In a battle between two up and coming Gulf sides, UAE thoroughly dismantled Qatar with a resounding win.
Mahdi Ali decided to use a 4-4-2 formation, with star playmaker Omar Abdulrahman out on the right-wing. Ahmed Khalili and Ali Mabkhout played together upfront, while Khamis Eshmaeel got the nod ahead of Habib Al Fardan. The only other question mark was at right-back, where Abdelaziz Sanquour started.
Djamal Belmadi kept with his usual 4-3-3 shape, with Khalfan Ibrahim and Hassan Al Haydous on the left and right respectively. Mohammed Muntari surprisingly started ahead of Boualem Khoukhi and Meshal Abdullah upfront, while Ahmed El Sayed played in the holding midfield role.
Right from the start, this was a crazily open game. There were lots of moves flowing from end to end, neither back four got much protection and both teams looked to play through their star players to construct attacks. Given both the UAE and Qatar tactical previews suggested both would play proactive, attacking football (in fact, the UAE were predicted to be the entertainers of the tournament) perhaps this probably shouldn’t have been a surprise.
UAE had the early running, and were the superior side. Their 4-4-2 gave them lots of penetration and directness upfront, where both Khalili and Mabkhout made runs in behind, giving the players in deep positions targets for balls over the top. The aggressive running from the two strikers also pushed back the Qatari defence, opening up space between the lines for Abdulrahman to drift into. Playing a very free role from the right, the playmaker found lots of space in central positions, and demonstrated his talent with a range of clever flicks and risky through balls.
The game was so open it was difficult to discern particular patterns, although one area of interest was down Qatar’s left-hand side, where Abdelkarim Hassan got forward powerfully, pushing very high up the pitch. He had a low shot that fizzed just wide, and his overlapping also proved crucial in allowing Ibrahim to drift infield – a position from which he chipped home the opening goal.
Put simply, this wasn’t a game for defenders. The UAE got an equaliser fifteen minutes later in comical fashion – the ball rebounding twice inside the penalty area and eventually ending up in the back of the net via Khalili’s chest. It summed up the chaotic nature of the match, made possible by the attacking intent of both sides.
After half-time, the UAE got a second via some terrible goalkeeping at a free-kick, before adding a third after Qasem Burhan spilled another free-kick, allowing Mabkhout to tap home.
At 3-1, the rest of the game was fairly irrelevant tactically. Qatar naturally chased the game, with Belmadi introducing fresh attackers and switching to more of a 4-2-1-3. They had a couple of good chances, but inevitably became more open to counter-attacks, and Mabkhout and Omar Abdulrahman combined to finish the game off with a fourth goal late on.
UAE attacking format
In lieu of little tactical interest, it’s worth considering the attacking format of UAE, which changed three times in the first half alone. Initially, Omar Abdulrahman started on the right, with Mabkhout and Khalili upfront – then, during an injury break, Omar Abdulrahman switched into a permanent #10 position, with Mabkhout going wide right.
This seemed a much more suitable position for the playmaker. There’s more space to roam when starting from a central position rather than from out wide, and he found gaps between the lines more easily by being able to dart either side of Ahmed El Sayed, rather than predictably moving infield from the right.
The last adjustment Ali made was to switch the two wingers, bringing Mabkhout onto his more natural left side. Mabkhout was hugely impressive for UAE at the Gulf Cup from this flank, where he darts forward into goalscoring positions. He was the Golden Boot for not only the Gulf Cup, but also in qualifying for this Asian Cup.
Perhaps most importantly, this format made the UAE more defensively secure, as Omar Abdulrahman didn’t have to track all the way back to the right hand side when they lost the ball – instead, he could stay central, and get into positions where he could receive passes on the counter-attack.
It will not be a surprise to see Ali continue with the personnel in this arrangement for the rest of the tournament.
A fun and very watchable match, primarily because both sides played very open football, pushing lots of numbers forward in attack. It was not surprising no defender really stood out – this was all about the attackers, and UAE simply overpowered Qatar for the majority of the match.
A 4-1 win is impressive, but UAE weren’t particularly convincing defensively either. The feeling is they might continue to entertain, but the openness of the midfield, and consequently, the lack of protection for the back four, might be exposed by a stronger side than Qatar.