Jorge Jesus: Al Hilal's talented tactician on course to complete what he started

When Jorge Jesus returned to Al Hilal ahead of the 2023-24 Roshn Saudi League season, he did so looking to take care of some unfinished business.

The veteran Portuguese manager was no stranger to the RSL or Al Hilal, having previously taken charge of the Riyadh giants for seven months during the 2018-19 season, winning the Saudi Super Cup along the way.

While his time was ultimately cut short, in a season in which Al Hilal would narrowly miss out on the title to Al Nassr by a solitary point, his record during his time at the capital club was impressive. He suffered a solitary defeat during his time in charge.

After leaving Al Hilal in January 2019, Jesus had resounding success with Brazilian giants Flamengo, leading them to the Brazilian Serie A title, and the big one: the 2019 Copa Libertadores.

Jorge Jesus celebrates 2019 Libertadores win

Further stints followed with Benfica, in his native Portugal, and Turkish side Fenerbahce, where Jesus added more silverware to his growing collection of accolades.

With Al Hilal on the lookout for a new manager for this current campaign – Ramon Diaz departed shortly before the end of last season – Jesus, a fan favourite in Riyadh, was a natural candidate. His appointment was confirmed at the start of July.

Having been given the opportunity to return, Jesus set about finishing what he started back in 2018-19, and if his record that season was impressive, then it is even more so this season.

There is something about the Jesus-Al Hilal combination that simply seems to click.

The 68-year-old has spearheaded a record-breaking first half of the season for Al Hilal, with the most wins (15) and most points (47) earned through that period by any team in RSL history. After 21 rounds, Al Hilal lead the standings by seven points.

With progression safely secured to the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League, where they are drawn against RSL champions Al Ittihad this month, the potential of more continental silverware is also on the table, as Jesus’ side chase a record-extending fifth Asian crown.

What makes that all the more impressive is the wily tactician has had to make do, for the large part, without the team’s blue-chip asset - Brazilian legend Neymar.

The former Barcelona and PSG superstar missed the start of the season through injury, and shortly upon his return, he again injured his knee while on national team duty in October, and has been sidelined since, denying Jesus of one of his prime attacking options for this season.

Despite that setback, Jesus’ Al Hilal have barely skipped a beat, racking up 19 wins from their opening 21 RSL matches, all while netting 64 goals. They have conceded only ten.

It’s form that has earned Jesus a hat-trick of Manager of the Month awards already this season, the most recent for December. It made him the first coach in RSL history to win the honour three months in a row. 

Al Hilal v Al Ahli: Saudi Pro League

But it’s the title at the end of the season that is the No.1 target for the remainder of the season. With 13 games remaining in the RSL season, his Al Hilal side are well in pole position in the title race. Al Nassr, their city rivals and runners-up to Al Ittihad in the 2022-23 campaign, are once more the closest challengers.

Jesus took the opportunity of the recent winter break to strengthen Al Hilal, with the addition of Brazilian international left-back, Renan Lodi, from French side Olympique de Marseille

Lodi has settled in well, helping his new team to successive league victories since the restart, first at home to Al Raed and then away to Al Ettifaq in Matchweek 21.

The 2-0 win in Dammam saw Al Hilal claim another RSL record: 14 consecutive victories.

Given all of that, it is this week’s Saudi Clasico against Al Ittihad that will capture the attention of fans around the world.

Al Ittihad, the current RSL holders, will be looking to get their season back on track after a difficult first half of the season, initially under Nuno Espirito Santo, and then Marcelo Gallardo.

Back in September, the two sides played out one of the games of the season, when Al Hilal turned a 1-3 half-time deficit into a stirring 4-3 comeback victory thanks to a hat-trick from star striker, Aleksandar Mitrovic.

Jesus will be hoping for more of the same second time around, not just against Al Ittihad - he faced Gallardo, then at River Plate, in the opposite dugout in the 2019 Copa Libertadores final - but in the RSL and AFC Champions League in general.

If Al Hilal can mirror what they have produced until now, Jesus will finally be able to finish what he started back in 2018 - and bring silverware and success to the record Saudi Arabian champions.