John McAuley looks at the areas the Gulf country must improve on if they want to avoid the kind of humiliation they suffered against Russia in their World Cup Group A opener
Hawsawi brothers need fire in their belly to shackle Suarez and Cavani: Saudi Arabia v Uruguay talking points
Drop Al Sahlawi, go with ‘false nine’
Mohammed Al Sahlawi’s inclusion against Russia was not that much of a surprise, but it wasn’t met with general approval by the Saudi fans. The Al Nassr striker may have finished joint-topscorer in World Cup qualifying, but eight of his 16 goals came against Timor. The last time he found the net for his national team? In the 3-2 defeat to Australia, 12 months ago. Yet Juan Antonio Pizzi opted for Al Sahlawi in the opener, and he struggled throughout. Virtually ineffectual, the only time he threatened to spark into life came 10 minutes into the second half. He failed to connect with Yahya Al Shehri’s cross. So time for a change. Saudi have hardly been blessed with a surfeit of capable marksmen, meaning Fahad Al Muwallad should come in. Employed as a false nine, the pacey winger will open space for teammates to, hopefully, capitalise.
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Play Al Khaibri as midfield anchor
As the 5-0 scoreline suggests, the Saudis were incredibly open in the opener last Thursday. They began the game relatively well, seizing possession and pushing back the Russians. The full-backs operated high up the pitch, Yasser Al Shahrani in particular enjoyed forays along the left flank. But then the hosts scored, settled and, understandably, found their rhythm. Then they found space almost everywhere. It was telling that four of Russia’s goals came from midfielders, with substitute Denis Cheryshev scoring twice and Alekandr Golovin the standout. Saudi were open and inviting, their centre weak. They had no recognisable defensive midfielder. Abdullah Otayf, Taiser Al Jassim and Salman Al Faraj are all technically proficient – usually – but they don’t snap into tackles. However, Abdulmalek Al Khaibri does. The Al Hilal midfielder would be a wise inclusion, to plug gaps, to stymie a more talented Uruguay midfield. Then Saudi Arabia can build from there, or so goes the theory.
Use better the ball
It is a difficult statistic to comprehend. Especially when Saudi Arabia conceded five. Especially when they could have conceivably conceded more. Yet, according to Fifa’s official stats, they had 59 per cent of possession at the Luzhniki Stadium. That said, they did not muster a single shot on target throughout. It underlines their inefficiency with the ball. It justifies Russia’s decision to allow the Saudis possession, before hitting them on the counter. Too many times passes went astray. Teammates found rivals. Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side never delivered a truly killer ball. There are those with the skillset to do that. Al Faraj is known for his technical ability; Otayf for his comfort in possession, so much so that some liken him, albeit rather fantastically, to Luka Modric. Saudi are better on the ball than Thursday. On Wednesday, and even though they are set to have nowhere near as much of it, they need to show it.
Pressure on Pizzi to prove his worth
Straightaway, Pizzi was asked about his future. His side had been thoroughly beaten, figuratively bloodied and bruised against a modest Russian team. Would he stay on as manager, one match into the World Cup? Would he be allowed? As Pizzi himself responded, it was a “pertinent” question. After all, his employers are never slow in dispensing with managers. A second-heaviest defeat in World Cup history hurt. Turki Al Sheikh, the ubiquitous head of the General Sports Authority, labelled the defeat “a total fiasco”, although he blamed the players. Adel Ezzat, president of the Saudi Federation, called it “totally unsatisfactory”. Even if he was absolved temporarily, the buck stops with the manager. And just when Pizzi’s stock was on the rise. There were signs pre-World Cup that his message was getting across. The high-press, the quick transitions. But Russia rendered redundant any goodwill. Now it is up to Pizzi to prove his worth.
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Stopping Suarez and Cavani
So, how’s your luck? Six days after conceding five against Russia, Saudi’s despondent defence face one of the tournament’s most feared strike duo. In Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, Uruguay boast a formidable front pair, childhood friends who enjoy a fine working relationship, too. Between them, they have contributed 93 international goals. Spare a thought, then, for Osama and Omar Hawsawi. On Thursday, Saudi’s central defenders were not helped in their plight to stop an increasingly rampant Russia, often left isolated by full-backs stranded high up the pitch, by no one offering genuine protection immediately in front. The loss will (should?) firm focus and instill a little more fire in the belly. It should make them even more determined to shackle Suarez and Cavani. This time, they must be compact and composed. The Hawsawis must improve. Don't, and Uruguay’s gilded pair will strike gold.