After qualifying second behind England in Group E, Switzerland have struggled in recent friendlies. Their attack was moribund in March as they failed to find the net against first the Republic of Ireland and then Bosnia-Herzegovina, losing 1-0 in Dublin and 2-0 in Zurich. This followed a defeat to Slovakia in November that saw them go three goals behind.
The Swiss are also going through some squad upheaval, with manager Vladimir Petkovic dropping former captain and little-used Leicester sub Gokhan Inler.
Having been two minutes from a penalty shootout to reach the World Cup quarter-finals in 2014, things are suddenly looking less rosy.
Can they finally beat the group stage?
While Switzerland have enjoyed moderate success at the World Cup, they’ve won just one game in nine attempts at their three previous European Championship appearances – and that was a dead rubber against Portugal after they’d already been eliminated from the 2008 finals they co-hosted with Austria.
The accomplishment of making it into the knockout rounds is somewhat cheapened with the expanded format, but the Swiss won’t care. Even with 24 teams there are no easy groups, and the eight extra second-round berths are welcome for a squad starved of success (at the Euros, anyway).
Coming off an auspicious World Cup in which they took eventual finalists Argentina to extra time in the last 16, Switzerland made qualifying for Euro 2016 look more difficult than it needed to be. After losing to England, they surrendered a late penalty in Slovenia to start their qualifying campaign pointless after two games. Facing the ever-generous San Marino in their next match helped to turn the tide, and the Nati won seven of their eight remaining games, stopping only to lose 2-0 to England again. Even so, they barely survived the home fixture against Slovenia, needing three goals in the final 15 minutes to win.
What they’ve learned
In a 10-game qualifying campaign, the Swiss had time to overcome a slow start, but that won’t be the case in France. In fact, their second game might decide their summer fate: Switzerland should be able to handle Albania – they managed it twice in World Cup 2014 qualifying – but altogether tougher will be Romania and then France, who embarrassed them 5-2 in Brazil.
As in the qualifiers, Switzerland will rely on an ensemble cast in attack. Their 24 goals came from a campaign-high 14 players, although some will be missing this summer, including Josip Drmic, who scored twice in the comeback against Slovenia.
Grit meets guile
The Swiss are blessed with a skilled and dogged midfield, led by Xherdan Shaqiri. Granit Xhaka may well be Switzerland’s best all-round midfielder, though, even if Arsenal’s new saviour is less heralded than the Stoke City man (now there’s an unlikely sentence). Xhaka, 23, is a fine passer and reliable defensive presence. Meanwhile, the seemingly relentless tackling of Watford’s Valon Behrami was one of the few bright spots in losing to the Irish.
Switzerland are strong defensively, too. Juventus’ Stephan Lichtsteiner – now wearing the armband in the absence of Inler – and Wolfsburg’s Ricardo Rodriguez are two superb full-backs. The central defenders have sometimes struggled, particularly when trying to clear their lines, but Johan Djourou has nonetheless improved after a disappointing World Cup and Fabian Schar, while inconsistent, displays exemplary passing skills.
Take your chances
Swiss teams are always searching for more goals, and this edition is no exception. On the surface their attack performed well in the qualifiers – only Poland and England scored more – but 11 of this team’s 24 goals came against San Marino and another six against a weak Lithuania side. They didn’t score in either hosting or visiting England.
To score with any regularity in France, the Swiss will need to be patient and opportunistic, as exemplified in their 1-0 group-stage defeat of eventual champions Spain at the 2010 World Cup (goalscorer Gelson Fernandes is still only 29, and in this year’s squad). Haris Seferovic of Eintracht Frankfurt has shown flashes of ability but doesn’t have the killer finish that defines a top striker. With Drmic out, 19-year-old Breel Embolo might be Switzerland’s best hope at the sharp end. He has outstanding pace and has become a regular contributor for Swiss champions Basel.
Shaqiri hasn’t exactly lit up the Premier League since signing for Stoke last summer, apart from an inspired (some say fluked) lob against Everton, but the 24-year-old winger is the tinder, spark and flame of the Swiss attack. After a coming-out party at the 2014 World Cup, where his hat-trick against Honduras secured Switzerland’s passage to the knockout stage, Shaqiri led the team through qualifying with four goals and five assists.
Shaqiri has been called the ‘Alpine Messi’ and has the spectacular ball skills to justify that moniker. Though he scored just three times in 27 appearances for Stoke during an inconsistent first season, it may be because he needs time to acclimatise in England: after all, he went from being an underused sub in a star-filled Bayern Munich squad to joining the Potters via an abbreviated stint at Inter, all in just seven months.
Switzerland need him to be fit and firing. He is this squad’s leading goalscorer, having netted 17 in his 51 caps, and it’s difficult to imagine the team finding any success in France if he doesn’t add to that total. Yet he is also an energetic playmaker, who creates space with sinuous runs.
Petkovic was born in Sarajevo but has spent more than half of his life in Switzerland, playing and then coaching at Chur, Sion and Young Boys among others. He also spent a year-and-a-half as Lazio manager, winning the 2013 Coppa Italia.
When he took over the Swiss national team he promised stricter rules and a management style modelled on Fabio Capello. Now, with a fairly middling record of nine wins from 17 matches, his performance at Euro 2016 will serve as a referendum on his future. Anything less than a quarter-final appearance might leave Petkovic searching for a new job.