INTERVIEW: Juan Antonio Pizzi says Saudi Arabia have nothing to fear at World Cup

Having taken over Edgardo Bauza Pizzi has stamped his authority and style of play on the Green Falcons.
Updated 16 June 2018
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INTERVIEW: Juan Antonio Pizzi says Saudi Arabia have nothing to fear at World Cup

  • Argentine boss of Green Falcons certain the players are now used to his style of play after seven months in the hotseat.
  • Pizzi and players head to Russia where they will play the hosts in the opening match on Thursday.

MOSCOW: From Diego Simeone to Pep Guardiola via Mauricio Pochettino and Jorge Sampaoli, the footballing influence of Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa is far-reaching. Last November, when Juan Antonio Pizzi was appointed head coach of the Saudi Arabia national team, those famous tactical tentacles reached Riyadh.
Both Bielsa and Pizzi have coached the Chilean national team in recent years and the latter has spoken of his admiration he holds for the former. Bielsa’s teams are known for their stamina, willingness to press the opposition high up the pitch, and tendency to rush forward in numbers. For Pizzi, this strategy worked perfectly when he led Chile to victory at the 2016 Copa America, with the highlight a 7-0 annihilation of Mexico in the quarterfinals.
However, when Pizzi was appointed by the Saudi Arabia Football Federation to replace Edgardo Bauza, it was said the Gulf side lacked the players to implement the same high-intensity style. Instead of internationally trained global stars such as Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, the 50-year-old was inheriting a squad of players competing exclusively in their local league.
It was not a straightforward handover, either. The Green Falcons had qualified for the World Cup under the guidance of Bert van Marwijk, who had a winning 4-3-3 formation and a well-disciplined team. When the Dutchman refused to relocate to the Kingdom, however, his contract was not renewed. That opened the door for Bauza, but the former Argentina national team coach was dismissed after just three official games having lost twice and netted just two goals. 
Now, seven months on, performances are much improved; the Green Falcons are showing signs of a return to form, only this time with a Bielsian flavour. With Pizzi opting more often for a 4-2-3-1 formation, recent preparatory games against Algeria and Greece included rapid attacks featuring four or five players, while the energetic press in the second half against Italy that led to Yahya Al-Shehri scoring stemmed from the side winning possession in the opposition half. The 3-0 defeat to Peru was, Pizzi believes, a mere hiccup given he had selected an experimental 11.
“I can identify with Bielsa, but we coaches need to be open and adaptable, never dismissive of a tactical scheme or a future possibility, even if we like some strategies more than others. That is why, as a head coach, I do not like to be confined to one set of tactics,” Pizzi told Arab News in his first sit-down interview with an English-language outlet since taking the reins of the team. 
“My overwhelming belief is that any footballer in the world can be adapted to any position, but only on the condition that the player is willing to take on board the head coach’s instructions. I mean, that’s essentially the main responsibility of a head coach — to identify the strengths of each player, how each player can be improved, and then to create a playing style that will bring all the players together and produce success on the pitch.”
Pizzi trained under Bauza at Rosario Central in 1999-2000 and is understandably respectful of his compatriot. He insists he did not seek out his former coach before accepting the opportunity to replace him and was not concerned by the amount of time Bauza had been given by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation. Instead, Pizzi said, he is his own confident man with his own unique tactical ideas. 
“Bauza was my coach while in Argentina and I don’t like to speak too much about other coaches,” he said. “I am just trying always to impose my own playing style on my teams; the style that I want. I respect all the playing styles over the world; they are all different and have their own values, but this is my way. 
“I like to press high up the park and put the opponents under pressure. Take the ball to the offensive line and get into a situation where we can score. Sometimes that happens and other times it is not very effective, but that’s the general objective. For me, it is not always to put more players into the attack, but this is one idea.”
One of Pizzi’s biggest challenges is turning around his team’s fortunes in front of goal. Although the Green Falcons are creating chances, profligacy is hurting them. They have managed just eight goals in their past seven matches and Mohamed Al-Sahlawi, the team’s lone striker, is suffering an international goal drought that dates back more than a year. 
The Al-Nassr forward scored 16 times in 14 games during qualifying, but these statistics appear less impressive considering eight were against East Timor and only two arrived in the final qualifying phase when the opposition was more robust. Al-Sahlawi has failed to score for his country since a 3-2 defeat to Australia last June.
Pizzi, a former striker who racked up 160 goals in 364 games during a 15-year career with clubs including Barcelona, Tenerife and Valencia, knows only too well the importance of scoring for an attacking player’s confidence. And he is keen to ease the pressure on his only viable No. 10.
“I think that when it comes to strikers, their performances are related directly to self-belief and trust, and that can only grow when they do what they are chosen to do — score goals,” said the Argentine, who chose to represent Spain at international level and went on to net eight times in 22 appearances.
“But scoring is not the only reason strikers are in the team and it’s not their only task. That’s why it’s important for us to get the message across to all the players that it’s a team game and everyone must work together to score. Although it’s logical that the striker will make the goals because of his position on the pitch, without his teammates it is almost impossible for him to score.”
The focus now is working on composure in front of goal, but when Pizzi first took charge he had to increase not only his players’ fitness levels, but also their professionalism. Too many took their positions for granted while, under Bauza, many players had marked a 3-0 friendly defeat to Portugal by gorging on fast food. Such ingrained culture is difficult to erase, but having worked daily with his players for close to two months ahead of Thursday’s opening match, Pizzi is confident that they now understand what is required of them, and why.
“I’ve trained teams in Argentina, Spain and Mexico and also the national team in Chile,” he said.
“The most important thing is finding that professional, competitive level. We have had to reinforce personal levels of competitiveness in order to get players to compete again throughout the whole team. And that not only involves physical ability, but also fitness, diet and nutrition, and general professionalism.
“Fortunately, the players here are very malleable and have adapted to what we want from them. They know what to expect in Russia and know what we expect of them, so we are ready to perform to our best abilities. We are looking forward to the World Cup without fear.”


Saudi Arabia hopeful ahead of opening Asian Games opening clash against Iran

Updated 14 August 2018
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Saudi Arabia hopeful ahead of opening Asian Games opening clash against Iran

  • Young Falcons hopeful of a semifinal spot.
  • Under-23 players keen on making a name for themselves in Indonesia.

JAKARTA: There is a widely held belief that to succeed in sport, you must start early.
Officials from the Saudi Arabia National Olympic Committee will be hoping it rings true this month as the Kingdom’s Under-23 football team prepares to prematurely kick-off its Asian Games campaign this afternoon in Jakarta, three days before the continent’s largest multi-sport competition officially begins.
Similar to the Olympics, the football tournament starts before the opening ceremony and finishes on the competition’s final day, Sept. 2. The fledgling Young Falcons face Iran today at the 28,000-capacity Wibawa Mukti Stadium in the Indonesian capital.
The Saudi NOC have brought a delegation of 169 athletes, including eight females, and will compete across 22 disciplines, including athletics, shooting, taekwondo and volleyball. The three-week Asian Games operate both as a continental precursor and, at times, a qualifying tournament for 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The Young Falcons made their football debut at the Asian Games in South Korea four years ago, reaching the quarterfinals in Incheon, before losing to Iraq. Their regional neighbors were inspired by legendary striker Younes Mahmoud, who had been included as one of Iraq’s three over-age players and scored twice in a 3-0 win.
Yet the impact of Mahmoud in Korea has not influenced the team’s selection. With the Saudi Pro League starting next week, coach Saad Al-Shehri has opted to forego athletes older than 23, instead selecting a squad consisting primarily of Al-Ahli development players and a smattering of Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ettifaq-based youths.
“We haven’t brought any overage players because we are playing here as preparation for the U23 Asian Cup, which will offer qualification for Tokyo 2020,” said Faisal Almarashdi, a spokesman for the team.
“We have brought to Indonesia only players who are 21 or under as they will all be eligible for Tokyo. Many have already played at the Under-20 World Cup under coach Saad, so there was never any discussion to use the three allocated over-age slots.”
Abdullah Otayf is the model example of how Asian Games experience can help a young career. Four years ago, the deep-lying midfielder was part of the squad that traveled to Korea. This summer he was an integral part of the Green Falcons side that played at the World Cup in Russia. 
With national team coach Juan Antonio Pizzi following the competition from afar, there will be chances to catch the eye for the likes of striker Haroune Camara and midfielders Abdullah Yahya Magrshi and Ali Hassan Al-Asmari ahead of January’s Asian Cup. Both midfielders have already made their full debuts for Ahli and featured in the Jeddah club’s Champions League campaign last season, while Al-Qadisiyah’s Camara was included in Pizzi’s provisional World Cup squad before being cut from the final 23.
“These Asian Games are very important for the young players involved,” Almarashdi added.
“They are the future of the senior team so if they play well here and at the U23 Asian Cup then, we hope, they will go to Tokyo 2020. From then on the pathway to the senior team is already very clear.”  
Much like the seniors, the U23 side is both short and slight, with only two of the 10 midfielders and forwards standing above 5 foot 8 (172m). Today’s opponents Iran are not only taller and more physical, they also have, in Croatian coach Zlatko Kranjčar, a manager who knows West Asian football after short spells in Qatar and the UAE. In their most recent preparation match, Iran lost 3-2 to China. 
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, beat the UAE last week in Malaysia following a pair of friendlies against local sides. Today’s match will kick-off at 4 p.m. local time, midday in Saudi Arabia.