After dozens of coaching changes in the last 25 years, Saudi Arabia has a proven winner in charge for this year’s World Cup.
Juan Antonio Pizzi led Chile to the 2016 Copa America title, but it won’t likely be easy for the Argentine to get his new team to play the same kind of high-octane, pressing style he used in South America.
Most of the squad heading to Russia doesn’t have any significant experience playing club football outside their homeland. The team is currently the lowest ranked of the 32 participants at No. 70.
Saudi sports authorities tried to change that by sending nine players, including four internationals, on a half-season loan to Spanish clubs in January. Although wingers Fahad Al Muwallad and Salam Al Dawsari, and midfielder Yahya Al Sherhi are being exposed to different training methods, they have not played a competitive game.
The Saudis made their World Cup debut in 1994, reaching the round of 16. Since then, the team has gone through more than 30 coaching changes while qualifying for the 1998, 2002 and 2006 tournaments and going out in the group stage.
Bert van Marwijk, who coached the Netherlands to the 2010 World Cup final, led Saudi Arabia through the most recent qualification campaign but failed to agree on a new contract to lead the team in Russia.
Edgardo Bauza replaced the Dutchman, but he lasted only two months. The Argentine was fired in November after underwhelming performances in five friendlies and was replaced by Pizzi.
Here’s a closer look at the Saudi Arabia team:
Pizzi took over after failing to qualify for the World Cup with Chile.
The 49-year-old coach’s target is making the round of 16. There have been signs so far of an attempt to introduce more of a passing style instead of the direct strategy used in the two years under Van Marwijk.
Four goalkeepers were called up for the recent warm-up games and Pizzi isn’t fixed on a starter.
Walled Abdullah and Yasser Al Mosailem appear to be vying for the role. Abdullah is more experienced and is likely to be better able to handle physical challenges, although Mosailem performed well in a 1-1 draw with Ukraine in March.
The back four is an experienced unit but with three likely starters over 30 they are susceptible to pace from opponents.
The 34-year-old Omasa Hawsawi and 32-year-old Omar Hawsawi are set to partner in the center.
Much depends on Abdullah Otayf, a holding midfielder who has drawn comparisons with Luka Modric of Real Madrid.
If Saudi Arabia can start to play out from the back, the 25-year-old Otayf can make the team tick.
Taisir Al-Jassim, who has made more than 130 international appearances, adds to the solidity in the center while Al-Shehri provides creativity going forward.
The team lacks a proven scorer at the top level with Mohammad Al-Sahlawi and Nasser Al-Shamrani both over 30 and not convincing against strong defenses.
The wide players are vital. Salem Al Dawsari and Fahad Al Muwallad, the most talented player available, provide much of the threat, although both have been sitting on the sidelines in Spain.
The Saudis will be based in St. Petersburg but will play their opening match against host Russia in Moscow on June 14. That will be followed by a trip to Rostov-on-Don to play Uruguay on June 20 and to Volgograd to take on Egypt on June 25.
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