Preparing in relaxed surroundings
6 June ~ While England were being washed out of training by a Florida hurricane, Switzerland's decision to stay surrounded by home comforts seemed sensible. The sun beat down during the final days of their training camp in Weggis in the centre of the country, providing conditions warm enough to replicate Brazil. This was fortuitous because in all other respects Weggis fails to resemble the vibrant venues for the World Cup. It is chocolate-box cover Switzerland – a ludicrously picturesque, soporific small town of wooden chalets and church towers on the banks of Lake Lucerne, surrounded by Alpine peaks.
The pace might be somewhat slower than São Paulo but where else could journalists cruise in by boat across the pristine lake for the camp's closing press conference?
On reaching dry land, they are seated in an immaculate media room with floor to ceiling windows offering views of the stunning scenery. The neat training ground nestles below. All week long, one touchline has been packed with excited red-and-white clad kids. Alongside the other is an ancient farmhouse and its resident bell-clanging cows ambling unperturbed on the hillside. The mood among the cocooned squad seems as good as ever. The players are smiling and working hard under the impetus of their experienced coach, Ottmar Hitzfeld, and captain, Napoli's Gokhan Inler.
And yet a few doubts are starting to creep in. These concerns might merely be a product of the pre-World Cup period, when the scrutiny is in inverse intensity to how much is actually happening. But Switzerland's pre-departure preparations have undoubtedly produced more questions than answers. The main talking point is whether the system that served the team well in qualifying still makes the most of their assets.
Much of this debate revolves around the playmaking position. The previously excellent incumbent, Granit Xhaka, faded badly at the back end of the Bundesliga season for Borussia Mönchengladbach, where he, in any case, plays in a deeper role. In all three warm-up games, Xhaka has been far from his usual ebullient self and clumsy in possession. His understudy, Freiburg's Admir Mehmedi, finished the season strongly but has a diffident demeanour that makes him unsuited to directing an international team's attack.
A further complication is the emergence of Josip Drmic up front. Drmic was the third-top scorer in the Bundesliga last season, despite playing for relegated Nuremberg. His recent arrival as the genuine goalscorer Switzerland have long craved is, of course, a huge bonus. But making the most of Drmic's pace and striking instincts demands that the ball be played in front of him, which is not what the Swiss' system has been set up for. It is designed for centre-forwards who score less but hold the ball up for supporting players more.
The obvious solution would be to move the team's most creative player, Xherdan Shaqiri, in from the right to play in a roving role behind Drmic. His skill and sharpness would supply more ammunition for the striker and unshackle Shaqiri himself to torment opposing defences. The downside is that it would require a midfield reshuffle and disrupt Shaqiri's flank partnership with the rampaging wing-back, Stephan Lichtsteiner, which has hitherto been Switzerland's most dangerous attacking weapon.
It is difficult for a coach as meticulous as Hitzfeld to contemplate changing his painstaking plans on the eve of the tournament. But he is not known as "Mr Results-Coach" here for nothing and his pragmatic side might be winning out. Shaqiri came on as playmaker for the last 25 minutes of the final friendly against Peru on Tuesday night and changed the game. Problem solved? We will see against Ecuador on June 15. Paul Knott