Serbia – Switzerland: Swiss Slice Through Dysfunctional Serbs (2-3)

High in stakes. High in emotion. It can lead to wild rides and in a week of incredible drama, Serbia and Switzerland also delivered. Serbia brought firepower, but Switzerland brutalized a poor defensive set-up to dump them out of the World Cup once again.

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.

Though it was the Swiss that crossed over the line, it was Albanian wings that took the headlines in 2018. Goals from Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri dumped Serbia out of the competition, tensions ignited by their celebrations. 

Four years on, Group G offered the same stakes. Serbia needed a win, with the hope that Brazil wouldn’t down their tools against Cameroon. Switzerland was in a safer position, but even a draw would not guarantee their safety in the group, with Cameroon scoring more goals before this game in the group.

Dragan Stojković made just a single change from a thrilling 3-3 draw in their previous game. This resulted in a tweak to the frontline, as Dušan Vlahović came in and replaced midfielder Nemanja Maksimović. This saw their highly offensive structure go from a 3-4-2-1 to a 3-4-1-2 shape.

Switzerland was missing a few key players in their 4-2-3-1 system. Goalkeeper Yann Sommer and center-back Nico Elvedi were out due to illness, so Gregor Kobel and Fabian Schär came in. Their only other change was at the right of the attack, as Shaqiri came back in, ahead of Fabian Rieder.

Step up or be stepped on

In a relentless week of group stage climaxes, this was well part of the picture from the start. Neither team were prepared to settle and slow the game down, at least for long periods, with both teams profiting from semi-transitions/counters to create. Twenty seconds in, Switzerland opened through from a long ball towards the right, Xhaka’s heavily deflected shot was perfect for Shaqiri to flick Breel Embolo through, but the ball’s awkward height denied the striker from making a greater attempt from close range.

Serbia pressed in their 3-4-1-2 system, set up in a high block with a highly reactive midfield line. This did not provide enough coverage as Murat Yakin’s team moved the ball back in circulation, and had the right mechanic to get behind their opponents. On the right, Remo Freuler would push out of the pivot position or Djibril Sow would make a third-man run into the channel and this created the perfect angle for Breel Embolo to drop and show for the ball. This was the perfect platform for Embolo to engage, always receiving with his back facing Miloš Veljković, able to connect with Freuler or spin his marker.

6th minute: Common pattern to find Embolo. Sow made a third man run into the space, to keep the left side of Serbia pinned. Embolo dropped to give him the space to turn or help play funnel towards the opposite side.

As well as Embolo, connections between a pinning Ruben Vargas and sprinting Ricardo Rodriguez worked well for Switzerland. Regardless of who was in the halfspace, Vargas was not always occupied Nikola Milenković and Rodriguez could manoeuvre past Andrija Živković quite quickly when following his pass.

Stojković’s team carried an offensive threat of their own, and against a narrow defensive block, their wing-backs became a pivotal part in getting forward. Eleven minutes in, Switzerland attempted to collapse on Veljković who had stepped out of the defense. His long pass found Živković, who rotated inside as Tadić combined from moving outside. His shot from outside the box hit the post, deflected off both Serbian strikers before being clutched into Kobel’s chest.

Although this attempt came from the right, Serbia sent their transitions down the left with Tadić or Mitrović being the bridge from the defense to moving the ball up to Filip Kostić, one-versus-one with Silvan Widmer. Though Tadić joined when the offense broke down, Serbia where already being forced out wide from very early periods of the game and their striker duo anticipated the cross into the box, rather than assisting the passes around the box.

14th minute: Example of Serbian counterattack being constructed: in this phase, it was Mitrović that had dropped off but the process remained the same with Vlahović pinning the center-backs as high up as possible, to create a one-versus-one situation between Kostić and Widmer.

A balanced encounter had its deadlock broken, twenty minutes into the game. Vargas and Rodriguez combined again for the left-back to drive the ball into the box, with acres of space around and Serbia’s right side being dragged out far too easily. Djibril Sow carried laterally to tee Shaqiri, whose deflected shot snuck in at the front post.

The Serbs fightback

However, their lead would not last long. Freuler carried and had his pocket picked by Kostić, with Tadić in support of the attack. Tadić’s delivery was excellent, perfect for Mitrović, whose curved run created separation from Manuel Akanji. His header was just as good, sailing into the far corner.

Goals didn’t change the frantic nature of the match. Serbia’s shape off the ball could easily be bunched into one area, but communication or a coaching issue could be seen in the relationship between the wide center-back and wing-back. This was also seen in the twenty-ninth minute, where their shape was not only too narrow on the left but both Kostić and Strahinja Pavlović left Shaqiri through on the diagonal.

Momentum wasn’t built, but at least Serbia could keep the ball up the field, on the left side of the pitch. In the end, it was another transition that got Serbia in front. Looseness in Switzerland’s midfield saw Tadić profit again, this time he helped another Juventus man, Vlahović, who had yet to ignite on the World Cup stage. He got onto his favored left foot and pulled the trigger, which saw the ball roll into the far corner.

Swiss cut through

Nonetheless, Switzerland was not phased by their attacking focus. They started to gain more of the ball in their 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 system and continued to utilize Embolo’s skillset to their advantage. Whereas a lot of teams have filtered out their midfield in this World Cup, Switzerland does so in a way that benefits them more than most. Xhaka can move into the last line and Freuler/Sow’s off-the-ball runs still gave them access to their striker on the edge of the box.

Switzerland had previously sent more of their combinations on the left, but the goal came from exploiting Serbia’s weakness on the other side. This time, it was Shaqiri’s run with the ball that caused the problems, as Lukić and Kostić were forced to engage, which saw Sow slip through in Lukić’s blindside and Widmer completely free on the right side. In the middle was Embolo adding his second goal of the tournament so far.

43rd minute: Buildup to Switzerland’s equalizer. A crazy amount of space for Switzerland to exploit, thanks to Kostić pressing inside and no defensive shifting in the last line.

gathered by Embolo, dinked in Shaqiri and Vargas’ backheel was the perfect platform for Freuler to finish. An incredibly constructed goal – something that is definitive of their aims in the attack; narrow forwards creating the space out wide for the delivery.

Serbia bare no more fruits

The game state changed after Switzerland’s third goal, as their defensive work sat more passively and Serbia gained more chances to buildup from deep. Despite more of the ball, Stojković’s team was not geared toward breaking down their opponents’ block from more settled play. Both Saša Lukić and Sergej Milinković-Savić operate closer to the center-backs, without much dynamism between their pivot positions. Tadić was deeper than the striker duo but did not drop to create a variance, in fact, he performed a lot more around in the striker’s proximity when on the ball and was not involved in deeper situations.

As a result, their 3-4-1-2 system began to see a short number of passes, around the center-backs, before a sequence ended with the defenders hitting it long to the strikers. Stojković’s first roll of the dice saw Nemanja Gudelj and Luka Jović come on for Veljković and Vlahović, straight-for-straight substitutions, which would be the theme of their attempts to change things from the bench.

Lop-sided and unpleasant. Serbia really missed a midfield presence and another attacker to connect with. 

Serbia got the ball up the field when Switzerland’s 4-2-3-1 was not so strict on their marking, behind the first line. That being said, Serbia still missed the connections, with their midfield too clustered and no alternative routes. Tadić would operate on the halfway line, but Serbia was heavily orientated towards their wings, with only their wing-backs operating high up in the process. After engaging deep, Tadić would move up higher, almost like a third striker and was even placed higher than Mitrović on a few occasions.

It came as no surprise that their only route of getting into the box would come from crosses by their wing-backs, especially through Kostić on the left. Despite his delivery having substance, they failed to capitalize and their only attempts at goal came around the edges of the box, which in itself even lacked quantity as well as quality – just five shots in the entire half.

Such tame control would fizzle out towards the end of the game, as Switzerland was able to find their substitute Christian Fassnacht free, with verticals headed onto the left side of the field. Serbia had truly failed to break through the Swiss block, a tense and thrilling first half was only matched by the stakes on a constant knife edge in the second. Granit Xhaka enticed an argument, because of course he did, before Switzerland celebrated another qualification, at the hands of the Serbs.  


A tournament at the wrong time for Serbia. Despite their attacking talent, too many injuries and perhaps just one or two past their peak have coaxed a bad competition for them. A solid first half against Brazil could not be replicated, but when forced to play, it left them hugely exposed at the back.

It created the groundwork for Switzerland to progress, and rightfully so. The Swiss are a very well-organized team, which can do both the gritty defensive blocks and break down your team effectively. To be just a goal away from winning the group can be seen as a kick in the teeth, considering it would have put them in the pool of Japan, South Korea and Croatia, but do not write them off against anyone.

Their matchup against Portugal is a good environment for them. The buildup patterns they produced against Uruguay looked a lot healthier than what we saw against Ghana. However, Fernando Santos is a coach who always banks on a conservative approach, which could play into Switzerland’s hands more than you think.

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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