Switzerland and star winger Xherdan Shaqiri ran one of the World Cup favourites incredibly close in a frenetic 1-0 loss to Argentina on Tuesday, as the European side proved their credentials as one of the tournament's many surprise packages.
In a close-run game of a failing Angel Di Maria, an exceptional Valon Behrami and an emotional farewell for Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, Argentina left it to the death to secure their progress to the Quarter Finals of the tournament, with the former scoring late into extra time.
This, according to BBC Sport, was the South Americans’ 28th shot on goal.
With this plucky display, Switzerland joined Algeria and Mexico—along with USAMNT later in the day—as unfortunate victims in this Round of 16, having run the top teams to the wire.
These sides, along with nations such as Chile and Colombia, have provided this World Cup with its romance, as true surprise packages.
Every World Cup has them, with Senegal’s shock opening victory over France in the South Korea and Japan-hosted 2002 tournament a crowning achievement, but Brazil 2014 seems full of them.
As Mexico, Chile, Colombia and USAMNT prove, most of these are from the Americas.
This works to make Switzerland—along with Algeria—somewhat of an exception, obliterating any notion of continental advantage.
Furthermore, each of these sides can generally be described as more of a fine-tuned outfit as opposed to an amalgamation of stars, only adding to this tournament’s romance.
However, each respective squad will likely be targeted at club level now that transfer season is upon us, and Switzerland are no different, as a squad packed full of youthful talents; it is telling that players such as Granit Xhaka and Valentin Stocker are rarely mentioned.
Four stars stood out against Argentina as pillars of Hitzfeld’s welcome, and veritable, success at this World Cup: Ricardo Rodriguez, Admir Mehmedi, Josip Drmic and the aforementioned Shaqiri.
Whilst VfL Wolfsburg left-back Rodriguez is slowly making his name as one of the world's most highly coveted young full-backs, the 21-year-old is still remarkably under the radar given his talents.
Per Squawka, last season for the Bundesliga side, Rodriguez scored five goals and made a further nine assists in 34 appearances on the left side of defence, a laudable feat for a defender.
Rodriguez was particularly effective in taking on opponents—a rapidly important facet of a modern full-back’s game—completing 77 percent of these duels.
Furthermore, the youngster contributed adeptly when it came to defensive duties, winning 58 percent of tackles attempted and 55 percent of headed duels encountered.
Belying his young years, Rodriguez transplanted this form onto the international stage at the World Cup, becoming a key figure for Hitzfeld.
The left-back made two assists in his four appearances, again according to Squawka.
Furthermore, Rodriguez won 67 percent of his tackles, 70 percent of his headed duels and completed 80 percent of take ons attempted.
Unfortunate to lose Di Maria for Argentina’s winner—due to a lapse in central-defensive organisation—Rodriguez will play a starring role for Switzerland for years to come.
Further up the pitch, Freiburg forward Mehmedi was a hugely important cog in Hitzfeld’s fearless, fluid Swiss system.
On loan at the Bundesliga side throughout 2013/14, Mehmedi scored 12 goals and made four assists in 32 appearances, per Squawka.
This made the 23-year-old the club’s star player, and under Hitzfeld at the World Cup, Mehmedi was able to utilise his talents in a more peripheral role.
Again per Squawka, the forward scored one goal in his four tournament appearances—a 48-minute strike in the side’s opening encounter with Ecuador—and he was particularly clinical in front of goal, with 75 percent of his shots hitting the target.
Particularly important within Hitzfeld’s high-intensity, well-drilled system is Mehmedi’s ability to press the opposition, and the Freiburg man was Switzerland’s most effective forward in this aspect.
Mehmedi made an average of two defensive actions per game, the most of any of Hitzfeld’s attacking options, and won 61 percent of tackles attempted.
The success of sides such as Chile and Algeria attest to the importance of a high-pressing game at this tournament, and Mehmedi’s contribution played a key role in Switzerland’s surprise status.
Despite fluffing a golden opportunity to put the Swiss 1-0 up against Argentina on Tuesday, former 1. FC Nurnberg forward Drmic played a focal role in the nation’s success at the World Cup.
At 21 years old, Drmic is another youthful option for the European side, and will develop into a hugely important figure in any projected future success.
In the Bundesliga last season, Drmic scored 17 goals and made three assists in 33 appearances, according to Squawka, comfortably becoming Nurnberg’s most valuable player.
For Switzerland at the World Cup, Drmic took the backseat to the effervescent Shaqiri, but his two assists in four appearances (h/t Squawka) were vital as his side progressed.
With huge potential to develop, and amongst a youthful front line, Drmic will likely continue to become a leading forward in European football in the coming years.
Naturally, the majority of the focus amid Switzerland’s success at the World Cup has been on Bayern Munich winger Shaqiri.
Under this spotlight, the 22-year-old hasn’t failed to impress.
Prior to the encounter with Argentina, Shaqiri was, perhaps unkindly, compared to Lionel Messi in terms of importance to the nation’s achievements.
Messi with Bayern's Shaqiri before the game pic.twitter.com/bZEDon6sDH [via @periodistasnanon]— Méssï fötós™ (@Messi_fotos) July 1, 2014
However, against the South Americans the stocky winger proved his credentials as a hot property in European football.
The majority of the Swiss attacks, particularly in the first half on Tuesday, went through the Bayern man, and Shaqiri enjoyed great success in a fluid role—despite being initially deployed on the wing.
This is very much like the role Messi plays for both club and country.
5 - Lionel Messi and Xherdan Shaqiri, each of them has created five chances. key players.— OptaFranz (@OptaFranz) July 1, 2014
34 - Xherdan Shaqiri had the most touches in the swiss team in the first half, one less than Lionel Messi. Active.— OptaFranz (@OptaFranz) July 1, 2014
Throughout proceedings, the performances of Shaqiri and a somewhat muted Messi were statistically even, and it could even be argued that the Swiss man was enjoying more freedom in the attack.
Per Squawka, Shaqiri was by far and away Hitzfeld’s side’s main creative outlet, being involved in the creation of 17 chances.
This demonstrates the ability of the 22-year-old to succeed when given a focal role, one which cannot be attributed on a club level in the Bundesliga.
WhoScored.com show that Shaqiri was afforded only 10 league starts for Bayern last season, with a further seven substitute appearances; however, in these appearances the winger managed to score six goals and make two assists.
However, what is Pep Guardiola’s loss has been Hitzfeld and Switzerland’s gain at this World Cup, and with Shaqiri able to unleash bursts of pure inspiration—such as a fine-curled effort in the 3-0 victory over Honduras—the winger has been focal to this surprise status.
With such a welcome, perhaps unexpected, success at this World Cup, focus in the coming tournaments—and Switzerland’s games against England in the upcoming European Championships qualifiers—will be on enduring progress.
Nevertheless, with a handful of genuinely impressive performances, particularly from the aforementioned quartet, it wouldn’t be remiss to see Swiss talents making more of a mark at club level in the future.
In the cases of Mehmedi and Drmic, Bundesliga sides Freiburg and Bayer Leverkusen made their moves prior to the tournament, securing the long-term futures of these bright prospects.
Liverpool closing in on Xherdan Shaqiri, according to transfer guru @DiMarzio. Well, that'd be a real, real treat for Liverpool supporters.— Tor-Kristian Karlsen (@karlsentk) June 26, 2014
There are both dangers and merits to post-World Cup transfer madness, with the Senegalese influx into the Premier League following South Korea and Japan 2002 an example perhaps more inclined with the former.
However, whether signing players based on a fruitful tournament in the most wise of moves or not, Switzerland—and their rampant charges—have proven, in their status as a true surprise package, that they can cut the mustard on the big stage.