It’s not been the start that Saudi Arabia, or Herve Renard, envisaged when one of African football’s brightest coaches was snaffled in the summer.
The Green Falcons have, simply, failed to take flight in two of their three second-round World Cup 2022 qualifiers under the two-time Africa Cup of Nations champion and World Cup 2018 entrant with Morocco. From the embarrassment of twice falling behind to minnows Yemen in Group D’s opener, to the – poignant – goalless stalemate on the West Bank against Palestine.
Thursday’s taxing trip to Uzbekistan does not look like an appropriate moment to cut loose. But here are three ways how – with the help of Wyscout – Renard can, belatedly, let his talented team off the leash:
OTAYF CAN END POINTLESS POSSESSION
Last month’s comfortable 3-0 swatting aside of Singapore, unquestionably, is the outlier under Renard.
Drama from the draw with lowly Yemen in neutral Manama was only provided by the opposition, while the Saudis simply could not get out of first gear in a politically charged fixture on the occupied West Bank versus the Palestinians.
From this trio of matches, the Saudis average a colossal 72.6-per-cent possession. Only South Korea (79.8 per cent) and Japan (72.9 per cent) are ahead.
Their average through balls per 90 minutes of 7.47 is, however, good enough for 22nd out of the 45 Asian nations to take part in the 2022 cycle. This is notably less than the unheralded nations of Indonesia (11.8), Cambodia (10.21), India (9.72) and Tajikistan (8.41).
This is why the return to full-match fitness of Al Hilal metronome Abdullah Otayf is a game-changer in the mild environs of Tashkent. Few players on the continent can dictate play better from midfield.
The 27-year-old had only been granted two second-half cameos by his club side, prior to starting last month’s international double.
Now free from lingering injury and back towards his incisive best in Saturday’s 1-0 win versus Urawa Red Diamonds in the 2019 AFC Champions League final first leg, a key tactical element of Renard’s 4-2-3-1 formation should be in place.
USE OFFENSIVE FULL-BACKS AS DEFENSIVE WEAPONS
Yasser Al Shahrani and Mohammed Al Breik, together, represent one of Asian football’s great weapons.
The Hilal full-backs boast the top-line speed of a Formula One racing car, yet twin this with ceaseless endurance of a 24 Hours of Le Mans contender.
This enviable asset, plus an utter dominance of possession, should mean the Saudis sit right near the top for 2022 qualifying averages. But Renard’s reluctance to leave his central defence exposed and belief in ball retention means they only have the 11th-highest tally (19).
It doesn’t need to be this way.
The Frenchman should, boldly, push his Hilal flyers high up the pitch, improving the production line to teenage striker Abdullah Al Hamdan. Their positioning would also have the added bonus of, potentially, inhibiting Uzbeki wingers Khursid Giyosov and Azizbek Turgunboev in the process.
GO BACK TO THE FUTURE
One name jumped out from the 24 players selected by Renard for the clash with Uzbekistan and friendly versus Paraguay.
Serious injury, internal disquiet and usurpation by Hilal’s glittering foreign contingent has caused Nawaf Al Abed to abdicate his crown as the golden child of Saudi football, plus, not feature at international level since World Cup 2018’s friendly warm-ups.
But the 29-year-old wide man has managed to show flashes of his former glory this term. Enough, certainly, to catch the Frenchman’s eye.
Don’t discount a first international start since September 2017’s iconic 1-0 win versus Japan, that ended a 12-year absence from World Cups, in the offing. If the undercooked Yahya Al Shehri could feature in the XI at Palestine, Al Abed is worth a shot.
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