Tighe's 2014 World Cup Tactics Board: Analysing Ottmar Hitzfeld's Switzerland

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Tighe's 2014 World Cup Tactics Board: Analysing Ottmar Hitzfeld's Switzerland
Michael Steele/Getty Images

Welcome to the latest in a B/R series where we will take a tactical dive and explore each and every one of the 32 qualified World Cup teams.

Next up is Switzerland, a team which qualified first from Group E with 24 points. Legendary German tactician Ottmar Hitzfeld has been the manager for six years and will be looking to upset the status quo this summer in Brazil.

 

Qualifying

Switzerland waltzed to qualification, and while it can be suggested that they drew an easy group, they did a professional job of ensuring they cleared Iceland in second by seven points.

Their dominance was asserted in the first matchweek, where Granit Xhaka and Gokhan Inler fired them to victory away to Slovenia, and they conceded just one goal in their first five matches.

Iceland opened their eyes a little by earning an exciting 4-4 draw in Bern in September, but it was too little, too late.

The Swiss negotiated qualification unbeaten with seven wins, three draws and an outstanding goal difference.

 

Formation and Style

Hitzfeld likes a back four and a numerical advantage, where possible, in midfield.

That means lots of 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 looks for the Swiss, with a very energetic 4-2-3-1 being used in their most recent friendly against Croatia at the beginning of March.

A feature of the system that strikes you immediately is the high-energy, high-press approach Switzerland take at every level on the pitch.

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Hitzfeld deduces which of the two opposing centre-backs is least likely to harm his side with his passing and ignores him (you can't stretch to cover all of them), but otherwise each of the front four immediately begin harrying and harassing the opposing ball-players in a one-on-one scenario.

The back four drop into an extremely flat line while this happens, and if the forwards can force panic and longer passes, Hitzfeld counts on his midfield muscle men to win the first and second balls in the middle.

Inler, Xhaka, Valon Behrami and Blerim Dzemaili can all throw their weight around well, with the former in particular looking more and more integral to the system used.

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Gokhan Inler hits Valentin Stocker in the channel.

That most of their central midfielders just happen to play for Napoli is a real bonus.

In attack they move the ball forward fast, with Inler's long, raking passes often picking out willing channel-runners Valentin Stocker and Xherdan Shaqiri. Switzerland also boast a world-class full-back tandem in Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez, and they're happy to take the ball on the run.

With such power in the wide areas you'd think a player like Eren Derdiyok would thrive, but he doesn't. That's been a major issue for the Swiss for the last two-plus years.

 

Reasons for Hope

Switzerland may not have enjoyed much success as a nation, but individually many of Hitzfeld's XI play for trophies at the highest domestic level every season.

Shaqiri is a Champions League winner and understudy to Franck Ribery, Lichsteiner wins the Scudetto with Juventus for fun and most others play high-level Bundesliga/Europa League/Serie A football.

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Xherdan Shaqiri with some outrageous pressing.

The work rate referred to before is a mindset that runs through the entire team, and the pressing and tackling never stops. Switzerland fight for every ball and do the basics right—so typical of Hitzfeld the scientist, you could suggest.

They can switch methods at the click of a finger, going from slow-moving possession football to high-intensity, direct attacking with runners, crosses and dribbles. It's remarkably difficult to guess what you're going to come up against when your opponent can utilise so many different attacking edges.

In midfield they are physically dominant, and in Shaqiri they have a clear match-winner. Depth is good in most areas, although Johan Djourou is a walking mistake in the back line.

 

Reasons for Concern

When utilising the 4-2-3-1, Switzerland's pressing can leave the midfield exceptionally exposed.

If the No. 10 also commits to pressure up front alongside both wingers and the forward, the double pivot is left to fend for itself against three or four opponents at times.

To compensate for this they stay narrow and shield the defensive line, but that in turn opens wide gaps ahead of Rodriguez and Lichtsteiner for opponents to attack. For a reference point, see Spain's manipulation of Italy's diamond in the Euro 2012 final.

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Highlighting how high press (now 4-2-4) opens space in front of full-backs.

Switching to a 4-3-3 negates this and gives the deep midfield set width to span the pitch, but it lessens the ferocity of the press up front and fatigues the forwards more.

Who'd be a manager with decisions like this to make?

Another issue, and one that essentially plagued Switzerland throughout qualifying, was that Hitzfeld failed to find himself a natural goalscorer who could seal off games for his side with ease.

Michael Probst/Associated Press
Can Drmic make the difference?

As stated, everything is in place for Derdiyok to succeed, except he hasn't got the mobility, energy or desire to press and therefore cannot play in the system.

Fabian Schaer, a backup centre-back, was the top scorer in qualifying with three goals in three matches, with Lichtsteiner and a host of midfielders chipping in and spreading the load.

Hitzfeld tried Mario Gavranovic and Haris Seferovic too to no avail, but to his utter relief, Josip Drmic has emerged at Nurnberg this season and looks set to step into the No. 9 role for the finals.

Like Seferovic he's a little streaky, but for the first time in years, Switzerland feel they have a striker who fits the tactics Hitzfeld employs.

 

Conclusion

Switzerland have an elite coach, a current formation and most of the tools needed to succeed. They can dictate a game or react to another side's game plan, all the while boasting an attacking edge from every corner of the pitch.

Djourou is a concern in the defensive line and fans may wish for Schaer to come in full-time, but Hitzfeld looks set to partner the former Arsenal man with Steve von Bergen regardless.

If Drmic settles and lights it up, Switzerland are a clear dark-horse contender for a shock victory in Brazil. Striker, spaces opening up and the tough South American climate are the only concerns.

Prediction: Quarterfinal (loss to Germany)

 

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