CADIZ, Spain: It felt like a significant moment. Midway through the second-half of Wednesday night’s friendly with Algeria and with the scoreline poised at 1-0, Saudi Arabia midfielder Tayseer Al-Jassem collected the ball and carried it forward at pace from the centre of the park. With his legs pedalling quickly and the goal in sight, it would be easy to liken elements of the move to Saeed Al-Owairan’s legendary solo goal at the 1994 World Cup, but such a comparison would be great exaggeration. Also, what Al Jassem’s attack seemed to represent was in in some ways far more impressive.
Algeria had started the match stronger, but had been fading ever since falling behind to Salman Al-Faraj’s drilled free-kick in the 24th minute. Their defensive line was losing its shape and the players, all of whom play their domestic football in Algeria, were tiring. Now, as Al-Jassem galloped forward, the Al-Ahli midfielder found himself with a wealth of options to either side.
Mohammed Al-Sahlawi, the Green Falcons solitary striker, and Hattan Bahbri, installed as a replacement for Fahad Al-Muwallad who had made his La Liga debut with Levante just 48 hours earlier, were free in space to the left. Al-Faraj, a calm and creative head throughout the first half, had tucked in tight to Al-Jassem’s right. With only two Algerian defenders in position, this was a swarming attack; less Al-Owairan and more La Roja; less individual brilliance, more a glimpse of Saudi’s new footballing philosophy.
Indeed, the Green Falcons, if only for a few seconds, sparked memories of the Chilean side that Pizzi led to glory at the 2016 Copa America; a team that annihilated Mexico 7-0 and beat a Lionel Messi-led Argentina on penalties in the final. A team built around the Marcelo Bielsa school of thought: press and swarm, pass and shift, attack in numbers.
Al-Jassem had wasted an attack in the first half, electing to shoot wildly from distance when Al-Sahlawi was better-positioned and closer to goal. This time, he raised his head, assessed his options and fed it short to Al-Faraj, who looked to quickly return the favour only to see an Algerian foot block the ball’s path. The move petered out almost as quickly as it had been ignited. Pizzi, bespectacled and previously barking orders in Spanish from the sidelines, sat in silence.
Understrength opposition and missed opportunity aside, the fact Saudi could show even a glimpse of such promise is noteworthy. Pizzi had spoken pre-match about the need to be more creative, insisting that his team must “find other ways to get the goals…other ways to score, not just with the striker…find other movements.” Al-Jassem’s attack showed progress.
And progress is certainly necessary. For all Saudi’s dominance, they failed too often to punish their inferior opponents, managing just seven shots in 90 minutes. Only a late strike from substitute Yahya Al-Shehri ensured the tie was over going into the dying stages. Two shots on target and two goals can be spun whichever way it is desired, but there is no doubt the scoreline should have been more emphatic.
Pizzi, a striker who enjoyed spells at Barcelona and Tenerife, netted 168 career goals in 386 games, including eight times for the Spanish national team, and is working continuously with his squad to improve the players’ finishing. It remains, however, a cause for concern that their World Cup opponents will almost certainly not afford his side as many goalscoring opportunities as Algeria.
Most concerning is the form of Al-Sahlawi. His statistics in qualifying — 16 goals in 18 games — appear less impressive when considering eight were against lowly East Timor and only two arrived in the final stages when the opposition was more testing. The Al-Nassr striker has now failed to score since a 3-2 defeat to Australia in June last year and while Pizzi searches for a viable alternative, there is simply no obvious replacement.
As part of a sponsorship deal, Al-Sahlawi will soon travel to Manchester United to train with Jose Mourinho’s side. Working with top-level players at world-class facilities can only help him, but the entire Saudi team must be more clinical. Pizzi, while having likely enjoyed the sight of his white-shirted side attacking in numbers, will sleep no easier after another performance filled with profligacy. More work is required. And the goal is clear.