Robbie Fowler: Liverpool great on Saudi Pro League, Mohamed Salah and his coaching journey

Fowler says standards in Saudi league are rising and he remains open to coaching in region despite unhappy ending at Al Qadsiah

Robbie Fowler is seeking his next managerial post following a brief spell in Saudi Arabia. Getty Images
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Robbie Fowler believes the standard of football in Saudi Arabia is comparable to top European leagues as he looks for his next managerial assignment.

The Saudi Pro League became the destination of choice for many players this year, highlighted by the league's unprecedented summer of spending that saw its clubs sign world-class talents such as Karim Benzema, Neymar, Sadio Mane and Riyad Mahrez.

While that recruitment drive has no doubt helped elevate levels, Fowler said he experienced first-hand that the foundations were already in place for Saudi Arabian football to succeed.

"I think there's a genuine love for the game over there. I enjoyed watching the Pro League, I really did," Fowler told The National in an exclusive interview in Dubai.

"I think maybe back home [in the UK] there's maybe a little bit of a propaganda issue in terms of when it comes to Saudi for reasons I don't really want to get into, but from a football point of view I genuinely enjoyed watching the games. The football is a good standard.

"What I can say, and I don't mean this in a derogatory way, because I can say this about any league in the world, is there's some very, very good players, but some not so great players. But I think you can say that about the Premier League. Not every player in the Premier League is perfect, and [not having that] is why the game is so great. Not everyone's brilliant but the fact is that there's a little bit of greatness, a little bit of rawness I think is what makes the whole spectacle that little bit better."

Criticism of the standard of the Saudi Pro League and the astronomical wages on offer have been a near constant since the kingdom shook the football world 12 months ago with the announcement that Cristiano Ronaldo had signed for one of its lead clubs, Al Nassr.

Fowler sees nothing wrong with the financial incentives to entice players, saying its a well-trodden path made first by Italy's Serie A before the formation of England's Premier League in 1992. He accuses those that now bemoan the influx of new money into football of hypocrisy.

"When the Premier League first started, what did the Premier League do? To bring players in they [the clubs] obviously spent a little bit more money than they did in the past, spent a bit more than the Italian league were doing" argues Fowler.

"We've seen that in the past when the Italian league were attracting all the better European players by spending more money. So Italy and the Premier League done it and now Saudi Arabia are doing it because they have these aspirations to grow football not just in Saudi but in the region.

"They've got a potential chance for a World Cup [Saudi Arabia is the sole bidder for the 2034 World Cup] so they want to grow the game.

"There's a little bit of hypocrisy when it comes to all of it. If you take the LIV Golf, no one batted an eyelid when the PGA was taking players from the the Asian Tour and the European Tour. It's the same thing."

On his sacking at Al Qadsiah

Fowler enjoyed an unbeaten, albeit brief, spell managing in Saudi Arabia this year. While his former Liverpool teammate Steven Gerrard represented the most high-profile managerial recruit to the kingdom, taking the reins at Saudi Pro League side Al Ettifaq, Fowler's appointment as head coach of First Division Al Qadsiah in July went largely under the radar.

His impact was both immediate and effective. Qadsiah went unbeaten in their eight games under their new English coach, winning six and drawing two.

Despite their unbeaten start to the league season, Qadsiah dismissed Fowler on October 26, replacing him with the former Real Madrid and Spain forward Michel.

Qadsiah sat second in the table at the time of Fowler's dismissal but now top the table by four points.

Fowler says he told the club they were "making the wrong decision" in sacking him and said he believes the team could have gone the season unbeaten. Though disappointed by the outcome, he says he enjoyed his Saudi experience.

"They [the club] just wanted to go down a different pathway. They have a Spanish sporting director so I think the Spanish model sort of fits into what he wanted to do, and unfortunately I didn't fit into that.

"I was very, very disappointed because my record was unbelievable. But it was excellent there. We were enjoying the football, we were second, just a point behind the leaders. It's not nice when you lose your job when you're on the back of an unbelievable run with a team who really, really have shown a clear identity. It sounds a little bit far fetched, but I believe that we would have gone the full season undefeated because I was confident in what we could do."

Coaching philosophy

Fowler is still revered by many Liverpool fans as "God" for his exploits across two spells at Anfield that brought with it plenty of goals (183) and trophies including, at the time, an unprecedented four trophy-haul in 2000/01.

Brought up the "Liverpool way", Fowler says he wants his sides to be possession based while adhering to the principles of Bill Shankly, Liverpool's legendary manager, of working hard when you have the ball and even harder when you don't.

"I do a lot of video work with the players so they go on to the training pitch knowing exactly what they're doing, knowing exactly what we're planning for," Fowler said of his own coaching philosophy.

"I want to be a possession-based manager, but play in the right way and have possession in the right areas. It's great when teams have 60-70 per cent possession, but, in all fairness, if you're knocking the ball round the back for a large portion then you're not really hurting the opposition. I want my team to have possession in the right areas of the pitch, which is obviously the final third, getting the opposition onto the back foot. I want my teams to create overloads, I want them to have a clear identity in terms of going on the press when we need to, know when to drop back and defend. Football is all about how hard you work."

What next for Fowler?

Saudi Arabia represented the fourth country of Fowler's nomadic coaching career having held previous posts in Thailand, Australia and India.

Though keen to one day manage in his native England, Fowler says he is happy to continue his circuitous route to get there.

The National understands the former England striker has applied for a vacant head coach position in the UAE's Adnoc Pro League and hopes to return to the dugout soon.

"I've shown that I have an incredible desire and appetite to go and manage overseas. I've done it in four countries now ... I think I've proven to people that I'm willing to be a little bit different and go and challenge myself and try new things.

"If something crops up in the UAE, great, it's a place I've been coming to for a long time – I think my first time here was 1999, or 1998 – so I've seen a lot of changes, and a lot of it for the better. I believe I could do a great job over here.

"You want to manage in the very best league so of course my ambition now as a manager is exactly the same as it was when when I was a player – I want to be the very, very best. But for now my path is not there [England] and my path is maybe trying to get there but you know, I've got to try and show people again what I'm capable of.

"So it's something that I would like [to manage in the Premier League] but it's not something that I want right now. It's something that I want to build towards."

On Liverpool's season

Fowler missed Liverpool's 5-1 Carabao Cup win over West Ham United on Wednesday as he flew into Dubai. They take on Arsenal in a top-of-the-table clash on Saturday knowing a victory at Anfield will see them usurp the Gunners at the Premier League summit.

A summer of turnover saw Roberto Firmino, Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and James Milner, mainstays of Liverpool's Champions League and Premier League winning teams of the recent past, moved on and replaced with younger athletic legs in the form of Dominik Szoboszlai, Alexis Mac Allister, Wataru Endo and Ryan Gravenberch.

Fowler knows as well as anyone there is no room for sentiment in football and even more so at England's most decorated club. He says the players manager Jurgen Klopp has signed have brought a "new-found energy" to the squad.

So how does Fowler see the rest of the season shaping up for the Reds?

"I don't think they've been unbelievable in terms of performance but they've been professional and very workman like," said Fowler.

"It's probably similar to when Jurgen first came to the club [in 2015] and the team needed a little bit of a rebuild. You can see there's a potential to get better, which is a frightening thought really because, you know, they obviously are close to the top of the Premier League, they're in the next stages of the Europa League, and into a semi-final of a major cup. So I think it's looking good for Liverpool this year. I genuinely think they'll go close in the Premier League, and we all know that as the priority for them.

"I still think Manchester City will have a real say. I do think they're a brilliant team even though they had a little bit of a tough time before we went over for the Club World Cup. Arsenal are certainly playing really well but, for me, I still think it's between City and Liverpool."

On Mohamed Salah's future

It would be remiss to not ask one great Liverpool striker of the past about another one's future at the club.

Liverpool resisted the overtures of reigning Saudi champions Al Ittihad in the summer, with the Jeddah giants reportedly tabling a two-year contract understood to be worth €180 million for the services of Mohamed Salah.

And while the expectation is that the January transfer window will not see transfer activity on the same scale as the summer in the Saudi Pro League, it seems inevitable that interest in Liverpool's Egyptian forward will be renewed.

Salah, 31, signed a new three-year deal at Anfield in the summer of 2022, and there has been no indication, throughout Ittihad's sustained interest, that Salah is angling to leave Anfield.

Fowler says he hopes Salah will remain at Liverpool, but recognises the day will eventually come when he does leave and believes signing for a Saudi side will be a real coup for the league.

"I think eventually he will go there. They [Saudi clubs] have shown an incredible desire to get the players who they want into that league. Mo might be the only one who has sort of made them wait a little bit longer. Now it's probably made them a little bit more hungrier to get him.

"You can see why they want to get him; he's probably the number one player in the world at the minute, the way he's playing, the goals he's scoring. He's certainly the number one player from this region, no doubt.

"Do I want him to leave Liverpool? Honestly, no, because I want Liverpool to have great players. But the way they plan on developing the Saudi league they want the best players too and I think they'll fight tooth and nail to get him.

"There's really only one man who can tell you if he wants to go and that's Mohamed Salah. And, look, if he goes over there, I don't think he's going into a retirement league. I would never ever say that because I think the league will genuinely get better with the next couple of years.

"But would I be disappointed if he left Liverpool? Yes."

Updated: December 22, 2023, 6:10 PM