More mature Xhaka brings steel to Switzerland midfield
Switzerland midfielder Granit Xhaka can swing from the sublime to the ridiculous in a matter of moments, but on his day he is the driving force of his team's midfield and has featured in every one of their games at the last two World Cup finals.
Xhaka has great technical ability, but wears his heart on his sleeve, which at times has left his club coaches frustrated by petulant dismissals at key moments and earned him something of an unwanted reputation.
But at national team level, the Arsenal midfielder is more measured and played every minute of Switzerland's recent Nations League A campaign, taking his tally of international caps to 106 since his debut in 2011.
A focused and engaged Xhaka is vital for Switzerland as he brings balance and stability as a shield for the back four. He is able to drive them forward out of defence and is a scorer of some spectacular goals, though in truth he probably should net more.
He is a straight-talker and there were rumours of a rift with his coach Murat Yakin in June, where the midfielder's comments about the team's tactics were perceived to be a criticism of his boss.
Both men played it down, but it is clear they each have a strong voice within the side and Xhaka's influence goes beyond the pitch.
In response to continued questions about his captain, Yakin said the player's role as a shield for the defence at the World Cup "is set", closing down the debate of how he should be used.
Xhaka feels he has been unfairly picked on by officials, who on occasion react to his past. This, according to him, limits how he plays.
"This makes me do things in a different way sometimes because I know that my risk compared to the risk of other players is not the same," he told The Athletic. "If I risk, I know I am closer to a red card than any other player.
"When I once got a red card, the referee said to one of my team mates, 'You know how Granit is, he loses his head'. This feels wrong."
He was involved in a different sort of controversy at the 2018 World Cup when, along with Switzerland team mate Xherdan Shaqiri, he was charged by FIFA for performing an Albanian nationalist symbol when celebrating victory over Serbia.
Xhaka later apologised and was fined 10,000 Swiss francs ($10,052), but it was another sign of a player who acts, sometimes negatively, on the spur of the moment, a trait he has worked hard to tame in recent years.
SWITZERLAND COULD BE THE TEAM NO-ONE WANTS TO FACE
Switzerland have dealt blows to heavyweight opponents in the recent past and proven a match for anybody on their day but will fall under the 'dangerous opponent' category rather than genuine contenders for the World Cup in Qatar.
They knocked world champions France out of Euro 2020 following a thrilling 3-3 draw and penalty shootout, before falling to Spain via spot-kicks when their quarter-final ended 1-1.
They went unbeaten through World Cup qualifying, pushing European champions Italy into second place and dooming their neighbours to a humiliating failure in their bid to reach Qatar.
They lost to Portugal, Spain and Czech Republic in their first three games of the Nations League but then beat all three in consecutive matches in the reverse fixtures.
They are, in many ways, unpredictable and inconsistent, not necessarily attributes you associate with the Swiss.
It has been a bedding down period for coach Murat Yakin, who took over from popular long-serving tactician Vladimir Petkovic after the Euros. But their style is seemingly enjoyed by the players.
"We have to thank Murat Yakin. It wasn't easy for him to follow in Vlado's footsteps. He did a great job. The team is in excellent shape. It's fun to play with this team," playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri told reporters when World Cup qualification was achieved.
They will be eyeing a place in the round of 16 for the fourth time in five tournaments, having been drawn in Group G with Brazil, Cameroon and Serbia.
There will be a sense of deja vu having faced the South Americans and Europeans in Russia four years ago, where they drew 1-1 with Brazil and beat Serbia 2-1.
They should have the measure of what is a mediocre Cameroon side this time round too.
But their 1-0 loss to Sweden in the round of 16 in Russia was all too familiar and they last made the World Cup quarter-finals when they hosted the tournament in 1954.
Certainly there is the quality in the squad to achieve that in Qatar. Goalkeeper Yann Sommer is one of the best around, and new Manchester City defender Manuel Akanji a dependable anchor at the back.
Midfielders Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka have 214 international caps between them, while up front Breel Embolo can be a real handful with his power, pace and aerial dominance.
Switzerland will certainly not be among the favourites, but no-one will look at them as soft opponents. Quite the opposite in fact, there may not be many who will relish facing them.
FOLLOWING IS A STATBOX ON SWITZERLAND AT THE WORLD CUP:
FIFA Ranking: 15
Switzerland have qualified for a fifth World Cup in a row and been regulars since they first competed in 1934, bar one long 20-year absence between 1970 and 1990. They have appeared in 11 previous editions, reaching the quarter-finals three times, on debut in 1934, 1938 and 1954, when they were also hosts. More recently they have reached the round of 16 in three of the last four finals, but progressed no further.
How they qualified:
Switzerland went unbeaten through qualifying and topped a group that also contained European champions Italy, who were stunned by North Macedonia in the playoffs. Switzerland were top scorers in their group (15 goals in eight games) and only conceded twice in a ruthlessly efficient campaign. They drew both games against Italy and were also held by Northern Ireland, but had the beating of Bulgaria and Lithuania.
They had a dismal start to their Nations League A campaign, losing their first three matches to Czech Republic, Portugal and Spain, but bounced back to beat all of those teams in the return fixtures, so coach Murat Yakin will say they are a team on the up. They had a decent Euro 2020 tournament and made the quarter-finals, knocking out world champions France on penalties in the last 16. They only won one of their five games at the Euros before running out of luck against Spain, who claimed victory via spot-kicks. Since the Euros, Switzerland have played 15 matches, winning seven and losing four.