World Cup 2018

Sweden vs Switzerland: Swedes can stop clockwork Swiss progress

 • by James Piercy
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It’s been 16 years since these two nations last faced each other, playing out a 1-1 friendly draw, while you have to go back to 1995 for the last time they met competitively – a goalless stalemate during qualification for Euro ’96.

The scarcity of fixtures between them ultimately speaks volumes for their status in European and world football in the 21st century as they have remained distinctly inoffensive and largely unremarkable second-tier sides.

Not bad, by any stretch of the imagine, but not particularly good, either.

They have been forever kept apart in qualification draws due to their similar seeding and never meet in international competition either through an inability to get out of the group, both finishing second or not qualifying in the first place.

But as England basks in the apparent open door that leads to the semi-finals, both Swedish and Swiss supporters will harbour similar dreams as they look to snap their eternal identity as being little more than reliable second-round fodder.

Of course, Swedish football is dominated by their achievement of reaching the semi-finals of Euro ‘92 and USA ’94 in the era of Brolin, Dahlin and a dreadlocked Henrik Larsson; every team since that golden age has struggled to match up to that standard, with or without Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

A match-up in St Petersburg therefore presents the opportunity for this generation – as six of Janne Andersson’s squad won the European Under-21 championship in 2015  – while for the Swiss it’s a chance to reach their first World Cup quarter-final since 1954 on home soil.

How they got on in the groups

The Swiss had the unfavourable task of opening their tournament with a match against Brazil and the signs looked ominous after Philippe Coutinho’s spectacular opening strike for the Seleção.

However, Vladimir Petkovic’s side are nothing if not resilient and after keeping Brazil at bay, they claimed an equaliser through Steven Zuber’s header in what proved an impressive point.

What then energised their campaign was the politically-charged tie against Serbia in which Kosovars Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka came to the fore in a match they had seemingly waited all their lives to play.

Serbia had dominated the first-half, led 1-0 and looked in control, seemingly locking down second spot in Group E but a Xhaka thunderbolt levelled the game before Shaqiri’s dramatic solo run and winner settled matters in one of the games of the tournament.

All that was left was to secure a point against already-eliminated Costa Rica and although Los Ticos claimed an unlikely 2-2 draw via an injury-time penalty it was a relatively comfortable afternoon for Petkovic’s side.

Sweden began with a 1-0 victory over South Korea through an Andreas Granqvist penalty in a low-key encounter. That set them up nicely for their next match against defending champions Germany.

Andersson’s side contained an out-of-sorts Germany for large portions of the match in Sochi and were close to claiming a point, with Marcos Reus cancelling out Ola Toivonen’s opener. However Toni Kroos’ majestic injury-time free-kick raised German hopes and simultaneously sunk Swedish aspirations.

Lying third in Group F and realistically needing victory over impressive Mexico (which may not even have been enough with Germany expected to beat South Korea) it looked a tall order for the Swedes but they delivered their best tournament performance in recent memory to win 3-0 and top the group on goals scored.

The match-ups

True to their shared nature as teams, both have striking similarities: solid goalkeepers, youthful elements in defence, a strong emphasis on two specific playmakers and largely inefficient strikers.

Andersson likes to set Sweden up in a traditional 4-4-2 with left-sided midfielder and Arsenal transfer target  Emil Forsberg the primary creator and Toivonen often dropping into a deeper role from attack, with Marcus Berg the main focal point.

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Petkovic prefers a 4-2-3-1 with Valon Behrami and Xhaka providing a real steel in midfield ahead of impressive 22-year-old centre-back Manuel Akanji. Shaqiri is entrusted with providing the killer pass or goal threat from a wide-right position, although he nearly always drifts inside.

It would be easy to frame this as a Forsberg v Shaqiri duel, and while they will both be important, a major battleground will be in central midfield between Xhaka and Behrami and Albin Ekdal and either Oscar Hiljemark or Gustav Svensson, with Sebastian Larsson suspended.

It looks a specific contest Switzerland are favourites for as they rank second in the World Cup for tackles per game (22.0) and 19th for ball recoveries (55.3); Sweden by contrast are 26th for tackles (14.33) and 32nd for ball recoveries (42.66).

The Swiss are also the more pass-focused team, ranking 12th overall with 517.66 per match. For Andersson’s side, the root to stopping the men in red is by trying to disrupt their passing rhythm.

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Suspensions have also hit the Swiss with the right-side of the defence missing experienced Stephan Lichtsteiner and centre-back Fabian Schär.

Likely replacements are established figures Michael Lang and Johann Djorou but it means that Sweden’s left-winger Forsberg has an opportunity to impress in a World Cup where he’s largely been outshone by right-sided midfielder Viktor Claesson.

Both teams also have aggressively-attacking left-backs in Ricardo Rodriguez for the Swiss – with the AC Milan full-back also a threat in his set-piece delivery – and the emerging Ludwig Augustinsson for Sweden.

In what could be a tight encounter, however, game-winners could emerge in attack. And although they aren’t great areas of strength in terms of individuals, if Sweden’s Marcus Berg can find his shooting boots, the Swiss are in trouble.

The Al Ain forward leads the tournament for individual xG (2.42) but is yet to find the target with any of his 10 attempts at goal.

The verdict

It should be one of more fiercely-contested last 16 match-ups with both teams at a similar level and with shared strengths and weaknesses.

Despite their stoic and structured systems they have been open defensively. The Swiss have the sixth-worst record in the tournament for scoring attempts conceded on 16.0 per match with Sweden only a little stricter down in 10th on 14.33.

And with Switzerland having conceded in all three matches, and with Lichtsteiner and Schär absent, that could open the door for Sweden, providing they can fashion enough opportunities.
And Berg can take them.

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