x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Following the club’s stuttering start to the season, John McAuley looks at how Sanchez Flores can help Al Ain recover.

Quique Sanchez Flores. Pawan Singh / The National
Quique Sanchez Flores. Pawan Singh / The National

Having been installed as Al Ain manager on Saturday, Quique Sanchez Flores has spent the past few days plotting his new side’s revival. The champions have lost two of their first three Arabian Gulf League matches, and are ninth in the table. Here we look at five things Sanchez Flores must do to reverse Al Ain’s fortunes.

Restore confidence

With the obligatory pleasantries out of the way, Sanchez Flores offered a first assessment of his new squad. “My first task is to talk to the players,” he said on Saturday, “... and restore confidence and belief they are a champion side.”

Sanchez Flores was right: the champions have lost their consummate cool. Perhaps it stretches back to last season, when a second successive title was sealed by Cosmin Olaroiu, then the coach, blooding younger players for the remaining four fixtures. Al Ain triumphed just once in that sequence.

If maybe the rot did not set in there, then a hugely disrupted pre-season affected results and eroded belief. The club’s board now concede that Jorge Fossati’s ill-informed appointment was the catalyst to the calamity, but in Sanchez Flores they have rapidly rectified that mistake. This week’s training sessions have already impressed the players, with Sanchez Flores reminding them they have been comfortably the country’s best for two seasons. Finally, they have a coach whom they both respect and trust.

Settle on formation

The frustrations with Fossati were born, we were told, from his footballing philosophy and, chiefly, his dependence of employing a 3-5-2. The players aired their grievances; the unease evidenced in a shambolic first half in the August friendly against Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal.

Al Ain’s recent success, remember, was built on variations of 4-4-2, and last season they thrived with Alex Brosque in the space behind Asamoah Gyan. Mirel Radoi and Helal Saeed screened the back four, allowing Omar Abdulrahman and Jires Kembo Ekoko to attack.

Sanchez Flores will not deviate too far from that system. At Al Ahli, he adopted a 4-2-3-1 scheme and his possession-based football should coax the best from his latest resources. So far this season, Al Ain’s ball retention has been substandard, but when they click, very little can be done to thwart them.

Finding a structure to harness all their attacking talent could provide Sanchez Flores a headache, although in giving Michel Bastos license to express himself on the left wing, he may well have a trump card.

Tighten defence

Set aside Al Ain’s 6-3 loss to Ahli on the opening day of last season, and the Garden City club conceded only 20 goals in their next 25 league matches. They boasted the top flight’s meanest defence, with UAE national-team regulars in Khalid Abdulrahman, Ismail Ahmed, Mohanad Salem and Mohammed Ahmed.

This campaign, Al Ain have been fretfully porous, with eight goals conceded in three matches. Defensive naivety again cost them dearly against Al Dhafra on Friday. Khalid Essa, the talented goalkeeper signed this summer, has endured a troubled start.

However, a lack of discipline throughout the side has contributed to the problem. The team’s shape has been ragged, and much will fall now on the Ibrahim Diaky-Mirel Radoi axis in central midfield. If Al Ain are to prosper, the pair must realise their defensive responsibilities and protect a previously exposed back four. Salem, too, has to improve on recent performances; the centre-back was sent off in the defeat to Al Shabab, and in Fares Juma, Sanchez Flores could see a ready-made upgrade.

Revitalise Omar

Al Ain’s chief orchestrator has been seriously off-tune this past month. Typically, Omar Abdulrahman sets the team’s tempo, his clever passing able to carve chances for grateful colleagues. Even in the bleakest of situations, Al Ain usually relied on their master playmaker to conjure a bit of magic.

Yet, thus far, the flashes of brilliance have abandoned him. Strangely, Abdulrahman has too often relinquished possession, a tendency to attempt the fanciful, when a simple pass would suffice, blotting his displays.

When that inclination crept into his game under Olaroiu, Abdulrahman was sternly rebuked, frequently reminded that he is best when in control of the ball.

Sanchez Flores will want his prize Emirati to return to the form that comfortably made him the league’s most instrumental exponent, and Abdulrahman should listen to a coach with a considerable reputation. Olaroiu said last season that the No 10 is a sensitive soul; in Sanchez Flores he has the perfect motivator to help him flourish.

Hit the ground running

Granted, in the new, highly competitive Arabian Gulf League, a six-point gap hardly represents a chasm, yet Sanchez Flores will understand the importance of quickly setting Al Ain’s season back on track. Two defeats in three matches leave the champions playing catch-up, especially as Ahli, considered their most realistic challenge for the title, sit at the summit with a perfect record.

Sanchez Flores’s arrival comes at an opportune time: the league programme is enjoying a brief hiatus, allowing him ample opportunity to get familiarised with his new surroundings. Brosque’s return to full fitness is another positive.

Sanchez Flores requires a fast start, though. His first league encounter comes against Dubai club on October 19, followed by tricky tests against Al Wahda and Al Nasr. Then, he faces the intriguing match-up at Ahli on November 24. Al Ain zneed to make up for lost time. Luckily for Sanchez Flores, a meticulous planner, he knows well the league and his latest squad.

jmcauley@thenational.ae