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Team Analysis: Saudi Arabia


Kuala Lumpur: Saudi Arabia will be the first Asian nation to play in a FIFA World Cup opening match when they face Russia on June 14 and, despite the absence of star player Nawaf Al Abed, there is plenty of quality in the side.

A turbulent nine-month spell since they secured FIFA World Cup qualification in September saw Saudi Arabia part ways with Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk, appoint former UAE boss Edgardo Bauza, only to dismiss him only two month later and bring Juan Antonio Pizzi.

Pizzi has since gone on to establish a new tactical identity for the team; one that emphasises the value of pressing high up the pitch and retaining possession for extended period. Whether the six months period since he effectively took over is enough for the players to fully adapt to his ways is arguably the biggest question for the Green Falcons ahead of the FIFA World Cup.

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How They Got There

The margins were fine in Group B of the Asian qualifiers as Saudi Arabia edged out Australia to the second World Cup spot by virtue of a superior goal difference. The Green Falcons scored a goal more and conceded one less than the Socceroos to join Japan in Russia 2018.

Van Marwijk’s men were beaten by his currents employers 3-2 on Matchday Eight in Adelaide, setting up an exciting race as the two sides were locked at 16 points with two games to play. Both teams succumbed to away defeats in the penultimate round, Saudi Arabia losing 2-1 to UAE and Australia falling 2-0 in Japan.

This meant the Saudis had to better or match Australia’s score on the final matchday to reach the FIFA World Cup, which they did, overcoming the Samurai Blue 1-0 in Jeddah as the Socceroos beat Thailand 2-1 in Melbourne.


Key Players

Fahad Al Muwallad – The pacey winger came off the bench to score the winner against Japan and send Saudi Arabia into the Finals. In Russia, he will be a key attacking outlet whether starting or as an impact sub.

Yasser Al Shahrani – Pizzi has included only three full-backs in his 23-man squad meaning Al Shahrani’s versatility in playing on either flank becomes even more important for Saudi Arabia.

Osama Hawsawi – The skipper leads from the back, and his man-marking abilities earned him the nickname “Mr Handcuffs”. At 34 years of age, he will have to use his experience to make up for lost pace.


Coach

Saudi Arabia have changed coaches twice since securing qualification, but in Pizzi, they have a proven winner. The Argentina-born coach led Chile to the 2016 Copa America title and has FIFA World Cup experience having represented Spain in the 1998 tournament. Pizzi represents a shift from van Marwijk’s conservative approach as he prefers a high press system coupled with plenty of ball possession.


Dominant duo

No player played more passes in Saudi Arabia’s qualification campaign than midfielder Salman Al Faraj, his 675 passes are miles ahead of the next top passer Mansour Al Harbi who has 439. In the final qualifier against Japan, Al Faraj completed 71 passes, higher than any other player on the pitch. The man on the receiving end of 23 of his passes was club and country midfield partner Abdullah Otayf.

The central midfield duo are key to Pizzi’s possession-based approach, as their technical ability and passing range enables Saudi Arabia to dictate play from deep before unleashing a vertical pass to either split the defence or find a marauding teammate on either flank.


Full-backs balance

Three players were rotated in the right-back role in the qualifiers, with Hassan Muath starting most games, followed by Al Shahrani then Mohammed Al Burayk. Muath was dropped by Pizzi who opted to take the latter two alongside Al Harbi as his three full-back options.

Barring any injuries, Al Shahrani is set to start on the right come June 14, and he will be expected to contribute more in the attacking phase while Al Harbi sits deeper to provide some balance. The left-back will face arguably the biggest test of his career when he comes up against Egypt’s red-hot winger Mohammed Salah. Stop him and Saudi could be in with a chance of securing a famous FIFA World Cup victory over their neighbours.


Interesting Stat

Three players in the Saudi Arabia squad had not been born yet when the Green Falcons made their FIFA World Cup debut in 1994; Al Muwallad and Mohammed Kanno were both born in September 1994, a couple of months after that historic campaign, while the youngest player in the squad, Abdullah Al Khaibari, was born two years later.


Did you know?

Contrary to common misconception, Saudi centre-back trio Osama Hawsawi, Omar Hawsawi and Motaz Hawsawi are not siblings. The three, however, belong to the Hawsawi tribe in Western Saudi Arabia which traces its ancestry to the Hausa tribes of West Africa. Former Al Ittihad and Saudi Arabia captain Mohammed Noor also belongs to the same tribe and is a distant relative of the current captain.

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