There will not be many occasions when Saudi Arabia’s players have enjoyed 62 per cent of the possession on the home turf of a European opponent and yet for much of the first half, as the world watched Russia kick-off its own tournament, the team in green had the ball.
This is the way that so many modern managers aspire to play, and when they watch the best teams in the world it is easy to see why. Possession football is well established as the game’s purest form — the right way to win and perhaps even the right way to lose. Its arch exponents, like Pep Guardiola, coach sides that take the possession count up past 70 per cent over 90 minutes, denying opponents all but a foothold in the game.
At club and international level, in the long term it feels like a solid basis on which to build, from junior football upwards. It is just that unless you have the kind of players at the disposal of the top coaches then it can be a road to nowhere.
In the World Cup finals’ opening game, between two very mediocre sides, Saudi Arabia’s five-man midfield passed the ball well in the first half and still went in two goals down. Salman Alfaraj and Yahya Alsheri are players who are comfortable on the ball — it is where it goes after them which is the problem.
Their striker Mohammed Alsahlawi has 28 goals in 40 caps — albeit eight in two matches against East Timor — and trained with Manchester United this season. Yet he probably had more shots per session at Carrington than he managed this afternoon.
In contrast, Russia picked off their opponents on the counter-attack, running through a paper-thin defensive line and finishing well — never more so than the second from substitute Denis Cheryshev. They let Saudi to have the ball and then moved it forward quickly even if they themselves lacked true pace in attack. Arguably their most talented player after Alan Dzagoev, injured on 23 minutes, is Aleksandr Golovin and he does not have the extra gear to glide past defenders.
When they did create openings in the first half, for midfielder Iury Gazinsky and then Cheryshev, Russia took them well. For Saudi there was just no cutting edge. In a game that was generally low on quality they tried to take care in possession but lost confidence and their defensive weakness let in another Russia substitute, Artem Dzyuba, to head in the third.
The second goal for Cheryshev, hit with the outside of his left foot in time added on at the end was the game’s moment of true quality before Golovin struck the fifth from a free-kick. Saudi were hopeless by the end, finishing with a possession count that was bigger and not a shot on target.