As Al-Ettifaq’s plays sang and danced with delight in the dressing room after kicking-off their Saudi Pro League (SPL) campaign with back-to-back wins, manager Steven Gerrard tried to put things in perspective, pointing out, “It’s only two games!”
The Liverpool legend was sporting a broad smile as he spoke, though, and couldn’t resist the urge to join in the festivities for a split-second by partaking in a little jig. And why not? Even he knew this was a moment worth enjoying.
Despite seeing his new club spend more money during the summer window than every other SPL side bar the Public Invest Fund-backed ‘Big Four’ (Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli and Al-Hilal), he hadn’t expected to make such a strong start to the season with a team that hadn’t challenged for the Saudi title for 30 years.
After that matchday-two win over Al-Hazm, though, anything seemed possible for Al-Ettifaq.
Nine games without a win
Now, though, just under five months on from those joyous scenes of celebration, Gerrard is a man under intense pressure. The early hope of a top-three finish is already over after a run of nine games without a win in all competitions that has left Al-Ettifaq eighth in the table going into the mid-season break, a staggering 15 points outside the AFC Champions League places.
So, what’s gone wrong? And does Gerrard have any chance of holding onto his job – let alone restoring his reputation after a calamitous spell in charge of an Aston Villa side that is now challenging for the Premier League title just over 12 months on from his departure?
Strong start to the season
When Al-Ettifaq came from 3-2 down to beat Al-Tai on September 21 thanks to late goals from summer signings Gini Wijnaldum and Moussa Dembele, there was giddy talk of Gerrard leading a surprise title challenge. After all, it wasn’t just Wijnaldum and Dembele who were making a big impact in Dammam.
Despite all of the understandable controversy surrounding his decision to move to Saudi Arabia, former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson was impressing in midfield, particularly with his keen eye for a through-ball.
Furthermore, ex-Sweden international Robin Quaison, who joined Al-Ettifaq in 2021, was also in good form, adding another attacking threat to a team that scored an impressive 15 times in their first seven league games.
However, the goals have very much dried up and, as a result, Gerrard’s men have won just one game since.
Derailed by Dembele injury
Losing Dembele to injury was a hammer blow. The former Lyon striker had scored nine times in all competitions before being sidelined for nearly two months with a muscular problem, but he’s not looked anything like the same player since returning to action, failing to find the back of the net in his past four games.
None of the Frenchman’s fellow forwards have stepped up to share the goalscoring burden, either. Demarai Gray was on target just before the season stopped in late December, but with what was only his second strike of the season, while Quaison’s current goal drought extends back to September 16.
Consequently, with only Wijnaldum still contributing from midfield – Henderson still hasn’t scored since arriving in Saudi Arabia – Al-Ettifaq now look toothless up front.
Robbed by referees?
Perhaps even more worryingly, they also look utterly devoid of creativity in midfield, and solidity in defence – which obviously reflects horribly on the manager.
Gerrard has claimed that his side have repeatedly been the victims of poor officiating, claiming after last month’s 2-0 loss at home to Al-Taawoun that “the series of not awarding penalty kicks for Ettifaq continues!” However, it is his decision-making that is now coming under increasing scrutiny in the Saudi press.
The hope had been that Al-Ettifaq were getting the version of Gerrard the manager that enjoyed great success at Rangers, but the fear now is that the Liverpudlian is, as many pundits have previously speculated, lost without his “football brother” Michael Beale, and that his time at the Prince Mohamed bin Fahd Stadium will prove just as disastrous as his spell at Villa Park.
Indeed, it has been argued that even when Al-Ettifaq were winning games, they were only doing so because of moments of magic from individual players, and that the lack of a solid structure and coherent tactical plan has now been ruthlessly exposed.
More major moves in the transfer market?
Gerrard, though, insists that the players at his disposal are simply not good enough to challenge for the top three. Consequently, he is rather boldly calling for further investment in the squad this month.
“We need to show in this window, and also the summer window, that we mean business and we want to be competitive at the top of the league, and not where we are at the moment,” Gerrard told reporters last month. “It’s a collective thing – the players here and now need to give more, and people need to step up and, at the right time, we will hopefully be able to make significant changes to the team and the squad.
“Hopefully at the back end of January you will see a different, stronger and more competitive squad. We have already had important meetings at Al-Ettifaq in terms of mid-season updates and where every individual is, and where the group is at. The message, in summary, that we have sent is that we need to be aggressive, we need to be ruthless, and we need to make a lot of changes to make this team more competitive.”
Safe – but for how long?
Of course, some fans feel that a change of coach would also be hugely beneficial, with Gerrard’s dreadful results at Villa now being made to look even worse by Unai Emery’s sensational success with nearly the same set of players.
However, as it stands, there appears little chance of Al-Ettifaq making any drastic decisions during the break. The common consensus is that nearly any other manager would have been sacked by now and that Gerrard’s high profile is the one thing keeping him in a job.
Al-Ettifaq is not one of the traditional heavyweights of Saudi Arabian football. They may have formally opened a new stadium in October, but this is a relatively small club in a relatively small city with a relatively small fanbase. Even with a big name on the bench, and some famous players on the field, they still only attracted a crowd of 696 fans for an away game against Al-Riyadh on October 22.
It is, thus, believed that the owners are willing to afford Gerrard more time to turn things around because of his importance to the club as a figurehead. After all, he still carries some sway when it comes to recruitment because of his achievements as a Liverpool player. It’s certainly difficult to imagine Henderson or Wijnaldum would have joined Al-Ettifaq had it not been for Gerrard’s presence in the dugout.
The pressure is undoubtedly mounting, though. This winless run cannot extend too far into the second half of the season when action returns in mid-February. If it does, Gerrard’s position will become untenable and all hope of him restoring his reputation as a credible coach will be gone for good.