Buoyed by a swathe of promising performances under new manager Rodolfo Arruabarrena, the United Arab Emirates head into Wednesday morning’s encounter with their tails up as they look to qualify for their second ever FIFA World Cup.
The Argentine’s side scraped through the third round of AFC qualifying as they leapfrogged Iraq to solidify a playoff spot by defeating already-qualified South Korea in their final match of the third round. Despite hanging onto their dream of appearing at the first ever Middle East-hosted World Cup by the skin of their teeth, UAE’s performances have considerably improved since former Socceroos coach Bert Van Marwijk was relieved from his duties as manager.
Following an embarrassing 5-0 loss to Qatar in front of over 63,000 people in the 2021 Arab Cup quarter-finals, Van Marwijk’s side lost to Iraq and Iran before the managerial duties were handed to Arruabarrena who is a former manager of Boca Juniors in his homeland with rich experience managing the likes of Al-Rayyan and Shabab Al Ahli in the Arabian Gulf.
Arruabarrena largely rescued the UAE with his victory against South Korea given that the side had failed to win a single one of its first five games in the third round of qualifying. Personnel wise, not much has changed since the changeover, however, Arruabarrena seems to have placed an emphasis on being robust and compact without possession before breaking at pace in transition.
This is largely evident in that his UAE side managed to restrict a star-studded South Korea outfit which contains the likes of Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-Min and Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Hwang Hee-Chan to zero goals and just eight shots over 90 minutes. Although the UAE managed just over 24% of the ball possession, South Korea struggled to pull the Emirati players out of shape as Arruabarrena’s side defended stoutly in a 4-5-1 shape.
Interestingly, UAE seem to be most comfortable when allowing their opposition to dictate the state of the game as they are well drilled in leaving little space between the lines for opposing creators to work their magic. This is explicit in that two of the UAE’s three victories in the third round of AFC qualifying came when they had less ball possession than the other team. Their only victory when they out-possessed the opposition came against minnows Lebanon who still managed to produce almost twice as many shots as the Emiratis.
With this in mind, the UAE are largely dysfunctional in possession and are reliant on individual quality in the final third to win games. Personified by the experience of Ali Mabkhout and the dynamism of Caio Canedo, the UAE can create some eye-catching sequences of play when their best players are allowed time and space to orchestrate their brilliance.
Aside from the injured Khalfan Mubarak, the UAE have been able to call upon almost a full complement of players for their do-or-die clash against the Socceroos. The most interesting inclusion is that of Omar Abdulrahman who returns to the national team squad following a few years in the wilderness due to injury and lack of match fitness.
Formerly on the books of Manchester City, Abdulrahman won the Asian Footballer of the Year in 2016 and is a creative midfielder with eye-watering confidence and enthusiasm on the ball. Given his lack of match minutes of late as he continues to nurse an injury, the big-haired maestro is likely to start from the bench and emerge onto the pitch as an impact substitute.
Khalid Eisa (Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, Goalkeeper)
A stalwart of the Emirati national team, Eisa is widely appreciated as the best goalkeeper in the UAE Pro League and has performed well under several international managers. Standing at just 173cm tall, Eisa is relatively small for a goalkeeper, however, he largely makes up for it with his nimble and swift movements across the penalty area as well as his positioning.
The 32-year-old also played a seminal role in Al Ain’s league title victory last season as he ranked second among the league’s goalkeepers for prevented goals per 90 (0.10) while also ranking highly in save percentage (74.6%) and conceded goals per 90 (0.61).
Oftentimes, Eisa is UAE’s first port of attack, such is his comfort with ball at feet. With that said, however, Eisa is more suited to sides wishing to build up from the back with short passing sequences rather than sides that instruct him to launch long balls from inside his own penalty area.
Caio Canedo (Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, Left Winger/Centre-Forward)
A naturalised Brazilian, Caio acquired Emirati citizenship in 2020 after playing in the UAE Pro League for more than six seasons and has formed an integral part of the country’s national team ever since. Capable of playing from the left of attack or as a more traditional No.9, Caio is wily and skilled on the ball with the capacity to play a killer pass.
He excels at making clever runs off the shoulder and is a strong aerial presence in the box. When given time and space, Caio can also dribble at defenders and use temperament to retain possession while under pressure. After successful stints at Botafogo and Internacional in his homeland, Caio has scored over 100 goals across all competitions for Emirati teams which is proof in itself of his predatory instincts around goal.
Caio is likely to start alongside Ali Mabkhout but whether this comes in the form of playing from the left or in a strike duo remains to be seen.
Ali Mabkhout (Al Jazira, United Arab Emirates, Centre-Forward)
Mabkhout is the UAE’s all-time leading goalscorer and has spent his entire career to date at Al Jazira, his hometown club in Abu Dhabi. Prolific and merciless in front of goal, the Emirati marksman has scored over 200 goals in all competitions in more than 10 years of service in the UAE Pro League. Mabkhout is incorporative and intelligent and last season registered seven assists on top of his 10 goals in the league which demonstrates that he has multiple strings to his bow.
Largely prototypical of the modern No.9, Mabkhout is comfortable at dropping deep and acting as a reference point for the likes of Abdulrahman, Saleh and Caio before using his predatory instincts to anticipate arrivals into the box for goalscoring opportunities.
A mainstay of the Emirati national team, Mabkhout broke Australian hearts in 2019 by scoring the decisive goal which sent the Socceroos packing from the Asian Cup and will be yearning to make himself a national hero once again by helping to qualify the UAE for their second ever FIFA World Cup.
How will they line up?
The UAE have struggled to settle on a specific formation to implement their principles of play throughout World Cup qualifying. While variations of 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 are most common for the Emiratis, they have drawn benefit from 4-3-3 variations which allow them to retreat into a 4-5-1 shape defensively.
However, UAE’s system of implementing their principles is perhaps less important than the actual principles themselves. These principles involve remaining compact and resolute defensively while fighting aggressively for loose balls and in aerial duels.
Caio and Mabkhout are the side’s two best attackers but Van Marwijk struggled to inculcate a system that illuminated the strengths of his most prized assets. Arruabarrena may opt to shift Caio out to the left with the aim of having him function as a potential out ball if his side become too vigorously camped inside their own half as a result of an Australian onslaught of pressure.
Arruabarrena may also wish to capitalise upon Australia’s struggles on the right of defence through his naturalised Brazilian given Fran Karačić’s relative lack of match fitness and Nathaniel Atkinson’s perceived defensive fragilities. Exuberant wide player Ali Saleh has also featured in this role, albeit he appears more likely to start in a more central behind the centre-forward to accommodate Caio and Mabkhout.
Although UAE are likely to absorb pressure against an Australian outfit known to struggle against set defences, their individual quality in attack will certainly pose a threat to the Socceroos in transition. This will be a worry for Graham Arnold given that his side has been guilty of falling victim to lapses in concentration during qualifying. They must be switched on for the entire 90 minutes if they wish to proceed past UAE and book their place in next week’s subsequent playoff against Peru.
Despite the employment of this playing style, the UAE possess the tools to cause Australia some troubles in possession given their capacity to circulate the ball at a high tempo. Specifically, they ranked 1st throughout AFC qualifying for passing rate – defined as the amount of passes a team completes per minute of possession – with their rate of 16.7 per minute eclipsing even the likes of South Korea and Japan. This suggests that when the UAE do retain control over the ball, they have the quality to keep possession if need be.
However, the UAE’s biggest issue has been transferring this comfort on the ball into material opportunities on goal. Given that they tend to employ a more industrious midfield duo, the side often struggles to connect defence with attack – a deficiency which has amplified their incapacity to generate chances. This is perhaps best encapsulated by the fact that, throughout qualifying, the side averaged just over eight shots per 90 minutes – a number eclipsed by the Philippines, Tajikistan and other minnow Asian nations.
Thus, while Australia can take solace in the fact that they are coming up against a side that struggle to carve out opportunities in open play, the UAE may loom as somewhat of a perfect evil for the Socceroos as their strengths could accentuate Australia’s weaknesses.
Probable Line-up (4-2-3-1)
Eisa; Al-Ahbabi, Mubarak, Al-Attas, Abbas; Hassan, Ramadan; Al-Zaabi, Saleh, Caio; Mabkhout