Nuno's sacking felt inevitable as rot set in at Al Ittihad

Months after leading the Jeddah club to a first Saudi Pro League title in 14 years, the Portuguese coach finds himself out of a job

Nuno Espirito Santo parted ways with Saudi champions Al Ittihad on Wednesday following a poor run of results. Getty Images
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Just over 16 months since he landed in Jeddah, Nuno Espirito Santo’s time as Al Ittihad head coach is officially up. The 49-year-old Portuguese was relieved of his duties in the early hours of Wednesday morning following a run of poor results.

Monday's shock 2-0 defeat to Iraq's Air Force Club in the AFC Champions League proved to be Nuno's last game in charge at Ittihad, despite them still sitting top of Group C on nine points.

Former Ittihad goalkeeper Hassan Khalifa has been installed as interim boss while the club begin their search for Nuno's replacement.

“Following a complete technical evaluation of his time at the club, Al Ittihad announces the termination of its contractual relationship with head coach Nuno Santo,” the Saudi Pro League champions said in a statement .

Nuno has paid the price for a poor run of results domestically, with Ittihad winning only six of their 12 league games this season to trail leaders Al Hilal by 11 points.

It is a sad denouement of Nuno's time at the club. In his one full season in charge, the former Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur boss secured a first Saudi Pro League title for Ittihad in 14 years. Ittihad lost only two league matches in 2022/23, the team’s tally of 72 points a Saudi Pro League record as was their concession of just 13 goals.

Following the partial acquisition by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund over the summer – Ittihad were one of four clubs to receive PIF investment – the club indulged in an unprecedented summer spending spree that saw them sign 2002 Ballon d'Or winner Karim Benzema, World Cup winner N'Golo Kante and Brazil international Fabinho.

And while those players have, to varying degrees, integrated well at Ittihad, Nuno's mishandling of another recruit, Jota, a $30 million acquisition from Celtic, left many inside and outside the club questioning his man-management skills.

The 24-year-old Portuguese winger played the first five league games of the season before the registration deadline only to be jettisoned from the squad after Ittihad failed in an audacious bid to sign Mohamed Salah from Liverpool. Nuno's decision against employing a tactical set-up with wingers has hurt the team, as shown in recent results.

After a blistering start that saw Ittihad win their first four games, scoring 12 goals and conceding none, results have been mixed at best. A 4-3 defeat in the Saudi Clasico to Al Hilal cut deep, especially with Ittihad 3-1 up at half time. Only the heroics of backup goalkeeper Abdullah Al Mayouf in a penalty shoot-out spared the Jeddah giants' blushes of a first-round elimination in the Kings Cup to second-tier Al Khulood.

Ittihad's refusal to play their AFC Champions League match against Sepahan on October 2 over the Iranian club's display of a bust of the late Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general Qassem Suleimani can hardly be blamed on Nuno, but, in retrospect, serves as an indicator of the malaise taking root under his watch.

A lacklustre display in a 1-0 defeat to domestic rivals Al Ahli saw more frustration set in, with talk of a lack of belief in Nuno’s methods starting to take hold. It proved to be the beginning of the end of his time at Al Ittihad.

Results did not improve, with a 1-0 defeat to struggling Al Shabab leaving Ittihad down in sixth place in the SPL. They had been top in August, earning Nuno the manager-of-the month award.

Monday's defeat to Air Force Club meant Ittihad had won only one of their past nine games. Though generally popular among the Ittihad faithful, especially after last season's title success, that loss left Nuno's position untenable.

Ittihad have a mountain to climb to overhaul Al Hilal at the top of the SPL, and with the club set to host the cream of the crop at the Fifa Club World Cup next month, the club decided a new face was needed.

“The club wishes to thank coach Santo for everything he did during his time at the club and wishes him the best of luck in his future,” concluded the club's statement.

Updated: November 08, 2023, 9:15 AM