WORLD CUP: Coaching changes unsettle lowest-ranked Saudis
After dozens of coaching changes in the last 25 years, Saudi Arabia has a proven winner in charge for the World Cup.
Juan Antonio Pizzi led Chile to the 2016 Copa America title, but it won't likely be easy for the Argentine to get his new team to play the same kind of high-octane, pressing style he used in South America.
Most of the squad heading to Russia doesn't have any significant experience playing club football outside their homeland. And at No. 67, the Saudis are the lowest ranked of the teams that qualified for the World Cup. Russia slipped four spots to 70 in the latest rankings but qualified as host.
Saudi sports authorities tried to boost the experience of the squad by sending nine players, including four internationals, on a half-season loan to Spanish clubs in January. Although wingers Fahad Al Muwallad and Salam Al Dawsari, and midfielder Yahya Al Sherhi were exposed to different training methods, their combined playing time was minimal.
The Saudis made their World Cup debut in 1994, reaching the round of 16. Since then, the team has gone through more than 30 coaching changes while qualifying for the 1998, 2002 and 2006 tournaments and going out in the group stage.
Bert van Marwijk, who coached the Netherlands to the 2010 World Cup final, led Saudi Arabia through the most recent qualification campaign but failed to agree on a new contract to lead the team in Russia. Instead, he is coaching Australia at the tournament on a short-term contract.
Edgardo Bauza replaced van Marwijk in the Saudi job but he lasted only two months. The Argentine was fired in November after underwhelming performances in five friendlies and was replaced by Pizzi.
Here's a closer look at the Saudi Arabia team:
Pizzi took over after failing to qualify for the World Cup with Chile. The 49-year-old coach's target is making the round of 16. There have been signs so far of an attempt to introduce more of a passing style instead of the direct strategy used in the two years under Van Marwijk.
A resurgent Yasser Al Mosailem and Abdullah Al Muaiouf appear to be vying for the starting role, although Pizzi doesn't appear to be fixed on a starter. Al Mosailem played in seven of the 10 Asian qualifiers and lost only one of them.
The back four is an experienced unit but with three likely starters over 30 they are susceptible to pace from opponents. The 34-year-old Omasa Hawsawi and 32-year-old Omar Othman are set to partner in the center.
Much depends on Abdullah Otayf, a holding midfielder who has drawn comparisons with Luka Modric of Real Madrid. If Saudi Arabia can start to play out from the back, the 25-year-old Otayf can make the team tick.
Taiseer Al-Jassim, who has made more than 130 international appearances, adds to the solidity in the center while Yahia Al-Shehri provides creativity going forward.
The team lacks a proven scorer at the top level against strong defenses. Mohammed Al-Sahlawi and Muhannad Asiri were picked up front. The wide players are vital. Fahad Al Muwallad, the most talented player available, provides much of the threat.
The Saudis will be based in St. Petersburg but will play their opening match against host Russia in Moscow on June 14. That will be followed by a trip to Rostov-on-Don to play Uruguay on June 20 and to Volgograd to take on Egypt on June 25.
Goalkeepers: Abdullah Al Muaiouf, Yasser Al Mosailem, Mohammed Alowais
Defenders: Mansour Al Harbi, Osama Hawsawi, Ali Albulayhi, Omar Othman, Mohammed Alburayk, Yasir Al-Shahrani, Motaz Hawsawi.
Midfielders: Salam Al Faraj, Yahia Al-Shehri, Hatan Bahbir, Abdulmalek Alkhaibri, Mohamed Kanno, Abdullah Otayf, Abdullah Alkhaibari, Hussain Al Moqahwhi, Taiseer Al-Jassam, Salem Al Dawsari.
Forwards: Mohammed Al-Sahlawi, Fahad Al Muwallad, Muhannad Asiri.