don’t think Switzerland have been tested really yet.

“There is a feeling of compactness and solidity at the back, but I think if you come with more waves and movements, you can trouble that back unit. Italy was tough in a way because of the weight of the game, but looking at the content, it was an easy game.

“I think [the England match] will tell us how good we really are, because this is a massive game with so much quality in the other team. Technically, for me, they are one of the best. Even if they have not performed so well, their players will find [space] and [capitalise on] any little mistakes.

“But people [in Switzerland] believe because we beat Italy, which is huge because they were the holders, and also because they saw England play and don’t think they reached their potential.”

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