Of the many lessons that can be taken from fallen two-time-winner Al Ittihad’s cherished AFC Champions League-return after multiple chaotic years spent battling domestic relegation, the impact of Ahmed Hegazi is paramount.
Attention in the Middle East is so often centred on attacking recruits – whether analysing the ones in situ, or casting envious eyes towards the next alluring target. But the influence of the Egypt centre-back throughout 2020/21 is an example to all about the often-neglected art of defending.
Precious few strikers can inspire a +14 swing in goal difference from a woeful 2019/20, with one game remaining. The West Bromwich Albion loanee’s towering presence has, with the help of his newly assured team-mates, inspired this rise from the doldrums to third spot in the Saudi Professional League.
An injection of leadership, physicality and reliability has utterly transformed the Tigers. It has also provided coveted Brazilian coach Fabio Carille with the anchor point which was so glaringly absent in a troubled debut campaign in charge.
One statistic, in particular, from Wyscout stands out. Hegazy leads the way in the division for aerial duels won in his own penalty box, with 50.
Ziyad Al Sahafi was Ittihad’s best with 27 last term.
A basic source of disruption for opposition has been shut off.
Carille’s troops, furthermore, have kept seven clean sheets in 2020/21. It took them 15 rounds in 2019/20 to record the first of just three shutouts.
Ittihad have only managed to add two goals to last term’s tally of 41, with a fixture in arrears. Brazilian forward Romarinho with 15 strikes remains, by a distance, their deadliest attacking outlet.
The quantum leap in output from last season’s nervy 11th place and this one’s comfortable third – potentially second – exhibits how the solution to a team’s ails can only be found up top.
Itti’s ambitious and inventive pursuit of elite defensive talent in Hegazy has paid off in style. Their Asian comeback in 2022 after six years away – for various reasons – is a lesson to all ahead of the summer transfer market.