Saudi giants Al-Hilal have just lost their biggest superstar to a season-ending injury, with Brazilian star playmaker Neymar being stretchered off in a World Cup Qualifier against Uruguay. This news must have been shocking for The Blues and their representatives, who have acquired the services of the superstar playmaker in the latest transfer window from Paris Saint-Germain, in order to improve the individual and collective qualities of the team.
Now, Al-Hilal will be without their blockbuster player to remain first in the Saudi Professional League. The good news for Al-Hilal is that Neymar has only featured in a limited number of games since joining, and despite that, they were able to surpass everyone in the league, collecting a total of 29 points gathered from 11 SPL games. In terms of pure quality, Neymar is undoubtedly one of the best players in the world, but still, Al-Hilal could take two positive points out of this matter.
The Role of Local Star: Salem Al-Dawsari
Saudi National Team superstar Salem Al-Dawsari has led the Arabian Kingdom to accomplish one the most iconic achievements in World Cup history, beating Lionel Messi’s Argentina, who went on to reach the glory of the competition. Al-Dawsari is not as prestigious as Neymar, that is for sure, but the former has a long experience in the continent, and knows how things get done in Saudi Arabia and Asia.
Al-Dawsari has recently been nominated for The Asian Football Confederation Player of the Year award as part of the 3-men list, alongside Qatar’s Al-Moez Ali and Australia’s Matthew Leckie. In fact, both Neymar and Salem Al-Dawsari share the same role on the pitch, which is the left-winger who likes to invert and turn into a playmaker entering in central zones of the pitch to dictate the play. This has led to some criticism from some Saudi media, hinting at duplicate roles in the field.
With Neymar out, this might hand more freedom to the Saudi Arabian to show his worth, even though the two players have shown great chemistry and respect between each other off the field and could have found the right formula with time on the pitch as well. Salem Al-Dawsari has been assuming the technical leading role for Al-Hilal for several years now. Superstar or not, he has shown enough guarantees that he is more than capable of standing for his team in the biggest stages.
The Role of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic
To play Neymar as a playmaker behind the striker in the 4-2-3-1 shape, Al-Hilal were giving up some of their cards, namely, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who was a star with the Italian capital club Lazio. In the aforementioned formation, Milinkovic-Savic has to play almost as a pivot, next to Portugal international midfielder Ruben Neves, with neither of them truly a defensive midfielder, nor defensively-minded enough.
The Serbian is known for his box-arriving, which allows him to score many goals throughout the season, either with his head or feet. His striking abilities are on point, and his timing of movements to find his teammates’ crosses is world-class for a midfielder.
When playing him as a pivot, you obviously limit his potential, and you also concede a high amount of counters, as you play with a genuine defensive midfielder. Ruben Neves, despite playing as the deeper midfielder for years at Wolverhampton, was taking the role of the Trequarista or deep-lying playmaker most notably known in Italy, with the likes of Andrea Pirlo.
Neves has always been playing with midfield destroyers next to him, like Leander Dendocker, Romain Saiss, and Joao Gomes. The weird thing is that Al-Hilal not only does not play with a defensive midfielder, they do not practically have one on their squad. Neither of substitutes Mohammed Kanno (box-to-box) nor Salman Al-Faraj (central midfielder) could be considered as such. Even though the former can fill the role to some degree.
Anyway, having Sergej Milinkovic-Savic in a more advanced role is a must, should club coach Jorge Jesus get the best out of his qualities. Thus, a change to a midfield 3 might be the most suitable for Al-Hilal now, with Ruben Neves as a deep-lying playmaker who can as usual drop to enter between the center-backs and build the play from the back.
Meanwhile, Mohammed Kanno and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic could act as central midfielders with different roles that suit each one of them. Salem Al-Dawsari can get his main role back and invert inside the pitch, to let club left-back Yasser Al-Shahrani operate as a left wing-back or even a left-winger at times. With the Serbian midfielder join his compatriot Aleksandar Mitrovic in the box when crosses are being played.
Mohammed Kanno can play the role of the midfield destroyer and prevent counters by staying near the center of the pitch when the team is in possession against sides who adopt low-blocks and low-defensive lines. And given his height and eye for goal, he can even advance to the box as well, at the latest part of the game, when his team is in need of a goal.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Jean Catuffe