The General: Hitzfeld’s Switzerland and the crucial 4-2-3-1
Ottmar Hitzfeld is the only Swiss ‘General’ who will be embarking on any invasion of foreign soil this summer. His band of twenty-three feather capped brothers will be setting foot in South Africa after a loss to a manager-less and Paulo Wanchope-less Costa Rica, as well as a humiliating loss to Luxembourg in the qualifiers (which is even embarrassing for me to write).
Not only this, there is dissent in Switzerland over their style of play, ex-Swiss goalkeeper Jorg Stiel criticised Hitzfeld for his overly defensive tactics. Hitzfeld has been subject to this criticism before, after being lambasted by both Claudio Pizarro and Michael Ballack whilst at Bayern München because of his overly-defensive style of play.
Ottmar’s nickname ‘The General’ does not originate from the strange sight of him donning a spiked helmet and chomping on a lardy after winning the championship with Dortmund in 1995/96, but from his insistency on harmony within the team and concentration on the larger project. This harmony is not shared by the Swiss public, and many criticisms of Hitzfeld are regurgitated (with plenty of chocolate and cheese) time and time again.
It seems strange that this criticism be put against Hitzfeld as the Swiss were extremely defensive, but successful, at the World Cup in 2006 under the wonderfully named Kubi Kohn. They did not concede a single goal and were only defeated on penalties by Ukraine, after the Swiss did not score any of their spot kicks. This could be due to demand for progress due to the relative successful, and these expectations are only exacerbated through the success of the youth teams. In 2002 the U-17s won the 2002 U-17 Euros, and last year the U-17s won the World Cup.
Nevertheless, Hitzfeld always has a distinct plan and philosophy that has managed to bring great success. In the 1997 Champions League final, Hitzfeld played with Matthias Sammer as a sweeper. The same formation brought success in the 2001 final with Bayern München albeit without the use of the now defunct sweeper. These strong defensive principles have stayed but with constant evolution of tactical systems playing three in defence can be dangerous.
The Swiss System
Throughout qualification Switzerland have used a rigid 4-4-2 system with reliance on wingers to provide opportunities to score. Against Costa Rica on June 1st they started with their preferred line-up, but with a slightly modified formation, which looked almost like a 4-2-3-1, with important consequences.
Alexander Frei, with a record of 40 goals in 73 games for the National team, dropped back directly behind, newly signed Seattle Sounders forward, Blaise N’kufo, acting as a link man between midfield and attack. This offers different options for the central midfielders and full-backs, rather than just their overreliance on their wide midfielders to create.
In this diagram, Frei (red) is playing in the space between midfield and defence. N’kufo (yellow) played in the channels of defence and created space for Frei to run into.
Below, with Frei deeper (red), the substitute Derdiyok (yellow) is looking for a ball in-between the defence, whilst Frei has picked up the ball from deep and gone past the central midfielder, and looks for his attacking partner who has created space for him to move into.
Problems in Defence
The problem evident against Costa Rica is that the defence are a bit like their cheese; full of holes. The captain, left full-back Christoph Spycher suffered an injury to keep him out of the World Cup and his replacement, Ludovic Magnin had an awful season for VfB Stuttgart, so bad in fact that they bought in Cristian Molinaro in on loan to replace him. Magnin then moved to Zürich where he himself has said he has not lived up to expectations with very poor defensive displays. Therefore it is up to Reto Ziegler to deputise at left-back, a more offensively minded player, who makes it hard for the defensive formation to keep compact and tight (Switzerland vs. Costa Rica at 0.15 and 1.45).
Lichtsteiner, as the right back, also has a natural inclination to push forward and create large spaces in the channels, which opposition forwards and wingers can exploit. This was illustrated countless times in the second half against Costa Rica when wide positions were open to the attack of the forwards and wingers.
In addition, Philippe Senderos has not played for Arsenal for near enough two years and his spell at Everton was not as successful as Hitzfeld hoped. The defence is not in the same shape as at the previous World Cup, making it very hard for Hitzfeld to implement a defensive formation successfully. If you’re reliant on two or three players to create, it does not help to have a centre-back that has not played all year and a left-back who has not been able to impress at Zürich.
4-2-3-1: The Key to Progress?
Switzerland were drawn in Group H along with Spain, the favourites, Chile, a useful team, and Honduras, who are somewhat of an unknown quantity. Switzerland’s fate in Group H will probably be sealed by their performance against Chile, and this is where their newly-developed 4-2-3-1 may give Switzerland an advantage.
In the vein of any tactical discussion nowadays, this is neatly explained by Jonathon Wilson. In this article Wilson uses an explanation given by Nelsinho Baptista to demonstrate the advantages of playing a 4-2-3-1 against a three-man defence.
“Imagine Team A is playing 3-5-2 against Team B with a 4-5-1 that becomes 4-3-3… So Team A has to commit the wing-backs to deal with Team B’s wingers. That means Team A is using five men to deal with three forwards.”
“In midfield Team A has three central midfielders against three, so the usual advantage of 3-5-2 against 4-4-2 is lost. Then at the front it is two forwards against four defenders, but the spare defenders are full-backs. One can push into midfield to create an extra man there, while still leaving three vs. two at the back. So Team B can dominate possession, and also has greater width.”
Using their 4-2-3-1 system successfully is dependent on Chile’s tactics for this game, and whether the South Americans continue to play a three-man defence. However, this small tactical innovation from Hitzfeld could prove to be extremely effective and significant given the probable importance of the Switzerland vs. Chile match in deciding who progresses from the Group.