Football managers are forever in search of consistency.
Whether this is through application of tactics, positioning, use of the ball or many of the thousands of variables at play when 11 men meet another 11 men on a pitch for 90+ minutes.
Bert van Marwijk’s nascent UAE reign is no different. But if it was condensed into a mathematical constant, the equation would be a simple – and worrying – one.
Its presence has put their continued participation at the 24th Gulf Cup in peril, ahead of Monday’s grandstand finish in Group A versus hosts Qatar where only three points will suffice.
Ripples from such an emotive reversal versus the Asian Cup holders are also difficult to predict. They would, at a minimum, also cast further light on a consistent failing and inconsistent – and unlikely – approach.
When the Dutch master’s men meet paltry opposition, they always win. Ali Mabkhout’s opening hat-trick in Tuesday’s 3-0 demolition of Yemen maintained a theme that also includes World Cup 2022 qualifying victories versus also-rans Malaysia and Indonesia.
But whenever they face a decent side, agonising defeat follows. Thursday’s 2-0 reversal to Iraq has impinged prospects of progression this week in Doha, similar setbacks at Thailand and Vietnam doing the same thing to hopes of making the third round on the long road to the next global event.
An extension cannot be countenanced. Early elimination from the Gulf Cup will amplify growing – and now not completely without justification – disquiet about Van Marwijk, only eight months into his tenure.
This was not what the UAE Football Association signed up for when they hired the esteemed tactician who guided a new generation of Saudi Arabia stars to World Cup 2018 after 12 years away, plus led his native Dutch to defeat in 2010’s final.
The 67-year-old headed to the Emirates as a known quantity. His best sides are always deployed in a 4-2-3-1 formation, from which midfield dynamism and counter-attacking prowess up top are quintessential.
Van Marwijk has also never been scared to hand responsibility to youth. From Fahad Al Muwallad with the Saudis, to Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder with the Netherlands at the turn of the decade plus an 18-year-old Robin van Persie starting the victorious 2001/02 UEFA Cup showpiece at Feyenoord.
Repetition in selection and style then hardwire these principles into his players’ expanded minds. Especially malleable, younger ones.
What will worry Van Marwijk is the contrast in styles that his men have been conquered by.
Defeats on the road in south-east Asia at Thailand (47 per cent) and Vietnam (44.9 per cent) came with deficits in possession, according to Wyscout.com.
Fast forward to the Gulf Cup and Iraq’s 2-0 victory was earned with just 41.6 per cent of the ball.
The Lions of Mesopotamia beat the UAE at their own counter-attacking game. This typical Van Marwijk method, however, did not work for the Whites in Thailand or Vietnam.
A common thread throughout all three is a lack of attempts on goal. The UAE were outshot by possession-starved Iraq (10/7), just as they were when pummelled by Thailand (16/6) and Vietnam (7/3).
There is also the ruinous impact of enduring faith in naive defenders.
Al Jazira centre-backs Mohammed Al Attas and Khalifa Al Hammadi – who boast a combined age of 43 – began the campaign in unconvincing fashion in victories versus Malaysia and Indonesia. Defeat in Thailand would see Al Attas drop out and an experienced head brought in.
Yet Al Hammadi has remained in situ to be sent off at Vietnam, then leave Alaa Abbas and Alaa Abdul Zahra unattended for Iraq. He represents an illuminating work in progress for Van Marwijk, who is at a crossroads.
Only the present will matter at the Khalifa International Stadium pressure cooker on Monday. Not the coach’s glorious past, or the UAE’s far from realised bright future.
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