For a manager whose contract ends the moment Saudi Arabia exit the Asian Cup this month, Juan Antonio Pizzi has selected his 23-man squad with one bespectacled eye firmly on the country’s footballing future.
Admittedly the Argentine was forced to perform spinal surgery to his first-team following the retirements of defender and captain Osama Hawsawi and veteran midfielder Taiser Al Jassem.
He had also evidently lost faith in striker Mohammed Al Sahlawi and goalkeepers Yasser Al Mosailem and Abdullah Al Mayouf, all of who played at last summer’s World Cup.
Yet rather than combing the domestic Pro League in search of experienced replacements, Pizzi has dipped directly into Saudi’s flourishing development squads.
Saudi’s youth academies are enjoying relative success of late. Their U19s won the age-group Asian Cup last November, their U20s reached the last-16 of the World Cup, and their U21s contested the quarter-finals of the Asian Games, despite it being an U23 tournament.
All did so playing with a recognisable style very similar to the preferred strategy of Pizzi.
While Tuesday’s Group E opener against North Korea has likely came too early for the quartet of youngsters surprisingly selected to travel to the Emirates to start, there is little doubt inside the corridors of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation that the quartet represent the future spine of the national team. And if they get a chance this month they are ready and hungry.
Here is a closer look at the four.
Mohammed Al Yami
The 21-year-old is on loan at Al Batin for the season after accepting opportunities at Al Ahli would be limited. While his loan spell did not get off to the best start, conceding five on his debut, he has grown in stature during his five appearances.
At the Asian Games, coach Saad Al Shehri said Al Yami was one of “only two or three” physically ready for the first team, adding he preferred him over his other two goalkeepers because “while one is good in the air and the other good with his feet, Mohammed has a bit of each”.
He has yet to make his debut under Pizzi and is almost certain not to feature in the Emirates unless injury or suspension rules out both Mohammed Al Owais and Waleed Abdullah. The experience he gains from being involved in a major tournament however will set him in good stead for Qatar 2022, by which time Abdullah will be 36.
Abdulelah Al Amri
Al Amri was playing on the streets only a couple of years ago. A composed centre-half who instills confidence in his backline, he matured quickly after being picked up by Al Nassr and led his country to the knock-out stages of the U20 World Cup.
Comfortable on the ball, strong in the air, and happy to carry the ball out under pressure, he is another currently seeking opportunities on loan.
Turning 22 later this month, Al Amri is quick and, with a strong upper body, was the only outfield player at the Asian Games who looked physically ready for the first team.
He made his domestic debut last season and has since made three starts on loan at Al Wahda. Although yet to earn his first cap under Pizzi, Al Shehri says the defender has “all the attributes and potential to be a major player for the national team for many years to come”.
A wideman comfortable playing through the middle, Ghareeb also has an eye for goal, netting two penalties at the Asian Games and opening his senior account with the only goal in the friendly win over Yemen.
Slightly built, but quick and technically sound, the Ahli midfielder has made 10 league appearances since signing his first professional contract in September.
His performances have convinced Pizzi he can prove a valuable member of the squad now and in the future, with the Argentine handing him five caps so far. The only one of the young quartet likely to get substantial minutes in the UAE, Ghareeb is expected to start on the bench against North Korea.
But do not be surprised if, searching for a goal and with only one natural striker in his squad, it is the 21-year-old to who Pizzi turns.
Ayman Al Khulaif
Al Khulaif is the young Saudi player that can get spectators out their seats.
A diminutive winger who can also play as a false nine, he is fast, clever and has two good feet. Styling his game on Eden Hazard, Al Khulaif can make things happen, as proven consistently at the Asian Games where he claimed more assists than any other Saudi.
Ruled out for seven months with a fractured fibula, he used the time to study the game and is now, according to Al Shehri, “better with the ball, has better movement off it, and has improved his passing too."
For now, he appears too slight for this level, but coming off the bench against tiring opposition he could provide a threat. If he can bulk up without sacrificing his pace and trickery, he can be a key creative force during Saudi’s World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign.