Aussie coach’s success in Saudi Arabia

The name Arthur Papas would be familiar to Hyundai A-League and FFA Cup fans. Now the young coach has added Saudi Arabia to his coaching horizons after a recent successful stint in the Saudi Pro League.

And after this three months in the country’s top league, he has excellent insights into what to expect from Saudi Arabia on June 8 in Adelaide when they face the Caltex Socceroos in a hugely important FIFA World Cup group qualifier. 

Ange names 30-man Caltex Socceroos squad for June

Ange: focus is Saudi World Cup qualifier


Papas, 37, joined Saudi Arabian side Al-Ettifaq in late February with the team not having won since late November and with relegation hanging over the club.

During this time, Papas teamed up with Dutch coach Eelco Schattorie and together they guided Al-Ettifaq to safety in a league ranked within top four in Asia.

This is the second time Papas has worked in Asia having previously coached the Indian U-23 NT, guided Dempo to the AFC Cup and assisted Brazilian football legend Zico in the Indian Super League.

Local fans would remember Papas after he took two different clubs into the latter stages of the Westfield FFA Cup – including famously defeating the Mariners while coaching Green Gully. 

He’s also worked at Melbourne Heart and Newcastle Jets as an assistant coach.

With the Caltex Socceroos set to face Saudi Arabia on June 8 in a crucial World Cup qualifier, the highly rated young manager, currently back coaching Green Gully in the PS4 NPL Victoria,  gave his views on Saudi football, their national team and his time with Al-Ettifaq to  

Arthur, tell us more about joining this struggling club in Saudi Arabia…

Our predicament was not the easiest situation to inherit as the team hadn’t won a league match since November 24, and in a situation like this there are numerous factors surrounding the dynamics of the team which clearly are not functioning at an optimum level.

So to improve the results, whilst finding a playing style that was suited the characteristics of the playing group, was a fine balancing act but one we managed to navigate successfully.

Can you elaborate on the style of football in Saudi Arabia’s Pro League?

The standard was without doubt the highest I’ve worked at.

The Saudi Arabian Pro League is ranked in the top four in Asia and has numerous teams that consistently fight for the AFC Champions League title every year.

In terms of the style of football, Saudi Pro League is a very technical league where the space within the game is quite restricted, as most teams prefer to defend in the middle to defensive third.

Therefore, this reduces the speed of the games and allows for a very patient style of football where mistakes within ball possession are pounced upon and very quickly turned into goals.

Both Saudis and the majority of the foreigners possess a high technical level and can operate very effectively in these restricted spaces, and the top teams especially have match-winning players in key positions which many times prove to the difference.

What’s the mood like in Saudi Arabia ahead of this immensely important clash with Australia?

The feeling over in Saudi Arabia is very confident, they feel they have a very strong generation of players coming through and combined with an experienced coach they are aware of the Socceroos qualities, but also know their destiny is in their own hands and are leaving no stone unturned in their preparation for this match.

At Al-Ettifaq we had a couple players who have been in the NT squads throughout the qualifiers and now that the league is finished they will be heading into camp immediately in Frankfurt, Germany for two weeks and from there head over to Australia for another two weeks to acclimatise.

That is a huge obstacle for them considering when I left last week the weather was hitting 45 degrees and going to get hotter.

Fahad Almuwallad of Saudi Arabia (L) fights for the ball with Dhurgham Ismael of Iraq (R).

No expense will be spared to ensure they have the best possible preparation for this crucial qualifier.

Can you delve a little deeper into what we’ll expect tactically from the Green Falcons?

I expect them to stick with the 1-4-2-3-1 that [coach] Bert Van Marwijk has employed for the majority of the qualifiers. 

Defending two banks of four will often be seen and I would also expect them to set their defensive block somewhere between the defensive and middle third which would give them the ability to also provide a counter-attacking threat.

Players like Mohammed Al Sahlawi and Yayha Al Shehri from Al Nassr are key attacking threats and like mentioned earlier have the individual quality to capitalise on errors in ball possession, especially in the central areas of the pitch.

Mohammed Al-Sahlawi

Whilst in defence Osama Hawsawi from Al-Hilal is an integral part of their organisation and one of their biggest threats on attacking set-pieces.

In Saudi Arabian football the first and last  five mins of every half seems to be a weakness where a lot of goals are scored and games are often decided in these times, as well from set-pieces.

Your thoughts on Saudi players overall?

Saudi players comprise of a very interesting make up, technically they are very strong and this really was the biggest difference as the majority have a very creative side to their playing characteristics and can manage the ball within minimal space and with high efficiency.

Tempo is maybe the one area that can be improved as they prefer a slower tempo style of play and no doubt a lot of that is due to the harsh climate they are exposed to but this does have a bearing on the speed of play. 

Australia v Saudi Arabia …

It’s certainly a difficult match that comes with a lot of pressure to again produce the style of football Ange has instilled in the team against a high quality Saudi team that know a positive result in Australia will nearly guarantee them a spot at the World Cup.

Brad Smith tries to block the passage of Saudi Arabia's Saudi's Nawaf Alabid in Jeddah.

I was privileged to work in the Saudi Pro League and with their players and therefore understand deeply the affiliation they have for their country and what it means to them all as football  really is the only sport that matters there.

The Caltex Socceroos tackle Saudi Arabia in a crucial World Cup Qualifer in Adelaide on June 8. Click Here for Tickets

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