A moment to exemplify Al Hilal’s curious descent arrived in the early running of Tuesday night’s derby defeat.
Petros was gifted valuable seconds in possession, 40 yards from goal. The alert Pity Martinez ghosted through the space in-between vacant left-back Yasser Al Shahrani and centre-back Ali Al Bulaihi to take down the Brazilian battler’s lofted ball, before teasing the game’s only strike into the bottom corner while a static defence appealed in vain for an offside call which couldn’t offer redemption.
An unavoidable feeling is that Hilal, satisfied by three major trophies since November 2019, have become a team without purpose. This is an alarming position for those who pride themselves on insatiable achievement.
Results are woeful. Just three wins from 11 Saudi Professional League fixtures has opened up a five-point gap to leaders Shabab, plus cost 2019 AFC Champions League winner Razvan Lucescu his job and already cast a cloud over replacement – however permanent – Rogerio Micale.
Yet there remains remarkable consistency in Hilal’s output.
The 1-0 defeat at King Saud University Stadium featured 69-per-cent possession in their favour. Dominance of the ball in 21 out of 22 fixtures in 2020/21 has been recorded.
Average Saudi Professional League possession, according to Wyscout, in the triumphant 2019/20 was 62.8 per cent. This season it’s 65.1 per cent.
Dribbles per 90 minutes last term were 28.9 and are 29.8 now. Attempts per 90 minutes stand at 12.6 and were 12.4 a season prior.
A rearguard breached so effortlessly by Martinez in midweek is conceding 0.8 goals per game this season. It was 0.9 in 2019/20.
Frequency of crossing per 90 minutes has increased to 20.5 from 16.8. A stylistic change, perhaps, which helps partly account for the telling decline of 1.7 goals per game, from last term’s rampant 2.5.
There will be other, more important factors. Careful study about the reasons behind this shift in productivity is paramount for Micale’s prospects.
The Brazilian’s charges did not perform without bite against Nassr. Colombia pit bull Gustavo Cuellar barged into Morocco winger Nordin Amrabat, Nasser Al Dawsari left his imprint on Petros and Salem Al Dawsari did the same to Saudi Arabia colleague Sultan Al Ghanam.
Such intensity, though, was often lacking at the opposite end of the pitch. Nassr centre-back Abdulelah Al Amri’s gutsy first-half sliding tackle to deny Bafetimbi Gomis a tap-in showcased a difference between the sides.
This intervention was celebrated like a goal by an eight-placed Nassr who appear on the right path under Alen Horvat.
Hilal should have far too much quality to keep on labouring through this increasingly miserable campaign. But something needs to immediately change, with two thirds of league matches played.
The message of old does not hold the same resonance. Maybe the likes of Gomis and Sebastian Giovinco have gone on a season too far.
Argentine winger Luciano Vietto was the only pre-season alteration to the foreign septet. Unwanted Syria forward Omar Khrbin then departed for the UAE’s Al Wahda in winter, without being replaced.
Teams must evolve with time. Or they soon stagnate.