With the quarter finals just 24 hours away it’s not too early to look back and analyse two sides that have largely disappointed in this World Cup: Belgium and Switzerland.
On the surface, both countries had a lot in common coming into the tournament, ranging from their poor recent form (Belgium having failed to qualify to a major tournament in five attempts) to the sudden emergence of a talented core of skilful youngsters, most of them plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues.
Even more newsworthy was the latter’s foreign extraction; their Albanian, Congolese and even Indonesian roots blending with the local multilingual culture to create a heady mix- ranging from Romelu Lukaku’s perfect Flemish to the Swiss attack’s Balkan make-up. Echoes of France’s stunning propaganda coup from 1998 were not far away, though few were expecting either side to go all the way.
That said, nobody expected the quality on offer to be so disappointing, something that became apparent when Switzerland went down with all hands on board against France in a 5-2 drubbing. Though La Nati ultimately survived its group and Belgium were able to come up with a much-improved performance to knock out the USA, it is obvious that both sides are also brought together by an inability to kick their golden generations into gear.
Switzerland – the object of this first part- eventually went out to Argentina after a moment of magic from Lionel Messi, who teed up Di Maria’s superb finish after a dazzling run from midfield. Whilst the quality at its disposal may not have been the same as Belgium’s (Xerdan Shaqiri is no Kevin De Bruyne, let alone Eden Hazard), La Nati has undoubtedly been the more disappointing of the two sides.
Hitzfeld’s team only truly kicked into gear in their third group game, when Xerdan Shaqiri scored a rather unexpected hat-trick to send his team through to the second round. Beyond that there was little to write home about: La Nati was horrific against France in a 5-2 thrashing and unconvincing in their last-gasp win over Ecuador. The Argentina game saw them create very little against a side chronically uncomfortable versus counter-attacks and utterly dependent on Messi’s ability to beat one, two, sometimes even three opponents to create mismatches. What does it say about the Swiss that Iran were far more convincing against Argentina?
Blame Dzemaili all you want for that missed chance (and it was a truly awful header), but not without including Hitzfeld in the firing line. His team simply never looked comfortable on the ball, and made a number of elementary mistakes in possession that had Swiss fans reaching for the sick bag. The players should definitely share a portion of the blame, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that their coach tried to get them to fit his rigid system, and not adapt to what he had at his disposal.
How can a midfield play so badly when it boasts a good destroyer (Behrami), an occasionally-great regista (Inler), as well as three young, explosive playmakers in Xhaka, Shaqiri and Mehmedi? Pointing the finger at the players is too easy, especially when Switzerland were so reminiscent of England back in 2004 and 2006, with Shaqiri playing the role of Wayne the Saviour. Conservative tactical choices and a lack of cohesion ended up doing for these teams, despite the wealth of talent waiting in the wings for a chance to shine.
The Swiss defence’s many weaknesses- and the need to make up for them- are hardly an excuse. Switzerland’s cause wasn’t hampered by a supposedly defensive approach; rather by the cautious and unimaginative attacking football they played. The Argentina game was an exception, but even then the Swiss midfielders were incapable of finding each other regularly when on the counter. At least Iran forced a one-on-one with Romero. The USA nearly broke Belgian hearts by finding Chris Wondolowski in the box with mere seconds to go in normal time. Switzerland only created something once Argentina had taken the lead: unfortunately Dzemaili could do no better than hit the post from four feet out.
Even worse is the fact that Switzerland could count on one of the better full-back pairings in the World Cup, with the metronomical Stephan Lichtsteiner on the right and the dominant Ricardo Rodriguez on the opposite wing- this at a time when many are waxing lyrical about the importance of just that position.
The importance of Rodriguez’s devastating forays became apparent against Ecuador, when his work down the left served up the winner on a plate for Haris Seferovic. Lichsteiner, for his part, has been impressive at Juventus, and even has a knack for scoring goals in Serie A. Why weren’t they more involved in Switzerland’s attacking play, and how is it that the midfield looked so cumbersome when working the ball forward?
Defenders of Hitzfeld could also point to the attack’s middling play as an extenuating circumstance, made up of the very local-sounding Drmic, Seferovic, Mehmedi and Gavranovic. There is little doubt this group did not pass muster, especially when you consider that Gavranovic didn’t play a minute and Mehmedi was used as a winger. But it’s hardly fair to put it all on their shoulders. They weren’t clinical, but didn’t exactly have a ton of service either.
A telling stat is that Gokhan Inler was Infostrada Sport’s 13th most wasteful finisher, taking a shocking seven shots during the group stages without ever scoring. More worrying than his lack of accuracy is the fact that Switzerland were counting on Inler to get the job done- or were, rather, unable to thread the ball through to someone better. Seferovic was, moreover, able to punch it in when it mattered the most against Ecuador.
The truth is, then, that Switzerland’s pathological inability to create anything against organised and motivated opponents (Honduras already had a foot on the plane home) has a lot more to do with manager Ottmar Hitzfeld, who was shaken by the devastating news that his brother had passed away the night before the Argentina game.
Hitzfeld was the manager with Champions League pedigree who was supposed to put Switzerland back on track after a disastrous group-stage elimination at the 2008 European Championship, which Switzerland hosted along with Austria. It is never easy for a club coach to come in and stamp his authority in a national setup- only Marcello Lippi and Vicente Del Bosque have managed to win both the World Cup and the Champions League since the latter’s inception in the early 1990’s.
Yet Hitzfeld had six years to leave his mark, and every step forward was followed by several in the wrong direction: a good example being when Switzerland crashed out of the 2010 World Cup group stages after famously defeating eventual champions Spain in their opening game. Hitzfeld also qualified his side for this World Cup- yet failed to reach the 2012 European Championship and was even responsible for a humiliating defeat at the hands of Luxembourg.
Even when boarding the plane to Brazil, the whole squad already knew that former Lazio manager Vladimir Petkovic would be taking over as soon as the tournament was over. Far from reinforcing Hitzfeld’s position it seemed to undermine his authority even more. Petkovic wasn’t just his polar opposite, but likely what La Nati needed the most: somebody who has grown as a player and manager in the cantons, and someone who knows this country’s football culture well enough to build around its crown jewels.