Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi took his place in the Saudi Arabia manager’s dugout for the first time in November 2017. He still has to wait for his his first competitive game in charge of the Green Falcons, that comes against Russia in the World Cup’s opening match. During his seven-month tenure the Argentine has been packing as many friendly games as possible to gauge where the side is and what needs to be done before the eyes of the world will be on the side on June 14.
During qualification under Bert Van Marwijk, the Green Falcons usually played in a 4-3-3, happy to sit back against the better teams, look to hit on the break and get the ball forward quickly. Pizzi has been trying to get the players to play the ball out from the back more. It has worked to a certain extent, there has been a certain tidiness about the team in recent, if low-key, friendly victories over Algeria and Greece, which represented a clear improvement on a 4-0 loss to Belgium in March. The team has been keeping the ball better and moving it quickly. Added to this the team is also adept at slowing down games, disrupting opponents’ rhythm and being generally frustrating.
The former Chile coach looks likely to play a compact 4-2-3-1 formation in Russia, with the attacking three ready to drop deep to ensure that there are plenty of bodies in midfield.
With goals potentially hard to come by, the Green Falcons will focus on being solid, there is experience at the back, though that comes with susceptibility to pace and a lack of exposure to top-class attackers. Osama Hawsawi is the leader at the back, strong and physical, the 34 year-old is slowing down but Omar Hawsawi (NO RELATION) next to him has been in excellent form this season. There are a number of decent options at full-back with the likes of Yasser Al-Sharani able to play on either side and get forward quickly.
The experienced Tassir Al-Jassim will sit alongside the under-rated Abdullah Otayf in midfield. Both use the ball well, though Otayf may not be able to get forward as much as he will like.
The attacking three players are the true standouts. Salam Dawsari, Yehya Al-Shehri and Fahad Al-Muwallad are the team’s creative heartbeat with the ability to unlock Asian defences, though their greatest tests remain. The trio spent the second half of the season on loan to La Liga clubs, recording just two appearances between them. How sharp they are in Russia could determine how the team perform. The two wide players are capable of getting behind defences and if Al-Shehri can find space behind the main striker, the Greg Falcons could cause problems. There is also Nawaf Al-Abed, another creative talent who was a mainstay in qualification but the playmaker has struggled with injuries all year.
The lack of a regular goalscorer is an issue. Mohammad Al-Sahlawi is likely to full that role but there are other options such as Mohamed Asseri who has an aerial threat and can hold the ball up better.
Which player is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?
Fahad Al-Muwallad is an exciting talent and is the kind of player that fans love to watch, provided he receives the ball in the right areas. If he is given a little freedom by the coach then he has the potential to make things happen and put fans on the edge of their seats.
Which player is likely to disappoint?
Mohammad Al-Sahwali has an excellent goalscoring record for his country and averages well over a goal every other game. There are doubts, however, over whether the striker has the quality to score against the top defences.
What is the realistic aim for Saudi Arabia at the World Cup and why?
This is the side’s first showpiece in 12 years and while most people know it won’t be easy there is some hope, thanks to being placed in one of the easier groups, that they might sneak a place in the second round. Failing that, not finishing last would be welcomed.
Probable starting XI
4-2-3-1 (R to L) Yasser Al Mosailem; Mohammed Al Bruik, Omar Hawsawi, Osama Hawsawi, Yasser Al Shahrani; Abdullah Otayf, Tassir Al Jassim; Fahad Al Muwallad; Yehya Al Shehri; Salam Al Dawsari; Mohammad Al Sahlawi