Al-Nassr opened their AFC Champions League campaign with a 2-0 win at Iranian giants Persepolis, a match that would see Senegalese winger Sadio Mané operate as an inside forward. The ex Liverpool superstar is one of the few wingers in the world who can truly excel at both playing as a touchline winger, holding the width, and creating the difference via dribbles and progressive carries, while also being great when acting as an inverted winger or as an inside forward thanks to his goalscoring abilities.
Against Persepolis, Mané was playing centrally even though he started the game as a right winger on paper. The offensive quality of right-back Sultan Al-Ghannam and the ability of central right-midfielder Otavio to play on the wing gives all the freedom to Mané to invert, and we analyzed this matter in a previous piece. Mané was dropping to the middle to create passing options on that right half-space, but what was really threatening for the backline of Persepolis was when Mané advanced to act as a second striker near Cristiano Ronaldo.
Having to defend against two top-class forwards on the box, Persepolis could not only rely on their two center-backs to stop them, it was too risky. Therefore, Persepolis manager Yahya Golmohammadi decided to provide his left-back Ali Nemati with greater numerical support to make it a 3v2 against Al-Nassr’s star-studded attack featuring Mané, Ronaldo and Otávio.
This allowed more space for left winger Abdulrahman Ghareeb to hover around the box without much marking. The Iranian left-back had to either mark Cristiano Ronaldo or Ghareeb, which put him in a 2v1 situation.
Similarly, if one of the center-backs wanted to drift towards Ronaldo, then Mané would find himself 1v1 in a dangerous area.
Persepolis fell to 10 men after the break and conceded an own goal within an hour, with Al-Nassr doubling their advantage via left back Mohammed Qassem. They followed that up with a 4-3 win against Al-Ahli in the league, a 5-1 win against Ohod in the King Cup of Champions, and a 2-1 win at Al-Ta’ee, before beating Tajik side FC Istiklol 3-1 in their second AFC Champions League match.
Their 10-match winning streak came to an end on October 6, as they took the lead within three minutes via Otávio and doubled it within a half-hour via Anderson Talisca, only to concede a penalty before the break, whilst Karl Toko-Ekambi would draw level in the 92nd minute to secure a point away from home for Abha. Al-Nassr sit third in the league table, level on 19 points with Al-Ittihad, three points behind Al-Taawoun and four behind Al-Hilal, and they will return from the international break on Saturday with a visit from 10th-placed Damac.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Anadolu Agency / Ali Al-Haji / AFP