The adage that defending a title is harder than winning one is proving true in 2019/20 for Al Nassr.
Rui Vitoria’s disciplined side deservedly pipped Al Hilal to the Saudi Professional League’s crown last May. Fast forward to the end of September, however, and it is their refreshed Riyadh rivals who hold a three-point advantage over the fifth-placed holders at the top.
A 1-0 defeat at home to also-rans Al Hazem last week followed the goalless derby stalemate with Al Shabab. In-between, access to a first AFC Champions League semi-final – where Hilal also awaited – was denied by Xavi’s livelier Al Sadd.
For now, it is only a mini-crisis. But fail to beat managerless giants Al Ahli Jeddah on Friday and serious questions will be asked about their current trajectory.
With the help of Wyscout, we’ve looked at the early season issues impacting the men from King Fahd Stadium:
THE BARE NUMBERS
A clear demarcation is evident about Vitoria’s nine-month tenure.
The ex-Benfica boss had a galvanising impact upon arrival on January 10, until signing off the club’s 2018/19 commitments with a 0-0 draw against Iran’s Zob Ahan in the ACL’s Group A.
Statistics, however, clearly show in 2019/20 that this approach has begun to break down.
Vitoria’s opening four months featured some of the most-efficient attacking play ever performed in the Kingdom, plus remarkable solidarity of purpose and clarity of vision. They pressed in the middle through Petros and Abdulaziz Al Jebreen, then flung in crosses from Morocco winger Nordin Amrabat for record-breaking countryman Abderrazak Hamdallah to attack.
In the 23 matches played under Vitoria in 2018/19 for which records exist (none were officially logged for his 5-0 win against Al Ansar on debut in January 15’s second-round King’s Cup clash), Nassr averaged; 2.7 goals, 1.9 xG (expected goals), 0.9 goals conceded, 14.8 attempts, 57.2-per-cent possession, 18 crosses, 64.9 passes to the final third, 7.5 attempts faced, 38.3 interceptions, 13.1 clearances and 3.5 slide-tackle attempts.
For this campaign, however, most of these critical figures have slipped in the wrong direction. From their eight games in 2019/20, they average; 1.3 goals, 1.5 xG (expected goals), 1 goal conceded, 13.6 attempts, 51-per-cent possession, 15.8 crosses, 58.4 passes to the final third, 9.9 attempts faced, 42 interceptions, 15.9 clearances and 2.6 slide-tackle attempts.
Nassr significantly outperformed their xG last term, with a subsequent recalibration costing points. They also have far less possession in 2019/20, have scored less than half the goals per game, pass the ball into the final third on fewer occasions, are pumping in 2.2 fewer crosses per fixture and are allowing nearly double as many attempts against them.
So what are the causes of this drop-off?
HURT BY HAMDALLAH
Nassr’s fitful start to 2019/20 is neatly encapsulated by Hamdallah.
The Morocco centre forward’s unmatched 34 goals in 26 run-outs upon arrival from Qatar’s Al Rayyan broke the all-time SPL scoring record for a single season. A combination of injury and his club’s malaise has curtailed this season’s contribution.
Under Vitoria’s care during 17 officially recorded matches in 2018/19, he was averaging, in all competitions, sensational figures per game of; 1.8 goals, 4.9 attempts, 1.1 xG, 5.1/2.3 aerial duels/won and 6.9 touches in the penalty box.
Hamdallah has still netted four times in six 2019/20 matches, including a goal at Sadd upon his return to Doha. This is his only strike, however, in a trio of games since a foot injury was picked up on the opening-day 2-0 triumph against promoted Damac.
Across all these fixtures, a spell that includes early August’s round-of-16 Asian double header versus the UAE’s Al Wahda, regression is obvious from the averages; 0.7 goals, 4 attempts, 0.5 xG, 3.8/0.8 aerial duels/won and 5.5 touches in the penalty box.
Hamdallah is far more than mere goal scorer to Vitoria. His pugilist’s physique and controlled aggression make sense of direct tactics.
Stand-in Firas Al Buraikan got the only goal in August 30’s laboured victory at Al Fateh when Hamdallah was absent from SPL duty.
But when their star striker is not up for the fight, neither are Nassr.
A significant caveat, however, comes from the fact a slow start to 2018/19 witnessed only three goals scored in the opening 10 fixtures – an absurd 46 more would follow.
Not all influential factors can be found in a database.
Deeper-rooted faults could be at play for the SPL holders.
Success can breed unique problems. Rumours have become rampant about friction building between the squad and the Nassr paymasters.
Amrabat was forced this week to state on Twitter that “it’s not true” he’d demanded wage parity with those gifted to Hamdallah by July’s lucrative three-year contract extension, while Saudi newspaper Okaz states Brazilian workhorse Petros is refusing to ink a fresh deal with the terms currently on offer.
Has the summer’s absence of major business also taken a necessary edge off sated players that were hungry 12 months ago to land a first SPL crown since 2014/15?
Brazil centre-back Bruno Uvini was the only major departure as Nassr met the drop in the foreign quota from eight to seven, while $6.7 million Al Taawoun attacker Abdulfattah Adam is only now fully fit.
Change has been afoot in Nassr’s engine room.
2018/19’s settled five-man midfield contained energetic Brazilian Petros and a Saudi player – typically Al Jebreen when fit – at the base.
In front of them, the foreign trio of Nigeria forward Ahmed Musa, the influential Giuliano and traditional Morocco wide man Amrabat would supply sterling service to lone frontman Hamdallah. Diminutive Saudi Arabia winger Yahya Al Shehri would then, usually, offer genuine quality off the substitutes’ bench.
This settled picture has shifted this term – and is likely to become more unstable from here.
Al Jebreen, 29, has yet to make an appearance because of another fitness problem, while Al Shehri may make the bench at Ahli for the first time after a dislocated shoulder.
The latter will be of huge importance throughout the winter after pivotal playmaker Giuliano suffered a muscle tear. He was the only title winner last season to feature in all 30 SPL matches.
Musa has also only contributed one assist in two SPL run-outs and was left out of the four-player foreign quota in the ACL knockouts. Fahad bin Jumayah has also proven a pale imitation of the absent Al Shehri.
But even with Giuliano within their ranks, creativity and control in possession have been problematic.
Nassr have averaged 459 passes and 83 progressive passes per game in 2019/20. Last season under Vitoria, these figures were 488.8 and 85.7.
This alteration could further be linked to the lack of first-team experience from emergent Saudi Arabia midfielders Abdullah Al Khaibari – whose four 2019/20 appearances is already half last season’s tally – and Abdulrahman Al Dawsari.
The integration of ex-Chelsea and Vitesse Arnhem starlet Mukhtar Ali may need to be accelerated.
Know more about Sport360 Application