Paul Le Guen is one of the few coaches at this Asian Cup who has actually been with his side more than a year. Therefore, Oman head into the Asian Cup with optimism that they can progress past the group stage for the first time.
Their strength is their defence – conceding just once during qualification for this tournament (and that goal came in a dead rubber match). They defend in a 4-4-2 shape, working hard to get behind the ball and create a compact unit for the opposition to play through (something the Socceroos have had difficulty with in the past).
The wide players get back to form a second bank of four alongside the central midfielders, and Le Guen even asks his strikers to drop back to halfway, which sums up their defensiveness. Often, Oman won’t begin pressing until the ball crosses halfway, instead defending in three distinct lines – against two tournament favourites in South Korea and Australia, this approach is unlikely to challenge.
While Oman are quite good at sliding across the width of the pitch as a unit, individually, there are weaknesses. The full-backs like to stick tight to their direct opponents, to prevent them from being able tot turn and dribble, but can cause problems against a quick, pacy winger happy to run in behind. When this happens, the right-sided centre-back, Abdul Amer, moves out quickly towards the channel, leaving his centre-back partner, Mohammed Al-Musalami, exposed. Amer is rash and dives in, and opponents might target Oman’s right-hand side.
The disciplined defensive structure helps protect the goalkeeper, Ali Al-Habsi. Well known to many for his exploits with Wigan in the Premier League (although lately he’s had such little game time he was loaned out to Brighton for one month) he remains the symbol of this side and its leader – he’s captain, having made 92 appearances since making his debut at the age of 17. Al-Habsi is capable of ludicrous saves, and is probably good value for at least one gutsy man-of-the-match performance in the group stage.
With the ball, Oman traditionally play quite quickly and directly. That, combined with the use of the 4-4-2 formation, might bring to mind a traditional, ‘old school’ British style of play, with lots of long balls towards the strikers. While that’s a little stereotypical, it’s also not completely far from the truth, though Oman are also capable of quick, exciting combinations down the flanks. The two strikers work together nicely, flicking balls onto overlapping runners.
However, with the midfield duo focused on sitting deep and breaking up play, Oman need the likes of Abdul Al-Muqbali, Said Al-Ruzaiqi and Amad Al-Hosni to make the most of little service. Fortunately, both Al-Muqbali and Al-Ruzaiqi showed they were capable of doing so at the Gulf Cup in October, with the latter scoring four across the whole tournament, and the former netting a brace in a 5-0 win over Kuwait. Those performances seemed to cement their starting places for the Asian Cup.
Oman are, by their own admission, limited. “We have to be humble,” Le Guen says. “Compared to Australia and South Korea, we are not a strong nation of football, but we have many good players. They are not experienced enough, but they are on the right way and are getting better and better.”
However, they’ve taken significant strides in recent years. The country now has an established, professional league, and Le Guen’s legacy has been in bringing through domestic-based players that establish a genuine link between the new competition and the national team. Oman won’t make serious inroads in this tournament, but they’re capable of an upset. That should be a springboard to ongoing growth and development as a footballing nation.