Introductions are afoot in the picturesque Austrian countryside between incoming coach Bert van Marwijk and his UAE squad.
An interminable four months has passed since the 67-year-old accepted the exacting task of securing the nation’s second-ever World Cup berth. The nine-day camp in Salzburg until July 22 represents the first time he has been able to get hold of a squad originally selected in late May, albeit without absent pivotal attackers Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout.
Along with trusted assistants Roel Coumans and ex-Real Madrid defender John Metgod, the technical staff will be imparting their tactical dogma and assessing the suitability of the footballers who must enact it. Every moment counts with the opening qualifying double header fast approaching on September 5 and 10.
Here, we assess the major issues unfolding in the undulating Alpines:
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
Van Marwijk’s CV speaks for itself.
Highlights include leading his native Netherlands to extra-time defeat in World Cup 2010’s final, returning Saudi Arabia to the global competition after a pained 12-year gap for 2018 – a spell that included two wins, one draw and one defeat versus the UAE – and winning the 2001/02 UEFA Cup with Feyenoord.
Glittering resumes, however, were also in the possession of Carlos Queiroz, Roy Hodgson, Dick Advocaat and Srecko Katanec. All are united in failing to carry the Whites to the World Cup after 1990’s sole showing.
The onus is on Van Marwijk, starting from this opening preparatory period, to inspire faith in his modus operandi and instil belief about the path ahead. Direct predecessor Alberto Zaccheroni patently failed to do this during his unsatisfactory 15-month reign.
For the players, a ‘Golden Generation’ that came up short for World Cup 2018 must be supplemented by fresh talent.
Wounds are also still raw after their humiliation on home soil in January 2019’s Asian Cup semi-finals.
Van Marwijk is getting far from the fullest picture.
Enforced absences for 2016 AFC Player of the Year Abdulrahman and 2015 Asian Cup top scorer Mabkhout are regrettable, while a sizeable Al Wahda contingent have been excused from duty as they prepare for next month’s 2019 AFC Champions League round-of-16 ties against Saudi Professional League holders Al Nassr.
OLD AND NEW
A pragmatic streak is, nevertheless, apparent in Van Marwijk’s debut selection.
Veterans like versatile Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club defender Walid Abbas and winger Ismail Al Hammadi remain, when few would have been shocked to see them thanked for their sterling service and dropped. This has been the case for ignored Al Wasl anchorman Khamis Esmail.
The aforementioned duo will help ensure advancement from the second round, before being phased out as the lengthy AFC process winds on.
The stale squad that stuttered throughout the Asian Cup does require fresh blood. Van Marwijk and his scouts have swiftly identified it.
Midfielder Majed Suroor, 21, is a powerhouse who influenced Sharjah’s remarkable run to the 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League crown. Centre-back Mohammed Ali Shaker, 22, has taken the step-up from Ajman to Al Ain, the UAE’s most-decorated club, this summer and palpable excitement surrounds Al Wasl’s 17-year-old Scottish/Emirati forward Ali Saleh.
With 2015 AFC Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil decisive in the final months of last term with Shabab Al Ahli after two years of fitness frustration, reasons to be positive can be found on the verdant Salzburg training fields.
A CLEAR IDENTITY
From the litany of errors incurred by the faded Zaccheroni, a failure to impose any form of identity was most egregious.
A quartet of formations, alone, were used in six Asian Cup games. The 66-year-old also endured an aborted experiment in the early months of his torturous tenure with the trademark 3-4-3 that carried his AC Milan side to glory 20 years prior.
It is virtually assured that the ideologue Van Marwijk will not suffer the same problem.
He is welded to a 4-2-3-1 and insistent on the worth of repetition to hard-wire the game plan into his charges’ minds. No matter the opposition, changes are kept to an absolute minimum.
Conveying knowledge of this system and quickly highlighting the players who can fulfil its demands is the No1 priority for this ongoing training camp. Especially, with no official international friendlies booked for this period.
Van Marwijk’s startling success in corralling the wayward Saudis points to the value of his methods. Players from the Gulf being, largely, raised on a diet of 4-2-3-1 also helps.
Clarity of thought is key moving ahead. His track record means he is guaranteed to provide it.
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