How Saudi Arabia is using time to gain the upper hand this World Cup

Jawad Choudhary
By Jawad Choudhary
10 Min Read
FIFA-World-Cup-2022-Saudi-Arabia-Preview

51st in the official FIFA national team rankings, Saudi Arabia is getting ready to take part in the World Cup for just the sixth time in its history. Their finest performance in the World Cup to date remains losing to Sweden in the round of 16 to end their tournament.

With 23 points from 10 games, Saudi Arabia finished first in Group B during the qualification round, beating out Japan and Australia, who will also play in the competition. Manager, Herve Renard, will likely have his side struggling to create a significant mark in this event, given the calibre of their group, which also includes Mexico, Argentina and Poland.

The Frenchman, who has been in charge of the Saudi side since 2019, previously served as the manager of both Zambia and the Ivory Coast, winning the African Cup of Nations with both teams in 2012 and 2015, making him the first manager to ever do so.

However, there is cause for concern for Renard given that they have played four times this year, losing twice and drawing twice without scoring a single goal. They did, however, have some reason for hope since the previous year, when they managed seven wins out of 13, they had far better form.

Saudi Arabia 2022 World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Mohamed Al-Owais (Al-Hilal), Nawaf Al-Aqidi (Al-Nassr), Mohamed Al-Yami (Al-Ahly).

Defenders: Yasser Al-Shahrani (Al-Hilal), Ali Al-Bulaihi (Al-Hilal), Abdulelah Al-Amri (Al-Nassr), Abdullah Madu (Al-Nassr), Hassan Tambakti (Al-Shabab), Sultan Al-Ghanam (Al-Nassr), Mohammed Al-Breik (Al-Hilal), Saud Abdulhamid (Al-Hilal).

Midfielders: Salman Al-Faraj (Al-Hilal), Riyadh Sharahili (Abha), Ali Al-Hassan (Al-Nassr), Mohamed Kanno (Al-Hilal), Abdulelah Al-Malki (Al-Hilal), Sami Al-Najei (Al-Nassr), Abdullah Otayf (Al-Hilal), Nasser Al-Dawsari (Al-Hilal), Abdulrahman Al-Aboud (Ittihad), Salem Al-Dawsari (Al-Hilal), Hattan Bahebri (Al-Shabab).

Forwards: Fahad Al-Muwallad (Al-Shabab), Haitham Asiri (Al-Ahly), Saleh Al-Shehri (Al-Hilal) Firas Al-Buraikan (Al-Fateh).

GROUP STAGE FIXTURES

  • Argentina vs Saudi Arabia: November 22 (10:00, Lusail)
  • Poland vs Saudi Arabia: November 26 (13:00, Doha)
  • Saudi Arabia vs Mexico: November 30 (19:00, Lusail)

TEAM PREVIEW

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Rising expectations following a successful World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign have reached a plateau as a result of a difficult group stage draw and inconsistent friendlies performances. In the third qualifying round, Saudi Arabia was Asia’s success story, winning a difficult pool and successfully coaching its youth. However, reality set in afterwards with four defeats in friendlies against opponents from the Americas (1-0 losses to Colombia and Venezuela in June, as well as goalless draws with Ecuador and the United States in September). However, Renard’s confidence has not been diminished by these latter results or a demanding draw that matched Saudi Arabia against Lionel Messi’s Argentina, Robert Lewandowski’s Poland, and underdog Mexico.

For these warm-ups, Renard made a small adjustment to his strategy, switching from the traditional 4-2-3-1 used in competitive play to a 4-3-3. Dynamic full-backs Yasser Al Shahrani and Sultan Al Ghanam should provide the drive, midfield control should come from legendary Al Hilal player Salman Al Faraj, and inspiration should come from outstanding winger Salem Al Dawsari, injuries permitting. The squad’s wildcard is Sami Al Najei, the magician from Al Nassr. There is a lot of skill and optimism that a repeat of the heralded run to the knockout stages at the 1994 World Cup is possible. All of the aforementioned talents must overcome setbacks for this to occur, with Al Dawsari’s condition receiving special attention, during a training camp across the border in Abu Dhabi that includes five friendlies.

Saudi Arabia typically uses wide, overlapping full-backs and narrow wingers. They frequently search for large shifts between the back four and the wingers. Renard’s team excels at creating opportunities through complex passing triangles in open spaces. They frequently play short from goal kicks, but when playing against better teams, they find it difficult to get past defences and must play straight to the number nine of the side, who is typically Firas Al-Buraikan.

Preventing opportunities against elite opponents is the Saudi Arabian team’s vulnerability. They control the ball against Asian teams, but their defensive weaknesses show up against the better competition. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has frequently been exposed and finds it difficult to press teams, leaving them dependent on strong goaltending and wasteful opponents rather than their ability to limit opportunities.

THE PREPARATION

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Saudi Arabia, fully knowing that a monumental task is ahead of them, has taken special preparations for the World Cup this year. They are the only side, other than Qatar, to have been able to host a suitable training camp in advance of the competition. The team will arrive prepared, at least in terms of fitness and chemistry, having just completed a two-month training camp with six friendlies.

The friendlies have proven to be effective for Saudi Arabia in the preparation for the tournament not just results-wise, but also terms of team building. The training games showcased the talent the team has as they had only lost one game since the camp started in September and included victories against current World Cup sides, such as USA and Australia. The extraction of these top players from the league was a big decision carried out by the Saudi federation although it seems to be paying off as the extra time has resulted in the team appearing to be much closer, united and tactically disciplined – providing a significant advantage to assist their nation into World Cup success.

Saudi Arabia’s defenders improved under Renard and established a more fluid connection to midfield. Al-Bulaihi, Al-Amri, and Abdullah Madu combine to make a strong defensive line with solid positioning and good ball retention skills. They link up well with the veteran Al-Faraj, Al-Malki, and Al-Najei in the fairly organised midfield. Hattan Bahebri and Al-Dawsari can launch more deadly attacks and opportunities than previously thanks to Saudi. Overall, they have good ball retention and can play with assurance from the defence into the half of their opponent.

KEY PLAYER

Salem Al-Dawsari

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At the 2018 World Cup, he scored a game-winning goal against Egypt, and no other Saudi Arabian player scored more than he did in the seven goals he scored to qualify for Qatar. Al-Dawsari has appeared in 17 of the 25 games under Renard, earning him the third-most caps. During that period, he has been directly involved in the most goals with nine goals and two assists.

Once of Villarreal, the right-footer can dribble inside to shoot as well as cross from the half-space or in the channel and typically plays inverted off the left. With their left-back Yasser Al-Shahrani, he frequently slips deeper to receive the ball from the centre-back and start attacks. For Saudi Arabia, he also participates in all set pieces, and he has converted nine of the 11 penalties he has attempted in his career. If there was a player to make a big impact for the national side this year, Al-Dawsari would certainly be the favourable man.

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One of the key players for Saudi Arabia will probably be LW Salem Al-Dawsari. Here’s his avg territory as well as shots & key passes in his 4 league matches [image credit: @Twitter: BeGriffis]

PREDICTED LINEUP

Goalkeeper: Muhammad Al Owais.

Defenders: Sultan Al-Ghannam, Abdulelah Al-Amri, Ali Al-Bulaihi, Yasser Al Shahrani.

Midfielders: Sami Al-Najei, Riad Shrahili, Salman Al-Faraj.

Forwards: Salem Al Dawsari, Firas Al-Buraikan, Hattan Bahebri.

PREDICTION

For Saudi Arabia and Renard, it is challenging to find a route out of Group C given that each opponent will present a fierce challenge for a team that has had difficulty scoring goals and winning games this year. The Saudis have a monumental challenge ahead of them, and it is difficult to see anything other than a group stage departure. Given their current record and the calibre of their competitors, they should view any finish other than last in this group as a success. Being an Arab nation, they should receive a strong showing of support inside stadiums for their minimum of three games in the competition, but Renard and his team face a difficult task.

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