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
0

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.”


WHAT WE LEARNED: A miracle in Miami, dominant Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers feel the strain

Updated 11 December 2018
0

WHAT WE LEARNED: A miracle in Miami, dominant Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers feel the strain

LONDON: With a fantastic finish and a dominant defense, there has been a lot to talk about in the NFL this week.

A MIRACLE IN MIAMI


What a finish at the Hard Rock Stadium. The Patriots looked to have sewn the game up on their way to sealing their 10th-straight AFC East title in the process. Stephen Gostkowski’s field goal put New England five ahead with 18 seconds left, but the Miami Dolphins had other ideas. In a move reminiscent of the now legendary touchdown in a college football match between Stanford and the California Golden Bears — simply called “The Play” — Ryan Tannehill threw a good pass to Kenny Stills who burst forward 14 yards before laterally passing the ball to DeVante Parker, who then passed to Kenyan Drake who weaved his way 52 yards for a seemingly impossible score. In a sport defined by meticulous planning, it was breathtaking to watch a brilliant piece of spontaneity.

It's a case of catch me if you can for Kenyan Drake as he seals victory for the Dolphins against the Patriots. 



BATTLE OF OFFENSE VS. DEFENSE

The Chicago Bears and the LA Rams clashed this week in a game billed as a meeting of the league’s best defense and one of its best offenses. Good defenses will win you titles and it was the backline of the Bears that came out on top. For Chicago to restrict the rampant Rams to six points — 29 points fewer than their season average per game this season — tells the whole story. The Bears now have 25 interceptions for the year, of those their cornerback Kyle Fuller has seven. As we near the playoffs, you can guarantee that nobody will relish coming up against these measly Bears.

The 'they shall not pass' mentality of the Bears proved too good for the usually free-scoring Rams and could be good enough for Super Bowl glory this season. 



COWBOYS BACK IN THE RODEO


In a game they should have won long before a late Eagles flourish tied the game in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys got over the line in overtime and have all but sealed the NFC East division to return to the playoffs after missing out last year. There was a touch of fortune about Amari Cooper’s winning touchdown. He juggled a catch to take it home after Eagles’ Rasul Douglas tipped an interception into the air, but there was nothing lucky about Cooper’s overall performance. He scored three touchdowns and caused the Eagles’ defense a headache all game. His signing from the Oakland Raiders has been a masterstroke by owner Jerry Jones. The Cowboys are unlikely to go all the way, but for such a storied franchise, making the postseason is seen as achieving the bare minimum.

The Cowboys, for whom success used to be second nature, are back in the playoffs after missing out last year. 



TROUBLE IN PITTSBURGH

The Steelers’ woe continued this week with a third straight defeat, this time to the previously 2-10 Oakland Raiders. Their head coach Jon Gruden celebrated the win like he had won the Super Bowl, but the Raiders were definitely helped by Ben Roethlisberger’s rib injury in the first half — the iconic Steelers quarterback should be fit for their home clash with the Patriots next week — but take nothing away from Oakland. They certainly did not play like a team propping up the AFC. For Pittsburgh, they need to find at least two wins from the final three games to be sure of a spot in the playoffs.

The Steelers are looking less than sturdy the closer the playoffs get.