Al Ahli's Matthias Jaissle, the astute tactician pursuing winning formula in RSL

When Al Ahli announced the signing of German Matthias Jaissle as their new manager last July, it was seen as a coup on par with almost any of the high-profile player signings made across the Roshn Saudi League.

His CV may not yet have been that of other coaching colleagues, but his reputation was growing fast in Europe and, as part of the Red Bull empire, his career trajectory was already mapped out.

Seen as an astute tactician, he was a coach going places. As a result, his move to Jeddah rightly had people excited.

Jaissle, whose playing career was cut short because of injury, arrived at Al Ahli from Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg, where he became the club’s youngest head coach in history, aged only 33. His rise through the ranks was swift, but those above him saw something they liked.

"Matthias' qualities speak for themselves," Salzburg sporting director, Christoph Freund, said upon Jaissle's appointment. "I have known him for a few years already. He is young, ambitious, and suits our club really well.

"The way he works and develops young players is exceptional. He was our ideal candidate as a result. He is not a big name yet, but we are all about giving young players and also young coaches a chance."

It was that same ability to develop young players which convinced Al Ahli to appoint the German in July 2023, and he hit the ground running, trying to replicate that success model in Jeddah.

"It was tough to adapt at the beginning," Jaissle told the official SPL YouTube channel.

“To start from scratch, to build something long term, but if you see the progress now, I'm really proud of being part of this project."

“My approach from the beginning was taking long-term decisions. Building a new organizational chart for example, or building new facilities and a good link with the youth academy. It makes me proud to see the progress. We are building a good link with the club academy, we have some players with huge potential and a lot of them are already training with us and getting their first steps with the first team. This is the future of the club, and we want to make it special. The history of the club was built on a great academy and in future we will see the benefit."

Having been immersed in the Red Bull system, Jaissle likes his teams to play the ‘Red Bull way’: an intense, high-pressing game that squeezes the opposition across the park, aiming to win the ball back almost immediately after conceding possession.

Claiming it in high areas means creating more chances and, so the theory goes, the more opportunities you create the more goals you score.

It’s that style of play that Jaissle is looking to bring to Al Ahli. Even in this short space of time, he’s done so with some success this season, but he knows there is room for improvement, particularly against the league’s other top teams.

With 10 rounds remaining, Al Ahli sit third in the RSL, nine points off Al Nassr, and 21 back from leaders Al Hilal.

Al Nassr v Al Ahli

The biggest challenge for the three-time Saudi champions is to play at that level for an entire game. They have struggled at times to maintain the intensity across 90 minutes, and that’s when the opposition pounce, but it is something that the German had to build one stone at a time since arriving to Jeddah.

But for all the long-term planning, football remains a results business, and that defeat to Al Nassr continued Al Ahli’s poor run against the RSL’s other “big four” teams - Al Hilal, Al Nassr and Al Ittihad - with a solitary win from four meetings this campaign. That single victory did feel extra special to their fans, though, coming in the 1-0 triumph in the Jeddah Derby against Al Ittihad.

Outside of that quartet of matches, Al Ahli average 2.2 goals per game this season, but that drops to only 1.25 against the “big four”. Conversely, they concede at an average of 0.85 per game against other opposition, but two goals per game against their fellow powerhouse clubs.

Given they’ve shared the same number of shots across those four games (47), Jaissle has reason to be frustrated that his team haven’t made more of their opportunities and taken more points off their nearest rivals. Their issue isn’t creating chances, it’s converting them.

Riyad Mahrez is ranked first in the 2023-24 RSL for chances created, with Allan Saint-Maximin also featuring high on the list, but for the number of opportunities the team generates their conversion rate remains too low.

Across the season, Al Ahli are ranked fifth for conversion, at just 17.6 per cent. That’s behind the three of Al Nassr (21.8%), Al Hilal (20.1%) and Al Ittihad (20.0%), while Damac, who are seventh in the table, also rank higher, at 18%.

Al Ahli’s mark puts them level with Al Wehda, who lie 12th in the league. Tellingly, a conversion rate similar to that of Al Nassr or Al Hilal would add an extra seven or eight goals to Al Ahli’s tally this season. Thus, it would likely transform some of their five draws and five defeats into extra points.

Against the likes of Al Hilal, Al Nassr and Al Ittihad, that conversion rates drops worryingly, down to 10.6%, while in the past three weeks it has fallen to 10.3%, with only two goals from 29 shots against Al Fateh, Al Taawoun and Al Nassr.

The good work at Al Ahli is not limited to Jaissle's squad, the club's women side were crowned the inaugural champions of the SAFF Women's Cup, beating Al Shabab 3-2 in the final.

"Women's football is also progressing, I was watching a couple of matches and it is developing, there is definitley progress to see and it is nice to also be part of that journey."

The test as to how much they can improve will come over the next month, with matches against Al Ittihad and Al Hilal landing in the next four matchweeks. Up against the league’s top team and also their own fiercest local rivals, undoubtedly those provide the ultimate litmus test.

But, before then, Al Ahli have to travel the length of the country this weekend to Dammam to take on Steven Gerrard’s rejuvenated Al Ettifaq outfit. It represents another major test for Jaissle’s developing side, who will be intent on bouncing straight back from the Al Nassr disappointment.

Rest assured, Al Ahli's burgeoning coach will have used the recent international break to benefit.