Only four teams have won the last 10 editions of the Saudi Pro League. Al Hilal lead with five titles, while Al Nassr have three titles and each of the two Jeddah rivals, Al Ittihad and Al Ahli, have lifted the trophy once in the past decade.
So naturally, when Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund acquired majority stakes in the 'big four' over the summer, bankrolling an unprecedented level of spending on some of the world's top talents, it was expected that that same quartet would take their dominance of the league to new heights.
But a glance at the standings seven matches into the 2023/24 season reveals a different picture; neither Al Nassr nor Al Ahli are in the top four at this early stage of the season. Instead, it is Al Taawoun and Al Ettifaq who occupy the two spots behind table toppers Al Ittihad and second-placed Al Hilal.
The past decade looked very different for the two dark horses; Buraidah-based Al Taawoun had already established a presence in the top half of the table, finishing in the top five four times, with their best result a third-place finish in 2018/19. Meanwhile, Al Ettifaq were plying their trade in the second tier as recently as 2015/16, having been relegated three years earlier.
And despite receiving no big money backing from the PIF, the side from Dammam invested intelligently, making waves across the transfer market through the appointment of Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard as head coach.
Gerrard went about his business recruiting names he is familiar with, either from his years at Anfield or from his managerial stint in Scotland with Rangers. Former Liverpool duo Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum were reunited at the Mohammed bin Fahd Stadium, and so were former Celtic duo Moussa Dembele and Jack Hendry, while former Everton and Leicester City winger Demarai Gray joined on transfer deadline day.
None of those names match the star power at the traditional top four, who have signed the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Neymar and Riyad Mahrez, but what the men in green and red proved to have is a fighting spirit and an understanding of their roles within their coach’s tactical set-up that has allowed them to look like genuine candidates for honours for the first time since last century.
Al Ettifaq made their intentions clear from the start, downing Al Nassr 2-1 on the opening matchday of the season, and built on that victory by winning four of their next six matches, losing only once, away to Al Hilal.
Key to their attacking play has been the telepathic understanding that developed between club captain Henderson and forward Dembele. The Frenchman is now second on the goalscoring charts behind Ronaldo with six goals. Four of those have come from Henderson assists, the most prolific combination in the league.
The arrival of Wijnaldum late into the window added a new attacking threat to Gerrard’s arsenal, with the Dutch midfielder excelling with his runs from deep, producing three goals in his last two outings. Adding to the creative prowess of the team is Gray, who marked his SPL debut with two assists off the bench.
Admittedly the fixtures have been favourable for Al Ettifaq, facing only one of the six teams that finished above them last season so far. They have faced two bottom-half sides in Abha and Al Tai, and one promoted team in Al Hazem, but Gerrard’s men have won five of seven games, leaving them within two points of the leaders.
On Saturday, Al Ettifaq face their biggest challenge since matchday 1, when they travel to Jeddah to take on the star-studded Al Ahli, with their Liverpool contingent coming up against their former teammate Roberto Firmino, and Gerrard needing to outsmart the home side’s German boss Matthias Jassile, known for his high press brand of football employed at RB Salzburg.
Travelling across the kingdom to the west coast, Al Ettifaq will hope to borrow a page from the book of their neigbours Al Fateh, who came away from their trip to Al Ahli with a famous 5-1 victory. If Gerrard can lead his men to a fourth consecutive win, he will be sending a strong statement to the rest of the league that his side are ready to shake up the league.