A few weeks after his appointment as new Saudi Arabia head coach, Italian Roberto Mancini took to the dugout for his first matches, a double-header of friendlies against Costa Rica and South Korea.
The Green Falcons came out on the losing side in both fixtures, but Mancini will have learnt valuable lessons as he looks to fast track the process of building a side that can go far at next year's Asian Cup in Qatar.
Over the past few years, the ball-playing goalkeeper has emerged as one of the biggest tactical shifts in modern football, influencing decisions on recruitment for major clubs as well as national team selection. It was behind Manchester United's decision to sign Andre Onana to replace long-serving David de Gea.
This trend posed an early question of Mancini in his first matches in charge of the Green Falcons.
In Nawaf Al Aqidi, Saudi Arabia possess a promising, modern goalkeeper, who despite being only 23, impressed at Al Nassr when called on to start following an injury to Colombian veteran David Ospina last season. So good were Al Aqidi’s displays that he convinced coach Luis Castro not to invest in a new foreign goalkeeper ahead of the 2023/24 Saudi Pro League season.
Al Aqidi was selected to start between the sticks in Mancini’s first match, a 3-1 defeat to Costa Rica – both games were played at St James' Park in Newcastle, England – and his performance over the 90 minutes embodied everything that is both good and bad about him. The young goalkeeper was heavily involved in build-up play and distribution, but not without the odd misplaced pass or uncalculated risk. On one occasion, he had to be rescued by a goal-line clearance from Hassan Tambakti.
Against South Korea, Mancini went for the tried and tested, starting veteran Mohammed Al Owais. The 31-year-old was Saudi Arabia's starting goalkeeper at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and produced some memorable saves. On Tuesday, Al Owais delivered more of the same exceptional goalkeeping, but contributed little with his feet. He was largely able to keep Son Heung-min and company quiet; only a mistake from defender Ali Al Bulayhi allowed Cho Gue-sung to strike the only goal of the night.
Like many managers nowadays, Mancini finds himself faced with the question of whether to stick with a goalkeeper who can make more saves or go for the one who gives him a tactical advantage to help build from the back.
Thinking beyond Al Shahrani
When left-back Yasser Al Shahrani felt the full force of the knee of his onrushing goalkeeper in Saudi Arabia's shock 2-1 win over Argentina at the last World Cup, he was left sidelined for over four months with a facial injury. Many feared the worst, but on Friday, Al Shahrani returned to the international fold for the first time since the incident.
While the sight of Al Shahrani in the green of Saudi Arabia was welcome it also poses more pressing questions. Since making his international debut in 2012, the Al Hilal defender has made the left-back berth his own, winning 75 caps.
It is a remarkable feat given Al Shahrani is not even left-footed, but such is his quality that consecutive Saudi Arabia managers rarely felt the need to make any adjustments.
But with Al Shahrani now 31, the task of finding a long-term replacement on the left side of the Saudi defence falls to Mancini. Al Ittihad’s 27-year-old Ahmed Bamasoud was selected in the squad for both games and came off the bench against Costa Rica and South Korea, while Nasser Al Dawsari, another capable of operating in the role, was preferred in midfield.
Al Wehda’s Zakaria Hawsawi, 22, and Al Shabab’s Moteb Al Harbi, 24, will be some of the options that Mancini is likely to consider over the next few months, but with squads for next year's Asian Cup set to be finalised in December, the Italian must move fast.
Scouting the SPL
The international window came just 10 days after Mancini's appointment, meaning the Italian had little time to learn about the Saudi Pro League or watch games ahead of selecting his squad. As a result, what we saw was a group largely based on the last one picked by previous coach Herve Renard for Qatar 2022, with few changes recommended to Mancini by his staff.
The next time the Green Falcons gather in November, the former Italy boss will have had the opportunity to watch plenty of domestic football, as well as four Saudi clubs competing in the AFC Champions League, offering him better insights into the talent pool available to him.
But in a season in which the SPL has become the centre of the global transfer market with some of the biggest names in football moving to Saudi Arabia and the foreign player quota growing to eight players per team, the task of scouting the best Saudi talents in the league and observing their form over a consistent run of matches becomes a daunting one.
Of the 14 players who started at least one of the two September friendlies, half of them are not guaranteed starters for their club sides, with the likes of Al Owais, Abdullah Al Hamdan and Nasser Al Dawsari spending most of their time on the bench this season. Does Mancini go for the match fit options or choose players based on technical quality regardless of how much playing time they get in the SPL?
The one area of the pitch where Mancini is likely to tinker the most is midfield; both Abdullah Al Khaibari and Mohammed Kanno started both games this week, with the third midfield spot occupied by Ali Hazazi against Costa Rica then Nasser Al Dawsari against South Korea.
Mancini’s options were limited by the simultaneous involvement of the U23 team in the AFC U23 Asian Cup Qualifiers, with the likes of Musaab Al Juwayr and Faisal Al Ghamdi potentially offering additional variety in how he can set-up the side.
Al Khaibari earned plaudits for displays across both games, offering a solid base for the three-man midfield, intercepting passes, making tackles and keeping it simple in terms of his passing range as he helps the team build their attacks. Kanno offers physicality and is a player who can contribute to both phases of play in a box-to-box capacity, while the deep-lying playmaker role is the one for which Mancini will need to spend the most time searching for answers.
Two players alternated in the starting striker role for Mancini in his first two matches, with new Al Ahli signing Feras Al Buraikan leading the line against Costa Rica and Al Hilal youngster Abdullah Al Hamdan taking the mantle against South Korea.
The two players have completely different interpretations of the role; Al Buraikan drops deep and drifts wide to contribute to build-up play with his combination of technical quality and pace that allows him to move behind defences to receive the return pass. In turn, Al Hamdan is a pressing machine, capable of creating chances by applying pressure on opposition backlines and recovering the ball high up the pitch, while his endless running makes him difficult to deal with for his markers.
What both men have in common, though, is that between them, they were unable to find the back of the net. Saudi Arabia’s sole goal over the 180 minutes came from defender Al Bulayhi. As preparations step up for the Asian Cup, Mancini will need to find an sustainable answer that will enable his side to score goals more regularly.