Steven Gerrard confident of future progress with resurgent Al Ettifaq

At the end of December, before the winter break and the impending transfer window, Al Ettifaq manager Steven Gerrard said his side would return “different, stronger and more competitive” when the league resumed in February.

The Englishman, experiencing his debut season in the Roshn Saudi League, made the comments on the back of a solitary victory in 12 RSL matches, and a winless run of eight matches that left his side languishing in ninth position.

After registering five victories in their opening seven league matches under the former Liverpool legend, it was a frustrating run of form that had Gerrard demanding reinforcements.

"We have already had important meetings in terms of mid-season updates and where every individual is, and where the group is at,” he said.

Al Ettifaq celebrate win

“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.

"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.

"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.”

The club played their part, backing Gerrard in by extending his contract by a further two years through until 2027.

"This is very pleasing for myself and my family and feels like recognition for a lot of hard work and commitment," Gerrard said in a statement.

"We knew at the beginning this was a big job and a challenging job. We had to put in place new infrastructure like building a new training ground in phases and building a new stadium. But a lot has been achieved.

"I also understand my position; it's a results business. I never take that for granted. I understand where we are in the league, but I am very confident we will improve.

“We're working to try and identify players who could come and support the current group of players to make us more competitive at the top end of the table. There will need to be an element of patience as there is still a lot to do on and off the pitch."

Those players arrived in the form of Karl Toko Ekambi, Seko Fofana and Alvaro Medran, coming in from Abha, Al Nassr and Al Taawoun respectively.

There were also local reinforcements in Khalid Al Ghannan and Abdullah Madu from Al Nassr, and Haroune Camara and Abdulrahman Al Obud from Al Ittihad. Crucially, Al Ettifaq added much-needed firepower to a side that lacked a ruthlessness in front of goal, which was borne out in the statistics.

In the run of 12 matches in which they won only once - the 3-2 triumph against Al Wehda in Matchweek 11 in late October – the Dammam side scored seven goals at an average of 0.6 goals per game. Meanwhile, their conversion rate was incredibly low, at 4.86%.

In that eight-match winless run, those stats dropped as low as 0.4 goals per game and a conversion rate of little more than three percent.

While Al Ettifaq were still averaging 11 shots on goal, they simply could not find a way to put the ball into the net. Against Al Riyadh in October, they had 17 shots but zero goals; two weeks later, at home Al Raed, they failed to score from 19 shots; against Al Hazem in December, as the RSL prepared to break for winter, they managed a single goal from 14 to draw.

However, since adding reinforcements and having more time to work with his squad during the six-week winter hiatus, Gerrard’s Al Ettifaq have returned a much different side.

Four wins and two draws have helped the club climb back up to sixth in the table. Subsequently, the statistics now paint a very different picture.

In eight matches since the league resumed, Al Ettifaq are averaging 1.4 goals a game, with their conversion rate now hovering around 11.5% from roughly the same number of shots (now averaging 12 compared to 11).

It is a clear sign that improvement is being made, although Gerrard still refers to the team as a “work in progress”.

But, with seven matches of the season remaining, he remains pleased with the development his side has shown this season in his first campaign in the RSL.

For sure, Gerrard is convinced the foundations are in place for a brighter future.

“First of all, I’d like to be judged on progress,” he said after the 1-0 win over Al Riyadh last week. “Last year, this team got 37 points after 30 games; we’ve played 27 and we now have 39.

“So, we know we’re a team that is building, that is growing and taking steps forward. 

“With time, I am confident, and I believe that we can continue to grow and improve and get better. But if you look at the challenges we’ve had to face since day one, I’m pleased with the progress that we’ve made.

“I still believe there’s a lot more to come and I know, and we know as a group and a team, that we’ve still got to reach higher levels, we’ve still got to improve, we’ve still got to learn, we’ve still got to grow.

“There’s a lot of ambition and there’s a lot of room for improvement for us to get to where we need to get to.”

A strong finish to the 2023-24 season, which begins in Matchweek 28 with a home match against Al Wehda, will only buttress belief that Gerrard’s second season can deliver an even-more-enhanced Al Ettifaq.