UAE are the up and coming stars of Asia, with this Asian Cup marking the next chapter in a three year cycle.
The story began when Mahdi Ali, the coach, was asked to take charge of the Olympic team for London 2012, having previously worked with the U16, U19 and U20 national sides. Having progressed through the levels, it was a major step forward, for the Olympics was the UAE’s first ever appearance on a global football stage, given that they have never qualified for a World Cup.
After an impressive showing in London, he was appointed as head coach of the national senior side, and immediately set about bringing through members of the squad that he had worked with at the Olympics.
Therefore, this is a true team unit, the bulk of the playing group and coaching staff have worked together for an extensive period of time (especially when considering the relatively cut-throat environment of Asian football), and are intimately familiar with their style of play. This, combined with the fact that they boast genuine quality in the final third, means they are many people’s ‘dark horses’ for the tournament.
Tactically, Ali’s preference is for a very ‘modern’, possession-based style of play, with perhaps a fair comparison to be made with Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou, who also encourages his team to play positive, attack-minded football. The UAE are better with possession than without, and they will probably be the most entertaining side at this Asian Cup.
They’ll use a fluid 4-2-3-1 with an intelligent midfield unit. The keystone is Omar Abdulrahman, the wonderkid of UAE football. He is a silky playmaker with a superb left foot, sensational vision and brilliant close control, and he’ll probably end up being a cult hero by the end of this tournament because of his distinctive hair. His ability to pick out long cross-field passes is phenomenal, too, so sometimes, Ali drops him into a deeper midfield position – though Omar tends to drift quite deep even as a #10 anyway, which can sometimes cause problems if he’s picking the ball up too deep inside his own half.
Normally, with Abdulrahman as the #10, Ali will use Amer Abdulrahman – no relation! – alongside either Habib Al Fardan or Khamis Eshmaeel in the two deeper midfield positions. Amer is a solid, reliable passer who keeps things ticking over in midfield, with his partner normally playing more of a defensive role, and sliding back to cover when Amer pushes forward to support Omar. UAE”s midfield triangle work very well as a unit, rotating positions so that they can work the ball forward, and get Omar on the ball facing forward.
At the back, the UAE have one of the AFC Player of the Year nominees, Ismail Ahmed, but he’s never actually really been in favour under the Ali regime, although he’s been named in the squad. Instead, a variety of partners have been used next to Muhanad Salem, who can bring the ball forward comfortably. Mohamed Ahmed looks likely to be used at centre-back, though he can also play at right-back, while Eissa Santo of Al Ahli is another option.
The uncertainity at the back extends to the right-back position, where either of Abdulaziz Haikal or Abdulaziz Sanqoor could start. Fortunately, Walid Abbas is nailed on for left-back – though even he has been used at centre-back, illustrating the problems there – where he likes to charge forward relentlessly.
Abbas’s attacking intent allows the left-winger, Ali Mabkhout, to take up narrow, goalscoring positions. The top goalscorer in qualifying and winner of the Golden Boot at the Gulf Cup, Mabkhout has been a revelation in the past year – quick, a great finisher and sharing a good partnership with Omar Abdulrahman, he’ll be dangerous making driving runs from a wide position behind the opposition back four. He also tends to score spectacular goals.
Ahmed Khalili plays upfront – a tireless worker who leads the press, and works the channels nicely. On the right is Ismail Al-Hamadi, who tends to stay a bit wider but is also capable of providing directness. This is a quick frontline, and although UAE like to play with possession, they’re capable of hitting teams on the counter-attack with long, diagonal forward passes.
Results have tailed off slightly during and since the Gulf Cup, but the UAE’s strength is in their familiarity and understanding of Ali’s methods. In a tournament featuring lots of teams with disrupted preparation and new coaches, this gives them a crucial advantage.