FIFA World Cup 2018: Saudi Arabia preview
Saudi Arabia’s victory over Greece was the Green Falcons’ third in six matches under new manager Juan Antonio Pizzi. The Argentinian is the third Saudi Arabia coach in less than a year, following Bert van Marwijk – who led the Arabians to FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification – and Edgardo Bauza – who replaced van Marwijk but lasted only two months.
Despite the fact that Green Falcons are the lowest ranked team (no.70) of the 32 Russia 2018 finalists, they still have an interesting roster featuring some good footballers. Three of them – Fahad Al-Muwallad, Salem Al Dawsari and Yahya Al-Shehri – have been part of the core of nine players that Saudi Federation sent on loan to La Liga last January in order to gain experience at a higher level. This movement didn’t work as these guys never played but they still gained some needed experience practising with Spanish clubs.
In front of goalkeeper, Al Mosailem, Pizzi should line up a four-man backline featuring the team’s captain Osama Hawsawi and Omar Hawsawi as centre-backs. Yasser Al-Shahrani of Al Hilal and Al Ahli’s Mansoor Al-Harbi should be start as full-backs while Abdullah Otayf (Al Hilal) and Taiseer Al-Jassim (Al Ahli) should be the starting duo in the middle of the pitch.
On the flanks, Pizzi could start the competition with Levante’s Al-Muwallad on the right-side and with Al-Dawsari (Villarreal) on the left. They are different players with Al-Muwallad being more an attacking winger whilst Al-Dawsari is more a midfielder.
Another ‘Spaniard’, Al-Shehri of Leganes, will assume the attacking midfielder spot, playing just behind the lone forward Mohammed Al Sahlawi of Al Nassr, who scored 16 goals in 14 games thought the World Cup qualification campaign.
The 27-year-old Al-Shehri is probably the most gifted player at Pizzi’s disposal. Starting as a no.10, the former Al Nassr’s starter has the licence to roam all around the offensive third of the field, moving himself through the middle and the half-spaces too.
Al-Shehri is the key part into Pizzi’s projected 4-2-3-1 line up. By the way, former Chile’s head coach could also line up his side in a more cautious 4-3-3 formation featuring three central midfielders with Al-Shehri moved out wide on the right flanks, from which he can drift inside.
From a tactical point of view, Saudi Arabia will try to build from the back, also because they are not physically strong. But it could be tough to do it at a so high level as World Cup is. That said, the Green Falcons are a gifted team with a lot of technically good players that will try to dominate the game through ball possession. Otherwise, Saudi Arabians could struggle should they be forced to defend with a low block in their own territory.
Player to watch
The obvious pick should be Al-Shehri. A part of the Green Falcons team since 2009, Al-Shehri distinguished himself with his play through the qualification campaign. He faces some troubles when playing with his back to goal so Pizzi needs to allow him to start deep in the way to link the game between midfield and attack. Gifted with a good dribbling, Al-Shehri usually relies on it to beat defenders.
Young player to watch
Al-Muwallad led Saudi Arabia to FIFA World Cup 2018 scoring the goal that sent Green Falcons to Russia 2018 and helped his side (Al Ittihad) to win their 8th Crown Prince Cup title before to land in La Liga. The young winger isn’t sized at 167 cm for 59 kg but owns speed and a nice ball control. He has been labelled as Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi of Saudi Arabia due to his technical skills and he also has another link to the Argentinian star as Al-Muwallad turned down a Barcelona’s offer when he was approached by a Barça scout as kid. Quick and gifted with his feet, Al-Muwallad was loaned to Levante but he amassed just ten playing minutes over there. That said, during last international break he showed to be in good shape scoring Saudi Arabia’s goal the game against Ukraine.
One of the best Asian forward and Saudi Arabia’s sixth-best goal scorer with 28 goals, Al-Sahlawi is a small sized striker (177 cm, 72 kg) able to find the net. Technically gifted, Al-Sahlawi is the first player his teammates look at when they have to send the ball up top on the offensive third. A blue-collar footballer, the 31-year-old forward spent three weeks this season training with Manchester United.