In a way, Switzerland had a perfect start to the World Cup with a 1-0 win over Cameroon. The Swiss have three points ahead of their second game against Brazil and don’t need a shock win over the previous round favorites to keep their knockout hopes alive.
Still, it was an arduous win, with Cameroon being the better side in the first half and unlucky not to be ahead by the break before their European opponents scored early in the second period through Cameroon-born Breel Embolo and then the life out of the life smothered game.
No one could legitimately argue that the Swiss attack has fired all guns but the answer to unleash their potential is already within their ranks and it goes by the name of Granit Xhaka. The captain won his 107th cap in Qatar and has been a key cog since his debut in 2011, as he proved in every minute of his last Nations League season, but it’s time to change his role in the side, to make them legitimate contenders.
Xhaka has been a revelation for Arsenal this season and his transformation from persona non grata at the Emirates – where he swore at the lowest point in his relationship with Gunners fans and made sarcastic gestures after coming on as a substitute against Crystal Palace in 2019 – to Die beloved key figure in a side-seated Premier League front runner is remarkable.
It’s a transformation that manager Mikel Arteta, as well as the player himself, deserves a lot of credit for. For most of his time in north London, the 30-year-old was a deep midfielder who protected the back four and offered little in the opposition’s final third. But this year he was an unleashed man.
He has blossomed into an incredibly effective box-to-box midfielder as a left-sided No.8, while Martin Odegaard fills the same role at the opposite flank. The number of passes he makes is down about 15 per cent, with Thomas Partey now the next port of call for Arsenal’s possession defenders, but the ones he makes are more meaningful. He creates more, has twice as many touches in the opponent’s penalty area and has become an attacking force. He has already scored four goals – the same number he has scored in the previous three seasons combined – as well as a number of assists. And he covers more distance with his diesel engine than any of his teammates.
In short, the 2022 version of Granit Xhaka is exactly the kind of player a goal-shy Switzerland could use. Their 15 goals were the fewest of any group winners in European qualifying, and eight of those came in just two games against Lithuania and Bulgaria.
But his role for the national team, as shown in the World Cup opener against Cameroon, is different. He brings balance and stability as a shield to the back four, with the idea that he can push them forward from defense. He still scores the occasional spectacular goal – although perhaps he should score more – but he’s less of a threat in the opposition half with Xherdan Shaqiri, Djibril Sow, Ruben Vargas and others entrusted with the creative responsibilities behind frontman Breel Embolo.
It’s a role the vocal midfielder hasn’t always liked – he’s an outspoken speaker and in June there were rumors of a falling out with manager Murat Yakin, with Xhaka’s comments on the team’s tactics seen as criticism of his boss . Both men played it down but there’s a feeling Xhaka believes he has more to offer.
Judging from the opening game in Qatar, he’s right. He was reasonably solid in his defensive role but Cameroon still edged out the Swiss in the first half, with Eric Choupo-Moting and Karl Toko-Ekambi both missing great chances from balls that separated the defence. While he helped his side snatch possession from the African side after the break, a second goal, thanks to more offensive flourishes, would have made for a more comfortable ride.
There were looks at him in attack – a shot in the eleventh minute flew well over the bar and he almost made the result incontestable with another shot from outside the box in the last few minutes, but Andre Onana was up to his low. skimming strike. An early dinked ball over the top also went millimeters past the stretching Silvan Widmer, but generally the offensive burden remained with his teammates.
Switzerland got the win they needed so maybe it’s hard to be too critical but to fix the roof when the sun is out like they say. The Swiss offered little in attack to worry group favorites Brazil or perhaps even defensively strong Serbia, let alone any side they might face in the knockout stages.
They don’t need a total overhaul of their tactical system, just a little less Granite – if you will – and a little more flair from Xhaka. It’s waiting to be unlocked, and as Arsenal found, the results can be transformative.