Switzerland Return to Type Against Argentina but Have Great Hope for the Future

James McNicholas@@jamesmcnicholasFeatured ColumnistJuly 2, 2014

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JULY 01:  Head coach Ottmar Hitzfeld of Switzerland speaks to his players in a huddle prior to the start of extra time during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Round of 16 match between Argentina and Switzerland at Arena de Sao Paulo on July 1, 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Against Argentina, we saw the Switzerland we'd been expecting to see all through the World Cup. They were incredibly organised and highly committed. However, despite their best efforts, it did not prove enough to secure a quarter-final place.

Nevertheless, the Swiss should not be despondent. There were encouraging signs throughout this tournament that they will survive the retirement of Ottmar Hitzfeld to remain in good shape for EURO 2016.

Hitzfeld has a reputation as a canny defensive organiser, but it took an opponent with the class of Lionel Messi for him to fully embrace that attitude this summer. The Swiss arrived with a reputation for steadfast defence and negative tactics but had been involved in some thrilling, end-to-end encounters in the group stage.

The threat of Messi kiboshed the potential of any Swiss swashbuckling in the second round. Hitzfeld could not afford to run the risk of repeating the 5-2 mauling against France. In that game, the likes of Mathieu Valbuena and Karim Benzema were granted too much space to roam, and the consequences were devastating. Switzerland would not make the same mistake against Argentina.

Valon Behrami and Gokhan Inler were charged with honing in on Messi whenever he picked up the ball in the treacherous space between midfield and attack. On the flanks, Ahmed Mehmedi and Granit Xhaka provided dutiful protection of the full-backs.

The plan worked well for 118 minutes, but the Swiss finally buckled when Messi wriggled away from his marker to find Angel Di Maria, who netted a cruel winner. Switzerland rallied to have Argentina on the ropes but could not find the required equaliser.

This was, in many respects, a fitting end.

Switzerland and Hitzfeld could depart the World Cup with their heads held high. For Hitzfeld, this will be a farewell to football management after an astonishing career. He would have loved to take the Swiss into the tournament’s latter stages to make this a glorious goodbye but will bow out content he has left the squad in strong shape for his successor. 

Vladimir Petkovic is the man charged with taking the team forward. The Bosnian has played and coached in Switzerland in the past and will now be eager to prove his mettle at the international level. 

He’s got some great raw materials to work with. The Swiss squad is populated with some very exciting young players. In 2009, the Swiss won the U-17 World Cup, and that generation is beginning to bear fruit: the likes of Josip Drmic, Haris Seferovic and Ricardo Rodriguez.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JULY 01:  (L-R) Diego Benaglio, Valon Behrami and Johan Djourou of Switzerland react after allowing a goal to Angel di Maria of Argentina (not pictured) in extra time during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Round of 16 match between Arge
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One man stands above the rest as the great hope of Swiss football. Xherdan Shaqiri carried the fight to Argentina with an irrepressible combination of flair and courage. Had he been surrounded by more composed finishers, the game might well have been won before Di Maria’s late winner. Perhaps in time, someone like Drmic will take up that mantle. 

Petkovic has a solid foundation on which to build. Hitzfeld can retire safe in the knowledge that his legacy is secure.