The Saudi Pro League’s assault on the football transfer market was undoubtedly the summer’s biggest story.
Some of the best and most high-profile footballers in the world decided to make the switch to the Gulf state, decisions that they’ve no doubt been very well-renumerated for.
But now the dust has settled and the 2023-24 campaign is underway in a league that very few people are actually watching, we’ve checked in on some of the Saudi Pro League’s biggest summer signings and assessed how they’re faring.
The Ballon d’Or holder’s move to the reigning Saudi Pro League champions Al Ittihad was perhaps an early signal of the extraordinary events of the summer.
“I had a dream to sign for Madrid and I wanted to finish [my career] at Madrid, but sometimes in life you get other opportunities,” a teary Benzema said at a farewell press conference.
King Karim has notched three goals and two assists in seven appearances for Nuno Espirito Santo’s side, who sit fourth in the table.
Early reports suggested that Espirito Santo was unhappy with the 35-year-old, feeling he didn’t fit into his tactical plan. But the coach quashed those rumours, claiming they’re “bullsh*t”.
A move that launched a thousand think-pieces about wasted potential. The Brazilian has had a remarkable career and been invariably brilliant when fit and available, but his move to Al-Hilal at the age of 31 – as his move to PSG six years ago – just raised questions of what might’ve been.
He’s struggled with injuries and is yet to score in the Saudi Pro League, with his first goal for the club coming in his fifth appearance in all competitions – against Iranian outfit FC Nassaji Mazandaran.
The forward has only started two of Al-Hilal’s nine league outings so far, but they’re doing just fine – they remain unbeaten and are top of the table.
Neymar is still getting Brazil call-ups and looks set to feature for the Selecao in next summer’s Copa America.
NEYMAR SCORES HIS FIRST AFC CHAMPIONS LEAGUE GOAL. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/SmSP0DwfCY
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) October 3, 2023
It’s only a year ago that Mane was still considered one of the very best forwards in the world. After an inauspicious season with Bayern Munich, the 31-year-old decided to leave the elite European game behind for a mega paycheque with Al-Nassr.
Only former Lyon forward Moussa Dembele and his team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo have scored more Saudi Pro League goals this season than the Senegal international.
Mane has notched seven goals and two appearances in 12 appearances in all competitions.
“The Saudi Pro League has been attracting significant talent with its robust growth and high-level competition,” says Al Ahli
PR Man winger Mahrez.
“I am thrilled to be part of this evolution and contribute to Al Ahli’s pursuit of success.”
Al Ahli are newly-promoted to the Saudi Pro League, but are undoubtedly among the nation’s biggest clubs and one of four taken over by the Public Investment Fund over the summer (alongside Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr, and Al-Hilal).
They made a number of headline-making moves in the summer, but none more so than signing the Algerian fresh from his role in Manchester City’s historic treble.
Mahrez is doing respectably enough, with three goals and four assists in nine Saudi Pro League appearances to date. Al Ahli sit fourth in the table, four points off the top spot.
Lining up alongside Mahrez at Al Ahli is the former Newcastle fan favourite. `Let’s agree to raise an eyebrow and move on at the Magpies’ biggest sale of their new era being to a fellow PiF-backed club.
The effervescent Frenchman is embracing his life in a new environment and appears to have genuinely bought into the challenge.
He’s scored just one goal in eight appearances so far, but it was a belter of a match-winner in a 3-2 win.
— Muhammad Zain (@MCFCZain_) September 16, 2023
Completing the most WTF front three in the Saudi Pro League alongside Saint-Maximin and Mahrez is modern-day Liverpool legend Firmino.
It looked as though the Brazilian might join a big European club when his contract expired at Anfield, with Barcelona and AC Milan both linked, but it wasn’t a major surprise he ended up in Saudi given the cash on offer.
Captain of Al-Ahli, Firmino has three goals and two assists in his first nine appearances for the club.
The World Cup winner has played almost every minute of Al-Ittihad’s Saudi Pro League campaign so far, having struggled so badly with injuries during his last couple of seasons with Chelsea.
His first goal for the club wasn’t bad.
🎩 N'Golo Kanté. Golazo del francés ante Al-Fateh:pic.twitter.com/OvvFa1KeuO
— Samuel Vargas (@SVargasOK) September 21, 2023
Widespread reports suggest that the Portuguese winger isn’t happy in Saudi Arabia after moving from Celtic in the summer.
He remains contracted at Al-Ittihad until 2026, but it’s expected that he’ll return to Europe in January. Tottenham have been closely linked, with reports that Ange Postecoglou is keen to reunite with Jota.
All five of the 24-year-old’s appearances for Al-Ittihad have been off the bench and he’s been missing entirely from their last seven matchday squads.
“Jota left the Al Hilal match due to injuries, and is currently improving continuously,” says Nuno.
It wasn’t too long ago that Fabinho was considered one of the Premier League’s very finest defensive midfielders alongside his current Al-Ittihad team-mate Kante.
It’s perhaps telling that the pair don’t quite have the legs they used to given they now line up alongside one another in a double pivot for Nuno’s side.
It would be unfair to judge Fabinho solely off a 10-second clip, but this recent nutmeg suggests he’s not exactly brimming with intensity.
— Roshn Saudi League (@SPL_EN) September 14, 2023
Lazio are really struggling without their dynamic midfield talisman this season, but how is the man himself doing this season?
Milinkovic-Savic tends to line up alongside Ruben Neves at the base of midfield for table-toppers Al-Hilal and has comfortably adapted to his new surroundings.
The Serbia international recently scored twice in a 3-0 victory at relative minnows Al-Okhdood.
One of the youngest big names to sign for a Saudi Pro League club in the summer, many criticised Neves for thinking more about money than football.
Neves has been refreshingly honest in admitting that the wages offered were the major driving force behind his decision to say yes to Al-Hilal.
“To give my family the life I always dreamed of for them, this was, for me, the main reason that made me have no doubts about accepting this proposal,” the Portuguese midfielder explained.
“I have three children and a wife. Taking care of them is my biggest trophy.”
There’s still a long wait to go, but so far it looks like the Neves x Milinkovic-Savic axis has all the makings of a title-winning midfield.
“Embarrassing” was Toni Kroos’ Instagram comment when news broke of the 21-year-old Spanish wonderkid’s move to Al-Ahli.
The midfielder had established a reputation as one of Spanish football’s brightest starlets at Celta Vigo and appeared to be destined to go to one of Europe’s top clubs.
“I was in China and I had Carrasco, who then returned to Europe and now plays in the Champions League,” responded Celta Vigo manager Rafael Benitez.
“It’s not an elephant’s graveyard. The Arab League came with money, and it can be a radical change in our lives, it can be a big help. It’s not that we want that, but it has happened.”
Veiga may well one day return to Europe, but for now he’s plying his trade away from the spotlight. So far he’s notched one assist and no goals in six appearances for Al-Ahli.
The former Liverpool captain has received more flack than anyone else for taking the Saudi big bucks, the charge being that he’s a hypocrite for moving to a country where it’s illegal to be gay after his stance as a vocal LGBTQ+ ally.
“I do care. And for people to criticise and say that I’d turned my back on them really, really hurt me,” Henderson responded in an interview with The Athletic.
On the pitch, the 33-year-old midfielder looked like he was blowing a gasket as he visibly struggled with the Saudi heat in his early appearances for Al-Ettifaq.
Steven Gerrard’s side currently sit seventh in the Saudi Pro League, six points off the top spot. But Henderson is doing reasonably well, having registered five assists in nine appearances for the club.
Meanwhile, Gareth Southgate continues to get pelters for giving him England call-ups.
It was one of the long-running transfer sagas of the summer. Eventually, late in August, Al-Hilal secured one of their major targets.
And the big Serbian appears to be enjoying himself out in Saudi Arabia. He’s scored six goals to date, with the highlight being the hat-trick he scored in a 4-3 victory over Al-Ittihad.
Mitrovic up top, Neves and Milinkovic-Savic in midfield and Neymar on the wing could well end up a winning formula for vastly experienced coach Jorge Jesus.
قووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووووول عالمي عالمي pic.twitter.com/5VmH4ejq2K
— بـيـت | ALHILAL (@AlhilalBayt) September 1, 2023
Having dropped down in the pecking order under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Laporte left in search of a new challenge and joined Ronaldo and Mane at Al-Nassr.
The defender is yet to taste defeat with his new club. They’ve conceded 10 goals and kept 10 clean sheets across his first 10 appearances.