Spain – Switzerland: Systemic Shocks Remind Spain Of Their Vulnerability (1-2)

Few can rival Spain’s strength at retaining the ball, but this clash demonstrates why this trait alone has not assured success. Control counts for little if one lacks efficiency in the boxes. These fragilities made an untimely return, complicating the hosts’ route to the Nations League final.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

Spain have one of the most constant outfits in the running for the World Cup. Their Nations League campaign, much like their course at EURO 2021, did not begin smoothly but has gone on to exhibit their quality. Two wins have followed from a pair of draws in their first four fixtures to accrue eight points— one more than their Iberian rivals. Through it all, the hosts stick to a hegemonic use of ball possession: a path through which they hope to reach the final four of the competition in the new year.

At the other end of the group lie the Swiss: a rough return to reality. In 2021, they knocked out France on their way to the last eight of the EUROs, where they held Spain to a stalemate for two hours and booked a spot in the World Cup at the expense of the Italians. In June, Portugal restored their hope of staying in the top division of the Nations League, but such form has deserted them in 2022. Could they learn from prior errors to endure the threat of the onslaught that hit them in the reverse fixture?

Spanish manager Luis Enrique picked his usual 4-3-3 formation. He continues to mix and match the relationships from back to front. Veterans Jordi Alba and César Azpilicueta were the pair of fullbacks standing on either side of Pau Torres, who joined Eric García in the middle of the back four. Sergio Busquets, Pedri, and Gavi— the first choice midfield trident for Barcelona— took to the field for their nation. Notably, Álvaro Morata had dropped to the bench, so Marco Asensio was the central forward.

Swiss manager Murat Yakin has relied on a far more settled roster in his tenure. Yann Sommer once more protected the goal. Ahead of him were the quartet of Ricardo Rodríguez, Nico Elvedi, Manuel Akanji, and Silvan Widmer. Granit Xhaka, in his pomp at Arsenal, now sought to make his mark for his nation with the help of Remo Freuler and Djibril Sow. More changes have appeared in the attack. Indeed, Breel Embolo was the striker in this fixture, letting Ruben Vargas operate on the left flank.

Switzerland adapt to Spanish superiority

The last two meetings of these countries suggested Spain would dominate the ball and the territory. Indeed, the contest soon began to pan out as one would expect. The favorites built up the play in a 4-3-3 shape, probing their way past the halfway line to keep 75% of the ball in the first fifteen minutes.

4th minute: midfield pressing sequence from Switzerland. Embolo and Sow sweep across the backline to guide the ball to Azpilicueta. Freuler slides laterally to cover Busquets, so the right back returns a pass to García. Sow advances the pressure, transitioning the defense into a higher block. Shaqiri then shadows Pau Torres, before orienting himself towards Alba as Vargas and Embolo shift rightward.

However, the Swiss were wise to this game state. Back in June, they began the game in a 4-3-3 block. Embolo could not stop the two central defenders from breaking forward with the ball at their feet. Busquets was free in the blindside of the forward, and the Spanish midfield tore apart the reactive man to man coverage that afforded them total freedom. So, Yakin went for the 4-2-3-1 formation that prompted higher pressing with better access to Spain’s central options in the second half of that duel.

Paltry penetrating power hurts the hosts

Notwithstanding their dominance, the home team lacked security without the comfort blanket of a goal. And in the 21st minute, their opponents were the first to draw blood. Azpilicueta could not progress the play from the right back slot, giving in to pressure from Vargas. Embolo then flicked the ball off of Busquets from the throw-in that followed, earning a corner. The struggles of the Spanish right back persisted. Akanji squared up with Azpilicueta from the set-piece, eased away his marker, and leaped to nod the cross from Vargas into the roof of the net beyond the diving Unai Simón.

Such efficiency starkly contrasted with the Spanish. Their final third woes have been a hallmark of Enrique’s time in the dugout, but this performance was wide of the mark even by their standards. The 4-3-3 system relied on its usual patterns. The low positioning of the fullbacks and smart reads from the central midfielders sought to support Busquets versus the high press. Rotations between Pedri, Alba, and Sarabia frequented the left edge, while Asensio often dropped towards the right halfspace.

It was here the danger emanated. If Asensio dropped to split the double pivot and offer a central link when Gavi moved outwards, the forward could break free since Xhaka and Elvedi shielded the space behind the back four. Either Busquets tried threading through balls to find a third man run, or Asensio switched the play to the left. But once they arrived in these situations, attackers rushed their decisions, lacked precision, and could not open up the Swiss block in their penalty area. After 45 minutes, they had not mustered a shot on target in the first half for the first time in nineteen Nations League fixtures.

23rd minute: offensive sequence from Spain. Ferran Torres feeds a pass to the underlapping Gavi, vacating the halfspace as Xhaka drops wide to cover. The right winger makes a secondary run in the inside channel, opening a lane to Asensio. Gavi finds his teammate, whose switch squirms under the foot of Widmer into the path of Sarabia. Alba overlaps, while the winger dribbles inward to shoot.

Spanish softness scuppers the revival

After the break, Asensio kept forcing the issue, becoming the ignition that drove the sequence for an equalizer. He received from García, then wriggled to the left of Elvedi to break the Swiss rearguard. Xhaka had retreated to mark Gavi, so the right halfspace was free for Asensio to roam. Sarabia pulled Widmer inside, while Akanji could not take out the ball carrier, still in enough space to switch the attack to the left. Alba steamed into the final third and rolled the back years, thrashing a shot home.

The impetus was now in the hands of Enrique’s men. But the Swiss had other ideas. Vargas’ effort at the end of a rare forward foray led to a corner near the hour mark. Disorder in the box duly revealed a soft underbelly. Vargas whipped the ball to the near side, where Akanji strayed free from his marker: Azpilicueta. The defender did not have the decisive touch, but his intervention forced García to score an own goal. The Spaniards were behind again within three minutes of pegging back their visitors.

In the 63rd minute, Enrique beckoned three of his substitutes to bail out his side. All the alterations were in the frontline, signifying the state of affairs. Sarabia made way for Yeremy Pino as the left winger, Nico Williams came on for Torres to the right, and Borja Iglesias took the place of Asensio. The latter two donned the national shirt for the first time but wasted no time trying to make a mark.

Williams’ ball carrying threat and speed brought freshness in the final third, while Iglesias offered a more physical presence to crash the penalty area. Yet, the response turned out to be timid from the hosts. Neither Marcos Llorente’s energy in the midfield nor the late entry of Carlos Soler made a difference to the score. Switzerland battled until the final whistle, holding onto a historic result.


This defeat is no trivial matter for the Spanish. It is the first time they have been on the losing side in Enrique’s reign on home soil since England’s 3-2 victory in October 2018: no wonder he labeled the first half display as the worst of his tenure. A guaranteed spot in the Nations League Final could have been theirs, but at least this result has not ruled out a return to that stage should they beat Portugal.

Spain’s clear playing style lets opponents prepare for recurrent patterns of strength and plot to make the most of weaknesses. Switzerland had little sway over the flow of the match but did not require much of the ball to present problems, profiting from set-piece routines to target the soft center. Now, already two points clear of the bottom, attention turns to the visit of the Czech Republic. Three wins in a row to finish the Nations League would shift the momentum in their favor ahead of November.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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