Switzerland – Spain: Spain Eke Over The Line (1-1, 1-3 After Penalties)

Eight minutes in, Spain looked well on their way to slide into the last four of EURO 2020. But dominance of the ball and territory alone does not win games. A familiar lack of penetration around the Swiss box and the fierceness of their opponents kept the door ajar for two hours of action, another penalty shootout, and a cruel twist of fate.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

Spain’s fortunes have turned at just the right time. After coasting into the knockout stages with a thrashing of Slovakia, a dominant display saw the team get over the line against Croatia to reach the quarter-final. Continuing to stamp their game plan on matches, the same as usual here, along with their newfound potency in front of goal, would surely see the side into the last four.

But, if any team knows how to spoil a party right now, it is their opponents. Few would have given Switzerland a prayer against France in the last round. Even fewer would have foreseen that a victory could happen in such dramatic style. But, against all odds, they managed to stump the reigning world champions and progress in a thrilling duel. Now would lightning strike in their favor a second time?

Luis Enrique went for his usual choice of a 4-3-3 formation. Never picking the same starting eleven twice in a row at this tournament, he again made changes, both of which were at the back. Eric García made way again for Pau Torres, who played on the left of the center-back pairing, pushing Aymeric Laporte to the right of the two. A straight swap at left back then saw Jordi Alba replace Jose Gayà.

Vladimir Petković set up the Swiss in a 4-2-3-1 shape, moving away from his usual 3-4-1-2 system. Just one enforced tweak took place to the team that started against France. Granit Xhaka could not back up his display from the last round, missing out after picking up his second yellow card of the EUROs in that game. To this end, Denis Zakaria played next to Remo Freuler in the midfield.

Muscle memory

For Switzerland, the main question would be how they would manage Spain’s dominance of the ball. They dropped off into a 4-4-1-1 shape where Xherdan Shaqiri played behind Haris Seferović.

Behind Shaqiri, the man-orientations of the Swiss double pivot Two central midfielders next to each other. aimed to stifle Koke and Pedri, not dissimilar to the Slovakian approach they faced earlier on in the group stage. Once again, Álvaro Morata played a central role in moving the play forward. Dropping into the pocket between Freuler and Zakaria, he would form a 3-on-2 overload in his team’s favor between the lines.

Since the wingers pinned back the Swiss fullbacks, their central defenders would often have to step into the midfield to manage the ball progression. To this end, Morata had to find the right timing to help his teammates before looking to bring others into play. 

Other small but pivotal details were crucial here. In moments where Shaqiri had pushed forward to equal up the numbers in the first line of the press, Busquets was alive to situations where he could slide diagonally in his blindside to pick up a pass directly from one of the central defenders.

24th minute: an ingenious play from Pedri. A sharp double movement around the blindside of Zakaria initially creates separation from the midfielder to receive from Pau Torres. He then deceives Freuler with his body positioning that he will play square to Busquets, opening up the passing lane into Koke.

To the right of the back four, another key detail was the positioning of César Azpilicueta. From a slightly more inverted role than Alba on the left, he could drop off into a flatter position next to the central defenders to lure Stefan Zuber forward. Without the winger being able to create access to the ball, he simply enlarged the gap for Koke to receive a pass directly between the lines.

A fading impetus

Continually finding routes of progression, Spain’s pressure told early on in the contest. 

Laporte cut the Swiss midfield to find Koke, who then teed up Ferran Torres to his right. The winger then teased Ricardo Rodríguez to win a corner. Koke’s whipped delivery lacked any initial contact but dropped to the edge of the box, where Alba lurked free. Zakaria stretched to block the left back’s effort but could only divert it away from Yann Sommer’s reach and into the back of his own net.

Petković’s men would try to stitch together some possession sequences, but it was to little avail. Off the ball, Spain pressed high, looking for direct duels with their man-to-man approach in the midfield. Most of these Swiss attacks were brief, allowing Spain’s dominance to persist. However, for all their control, Enrique’s men did not break the will of their opponents.

Explosive breakthroughs from the wingers into the halfspaces If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. flashed the potential of Spain’s attack. But such danger was few and far between in the rest of the first half. Lacking the punctual occupation of the halfspace to bind defenders, Enrique’s men could not pose the issues that could pry the Swiss block it open.

Swiss fightback

Perhaps noting the issues the wingers faced at cracking the Swiss block, Enrique made a half-time change. Dani Olmo entered the fray, taking the place of Sarabia on the left of the front three. Minutes later, Gerard Moreno replaced Morata through the middle up front.

But rather than assert Spain’s dominance, the changes preceded a weaker phase in the game for the side. Their transitions between the lines were no longer as smooth, and mistakes became more common. Ruthlessly, the Swiss pounced on this spell, summed up with an error at the back.

Freuler pinched the ball from Busquets, prodding it into the path of Seferović. He then found Vargas, who clipped a pass in behind for the midfielder to chase down. Laporte met the play first, taking a touch to his outside to sweep up the danger. But a mix-up with his partner at the back saw the ball drop back into Freuler’s path. Shaqiri was square to roll a strike home, bringing the two teams level.

Spain gain the upper hand

But a setback soon took the wind out of their sails. Looking to offer an escape route against Spain’s high press, Zuber rotated deeper to find a pass into Freuler. A loose touch gave Moreno a chance to win the ball to Moreno, forcing him to try and rectify his error. In doing so, he fouled the forward, leading the referee to brandish a red card. Down to ten men, the Swiss were on the back foot again. 

Petković reacted to the red card by making two more substitutions. Mario Gavranović came on in place of Seferović, taking his place upfront. Djibril Sow then replaced Shaqiri. Stepping into midfield next to Zakaria to restore the double pivot, his introduction saw the Swiss now set up in a 4-4-1 shape.

Enrique forces the issue

From the other dugout, Enrique made a raft of changes. Marcos Llorente came on in a familiar role of central midfield in place of Koke, while Mikel Oyarzabal swapped with Torres to operate on the right wing. But the most marked alteration took place with a set of men already on the field of play.

The trio on the left of the midfield now switched roles. Pedri was reserved in the halfspace to the side of Busquets while Alba pushed higher up the flank. Two minutes into extra time, the latter almost made the difference, driving a cross into Moreno, who spurned a presentable shot at goal. 

But, above all, these movements afforded Olmo the license to roam inside between the lines. Thanks in no small part to him, Spain peppered shots at the Swiss goal. Yet, facing a goalkeeper in Sommer in inspired form, this quarter-final would now go to penalties.

Déjà vu

Busquets opened the proceedings. Strolling up to the ball, he sent Sommer the wrong way only to slam the post. Four penalties and three misses later, he had set the tone for an erroneous shootout. But Spain found their composure. Vargas blazed over the bar while Moreno and Oyarzabal converted from twelve yards, booking their side’s place in the semi-final.


The Swiss again performed admirably against the odds to keep their hopes alive in this tournament. While the loss will hurt, they leave EURO 2020 with their pride intact.

For Spain, their journey goes on. Enrique’s men have many strengths, but they are not a complete outfit. Now, reaching the last four of the tournament, the ultimate test of their credentials, and their ability to control the flow of the game with the ball, awaits in the form of Roberto Mancini’s Italy.

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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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