Arruabarrena faces stern introduction to UAE role as World Cup bid reaches finale

National team, chasing play-off spot, conclude Group A this month with crucial double-header

UAE’s new manager Rodolfo Arruabarrena has extensive knowledge of club football in the Emirates. Photo: UAEFA
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Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s track record within UAE football is surely impressive.

There were the second- and third-place finishes in the league across consecutive seasons with Al Wasl; the first, in his debut season in the Emirates, represented the Dubai’s club best performance in a decade.

At the end of his second campaign, in 2018, Wasl contested the President’s Cup final and the Arabian Gulf Cup showpiece, as well.

Although beaten in both, the twin defeats did not diminish Arruabarrena’s appeal. When a short spell at Qatar’s Al Rayyan ended prematurely, Shabab Al Ahli moved for the Argentine, and the decision was soon vindicated. This time, he guided his new team to success in both domestic cups, while also finishing runner-up in the league.

It meant Arruabarrena’s dismissal midway through the following season came as a shock. Shabab Al Ahli had lost the Arabian Gulf Cup final only months previously, but their manager’s tenure was terminated while they sat top of the league.

Still, Arraubarrena’s stock remained high. Let go in March 2020, by the end of the month he had agreed to join Sharjah, the reigning UAE champions, the following summer. Ultimately, though, the move did not materialise; a change in administration at the club ensured Abdulaziz Al Anbari continued as coach instead.

A seven-month stint with Egyptian side Pyramids since, now Arruabarrena finds himself back in Dubai. Last month, he was named manager of the UAE national team, succeeding Bert van Marwijk. He has been charged, initially, with guiding the side through this month’s conclusion to the final round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup and into the play-offs for a place in Qatar.

Sitting in the play-off spot in Group A with two matches remaining - Iran and South Korea have already secured the automatic slots - the UAE take on Iraq in Baghdad on March 24 and, five days later, round off the campaign at home to South Korea.

If Arruabarrena hoped for a gentle introduction to his new role, then it has not come his way. Much will be required, then, from those few training-camp days prior to this month's crucial double-header.

And therein lies the greatest question mark surrounding his appointment. For sure, Arruabarrena is an excellent manager, a guarantor of almost-instant results, who clearly improves players and often extracts the maximum from the group.

Yet, to this point, he is untested in international management. At 46, he represents a sizeable departure from the recent past: at the time of appointment, the average age of the past six UAE managers was 63.5.

No doubt, Arruabarrena will have studied extensively the current squad, and it will of course work significantly to his advantage that he knows the players and the league. His limited English, incidentally, has never proven a major hindrance.

Speak to Arruabarrena’s former players, particularly at Wasl, and they describe a cutting-edge coach, data driven and keen to implement the latest training techniques. To that point, during the early days of the pandemic and with football on hiatus, Arruabarrena used lockdown to refine his skillset. He spoke via Zoom to peers in Europe, and sampled the latest software to put into practice whenever he returned to work.

It is Arruabarrena's familiarity with UAE football, and his success within it, that convinced the Football Association to appoint him - even if the timing, with those two World Cup qualifiers on the horizon, surprised somewhat. His contract runs through to next year’s Asian Cup, but for now the sole focus is ensuring the bid to reach Qatar extends beyond the end of this month. A win in Iraq, by no means a given, would almost certainly guarantee it.

All considered, Arruabarrena is an intriguing appointment, perhaps one with an eye on developing a young team with room for appreciable improvement. That said, the UAE need to reap immediate reward, too.

Updated: March 04, 2022, 7:40 AM