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Al-Ittihad 2021/22: How the Jeddah giant’s title charge has slipped away – tactical analysis

Chasing their first Saudi Pro League title since the 2008/09 season, Al-Ittihad have collapsed at the business end of the season. The team from Jeddah have topped the table in 22 of the 29 completed matchdays so far this season, but three wins in their last seven league games have taken the title out of Al-Ittihad’s hands. Al-Hilal now lead heading into the final game of the season, looking to win their third consecutive title, and their fifth in six years. Despite being level on points, Al-Hilal’s two victories over Al-Ittihad means Asia’s most decorated club is top of the league by their head-to-head record.

Although, the title could’ve been handed to the team from Riyadh on Thursday night. Al-Ittihad came from behind against Al-Ettifaq to win 3-1 and keep the title race alive, thanks to a quickfire Romarinho brace and a late goal from Abderazak Hamdallah. With Al-Ittihad’s inconsistent form and Al-Hilal being a proven winning machine, a first title in 13 years looks unlikely for Al-Ittihad, but the season is not over yet. In this tactical analysis in the form of a team scout report, we will discuss manager Cosmin Contra’s tactics that have brought The Tigers close to the Saudi Pro League title, but maybe not quite close enough.

In possession

Al-Ittihad mainly take short goal-kicks, finding the centre-backs. The common shape in the build-up phase is a 2-4, with the full-backs on the same horizontal line as the midfield double pivot. With this shape and the lack of staggered positioning from the double pivot in particular, the centre-backs struggle to accurately find forward passing options that can allow Al-Ittihad to progress possession. As title challengers, this build-up struggle is quite bizarre. Al-Ittihad rank second-bottom in the league for passes into the final third and third-bottom for progressive passes.

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The figure above shows the 2-4 build-up shape in their title clash with Al-Hilal. Receiving off the backup goalkeeper Rakan Al-Najar, the former West Brom defender Ahmed Hegazy plays a square pass to centre back partner Ziyad Al-Sahafi. The opposition rarely pressures the Al-Ittihad defence, knowing that a structure preventing the double pivot from playing forwards will simply trouble their build-up.

The image shows Al-Hilal’s structure against the 2-4 build-up, with players positioned on the back of Al-Ittihad’s double pivot. The left-winger Michael can easily close down Al-Ittihad’s right-back to prevent a forward pass and the former Manchester United loanee and Watford star Odion Ighalo can also provide pressure as the lone striker. With this build-up shape, all the possession is in front of Al-Hilal, requiring movement from the Al-Ittihad four to occupy spaces that perturbed the opposition’s shape. From the example, André André and Bruno Henrique in the double pivot can only receive with their back to goal, unable to accurately execute forward passes.

Al-Ittihad have attempted to overcome their build-up struggles by playing more direct. However, this is largely an ineffective solution from former AC Milan and Atletico Madrid right-back Contra. Hamdallah and Haroune Camara, two Al-Ittihad striker options, rank in the bottom 25% of Saudi Pro League strikers for aerial duel success rate. Despite this, Moroccan-international Hamdallah regularly asks for long passes up to him from the build-up phase.

The figure below is an example of Al-Ittihad’s direct build-up shape. Goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe has kicked long up to Camara towards the left-wing, with left-winger Abdulrahman Al-Obood inverting to run behind the striker contesting in the aerial duel. Ball-side midfielder Bruno Henrique provides a supporting option for a cushioned knockdown with André André and right-winger Abdulaziz Al-Bishi able to receive a second pass to start the attack. However, this is rarely used by Al-Ittihad, with Contra’s team ranking bottom in the league for long passes and Marcelo Grohe’s long passing accuracy ranking 24th out of the 25 goalkeepers to play over 500 minutes in the Saudi Pro League this season.

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Contra has also attempted to solve the build-up issues by dropping a midfielder alongside the centre-backs, to alleviate the responsibilities of the defenders. This midfielder is sometimes André André, on loan from Vitória Guimarães. The former Portugal international is a versatile option for Al-Ittihad, being deployed as an attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 and in a deeper role with the responsibility of dropping into the defence in the build-up phase. André André ranks in the top 30 out of 80 central midfielders to play 500 Saudi Pro League minutes for forward passing and progressive passing statistics. Midfield partner Bruno Henrique is another option, with the Brazilian completing over eight passes into the final third per 90, impressive reading for both players considering Al-Ittihad average less than 50% possession.

Below is an example of André André dropping into the left centre-back position to receive in the build-up phase away from opposition pressure. However, this has triggered attacker Romarinho to leave the forward line to occupy space in the midfield line. The Brazilian is helping to overload in the build-up phase, providing a short passing option as his teammates are poorly positioned elsewhere. By removing himself from the forward line, Romarinho is hindering Al-Ittihad’s ability to progress and sustain their attack to penetrate the Al-Ettifaq defence.

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This dynamism and rotation also occur further up the pitch, as shown in the figure below. Left-back Hamdan Al-Shamrani can advance into the forward line as the left width-holder due to André André occupying the space on the left of the defence. With André André positioned deeper and wider, Romarinho has again moved into the midfield. Left-winger Al-Obood has drifted inside to the left half-space, since Al-Shamrani is now the width holder, and is ready to make a penetrative run in behind. This pass and movement from the left-wing dyad of Al-Shamrani and Al-Obood is a common route of penetration for Al-Ittihad, as they look to get in behind the opposition defence after entering the final third.

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Al-Ittihad utilise rotations in the final third, alongside their attacker’s technical quality, to create opportunities. With their struggles to progress possession in the build-up phase, the attackers must create and convert the chances they get. This is something the attackers do brilliantly. Al-Ittihad lead the league for goals scored with 62 goals, but their xG of 49.54 ranks third in the league.

Romarinho and Abderazak Hamdallah are the top two xG overperformers in the Saudi Pro League. This pair also ranks fourth and sixth for touches in the opposition penalty box per 90, despite Al-Ittihad only having the sixth most out of the 16 teams in the league, showing their ability to produce and convert opportunities with their lethal attackers. Only Damac striker Emilio Zelaya has a better shot on target percentage than Romarinho and Igor Coronado for Saudi Pro League attackers, with the Al-Ittihad duo both hitting the target with greater than 50% of their shots. This is crucial for chance conversion, especially when considering Al-Ittihad rank 5th for shots despite being title challengers and long-time league leaders.

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Attacking set-pieces

The two main attacking set-piece takers at Al-Ittihad are Igor Coronado and Bruno Henrique, both right-footers. Igor Coronado missed the first few months of 2022 but since returning, he is the primary set-piece taker when on the pitch. Due to both players being right-footed, the corners from the right are outswingers, with left-sided corners being inswingers. Overall, Al-Ittihad’s corners are delivered near the front post more often than the back post. These are especially dangerous from inswinging deliveries with Abderazak Hamdallah’s runs into the front zone for flick-ons.

Centre-back Ahmed Hegazy is another target from set-pieces. The Egyptian is seemingly always in and around the action inside the box, keeping attacks alive and threatening the opposition’s goal. Hegazy ranks fourth for aerial duel success rate out of 51 centre-backs to play over 1000 minutes in the Saudi Pro League this season.

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The image above is an example of an inswinging Igor Coronado corner against Al-Fateh. Al-Ittihad will usually position their attackers closer to the goal, around the six-yard box, from inswinging corners. The example shows Hamdallah making the run into the front zone, getting in front of the opponent, and flicking the ball past the goalkeeper and inside the back post. As the corner is being taken, Romarinho drops behind the penalty spot to pounce on any knockdowns. Meanwhile, Al-Sahafi starts deeper, giving himself time to read the ball flight and build momentum before deciding to attack the ball or move into a space. These are two roles that Hegazy can complete.

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From outswinging corners, Al-Ittihad will start from deep. They usually attack with five near the penalty spot, either in a line or more clustered together, as shown in the figure above. Like inswinging corners, an Al-Ittihad centre-back will begin in a different, deeper position than the rest of their teammates before deciding their action.

In this example against Al-Fayha, the centre-back is number 17 Abdullah Al-Hafith. Different to the inswinging example, here, Romarinho is making a run through Al-Fayha’s zonal marking structure to enter the penalty box. Romarinho has an effective ability to identify threatening spaces in and around the box for potential goal-scoring opportunities, with these two set-piece examples displaying the variety in his movements. With most Al-Ittihad corners being delivered nearer the front post, as mentioned earlier in the set-piece analysis, Contra’s team will always have someone moving to occupy the front zone, with Al-Shamrani doing so in the example above.

Out of possession

Contra sets Al-Ittihad up in a 4-4-2 formation when out of possession. Typically, Romarinho and Abderazak Hamdallah will be the two in the first line of engagement. When Al-Ittihad’s possession shape is a 4-3-3, central midfielder André André will join Hamdallah in the front two. Al-Ittihad are far from a high-pressing side, ranking 12th in the Saudi Pro League for PPDA. Their PPDA of 10.44 is comparatively much lower than their title challengers Al-Hilal, who are the top-ranked team in the league for PPDA with just 6.74. For every minute of opposition possession, Al-Ittihad average 5.7 duels, tackles, and interceptions, which also ranks them 5th lowest in the league.

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In the example above, André André joins striker Haroune Camara in the front two. The Al-Ittihad midfield line is narrow and on the same horizontal line. However, sometimes Contra’s team will press in a 4-1-4-1 when Awad Al-Nashri is starting as the holding midfielder, with André André and Bruno Henrique ahead of him. This 4-1-4-1 usually disbands the team into two units of five. The defensive five, consisting of Al-Nashri and the back four, will hold back around the halfway line as the front five remaining players look to restrict the space in opposition build-up to force play long.

Despite only being used sporadically this season, Al-Nashri has begun to improve in this holding midfielder role. The 20-year-old ranks third out of 108 Saudi Pro League central midfielders for PAdj interceptions with 8.18. André André and Bruno Henrique also ranks in the top 30 alongside Al-Nashri for defensive duels per 90 and duel win percentage.

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The figure above shows the separate defensive unit of five in their own half contesting a direct pass from Al-Tai. The separation in the team creates large spaces between the two units, leaving the defensive unit with lots of ground to cover. With the full-backs and Al-Nishri given the dilemma of which spaces to prioritise, Al-Shamrani has allowed Al-Tai right-winger Amir Sayoud to get goal-side. With striker Tobías Figueroa winning the aerial duel against Hegazy to flick the ball in behind, Amir Sayoud can latch onto the flick-on in behind to score the winner.

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The image shows a similar situation against Al-Hilal. With the physical presence of Moussa Marega coming off the wing, Hegazy has left his centre-back partner to contest the aerial duel. Al-Shamrani isn’t capable of competing with Marega in aerial duels, but instead of dropping to provide cover and balance behind Hegazy, the left-back remains in an ineffective position. With the attack-minded Al-Obood not tracking Al-Hilal’s left-winger Michael infield, centre-back Al-Sahafi has a 2vs1 against Ighalo and Michael due to Marega winning the aerial duel. Being overloaded and likely to be beaten, Al-Sahafi commits a foul.

Centre-backs leaving their defensive partner is a regular occurrence for Al-Ittihad. It can be a risky man-marking strategy but Al-Ittihad tend have success, ranking top in the Saudi Pro League for defensive duel success rate. With every Saudi Pro League club possessing a foreign striker that is technically sound with a reasonable ability to play with their back to goal, the Al-Ittihad defence consistently face players capable of punishing any mistakes.

Al-Hilal’s Odion Ighalo and Al-Ettifaq’s Robin Quaison have both recently shown moments of quality to successfully disturb the Al-Ittihad defence, giving their team opportunities to penetrate. This shouldn’t be much of an issue on the last game of the season against Al-Batin’s Angolan striker Fábio Abreu. Abreu, who played three games for England Schoolboys in 2010, completes less passes per 90 than any other Saudi Pro League striker.

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Defending set-pieces

When defending opposition corners, Al-Ittihad bring attackers back and protect their goal in great numbers. Opponents almost exclusively take inswinging corners against Contra’s side. To combat this, Al-Ittihad have multiple players occupying spaces in the six-yard box. In the example below, they have five players deep in the six-yard box and have some cover across the whole box and the posts. Just ahead of the six-yard box, Al-Ittihad have three players sort of man-marking, with the remaining two players towards the edge of the box. The two players near the edge of the box can drop back, recover and clear second balls, or trigger counter-attacks. However, such a deep line of defenders in the six-yard box does not give goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe much space to collect crosses and begin counter-attacks.

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The opposition can overcome Al-Ittihad’s strategy of flooding the six-yard box and middle zone by setting up for a short corner. In the example below, Al-Fateh’s short corner has drawn Igor Coronado and André André away from the box. With this set-up, Al-Fateh have a 3 versus 2 short corner overload with a 5 versus 3 overload outside the six-yard box. Al-Fateh perfectly utilise both overloads, with all three short corner players combining before a low cross to the near post was converted.

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Conclusion

Heading into the last day of the Saudi Pro League season, Al-Ittihad require their rivals Al-Hilal to drop points to give The Tigers their first league title in 13 years. Contra’s team still have a job to do though, and after coming back from behind to overcome Al-Ettifaq, Al-Ittihad must beat another relegation battler in Al-Batin to have any chance of lifting the title. League-leaders Al-Hilal face Al-Faisaly, another side not safe from relegation entering the season’s final weekend. Despite some Al-Faisaly attacking threats, it is expected that the far superior Al-Hilal will be celebrating their third consecutive title on Monday night.

This team analysis and scout report has discussed Cosmin Contra’s tactics that have challenged for the Saudi Pro League title but fallen short in recent weeks. Al-Ittihad have bettered last season’s third-place finish but ending this season as runners-up will leave a sour taste. As the Jeddah giants seek a first title since 2009, it may be out of Al-Ittihad’s hands, but it is not over yet.