The match between Al-Ahli Jeddah and Al-Nassr further proved how the Greens still have some way to go before achieving their first league title in over 30 years, despite not losing a league game since 2013-14 season – a record that stretches over 50 games after yesterday’s encounter with the “Alami”. A 1-1 draw in Riyadh was a stab in the back for Al-Ahli supporters, who just 5 minutes before their game started with Al-Nassr, were celebrating the fall of Al-Hilal. The irony was that Al-Hilal fans would support Al-Nassr, their fierce and hated rivals, against title rivals Al-Ahli.
Al-Nassr, champions of the last two Saudi League editions who went toe-to-toe with Al-Ahli for the Saudi League title in the previous season are in a period of embarrassing struggle. Their loss to lowly and displaced Najran after going 2-0 up signalled the end of Cannavaro’s career and for the second time this season Rene Higuita took to the touchline to lead Al-Nassr amidst rumours of Murat Yakin’s short-term appointment as Al-Nassr head coach. Higuita’s line-up lacked midfield presence in deeper areas but a previously feared front line – Adrian Miezerjewski, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi and Marquinhos – led the Nassrawi fan base’s hopes.
Al-Ahli’s Christian Gross missed the likes of Mustafa Bassas – although fans are not too happy with him post-AFC U23 – Motaz Hawsawi, but that still didn’t prevent them from fielding a strong line-up. Omar Al-Somah was backed up by Marquinho, Ioannis Fetfatzidis and Salman Al-Moasher. Alongside Taisir Al-Jassim and Waleed “Welly” Bakhshween, Al-Ahli’s midfielders were pivotal in certain tactical battles that decided the game. Ali Al-Zubaidi, one of Saudi’s starters at the AFC U23, started at right-back.
Al-Ahli declare midfield war
Al-Ahli’s tactical plan circulated around midfield pressing, with Marquinho joining the – shockingly – lackadaisical Omar Al-Somah up front to create a rhombus-like shape around Al-Nassr’s double pivot: Ibra and Al-Jebreen. Their pressing didn’t necessarily have to be heavy but the ultimate plan was to eliminate passing options and clog passing lanes to win the ball from Al-Nassr.
The importance of their pressing locations resulted in the first goal of the game. They used the first 25 minutes or so to make sure Al-Nassr’s players wouldn’t be able to weave their way out of their own defensive third, constantly pressuring them whether it was high or a more conservative and calculated scheme. The main aim of this was to maximise the potential of winning the ball and the threat that supersedes the action. This led to, in the first half, an issue in the build-up play of Al-Nassr but surprisingly no hesitancy to speed the process of building up their attacks.
Al-Nassr’s pivots had no space to play proactively. They were closely marked or cover shadowed by both Omar Al-Somah and Marquinhos, leading them to a reactive style of play. This was coupled with the wingers’ close monitoring of the full backs, especially Salman Al-Moasher who got the better of Khaled Al-Ghamdi on many occasions.
This in turn had its effects on the way Al-Ahli attacked. As previously mentioned, they scored their first goal and what was the equaliser as a result of the monitoring scheme of their opposition. The pressing affected the positioning of both defensive midfielders at Al-Nassr, and Al-Ahli exploited the fact that they would stick closely together, coupled with a series of other factors such as Al-Nassr’s lack of confidence in defence and the poor form of Khaled Al-Ghamdi, drawing them out of the center and allowing Marquinho to penetrate the left half space and score.
Al-Nassr reply with Awesome Adrian
The build-up play at Al-Nassr is a shadow of what it used to be and has become progressively worse over the course of the season. However one player that will always be there for Al-Nassr is the magnificent midfielder Miezerjewski as some Al-Nassr fans like to name themselves on Twitter after him.
According to Al-Nassr’s line-up he would operate as a central attacking midfielder, and he’s always known to play at the tip of the diamond for Al-Nassr when they used to operate in a 4-3-1-2 shape. But on this occasion, he played as a left sided inverted wing back if we completely take his work into account.
The lack of progressive build-up, midfield presence and mentality in the heart of Al-Nassr’s midfield was an issue fixed swiftly by Higuita or Adrian himself. Adrian would drop into the midfield line, fall behind Hussein Abdulghani after he overlapped or move to either wing to help form attacks. Statistically, Al-Nassr were the better team offensively and in keeping the ball and that had to do with the change noticed after around 11 minutes of playing time, as a result of Al-Ahli’s strategy. But with Al-Nassr’s form disastrous at the time of writing, for that reason was the fact that they failed to capitalize on the match and douse the Al-Ahli attack until the game ended.
The situation occurred once again with Mohammad Al-Sahlawi playing as a False 9 at times. His positioning differed from either taking Adrian’s role in central attacking midfield or clashing with Maiga at right wing. There was even an occasion where both Adrian and Al-Sahlawi flanked Ibra in central midfield.
In the same photo, you can see one of the reasons why Maiga was subbed off early. His positioning was poor on the night, failing to provide any threat of sort on the right wing and inevitably being replaced by the most expensive Saudi player Yehia Al-Shehri.
Likewise with Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr’s main tactical point led to their opening goal. Al-Sahlawi dropped deep, drawing Al-Ahli’s defenders to himself and Adrian, playing a wall pass before Adrian set Marquinhos through on goal to break the deadlock.
The Saudi League continues to improve in terms of actual playing time and tactical innovation, and if there’s anyone set to challenge for the Asian Champions League besides Al-Ain at the current time, it is definitely one of the Saudi teams. Al-Ahli will be in Al-Ain’s group for the Champions League which will be a clash of two smart managers: Gross vs. Dalic.
Al-Nassr despite their disastrous season, have the Asian Champions League to look forward to. But in terms of their league season, they seem all but out of the top 4.