The only Arabian team from Asia to make the 2018 FIFA World Cup was Saudi Arabia, who managed to do so after a 1-0 victory against Japan on the final matchday of the AFC World Cup Qualifiers. Fahad Al Muwallad’s lone second half goal sent the fans in Jeddah into a frenzy on that night, but it was what came after that night that signaled trouble for the Falcons.
Contractual issues saw current Australia head coach Bert Van Marwijk leave after his success in qualification for the World Cup – Saudi Arabia’s first since 2006 – as his replacement Edgardo Bauza was met with uproar from Saudi fans and media after failing to produce anything of note with both Argentina and the UAE National Teams. Bauza was expectedly sacked just months later, before Juan Antonio Pizzi was brought in to the side before the Arabian Gulf Cup last November.
As we head into the final days before the World Cup, Ahdaaf presents to you the most comprehensive preview there is on the Saudi Arabian National Team.
- Abdulla Al Mayouf: One of the better Arabian ‘keepers with the ball at his feet, the Al Hilal goalkeeper has been in excellent form and will be expected to start at the World Cup.
- Mohammed Al Owais: The most modern-day Saudi goalkeeper out there, Al Owais’ starting spot chances have been tarnished by his up-and-down local season.
- Yasser Al Mosaileem: The tall Al Ahli goalkeeper was second choice to Al Owais throughout the season but remains a reliable choice in goal for The Greens.
- Mansour Al Harbi, LB: The functional full back is quite limited technically – but when motivated – gets the job done for his nation.
- Yasser Al Shahrani, LB/RB: The versatile Al Shahrani is ambidextrous, quick and threatening when penetrating the final third. It remains to be seen whether his final touch will be present in Russia to finish off his opponents.
- Osama Hawsawi, CB: In his twilight years, the former Al Hilal and Al Ahli star’s experience and ball-playing abilities will be vital for the back line.
- Omar Hawsawi, CB: Not enjoying the best of seasons with his club Al Nassr, Omar Hawsawi remains a key component of the Saudi National Team.
- Motaz Hawsawi, CB: Arguably the best defender in Saudi football right now, Hawsawi was apparently eyed by Italian clubs for a loan deal a la Yehya Al Shehri to Leganes over the winter window.
- Ali Al Blaihi, CB: The Al Hilal defender enjoyed a strong second half of the season and usurped his club teammate Mohammed Jahfali to earn a spot at the World Cup. Well-known for his calm defending style and passing abilities.
- Mohammed Al Burayk, RB: The only true right back in the side, on his day Al Burayk is an excellent crosser, free-kick taker and attacking full back with his offensive positioning.
- Abdulla Otayf, DM: The Sergio Busquets of Saudi Football, Abdulla Otayf has been wowing fans with his ability to keep the ball under pressure and release it with relative ease. His abilities will be key to breaking the Russian and Egyptian pressure in their matches.
- Salman Al Faraj, CM: Once known as the next big thing of Saudi football, Al Faraj has now reached the age of 28 and is yet to reach his potential. He is still an important part of the national team with his occupation of the third midfielder spot in the centre.
- Mohammed Kanno, CM: Emerging as one of the better young players in Saudi football, Kanno’s strength and height are a great complement to his skilful abilities on the ball.
- Abdullah Al Khaibary, CM: One of the excellent young stars for the Saudi U-23 team, Al-Khaibary now has the chance to shine for his national team for the first time.
- Abdulmalik Al Khaibary, DM: A destroyer in defensive midfield, his weakness comes in the form of when he is pressured for his side.
- Hussain Al Moqahwi, CM/AM: A very intelligent player in midfield, his inconsistency and inability to complete full matches makes him the Jack Wilshere of Saudi football.
- Hattan Bahebry, LW: After excelling with Al Shabab on the wing with his excellent movement and combinations, Bahebry may be a key super-sub for The Greens.
- Salem Al Dossary, RW/LW/AM: Arguably the best Saudi Arabian player right now, the Villareal loanee is dangerous on either side and excels in both offensive and defensive phases with his endless running. He has also developed immensely in the technical sense.
- Taisir Al Jassam, CM/AM: The Wesley Sneijder of Saudi football, he is expected to play a key role in the side’s goals from midfield.
- Yahya Al Shehri, AM/RW/LW: On paper an excellent creator, Al Shehri like many Saudi players is subject to large batches of inconsistency throughout his seasons. However, he did earn a loan to Leganes in January.
- Fahad Al Muwallad, ST/RW/LW: A winger for his club sides, the Levante loanee is expected to lead the line for Saudi Arabia and threaten the opposition with his pace and drive.
- Mohanad Aseri, ST: The Al Ahli striker has produced a good season to make it to the World Cup and is a good choice as a target man for the nation.
- Mohammad Al Sahlawi, ST: Once one of the more dangerous strikers in Asian football, Al Sahlawi – despite his training programme at Manchester United – has been on poor form recently. He remains Saudi’s best option for link-up play up top.
Formation and tactics
Saudi Arabia are expected to play in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation, with recent friendlies indicating Pizzi may go for the latter. The main idea is to maximise the potential for the midfield to control the ball and the full backs to widen the pitch with their offensive runs, while the wingers cause problems in between the channels and Fahad Al Muwallad receives balls in behind the defence.
Whether this is done with a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation is yet to be seen, with Al Jassam probably going to play behind the striker in the former ahead of Al Faraj and Otayf. Should Pizzi indeed stick with the 4-3-3, Al Jassam may play from a deeper role or be replaced by the midfield monster Kanno.
The idea is to play based on the idea Ramon Diaz set out for his successful Al Hilal side in 2017, in combination with Pizzi’s pressing principles himself. However, whether Saudi Arabia play on the backfoot in the World Cup remains to be seen, but it is worth mentioning that they are as dangerous on the counter-attack as they proved against Germany in a recent friendly with Al Dossary being the main instigator of their attacks.
Saudi Arabia are more than capable of doing so, with ball-playing capabilities in goal, defence and defensive midfield if the right players are chosen to send long balls under pressure onto the front trio. Al Muwallad is excellent at latching onto these balls, while Al Dossary will be expected to carry it from the midfield third to the final third.
Yet, despite their capabilities, Saudi Arabia have issues with their mentality which is their biggest problem without a shadow of a doubt. They may be talented, but concentration and motivation is a big issue for players who suffer from large periods of inconsistency due to this. Saudi Arabia on paper are good enough to qualify if they play it well, but never place your hopes in a Middle Eastern side (as us experts will tell you!), they may as well beat Russia and draw with Uruguay but then get thrashed 3-0 by Egypt. Oh, it’s possible.
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