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Switzerland must imitate Arsenal to unlock Granit Xhaka after hard-fought Cameroon victory

In some ways, Switzerland’s World Cup got off to a perfect start with a 1-0 victory over Cameroon. Going into their second game against Brazil, the Swiss have three points on their tally and don’t need a shock win over the pre-tournament favorites to keep their knockout hopes alive.

It was a tough victory though, with Cameroon the better team in the first half and unlucky not to be ahead at half-time before their European opponents scored through Cameroon-born Breel Embolo early in the second period and, subsequently choked life out of the games.

No one could legitimately argue that the Swiss attack was firing on all cylinders, but the answer to unleashing its potential is already within its ranks and goes by the name of Granit Xhaka. The captain earned his 107th cap for Qatar and has been a key player since debuting in 2011, as proven by playing every minute of their recent Nations League campaign, but it is time to change their role in the squad 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, at the nadir of his relationship with Gunners supporters, he swore and sneered at them after being substituted against Crystal Palace in 2019 – for a beloved key figure in one side sitting at the top of the Premier League is remarkable.

It’s a transformation for which coach Mikel Arteta, like the player himself, deserves great credit. For most of his time in North London, the 30-year-old has been an advanced midfielder, protecting all four defenders and offering little in the opposition’s final third. However, this year, he was a loose man.

He has developed into an incredibly effective box-to-box midfielder as the number 8 on the left side, with Martin Odegaard filling the same role on the opposite side. The number of passes he makes has dropped by around 15 per cent, with Thomas Partey now the closest port of call for Arsenal defenders to find possession, but the ones he makes are more telling. He’s creating more, has twice as many hits in the opponent’s box, and has become an attacking force. He has already scored four goals – the same amount he scored in the previous three seasons combined – in addition to several assists. And he covers more ground than any of his teammates with his diesel engine.

In short, the 2022 version of Granit Xhaka is exactly the type of player a shy Switzerland could use. His 15 goals were the fewest by any group winner in European qualifying and eight of them came in just two games against Lithuania and Bulgaria.

Xhaka was pressured mainly in defensive roles during Switzerland’s World Cup opener against Cameroon

(REUTERS)

However, his role in the national team, as shown in his World Cup debut against Cameroon, is different. He brings balance and stability as a shield to the defence, with the thought that he can push them off the defence. He still scores the occasional spectacular goal – though perhaps he should score more – but is less of a threat in the opposing midfield, with Xherdan Shaqiri, Djibril Sow, Ruben Vargas and others shouldering the creative responsibilities behind leader Breel Embolo.

It’s a role that hasn’t always gone down well with the vocal midfielder – he’s a blunt talker and there were rumors of a falling out with manager Murat Yakin in June, where Xhaka’s comments about the team’s tactics were seen as a criticism of the your boss. Both men downplayed it, but there’s a sense that Xhaka believes he has more to offer.

Judging by the opening game in Qatar, he’s right. He was reasonably solid in his role as a defensive shield, but Cameroon still saw off the Swiss in the first half, with Eric Choupo-Moting and Karl Toko-Ekambi missing great chances after balls that split the defence. After the break, he helped his side lose possession of the African side as they held on for victory, but a second goal courtesy of more attacking flourishes would have made for a more comfortable journey.

There were glimpses of him in attack – an 11th-minute strike from distance went well over the bar and he almost put the result beyond doubt with another shot from outside the penalty area in the dying minutes, but André Onana equaled his low, skimming strike. An early ball kicked over the top was millimeters past Silvan Widmer’s stretch as well, but generally, the onus of attack was left to his teammates.

Switzerland got the victory they needed, so maybe it’s hard to be too critical, but fixing the roof when the sun is shining, as they say. The Swiss have offered little in attack to worry group favorites Brazil or perhaps even Serbia, let alone defensively, let alone any team they might face in the knockout rounds.

They don’t require a complete overhaul of your tactical system, just a little less granite – if you will – and a little more talent from Xhaka. It’s waiting to be unlocked, and as Arsenal discovered, the results could be transformative.

By Peter Kavinsky

Peter Kavinsky is the Executive Editor at cablefreetv.org