RIYADH: Nestor El-Maestro has had the perfect start to his time in Saudi Arabia.
Appointed to take charge of Al-Taawoun in mid-March, the Serbian-born British coach has won both of his opening games but is still coming to terms with the local demand for exciting and flair-filled football as well as results.
The first test was a King’s Cup quarter-final win over Al-Qadisiyah on March 15. It was followed by an impressive 3-1 victory at title-chasing Al-Shabab in his first taste of action in the Saudi Pro League.
“I came in during something of a pressure-cooker situation, three days before the cup game,” El-Maestro told Arab News.
“The instructions for this game were, ‘look, you have two days’ training, and it is a cup game with no draws, so do everything to win as we have big ambitions in the cup.’ Thankfully, we won.”
They did, 2-1. It was a great start for El-Maestro who had beat off a number of rivals to replace Patrice Carteron after the Frenchman had left Buraidah to return to Egyptian giants Zamalek earlier in March.
The reward is a winnable semi-final against Al-Fateh on April 4. If the former Sturm Graz and CSKA Sofia boss manages to bring the trophy to Al-Taawoun, then he would also have overseen a commendable entry to the 2022 AFC Champions League.
There is another way into a third appearance in the continental competition and that is finishing in the top three in the league. Following the win over Al-Shabab last weekend, Al-Taawoun are in fourth, just four points behind Al-Ittihad in third.
To defeat Al-Shabab who have been so impressive this season was more of a statement according to the coach who led Spartak Trnava to the Slovakian title in 2018.
“This was different to the cup. Al-Shabab came after my first full training week and it was the first time to really prepare my team. It was a great result and the way we won was very pleasing,” he said.
“I can see a pathway toward the football we want to be playing here. We had effective high-pressing situations which are not typically seen in this league and the feedback is that people were happy.”
It is understandably early in his tenure to talk of whether he can overhaul Al-Ittihad but there is some optimism.
“I don’t know about the top three. I analyzed the team and watched many games before I signed but watching on television and video is one thing; you get an idea of tactics and structure and can see some of the individual quality but there are a lot of little intricacies that you can only see with your own eyes and to really understand what they can do then you need to work with them.
“I was surprised, positively surprised and negatively, with what I have to work with,” he added.
What is definitely a good thing is that Al-Taawoun were in good form even before the new man took charge.
“We are a stable group. The atmosphere in the dressing room when I turned up was positive and this is rarely the case when you start a new job. So why not challenge for both of these things, the cup and also put pressure on Al-Ittihad and try to secure a Champions League place?”
What has intrigued El-Maestro so far is how he perceives the way that Saudi Arabia feels football should be played.
“In Saudi Arabia, they still believe in a vision of the beautiful game. They all want to play offensive football, have good possession and passing and want to see individual flair and skill and you can see that in the type of foreign players that clubs sign.”
Even before he took the job, he knew what was wanted.
“The club spent more time in the interview process talking to me about the style of football they want than setting clear targets of top five or top 10. I understand that.
“Al-Taawoun is a very traditional and stable club in this league but, realistically, not a club to fight for the championship as they do not have the budget of Al-Hilal, Al-Shabab, or Al-Ittihad. But they should never be fighting relegation, so it is understandable that they want to see entertaining football,” he said.
All sides know, however, that entertainment goes only so far when you are losing.
“Results are very important regardless of what the owners and management say. So, I am trying to develop something entertaining, a little bit different, but we have to keep winning games.
“As a coach, it is about finding the right balance. This is between the kind of disciplined, organized, and physical football that I see is the surest way to have positive results but that is difficult with the squad you inherit, and this is not the kind of football that people want to see anyway. I am an employee here and have to be faithful to the wishes of my employers.
“So, we will try to keep the organized football to one side while trying to preserve the energetic and beautiful flair game,” he added.
Sounds easy but then, El-Maestro has had the perfect start.