After a disappointing season for FC Zürich in the 2020/21 Swiss Super League, where the club finished in eighth place, only five points and one place above the relegation playoff position, the club made the decision to replace interim manager Massimo Rizzo. In came German manager André Breitenreiter, tasked with turning around one of Switzerland’s biggest clubs.
Success came instantly for Breiternreiter at FCZ, with the club rolling to the Swiss Super League title this season. With currently two matches to go at the time of writing, Zürich dominantly sit 18 points clear at the top of the Swiss Super League, with both the league title and European football for next season wrapped up. The future for FC Zürich under the tutelage of André Breitenreiter looks bright. This tactical analysis will look at Breitenreiter’s philosophy, as well as analyse some of the tactics that he has implemented at the Swiss club which has led to such a marked improvement from the season prior.
One key thing that André Breitenreiter has done to help turn around FC Zürich this season is a significant improvement defensively. Last season, Zürich shipped 57 goals during the Swiss Super League season — the third-worst defensive record in the league. This season, they have conceded 43 goals, trailing only second-placed FC Basel (40), for the fewest conceded in the league. To place more emphasis on this marked improvement under Breitenreiter, FCZ have faced the second-most shots in the league this season (501), as well as blocked the most shots (166), and finally, their 61.4% success rate on defensive duels is the second-highest in the Swiss league. This emphasises the defensive improvement that FC Zürich have made this season, with defenders being in the correct positions during defensive phases of play, along with intelligent and vital challenges being put in in these defensive phases.
When it comes to defending inside the 18-yard box for FC Zürich, one of the keys to Zürich’s defensive turnaround this term is the ability for every player in this area to stay switched on during defensive moments. The image above from Zürich’s match against FC Sion shows an example of this. The Sion player in possession has found himself in space on the edge of the box and attempts to send a cross into the vacant space towards the player positioned near the penalty spot. Ousmane Doumbia (circled) can stay switched on and move into the path of the pass, intercepting it and clearing the danger away for FC Zürich.
The quick reactions and the ability to stay switched on is once again shown in the image above. Young Boys had a corner, with the ensuing initial ball cleared away to the edge of the box by a Zürich defender, with the ball dropping to a Young Boys player on the edge of the box. The FC Zürich players are quick to react, with three of them quickly closing down the player, forcing his shot to go over the bar and away from danger. The quick reactions and smart defending from the FCZ defenders prevented a possible shot on target from Young Boys — or even a goal.
Defending in transition has also improved under André Breitenreiter. In the image above from FC Zürich’s match against Young Boys, FCZ had just turned over possession in midfield following a poor pass, allowing Young Boys to initiate a counterattack. The player at the far post is unmarked, with the FCZ defender slow to react and get back into position. This is the option that the player on the near side is looking to cross the ball to, but the quick reaction of Ousmane Doumbia prevents it. Doumbia can close the player down, blocking the cross and sending it out for a corner, preventing a possible goalscoring chance. It also once again demonstrates the ability of this FCZ side to stay switched on at all times, as well as be constantly aware of their surroundings during defensive phases of play, with Doumbia given the freedom to close down the ball carrier as a result of a teammate picking up his marker behind him.
Another defending in transition moment is shown above from FCZ’s match against Grasshopper. The FCZ centre-back out wide had just given the ball away in a dangerous area, allowing Grasshopper to start a counterattack. With the wide centre-back out of position closing down the ball carrier, Doumbia drops into the box to become the third central defender, giving FCZ a numerical advantage in the 18-yard box if the ball is played into the danger area. However, the centre-back makes up for his initial mistake, closing down the ball carrier and blocking his cross away for a throw-in.
When it comes to the defensive side of FC Zürich’s game, André Breitenreiter has done a tremendous job this season. In one season, he has overseen the transformation of one of the worst defences in the Swiss Super League into one of the best, which is, without a doubt, one of the key reasons that FC Zürich rolled to the league title this season.
Single pivot during build-up play
Under André Breitenreiter, there has been a total switch in formation and build up this season compared to last. This season, the German manager has usually opted to set FCZ up in a 3-1-4-2 formation, with normally Ousmane Doumbia being the lone single pivot to assist the back three during build-up phases. Though Zürich are more of a counter-attacking side than possession-based, the use of their single-pivot during slow build-up phases helps to keep the pressure off the back three. It also allows them more time on the ball to play passes into the channels to forward runners. This section will analyse some of the build-up play sequences of FC Zürich.
The image above is an example of the formation that FC Zürich form during sequences of build-up play. Notice how the back three stay wide, with the single-pivot player, normally Ousmane Doumbia, positioning himself between the lines to prevent the opposition attackers from pressing the back three when they are in possession. The role of the single pivot is important, with this player being responsible for supporting the attacks, and being the link player between the defending and attacking players. Though Doumbia is not directly involved in the build-up sequence in this image, his indirect involvement allows the ball to be played wide and become advanced. His positioning means that the three attackers for Grasshopper can’t pressure the centre-backs, as that would open up the space for Doumbia to receive the ball and drive forward into the space in midfield. The single-pivot system is crucial to André Breitenreiter’s build-up play with his FC Zürich side.
The build-up phase above from FC Zürich’s match against FC Basel is again able to show the importance of the single-pivot during these phases of play. The positioning of Doumbia allows the back three the time in possession, which allows the wide centre-back to play a ball into the channel to the feet of one of the attackers. With the position of Doumbia, the Basel midfielders have to stay at home, as pressing the backline would allow the single-pivot to become a safety valve passing option. The single pivot’s indirect involvement in these moments are crucial to creating options forward to quickly progress the play.
The image above perfectly encapsulates the role that the single-pivot player has in André Breitenreiter’s style of build-up. The centre-back in possession, as well as the central centre-back, are both being pressed by the FC Sion forwards. Noticing this, the single-pivot player drops into the space vacated by the opposition forwards, becoming a passing option as a result. The ball is played to him by the centre-back, which breaks the opposition’s forward press, and allows the ball to continue to be progressed towards the attacking third.
The final example for this section shows another example of the indirect involvement the single-pivot player has in the build-up phases. In this match against Young Boys, Doumbia is once again tasked with being the single-pivot. He is being marked by the opposition player circled in red. This allows the space in midfield for the forward to drop into, which allows the ball to be played to him and allows the attacking phase to be able to continue.
Though they are more of a counter-attacking side, FC Zürich this season have also been able to utilise their single pivot to great effect during sequences of build-up play.
One of the best counter-attacking sides in Switzerland
FC Zürich this season have transitioned into more of a counter-attacking side and become one of the best in Switzerland, for that matter. Under Breitenreiter, FCZ are not a side that prefers to dominate possession, with them having the second-lowest average ball possession in the league with 46.5%. Only FC Sion have held less possession in the league this season with 44.3%. When it comes to their counter-attacking stats this term, Zürich are averaging 3.11 counter-attacks per 90 minutes, while their opponents average 2.89 per 90 minutes. This final section will take an in-depth look at some of these counter-attacking sequences.
A counter-attacking sequence for FC Zürich is shown above. The ball is won by FCZ just inside their own third, allowing them to start a counter-attacking phase of play. The two forwards are able to go 1v1 against the opposition centre-backs, which allows the wing back on the near touchline to join the attack with an overlapping run, creating an overload, as well as a 3v2 numerical advantage for Zürich. Though the counter-attack breaks down and no goalscoring chance is created, this example can show the threat that FC Zürich pose in counter-attacking situations.
Above shows another example of Zürich’s ability to win the ball high up the pitch and quickly counter to create a goalscoring opportunity. In the phase of play above, the Sion player is dispossessed in his own attacking third, which allows a counter-attack sequence to begin. It once again resulted in a 3v2 advantage for Zürich, with the forward able to be played in 1v1 against the goalkeeper. Unfortunately, the ensuing chance goes begging as the shot is saved by the goalkeeper and parried away from danger. Though no goal resulted, this example, once again, demonstrates FCZ’s consistency when it comes to creating goalscoring chances from counter-attacking opportunities.
Above shows another counter-attacking phase from FCZ. The ball is won back from Sion in midfield, and as a result of the quick break, it is once again a numerical advantage for Zürich in the attacking third of the pitch. With the central defenders staying tight to block off the central areas, the space is left out wide for the Zürich player to be played in behind the defence. Unfortunately, the ensuing shot is saved by the Sion goalkeeper, but the danger is still present from the quick break counter-attacking system implemented this season by André Breitenreiter.
The image above once again shows another example of a counter-attacking phase from FC Zürich. Young Boys had turned over possession in Zürich’s defensive third just before this, and FCZ were able to set off on a quick counter-attack which evolved into a 2v1 numerical advantage in the final third. Unfortunately, no goal results, but this is still able to demonstrate the quick and incisive passing during these FC Zürich counter-attacking phases of play.
This analysis piece has taken a more in-depth look into some of the tactics that André Breitenreiter has utilised this season at FC Zürich. This season was a dream season for both Breitenreiter and FC Zürich. The title triumph for FC Zürich is their first since the 2008/09 season; meanwhile, André Breitenreiter has now been linked with some bigger vacant jobs around Europe. Breitenreiter has been linked with the currently-vacant positions at both Hertha Berlin and Borussia Mönchengladbach, and with Marco Rose just recently being sacked by Borussia Dortmund, could BVB become another option?
With FC Zürich winning the Swiss Super League, they will be back in the Champions League next season, where challenging clubs of the stature of Liverpool, for instance, will be a great challenge for both the club, as well as Breitenreiter, should he remain in charge next season.