A game filled with goals, yet interesting in a tactical aspect. The Asian football game is developing rapidly, and the more we see emphasis on strategical significance rather than a host of general instructions, we will begin to see calculated, intelligent football as we have seen today.
Al-Hilal, a mammoth club and currently the 2nd best ranked in Asia tore apart Qatari Champions Lekhwiya, who were now under former Qatar National Team manager Djamel Belmadi after the departure of Michael Laudrup.
As you can see, the systems varied. On one hand, you had an unorthodox 3-6-1 seen prominently by Liverpool in the second half of the 2014-15 Premier Leagues season, and on the other hand you had another unorthodox system as Lekwhiya’s front 3 formed a very fluid 4-4-2 Diamond / 4-3-3 shape. An amateur move from Belmadi it proved to be.
The flanks become area of battle
With centre backs of high quality and experience, a solid base in midfield and a plethora of skill and movement in attack; Al-Hilal are a versatile team currently on red-hot form. It was the case of using their flanks, and with up-and-coming Al-Braik at right wing back looking to make his mark on Asian football coupled with a return of Yasser Al-Shahrani to the left side, things were looking bright for the “Blue Wave”.
Intelligent movements from the wing backs saw Al-Hilal dominate throughout 2015, as they position themselves away from the central build up to stretch the play and widen the gaps in Lekhwiya’s defence. With next to no defensive help from Youssef Msakni and Mohammad Muntari, Lekhwiya were bound to suffer.
Look at Al-Braik positioned wide on the right, hugging the touchline that opens up Lekhwiya’s defence. This leaves space from Carlos Eduardo to run into, as Ailton occupies both centre backs. Movement from Kaabi and Al-Dossary keep the central trio of the Qatari side busy, helping Al-Hilal to domination in all aspects.
The half space is wide open, that it allows the onrushing Kaabi to receive the ball in the box. Notice how the left centre back of Lekwhiya doesn’t move out to press as he is busy blocking the chance to Ailton Almeida who’s movement is becoming a clear route for goals.
In the build-up to Al-Hilal’s third goal of the game, movement from the attacking midfielder towards the left halfspace sees a 2-on-1 created leading to a low cross from Yasser Al-Shahrani for Carlos Eduardo – formerly of Porto – to tap in. The question here is how the unfit Lekhwiya players could deal with the buzzing Al-Hilal players, who exploited their poor spacing towards the middle and end of the game.
Once again, look at the movement of Ailton into space behind Lekhwiya. No doubt it would have been different with the fitter players however the decision making of Belmadi proved wrong and Giorgios Donis, one of Asia’s rising tacticians, fully exploited it as he most usually does.
Exploitation of build-up
I previously talked about the passiveness of Msakni and Muntari, as opposed to the top notch workrate of Nam Tae-Hee. “Nam was always a workhorse”, says Qatari football expert Ahmed Hashim (@AhmedH_93).
Moving on, we have to talk about the miss of experienced captain Saud Kariri, now 35 years of age. He missed out on the Saudi Super Cup in London and the beginning of the ALJ League due to family reasons and it’s clear that Al-Hilal’s main weakness over the last month has been solely from the midfield support.
Al-Hilal’s centre backs are all capable of playing out of the back and relying on themselves as a trio to push forward, however the space covering, position supporting and ever reliable defensive midfielder was missing in today’s game. Kaabi is the player who replaced Kariri, however the former is based on drive, flair and movement as opposed to circulation, defensive awareness and reliability.
Here, Kariri supports the defence despite the heavy pressure. Under no circumstance does he succumb to the hoarding of players.
Al-Faraj who is actually known for his versatility failed to make himself comfortable in Kariri’s usual role, the half back of sorts. Al-Faraj was easily suspect to pressure, which is understandable as his role is usually to provide flair in the deeper zones of the pitch that are located in the opposition half.
Therefore, Lekwhiya’s only goal came – predictably – from a hoard of pressing. It worked, as Al-Hilal leave the spaces between their centre backs deliberately open and wide to push up and force movement into the opposition half. Msakni and Nam combined to score the opener:
But here is where the irony came, as Lekwhiya did the same process once again, forcing Kwak to pass into a congested zone through their smartly executed pressing trap. Unfortunately, Luiz Mairton missed a 1-on-1 chance and Al-Hilal subsequently scored seconds later!
Notice that Lekhwiya’s successful pressing actions resulted in either 3 or more players on 1 man or a body from midfield joining the press.
Ineffective Muntari and rookie decisions from Belmadi
Studying Al-Hilal well, you see that they go direct once they see their wing backs in space and look to form any sense of threat towards the opposition through that area of the pitch too. To battle this, Belmadi played with a narrow 4-3-3 / 4-1-2-1-2 that was fronted by the lack of defensive acuity from Muntari and Msakni.
Instead of using a 4-4-1-1 for example, that could have seen the fluid combination play from talented Msakni and brilliant Nam up top backed up by Boudiaf and Luiz with actual wingers supporting their full backs to overload Al-Hilal, a weird decision was made by the former QNT manager. He’s now stuck in a quandary, how to use the team to overturn a 4-1 defeat to a team only weaker than Guangzhou Evergrande.
The decision looks even worse when you see that Mohammad Tresor is a weak link for Lekhwiya, and proved that in the game that now all but confirms Al-Hilal’s participation in the Asian Champions League semi-final. Maybe there was an in-game alteration that Belmadi looked to implement? Unfortunately, lumping the ball to Muntari – who is ineffective in aerial duels – worked to no avail.
A very interesting tactical battle, and Al-Hilal are the team to watch. Should Al-Ahli (of Dubai) and Al-Hilal progress to the semi-finals, we may see a brilliant tactical battle between two of the brightest tacticians in Middle Eastern and Asian football (the other manager being Cosmin Olaroiu).
Al-Hilal are not limited to these tactical wildcards either, as Mohammad Al-Shalhoub is another master at reading the game. Al-Hilal – as I previously said – are a must watch at the current time.