Switzerland’s first international break under Murat Yakin is complete.
Three games in one week gave Yakin the opportunity to see what he had at his disposal, though hindered by the countless key absentees through injury and illness.
The friendly win over Greece was a pretext to the more impressive and important display against Italy, where Yann Sommer’s heroics earned the Swiss a point against their southern neighbours.
Going into the final game against Northern Ireland, Switzerland were favourites – Yakin knew and acknowledged that, insisting that it would be a tough task nonetheless.
A game surrounded by anticipation after the Italy battle, excitement soon faded away.
It was clear from the early stages that something wasn’t clicking for Switzerland. The absence of Xherdan Shaqiri’s creativity, Granit Xhaka’s stability, Breel Embolo’s explosiveness. We had seen the first signs of these problems in the earlier games, but they were glaring in Belfast as the Schweizer Nati appeared disorientated.
Switzerland had no guile in attack, entering their opponents’ half with no direction or ideas. Every time they crossed the halfway line it was as if they had to stop and think what to do, before retreating when there was no way through.
Credit to the Northern Irish defence, but this was a Nati side who had scored eight goals in five games at the recent EUROs, failing to score just twice in their last 14 games (both against Italy).
Out of nowhere, Switzerland found a lifeline.
A cheaply conceded penalty gave the Swiss the chance to take the lead against Northern Ireland at Windsor Park, just like they had done four years earlier to qualify for the World Cup. The scorer of that spot kick was on the pitch, but Ricardo Rodríguez had missed his last three penalties and seemed unlikely to retain his former responsibility.
So up stepped Haris Seferović – could Switzerland finally score a penalty? A tame effort said otherwise.
Switzerland have now failed to score from the spot since June 2019, a run stretching two years and even a penalty shootout victory just months ago. The Swiss know how to save penalties, but scoring their own is another thing.
That was the closest Yakin’s men came all evening to sealing the win, barely causing Bailey Peacock-Farrell to break sweat for the remaining hour. Nothing would give for the subdued Swiss.
In some regard, they should count themselves lucky to come away with a point. Northern Ireland had a handful of glaring opportunities early on but couldn’t capitalise, instead being happy to sit behind the ball and play at their own pace.
A draw is far from the worst case scenario – at the end of the day, it is three games unbeaten and remaining second in qualifying for Yakin’s start. Switzerland are still unbeaten in Group C and have two games in hand over leaders Italy, before the two meet in two months’ time.
There is a lot to digest from the first international break of the season, and much to take forward into the rest of qualifying.
First and foremost, Switzerland are in dire need of creativity. This has been a known problem since Shaqiri’s injury record worsened, but there is simply no-one who can offer what the Lyon man does. Ruben Vargas is a talent and a comparatively exciting player to watch, but Yakin cannot yet rest his hopes on a 23-year-old.
The same can be said in Granit Xhaka’s absence, where the Nati are a simply different team without their captain. The good news is that he should be back for the October fixtures and Switzerland have midfield options – the bad news? None of them do what Xhaka does to a sufficient level.
However, Switzerland’s midfield showed some promise. Denis Zakaria was outstanding off the bench last Sunday, and Michel Aebischer looked so comfortable in the heart of the pitch. But the plaudits will deservedly go to Fabian Frei, the 32-year-old returning to the Nati A-team for the first time since March 2018.
Yakin has given his former FC Basel colleague a new lease of life and a valuable opportunity, out of the cold to show that he still has something to offer to his country. And as he continues to have a strong start to the season with the Rotblau, it would no longer be a surprise to see Frei part of Yakin’s plans for the near future.
The two goalless draws were met with mixed reception. Against Italy, it was a success and a hard-fought point, going toe-to-toe with the European champions in Basel.
Yet three days later when they were met with the same outcome in Belfast, a different image was painted of missed opportunities and tired football. Both sides of the coin tell a story of what lies ahead for Yakin’s Switzerland.
October’s fixtures are a valuable opportunity to draw level with Italy and even leapfrog them into first if the goals flow in for Switzerland. Northern Ireland will be the visitors in Geneva in what will be a Swiss search for vengeance, before the Nati travel to winless Lithuania three days later.
Time is on Switzerland and Yakin’s side, as eyes turn to two crucial yet winnable games next month. The Murat Yakin era is underway, and the work continues on the road to Qatar.
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Read my Switzerland articles here
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