Dreadful current form, change of manager and tactics, key players: Everything to know about FC Zurich ahead of clash with Hearts in Europa League play-off

Everything you need to know about FC Zurich prior to their meeting with Hearts in the first leg of the Europa League play-off.

History

Founded in 1896, FC Zurich are 13-time champions of the Swiss top flight. That’s only good enough for fifth behind Young Boys, Basel, Grasshopper and Servette in the all-time list. They have been more successful this century, though the majority of that came in the noughties. In fact, the title triumph last term was their first championship for 13 years and they’ve even spent a year in the second tier since then, though they did win the Swiss Cup the season they went down. Basel are by far the most successful Swiss club since 2000.

Last season

FC Zurich are now managed by former Austria manager Franco Foda, who took charge of the Swiss side this summer. Picture: Getty

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The campaign prior they had almost been relegated, securing their survival on the penultimate weekend of the season, so it was a shock to see them dominate the league and take the 2022/23 title. They finished 14 and 16 points ahead of Basel and Young Boys, respectively. This was down to them winning 17 of their final 24 matches. Their success can be attributed to a greater emphasis on defensive play during the campaign, as they tightened things up significantly, going from conceding 23 goals in their opening 12 games to 23 allowed in the remaining 24.

Manager

Andre Breitenreiter was the mastermind behind the title win, shrewdly putting together a gameplan which suited the players at his disposal rather than going out and making wholesale changes in the transfer market. Unfortunately for Zurich, he departed in the summer to take over at Bundesliga side Hoffenheim.

Breitenreiter was replaced by fellow German Franco Foda. He is a name which should be familiar to Scotland fans as he faced off against Steve Clarke’s side in World Cup qualification as manager of the Austrian national team. He also led them to the last 16 of the 2020 Euros, running eventual champions Italy close. In club football he’s previously enjoyed three spells with Stum Graz and once spent 15 months in charge of Kaiserslautern.

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Attacking midfielder Antonio Marchesano has been with FC Zurich since 2016. Picture: Getty

Current form

In short, it’s horrible. They are bottom of the Swiss top flight after five games played with two points, one goal scored and ten conceded. They were also knocked out of Champions League qualifying by Qarabag.

The poor start has already earned Foda the dreaded ‘vote of confidence’, while the club president recently said he was “sick to the stomach” with the team’s form following a 1-1 draw with local neighbours and minnows Winterthur.

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Looking at the advanced statistics, it does appear that Zurich’s fortunes could soon improve. They’ve only scored once despite a mark of 6.2 Expected Goals (xG), while opponents have netted ten times from an xG of 7.64. It suggests their opposition have been clinical while they’ve been really wasteful in front of goal. There will likely be a balancing out soon on both ends, so Hearts need to be wary of the threat posed, but it’s still far from ideal for a team who are reigning champions.

The match will be played at the Kybunpark stadium in St Gallen. Shown here in 2018 playing host to a Nations League match between Switzerland and Iceland. Picture: Getty

Tactics

If you were being kind on Foda you could say this is a period of transition. Last season’s team was likened to the Leicester City side which pulled off one of the greatest upsets in football history to be crowned English Premier League champions in 2016. Zurich were happy to forego possession in the hope of hurting teams on the counter-attack with Assan Ceesay having a breakthrough season with a combined 30 goals and assists to lead the Swiss top flight.

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With Ceesay following Breitenreiter out of the exit door by joining Lecce in Serie A, Foda has looked to rework the team’s philosophy. Last season Zurich averaged 46.6 per cent possession; only Sion had less in 10-team league. This season so far they’ve jumped all the way up to 54.1 per cent possession, third behind Basel and Young Boys. They’ve also attempted fewer crosses per game, a recognised strength of the side last term.

The departure of Ousmane Doumbia to league rivals Lugano has also been felt with his combative qualities missing from the centre of the park.

Foda, though experimenting with a flat-back-four on occasion, has largely kept the 3-4-2-1 shape which Breitenreiter adopted.

Key players

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Last season they were widely recognised to having two of the best wide players in the division with Adrian Guerrero and Nikola Boranijasevic charging up and down the flank from wing-back. Spanish lefty Guerrero is an excellent crosser of the ball and therefore creates a lot of chances. Serb Boranijasevic doesn’t share his team-mate’s crossing prowess, but is a creative player himself.

The same goes for Antonio Marchesano. The Swiss attacking midfielder has been demonstrating his guile with Zurich since 2016 and had a very strong goalscoring record in 2021/22 from the No.10 role.

Mirland Kryeziu is the anchor of the defence. The Kosovo international is particularly adept at winning back possession in the opposition half. Youngster Becir Omeragic received a lot of praise for his performances last term, especially his ability to carry the ball out from the back, but he’s found it difficult to nail down a spot so far this term.

Another promising talent is 18-year-old Italian striker Wilfried Gnoto, who is a real threat with his dribbling ability, but he is at the centre of transfer rumours taking him back to his homeland.

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Stadium

Zurich’s home ground is the Stadion Letzigrund with a Capacity of 26,104. Not that it matters because they won’t be playing there. A concert is booked for the same night, so instead the “hosts” will have to welcome Hearts to the Kybunpark, home of St Gallen which is 62km away as the crow flies.

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