Coaches Corner: A Tactical Preview Of Russia vs. Saudi Arabia

Who will win the first game of the 2018 World Cup, Russia or Saudi Arabia?

In what's considered by many to be the weakest group at the World Cup, both Russia and Saudi Arabia will have plenty to prove in Group A's opening match Thursday. Russia will be backed by tens of thousands of screaming fans, while Saudi Arabia will look to prove that they're not here just to make up the numbers. 

Here, we breakdown the predicted lineups, the key players, where the game will be won and lost, how each team and coach likes to play and the predicted outcome. Welcome to the first instalment of The18’s Coaches Corner!

PREDICTED RUSSIA LINEUP (4-5-1): Akinfeev; Kudryashov, Ignashevich, Granat, Smolnikov; Zhirkov, Golovin, Gazinsky, Dzagoev, Samedov; Smolov.

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COACH: Stanislav Cherchesov

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PREDICTED SAUDI ARABIA LINEUP (4-2-3-1): Al Mosailem; Al-Harbi, Osama Hasawi, Omar Hasawi, Al-Shahrani; Al-Jassim, Otayf; Al Dawsari, Al-Shehri, Al-Muwallad; Al-Sahlawi.

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COACH: Juan Antonio Pizzi

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Russia’s defence is largely considered to be the worst part of their team. Igor Akinfeev has been a solid goalkeeper, but as per his blunder against Korea in 2014, he is clearly prone to messing up. The players in front of him in the backline hardly inspire much confidence, as they have failed to keep a clean sheet in all of their 2018 friendlies. The attack will largely go through Alan Dzagoev, one of the key players at CSKA Moscow. 

Coach Stanislav Cherchesov has largely toyed around with a back three for most of the friendlies in the lead-up to the World Cup, but he decided to go with a back four against Turkey in their most recent friendly. Why would he change things so soon before the World Cup? We think that since he played a back four against Turkey, that’s what he will play against Saudi Arabia. 

The team doesn’t have much pace in it either. 38-year-old center back Sergei Ignashevich will be marshalling the backline, and with Russia expected to go on the attack given that they are playing on home turf, it could leave him and the defence very exposed.

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This is where the pace of Saudi Arabia’s counter attack comes in. Against Germany, they demonstrated that they can hang around, losing 2-1 but it nearly could have been 2-2, as they had a strong shout for another penalty late in the game. Their defence was often caught napping in the first half against Germany, as it was a ball over the top from Joshua Kimmich at right back to Marco Reus that allowed them to penetrate the defence of the Green Falcons and open the scoring.

Saudi Arabia will look to absorb the attack of the Russians, much like they did against the Germans, and then spring into a rapid counter. As mentioned earlier, the Russian defense lacks pace, and could be exposed by the speedy forwards of the Green Falcons like Mohammed Al-Salahwi and Yahya Al-Shehri. 

Russia’s strength lies in its center midfielders, so you can expect plenty of overcrowding in the midfield in an attempt to unlock the Saudi Arabian defense directly. But the Saudi Arabians have often played a 4-2-3-1 formation throughout qualifying and in their recent friendlies, so Russia could have trouble with that game plan.

Their wingers aren’t exactly offering much pace either, with Yuri Zhirkov at 34 years of age and Aleksandr Samedov, 33, not offering much in terms of getting past their man with dribbling and speed.

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PREDICTION: Russia 1 - 1 Saudi Arabia.

This game has a draw written all over it. Russia needs to inspire some confidence in their fans with a strong opening performance, and they will take the lead in the first half. Saudi Arabia will start slow and be caught up by the occasion, but in the second half they will start to dominate as the tired legs of the Russians start to give out a little bit. The pace of the Saudi players will prove crucial towards the end of the game, as they score in the middle of the second half. 

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