After escaping relegation on the penultimate matchday of 2020-21, FC Zürich managed to pull off a title victory against all the odds in becoming the champions of Switzerland in 2021-22.
Driven by a coaching change, smart recruitment, and young talent, FCZ were able to finish ahead of their much fancied and much wealthier rivals Basel and Young Boys at the top of the league by 14 and 16 points respectively.
André Breitenreiter – former manager of Paderborn, Schalke and Hannover in the German top-flight, was appointed as head coach of FC Zürich in the summer of 2021. With a hands-off approach to possession (only two clubs managed a lower average possession figure) and quick, direct transitions to attack opponents, the new Swiss champions mimicked the playing style seen by Leicester City in their shock 2015-16 Premier League title victory and were tailored exactly to the strengths of their squad, bringing results from day one.
Four wins to start the 2021-22 campaign were followed by defeats against top clubs Young Boys and Basel, as well as conceding 20 goals across eight matches. They turned this negative into a positive, however. By quickly learning that a bigger focus needed to be put on defensive stability, Breitenreiter set his team up to be harder to beat and it worked – they won 17 of their final 24 league games and conceded less than a goal a game (23) across that period.
Of the 10 sides in the Swiss Super League in 2021-22, only St. Gallen had a more ‘fast and direct’ style than FC Zürich. FCZ’s average direct speed of 1.92 m/s was slightly less than the St. Gallen’s (1.98 m/s) but Zürich did average more passes in each open play sequence on average (2.7 vs. 2.4).
Averaging 289 successful passes per game – 100 fewer than runners-up Basel (399) – and with a below league-average 47.7% possession rate, Zürich were more than comfortable to let their opponents have the ball, before attacking with pace. No side attempted more shots from fast breaks than they did (33), scoring a league-high eight of those.
Of course, there were integral players behind their 2021-22 league success, with a selection of those – and the impact that they made – analysed below.
Assan Ceesay: The Gambian Goal-Getter
Coming into 2021-22, Assan Ceesay had a total of only nine goals in 83 Swiss Super League appearances. Fast forward to the end of this season, the Gambian has more than tripled his tally in the competition thanks to a brilliant 20 goals in 33 games – becoming just the second FCZ player to reach 20 goals in the competition within a season after Alhassane Keita in 2005-06 (also 20).
The striker has benefited from Breitenreiter’s arrival at the club, with the more direct style suiting his pace. Interestingly, of his 20 goals, 18 saw him involved only as the final player in the move, without any involvement in the build-up.
While he finished behind Jordan Siebatcheu (22 goals) in the scoring charts, Ceesay outperformed his expected goals total by a league high 7.7, with his shot conversion rate of 26.0% being higher than his rival (22.2%).
It wasn’t only in front of goal that Ceesay excelled, as he also assisted 10 goals in the league this season, taking his total goal involvements to 30 in 33 games – another league-high tally.
Three of his 10 assists came for team-mate Antonio Marchesano, while the favour was returned on six occasions – this meant that their nine assists for one another made them the most successful pairing in the Swiss top-flight in 2021-22.
The Best Wide Players in the League
FC Zürich were relatively quiet in the transfer window before the season, but both Adrian Guerrero and Nikola Boranijasevic proved to be important additions to the team, deployed in the wide positions left and right in André Breitenreiter’s 3-1-4-2 formation.
Both arrivals came as free transfers from within the league – Guerrero from Lugano and Boranijasevic from Lausanne. Across the season, they provided vital defensive stability and were the link between defence and attack, with no other Zürich players being involved in as many open-play sequences as Guerrero (1322) and Boranijasevic (1210) – the Spaniard was part of 49% of FCZ sequences, the Serb 45%.
No side had a pairing of players that created as many chances for them as Guerrero (87) and Boranijasevic (60) in the Swiss Super League across 2021-22, with the Spanish left-back’s total only lower than Servette’s Miroslav Stevanovic (89) overall.
Guerrero’s main strength came via crosses, with a league-high total of 212, and his set-piece delivery helped his side score 23 times from these scenarios – no side registered more than FCZ in this manner.
Young Talent Having an Impact
Becir Omeragic is undoubtedly one of the current biggest talents in Swiss club football.
2021-22 was already his third season as a first-choice player in the Super League, with the 20-year-old establishing himself as one of the top central defenders in the competition.
Predominantly featuring on the right of Zürich’s back-three, his duel success rate of 57% is above the league average for a defender (54.5%), while his ability to read the game well saw him average 1.7 interceptions per 90 minutes.
His ability to carry the ball from defence was key in the transition of defence to attack for FCZ, with his progressive carry distance of 2,567m being a team-high and his 4.6 carries of 10 metres or more per 90 being a league-high among all centre-backs in the Swiss Super League.
When Omeragic became a senior international for Switzerland in October 2020, just four months shy of his 19th birthday, became the youngest player to feature for his nation since Breel Embolo and Granit Xhaka, who both did so while still playing at FC Basel.
One worry for possible suitors of the young centre-back is his poor injury record – missing 33 games across the last three seasons, the majority of which have come because of injuries rather than suspension or tactical decisions. Borussia Dortmund and Milan have both been reported to have an interest in the young Swiss defender, so this summer could be interesting for FCZ and Omeragic.
Zürich’s second standout talent, Wilfried Gnonto, joined from Inter in 2020 as a 16-year-old.
The Italian under-19 national team captain is Zürich’s super-sub, making 24 of his 33 appearances in the Super League this season from the bench and scoring six goals as a sub – more than any other player in the league.
Gnonto is undoubtedly an intelligent player – quick and technically gifted. His 4.9 shot involvements per 90 rank him 11th in the league among players with more than 1000 minutes played, while his 4.4 attempted dribbles per 90 rank him seventh in the competition within the same parameter.
Gnonto’s smart positioning is not least shown by him having scored three of his eight goals this season with his head, despite only measuring 1.70m.
If you believe reports, the Italian youngster could be moving to the Bundesliga as soon as this summer, he is certainly one to watch for the coming years.
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