Bauza not afraid to experiment
Coach Edgardo Bauza handed unofficial debuts to four players against Latvia: Al-Qadisiya defender Mohamed Khabrani completed the 90 minutes, contributing to a clean sheet; Al-Fateh winger Ali Al-Zaqaan marked his debut with a goal; club teammate Nouh Al-Moosa produced a combative performance in midfield in his 75 minutes on the pitch before making way for another debutant, Abdulmajeed Al-Sulaihem. In his three games in charge so far, the Argentine coach has fielded eight new players and seems determined to find the missing pieces to improve on the squad that took Saudi Arabia all the way to the World Cup.
Fallatah has a place in squad, but needs playing time
The inclusion of Al-Hilal striker Mukhtar Fallatah in the Saudi squad raised many eyebrows, as the 30-year-old has not played a single minute in the league since his summer transfer from Al-Wehda. But Fallatah was drafted into the starting XI to lead the line against Latvia, and he looked lively throughout. In the first 20 minutes, the striker’s rustiness was evident, but as he grew into the game, Fallatah showed he is still the player who scored 16 league goals last season. His movement to beat the Latvian offside trap in the build-up to his 45th-minute goal was exemplary and his lobbed finish to beat the goalkeeper was the touch of a top-class striker. Fallatah showed he deserves a place in the squad, but his slow start to the game also indicated that he needs to get more playing time at the club if he is to challenge for a starting spot upfront.
Contrasting fortunes for the full-backs
Bauza took six full-backs to Portugal, and against Latvia he started the two who are widely considered least likely to start in Russia, and both completed all 90 minutes. Hassan Muath captained the side from the right side of defense, while Abdulrahman Al-Obaid started on the left. Their fortunes were starkly different. The 31-year-old Al-Faiha right-back looked shaky in possession, especially in the attacking third where his crossing left a lot to be desired. Muath was repeatedly bullied by the physically superior Latvians. Al-Qadisiya’s 25-year-old Al-Obaid, on the other hand, bombed up and down the left-flank. His contributions in attack helped bring the best out of debutant Ali Al-Zaqaan on the wing, while his last-ditch clearance that prevented the concession of a late goal demonstrated his positional awareness and defensive commitment. Muath did not help his chances of challenging Mohamed Al-Burayk and Yasir Al-Shahrani on the right, but Al-Obaid made a strong case for his inclusion on the plane to Moscow come June 2018.
Bauza can be tactically flexible
In his third game in charge of the Green Falcons, Bauza has shown he is not as tactically rigid as his stints with Argentina and UAE suggested. The Argentine toyed with variations of 4-4-2 and 4-5-1. His latest experiment saw him employ a 4-2-3-1 formation which looked overall solid against Latvia. Whereas Bert van Marwijk had religiously stuck to the Dutch 4-3-3, his successor seems more willing to explore his options as he attempts to get the best out of his players.
Squad selection highlights demise of Al-Ittihad
The injury to Fahad Al-Muallad leaves Bauza’s squad without a single player from Al-Ittihad. The Jeddah-based giants are one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest teams and have historically supplied the backbone of the national team alongside Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr and Al-Ahli. But years of instability at the club have left the Tigers miles off their past glory days. The fact that the national coach could not find a single Al-Ittihad player worthy of inclusion in a 30-man squad speaks volumes about the state of affairs at this historic club, who have won the Saudi Premier League eight times.