A consequential week of international football is upon Herve Renard and Saudi Arabia, as they both prepare to embrace their long-awaited return to competitive action plus map out a path into the future.
A 26-man squad was named last week by the multiple Africa Cup of Nations champion for the gathering in Riyadh which features March 25’s friendly with Kuwait and March 30’s first World Cup 2022 qualifier since November 2019, versus Palestine.
The Frenchman’s intriguing selection, later impacted by Al Hilal striker Abdullah Al Hamdan coronavirus-enforced pull-out, contains 10 changes from November’s double header versus Jamaica. It also features seven uncapped players, including 11-goal Al Qadsiyah winger Hassan Al Amri and emerging Al Nassr centre-back Abdulelah Al Amri.
Here are four tactical options the 52-year-old tactician could embrace this month:
4-2-3-1 – TRUSTED OPTIONS
Renard’s success throughout a well-travelled career has, often, revolved around a 4-2-3-1 formation.
There is no reason to think this shape will be ditched, despite the preceding 2-1 friendly loss to Jamaica from which a 3-4-3 was utilised.
A pivotal position, now and moving ahead, is the attacking midfielder. Enter Nassr’s Al Najei.
The 24-year-old’s impressive 2020/21 Saudi Professional league tally of five goals and four assists, including two of the latter in last week’s 7-0 rout of promoted Al Batin, should see him add to a solitary international cap.
Al Hamdan’s withdrawal provides a quandary up top, after nine starts under Renard. New Al Hilal team-mate Saleh Al Shehri has just four goals in 18 top-flight appearances this term, but netted when starting the 3-0 victory versus Jamaica.
Wingers pick themselves, with Al Ittihad’s Fahad Al Muwallad and Hilal’s Salem Al Dawsari. Also expect a starting spot for fit-again midfield metronome Abdullah Otayf.
Nassr’s Abdullah Madu should hold off the challenge of on-form club-mate Abdulelah Al Amri to start against Palestine.
4-2-3-1 – MIXING IT UP
A quandary is faced by Renard for Thursday’s Kuwait clash: either provide an acid test for untried options in the international arena, or allow his first-choice XI invaluable time on the pitch together after playing twice in 15 months?
This situation is complicated by the Saudi position in Group D. They are second to Uzbekistan, albeit with a game in hand, and only top spot guarantees progression into the third round.
If the first option is pursued, it’ll also allow recent sparkling club form to be rewarded.
Al Amri has been the SPL’s stand-out centre-back and deserves minutes, despite previously being a non-playing member of the 2019 Asian Cup roster. Madu could make way, even with Al Bulaihi making only 11 SPL starts for leaders Hilal this season.
Uncapped Nasser Al Dawsari, 22, has emerged as a favourite of Rogerio Micale at Hilal and merits a shot at partnering the incomparable Ittihad warrior Abdulellah Al Malki at the base of midfield.
An alternative solution for Al Hamdan’s absence is to push Al Muwallad back into the ‘false 9’ role of the Juan Antonio Pizzi-era and slot Al Ahli Jeddah’s Abdulrahman Ghareeb onto the left wing. The latter-mentioned 23-year has recorded a career-high five SPL strikes, from 21 games, in 2020/21.
3-4-3 – AN ALTERNATIVE
Different methods of playing will become essential for the challenges to come.
Renard’s identification of this issue was recently apparent. A diversion away from a four-man defence appeared for the first time in his 13th international outing; the second of two friendlies versus the Reggae Boyz.
This system appears well suited to Al Shabab’s 22-year-old centre-back Hassan Tambakti. Especially with colleague Ahmed Sharahili out injured and Renard a proven admirer.
A temptation to throw in Hilal speedster Mohammed Al Breik at right wing-back may be resisted because of Nassr’s Sultan Al Ghanam’s excellence.
Attacking freedom granted to the potential front three of Al Muwalad, Al Shehri and Salem Al Dawsari should strike fear across Asia.
4-4-2 – ON THE ATTACK
It will be a seismic shock if Saudi Arabia do not advance into the latter stages of World Cup qualifying.
In that intense arena, games should need to be chased. This week’s friendly with Kuwait, therefore, could provide a testing ground for such a scenario.
4-4-2 remains a formation rarely utilised in the Middle East. But its merits are obvious, in the right situation.
These benefits are glaring in attack where Al Shehri (or Al Hamdan when fit), Al Muwallad, the prolific Hassan Al Amri and magical Salem Al Dawsari could all start.
Power and athleticism in midfield is key for this system to effectively function. Hilal’s striding Mohamed Kanno would appear an obvious beneficiary.
Club-mate Al Breik, too, with his superior engine at right-back.
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