Fresh off superb victories against Japan and China, Saudi Arabia head into the November 11th clash against Australia as the 49th ranked team in world football.
Buoyed by nine consecutive victories in World Cup Qualifying, a win against away against the Socceroos would all but solidify a place at the 2022 FIFA World Cup for the Green Falcons who are brimming with confidence after wins on home soil surrounding by a cacophony of noise in the King Abdullah Sports City stadium.
With eight goals scored and just three conceded, Saudi Arabia’s goal difference mirrors that of Australia but they sit three points above the green and gold after Australia’s loss to Japan in Saitama.
French manager Hervé Renard will look to use Australia’s loss as motivation for his side to continue their sublime form when the Green Falcons face a huge test in front of a boisterous crowd at CommBank Stadium.
With all of his Renard’s squad plying their trade in the highly respected Saudi Pro League, the former Lille manager has built a tight-knit squad with many of the team’s best players featuring for some of the biggest teams in Saudi Arabia who constantly dominate the AFC Champions League.
In fact, eight of the side’s starting XI against Japan recently featured in the Champions League semi-final between Saudi giants Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr where Riyadh giants Al-Hilal ran home eventual victors in a match refereed by maligned A-League stalwart Chris Beath.
This unity is an obvious theme to Saudi’s team as they press aggressively and look to play on the front foot with highly technical wide players and confident overlapping full-backs.
However, in a massive hit to Renard’s side, the Green Falcons will be without their first choice goalkeeper, left-back and centre-half with Mohamed Al-Owais, Yassir Al-Shahrani and Abdullah Madu all dropping out of the squad due to injury.
Given that Saudi Arabia have fielded the exact same back four and goalkeeper for every game of round three qualifying except for the match against China, these injuries come as a massive boost for the Socceroos who will look to pounce by using the home crowd to get on the front foot.
In a recent press conference with Australian media, Graham Arnold signalled his desire to continue playing free-flowing attacking football against a Saudi team who will be missing these key players.
“I always send the team out on the pitch expecting to win the game and to play on the front foot and to get in the opposition’s faces…we do put a lot of pressure on the opposition and don’t let them out of their own half,” expressed the Socceroos manager.
“You’ve seen me change many times the front line to keep that pressure going and we will do exactly the same here in Sydney for the first time and the energy will be huge.
Arnold also conceded that the Saudis are in a rich vein of form but much of that can be owed to the cacophony of noise created at home in the Middle East where the Green Falcons have played the majority of their fixtures.
“The Saudis are coming off a good run but they’ve had the luxury – if I can say that – of playing seven out of their last eight games at home in the Middle East and we’ve played 11 out of 12 away from home.
“The energy from the boys is going to be fantastic and I can’t wait for Thursday night,” Arnold concluded.
Salem Al-Dawsari (Al-Hilal, Saudi Arabia, Left Winger)
A highly technical and immensely skilled wide player, Al-Dawsari is the difference maker in Saudi’s team. When the going gets tough, he’s the man that wants to receive the ball and create chances.
At club level, the 30-year-old plays a crucial role in Al-Hilal’s attacking quartet of himself, Bafetimbi Gomis, Moussa Marega and former West Bromwich Albion star Matheus Pereira. A four-time Saudi Pro League Champion, Al-Dawsari recently added the AFC Champions League crown to his resumé after scoring a crucial goal in the away leg of the Final to cement the Riyadh-based club as winners of the competition’s 2019 iteration.
A testament to his unwavering quality, the inverted winger is a preferred starter at Al-Hilal over former Atletico Madrid attacker Luciano Vietto and former Benfica star André Carrillo who has 82 caps for Peru. Al-Dawsari recently starred in this season’s iteration of the AFC Champions League, scoring once and providing two assists in an ostensibly dominant quarter-final display against Iranian side Persepolis before scoring against rivals Al-Nassr to book Al-Hilal’s place in the competition’s final.
Rapid and intelligent, Al-Dawsari typically finds himself playing in the left half-space with overlapping full-back and Al-Hilal teammate Yasser Al-Shahrani stationed to his left. While Al-Dawsari missed the Green Falcons‘ victories against Japan and China through injury, he is likely to be fit for the match against Australia.
An immensely popular figure in his homeland (he has 1.4m followers on Instagram), the former Villareal loanee was an overage player in the recent Tokyo Olympics and has scored 16 goals in 58 games since making his debut for the Saudi national team at the age of 20. These performances earned him a place in the AFC Men’s Team of the Decade alongside South Korea’s Son Heung-Min and Australia’s Mat Ryan among others.
Sultan Al-Ghanam (Al-Nassr, Saudi Arabia, Right Back)
Relatively inexperienced compared to the aforementioned Al-Dawsari, Al-Ghanam has largely burst onto the scene in recent years and established himself as a formidable full-back in the national team. Preferring to get forward and create attacking opportunities, Al-Ghanam is athletic and can cross the ball with both feet.
Aggressive defensively, Al-Ghanam has formed a strong partnership in defence with Al-Nassr teammates Abdullah Madu and Abdulelah Al-Amri who have developed a good collective understanding with the national team. This defensive backbone was a common denominator in the side Champions League run where they conceded just eight goals en route to a loss in the semi-final.
While he is astute in 1v1 defending, Al-Ghanam is at his best when is afforded the space to get forward and combine with Fahad Al-Muwallad on the right hand side. The 27-year-old full-back has demonstrated his attacking quality throughout World Cup Qualifying where he has registered three assists in the seven games that he has started.
The Green Falcons often look to Al-Ghanam as an outlet to progress their attacks from deep as him and fellow marauding full-back Al-Shahrani look to influence games from out wide. Both players are skilled with both feet and will often play pinpoint diagonal passes to each other from across the field of play.
Salman Al-Faraj (Al-Hilal, Saudi Arabia, Attacking Midfielder)
Perhaps Saudi Arabia’s most important player, Al-Faraj captains the Green Falcons as well as club side Al-Hilal. Technically sound and armed with a wand of a left foot, Al-Faraj is tall, agile and has a sublime first touch that often allows him to manoeuvre through tight spaces.
A central-midfield player by trade, Al-Faraj has been deployed as more of a No 10 for the national team due to his intensity and ability to aid the team’s pressing. The six-time Saudi Pro League Champion is an intense player who looks to counter-press aggressively and win the ball back high up the pitch.
In an attacking sense, Al-Faraj is a crucial creative outlet for the team due to his innate ability to play decisive through balls in the attacking third. When his team is pinned back, he will also often drop into more of a traditional midfield position with one of the team’s No.6’s dropping between the two centre-halves in the build-up phase to allow Al-Faraj the space to drop in and support the build-up.
With 63 caps to his name, the Green Falcons‘ captain will look to lead from the front and set the tone with his intensity and skill in midfield.
How will they line up?
Hervé Renard has adopted a 4-2-3-1 system for the Green Falcons which prioritises high overlapping full-backs and wingers operating in the half-space to create opportunities. The midfield players are more industrious ball-winners who typically touch the ball less than the side’s technical full-backs.
192cm tall Mohamed Kanno is typically paired with the more energetic Abdulellah Al-Malki as they look to aggressively dominate games by winning second balls and asserting their physicality. Kanno’s slender frame and engine is key to the team as he looks to glide past opponents in midfield to provide opportunities for the more exciting offensive players.
Given that Al-Malki is suspended for the clash against Australia, one might expect the youthful Ali Al-Hassan to fill in at the base of midfield next to Kanno. This represents a slight drop in quality given that Al-Hassan has struggled for consistent minutes with his club side Al-Nassr who were recently knocked out in the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League.
Higher up the pitch, the aforementioned Al-Dawsari is almost guaranteed to play from the left while former Saudi wonderkid Fahad Al-Muwallad will likely start from the right. With that said, however, manager Renard will have some tough choices to make in this department given the form of intelligent attacker Sami Al-Najei who netted twice against China while playing from the left in the absence of Al-Dawsari.
Up front, Al-Hilal’s Saleh Al-Shehri is the team’s preferred No.9 due to his solid work ethic and tirelessness when pressing the opposition. Having played a few matches in Portugal’s top tier of football, Al-Shehri is a composed finisher who rejected a 4 year deal at Spanish giants Atletico Madrid earlier in his career in favour of returning to the comfortable surrounds of Saudi Arabia.
Confident and up-and-coming centre-forward Firas Al-Buraikan will be breathing down Al-Shehri’s neck for a place in the starting XI having scored off the bench in both of Saudi’s most recent games including a well-taken finish to break the deadlock against the Samurai Blue in Riyadh.
Renard’s side prefers to dominate games through direct attacking play rather than possession, although the Saudis are yet to be out possessed in any of their 3rd round games thus far. The team’s identity lies within the intensity and vigour with which they press opposition teams.
Typically stationing themselves in a 4-2-4 press, Renard’s side will look to aggressively press the opposition centre-halves in an attempt to force a mistake while the full-backs will man-mark the opposition wingers and ensure that they can’t support the build-up by dropping.
The Green Falcons’ ability to counter-press effectively came to the fore during their home victory against Japan where the game’s decisive goal came from Samurai Blue midfielder Gaku Shibasaki running into a cul-de-sac before misplacing a pass which provided the Green Falcons with a 1v1 with the keeper which they slotted.
Given the Socceroos’ difficulties with playing through the Japanese press, they will need to have learned from their mistakes against a Saudi team who will aggressively press before dropping into a 4-4-2 defensive shape once the first line of pressure is beaten.
As such, Saudi Arabia will offer a resolute threat to the Socceroos as Renard’s cohesive unit looks to qualify the national team for a second consecutive World Cup after a disappointing campaign in Russia. A win against Australia will prove vital to these endeavours as they look to cement their place at the top of the group before a difficult away game against Vietnam.
Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1)
Al-Qarni; Abdulhamid, Al-Bulaihi, Al-Amri, Al-Ghanam; Kanno, Al-Hassan; S. Al-Dawsari, Al-Faraj, Al-Muwallad; Al-Shehri
Australia take on Saudi Arabia on the 11th of November at 8:10pm AEST.