Plenty of teams in this Asian Cup are going through tumultuous periods of managerial change, but Saudi Arabia are easily the most unstable.
They’ve gone through ten managers in as many years, and the Spaniard Juan Roman Lopez Caro is the latest casualty – sacked after defeat in the Gulf Cup final, which left Saudi Arabia without a coach less than a month out from the tournament.
Cosmin Olaroiu has now been appointed. He boasts a high profile in the Gulf having worked at some of the biggest clubs in the Middle East. He’s recently won three titles in three years in the UAE, and is contracted to return to his current club side Al-Ahli after the tournament. For Saudi Arabia, he’s another short-term fix. In the context of previous coaches, though, he’ll still be one of the longer-serving ones – of the four managers that preceded Caro, only Frank Rijkaard lasted more than 16 days.
Surprisingly, this constant change in coach hasn’t had the dramatic effect on the playing group that you might expect. This is in part thanks to a very experienced core, with the spine of the side, Taiser Al-Jassim, Saud Khariri (two central midfielders) and Osama Hawsawi (centre-back) totalling 312 caps between them alone.
In a 4-5-1 (assuming Olaroiu makes minimal changes from the tactical setup implemented by Caro), Khariri is the deepest lying midfielder, holding his position in front of the back four and playing simple forward passes into attack. To his left could be Al-Jassim, an elegant left-footer who provides the creativity with superb through balls as well as boasting a brilliant free-kick.
Alternatively, Al-Jassim can play at the tip of the midfield triangle as a #10, with a more combative midfielder like Walid Bakhashwain next to Khariri. Either way, the midfield triangle is quite fluid, rotating positions fluently and retaining the ball well. Saudi Arabia will control possession in the majority of their games.
In defence, Saudi Arabia used a new centre-back partnership at the Gulf Cup of Omar Hawsawi and Osama Hawsawi – not confusing in the slightest! – with the latter tall and physical, though surprisingly not great in the air. At left-back is the inconsistent Abdullah Al-Zori, and the defensively secure Saeed Al Mowalad has had an opportunity at right-back after an unfortunate injury to the incumbent in that position, Al-Shahrani, who plays there for runners up in the Asian Champions League, Al Hilal.
Another Al Hilal player is upfront – Nasser Al-Shamrani, who needs no introduction to Wanderers fans after disgracefully spitting at Matthew Spiranovic after the Champions League final. Again in the headlines for allegedly punching a fan at a pre-tournament friendly, he also won the Asian Player of the Year for his goalscoring exploits (9 goals in 12 games so far this season, 26 in 21 in the domestic league in 2013-14 and 16 goals so far for his country).
It’s a shame Al-Shamrani seems so petulant, for he’s a wonderfully talented player. He has great pace, is a good dribbler and constantly runs in behind, but his main attribute is, rather obviously, finishing – he’s comfortable shooting with any part of his foot.
On the wings will be Nawaf Al-Abid, player of the tournament at the Gulf Cup, and is comfortable on either flank. He cuts inside and shoots powerfully, and is capable of swapping positions with right-sided Salem Al-Dawsari (whose own position is under threat from Salman Al-Faraj and Fahad Al-Muwallad). Regardless of personnel, the wingers do a good job of both providing the width, but also coming inside to provide another goalscoring threat.
Saudi Arabia might change coaches constantly, but luckily for Olaroiu, the structure and spine of a successful side is in place. The challenge for him is to push them as far as they can go – idealistically, to win it, but realistically, to make the semis – but given the talent they have available to them, Saudi Arabia should really be one of the clear favourites for this Cup, and not a possible contender. It feels like the instability will cost them at some point.