For Switzerland to be disappointed at a missed opportunity in a World Cup quarter final says a lot about the heights reached under Vladimir Petkovic over the past couple of years. Sweden’s 1-0 victory at the Krestovsky Stadium, courtesy of Emil Forsberg‘s deflected second half goal, knocked them out of the tournament. It was also just their second defeat in two years; while the Swedes were a more than beatable opponent on paper, perspective is needed as the post-mortem starts.
After drawing with Brazil and beating Serbia in the group stage, Petkovic’s men proved themselves as an organised outfit that are extremely hard to beat. By the time they faced Costa Rica in the final game, they knew what they needed to do; but a running theme throughout their campaign has been a lack of goals. Haris Seferovic started up front against the Selecao, but he was soon dropped in favour of Mario Gavranovic; Josip Drmic became the third striker to lead the line from the start on Tuesday afternoon. It isn’t hard to see where they have to improve heading into the UEFA Nations League in September, which sees them face Belgium and Iceland in League A, the top tier of the new competition.
Switzerland are unlikely to ever be on the end of a heavy defeat; during qualification for this summer’s World Cup, they conceded just seven goals in ten matches, winning nine. Yann Sommer, their goalkeeper, who was unlucky to see Forsberg’s shot fly into the top corner after hitting Manuel Akanji, himself a very good young defender, provides a good base from which they build from. He was probably their best player in Russia, alongside Xherdan Shaqiri, while Granit Xhaka helped them dictate the tempo of at least part of every game. The trouble was, against Sweden, another very organised outfit, they were played at their own game.
Brazil and Serbia both scored early, which meant Switzerland could grow into the game as it went on; both sides sat in and kept their shape. But Sweden forced them to come out and stretch themselves from the early stages and, as they showed in Group F against Germany and Mexico in particular, they are effective on the counter attack, putting that to good use; Forsberg and Viktor Claesson run into the spaces in the defence and beyond Marcus Berg. With Ricardo Rodriguez getting forward in typical fashion on the left and Switzerland missing suspended pair Stephen Lichtsteiner and Fabian Schär on the right of the back line, there were gaps for both to exploit, and it wasn’t a surprise to see the goal come from Forsberg shifting inside from a wide position.
The only way Switzerland could answer was by getting Shaqiri on the ball, but as has been the case before, he was isolated and cut a frustrated figure. They just didn’t have the quality to break down the Swedish rearguard; Blerim Dzemaili wasn’t nearly as impactful with his late runs into the box, and Xhaka seemed to be playing without purpose, as he is often criticised for doing at Arsenal. Neither was he passing forward as effectively and as accurately as he had done in previous games, nor was he disciplined enough in his defensive duties, feeding into more threats on the break for Sweden.
Petkovic made some critical changes to his side for the game; though he would point out they were enforced. Johan Djourou, the former Arsenal defender, replaced Schär, while Michael Lang came in for Lichtsteiner; he was then sent off for a foul on Martin Olsson in the dying minutes. They were far from convincing, but the Swiss really missed Breel Embolo, who sat on the bench having left the camp to attend the birth of his daughter after the Costa Rica clash. Steven Zuber, scorer of the equaliser against Brazil, started, but he couldn’t emulste the 21-year-old’s direct running. Rodriguez, too, struggled without Embolo creating space ahead of him.
There can be no doubting Switzerland are good at what they do when playing to their strengths; they will continue to grow under the stewardship of Petkovic. But they were caught out on Tuesday, their first plan didn’t work and they had nowhere to go. Sweden deserve credit and once again showed why they should not be underestimated, especially not by England, who they now face in the quarter final on Saturday. It will be a painful time for the team as they come to terms with what is a huge missed opportunity, with none of the traditional powerhouses in their side of the draw.
Overall, though, Switzerland are still a team very much on the up. They have the basics covered, but must learn to take more risks if they are to move forward successfully into the Nations League and, looking at the bigger picture, Euro 2020.