The “mysterious” Saudi Pro League: All you need to know 

Image Source: Getty Images/ Ian Walton

This is the mysterious league which stole away some of the world’s biggest names in football. What do we know so far about the Saudi Pro League? Not much, right? 

With its massive recruitment campaign this summer, the league has taken the football world by storm. Here are the major talking points for the next season.

Al-Ahli defeated Al-Hazem 1-0 earlier this year in Saudi Arabia’s second division. The rest of the world was unaware of the league. Several things have changed since then.

After a summer dominated by high-profile signings and significant offers for Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe, these two promoted teams begin the 2023 Saudi Pro League season in front of a long-awaiting global audience on Friday.

Even if their efforts to sign the duo were unsuccessful, a lot has changed in a league that is now drawing interest from all around the world, including the increase in Pro League clubs from 16 to 18.

The Championship Race

After making significant transfers from Premier League’s best teams, Roberto Firmino, Riyad Mahrez, Edouard Mendy, and Allen Saint-Maximin joined three-time winners Al-Ahli.

Along with Al-Ittihad, Al-Hilal, and Al-Nassr, which were all made part in June of the same Public Investment Fund (PIF) that owns Newcastle United.

Al-Hilal placed third in part as a result of their intense competition, which included making it to the Asian Champions League and Club World Cup finals and winning the King’s Cup. The most successful side in Saudi Arabia signed Kalidou Kalibaly from Chelsea, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic from Lazio, and former Wolves captain Ruben Neves. 

Last season, Al-Ittihad had the highest average attendance of any team, at almost 40,000. In 30 games while playing for Nuno Espirito Santo, they only allowed 13 goals while scoring 60. Nuno is still in charge and may now make use of new signings Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Jota, and Fabinho.

Club Al-Shabab has won six championships, but PIF did not manage to take control of them at this point. Now that their competitors have more financial support, “The Youth” have something to prove.

With Steven Gerrard attempting to revive his managerial career in the eastern city of Dammam after being fired by Aston Villa last year, Ettifaq will also draw a lot of attention from fans. Jordan Henderson’s signing as Liverpool’s captain was a significant statement. 

Ettifaq struggled to score in the previous season and finished eighth with a little luck. Moussa Dembele ought to be able to assist, meaning that if they finish in the top six in the standings and have a go at the King’s Cup, things should go as planned for the team and Gerrard. 

Keeping everyone pleased may be the toughest challenge facing the former manager of Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers. There are already rumours that last season’s leading scorer Abderrazak Hamdallah is now unhappy being in Benzema’s shadow.

By signing Cristiano Ronaldo, Al-Nassr launched the talent inflow, therefore attracting even more elite players to Riyadh. Along with Seko Fofana from Lens and Alex Telles from Manchester United, Sadio Mane signed from Bayern Munich, and Marcelo Brozovic, who was most recently seen leading Inter Milan in the Champions League final, is another significant addition.

Huge Pressure For Managers At Saudi Pro League Clubs

At both large and small teams in Saudi Arabia, managers have a history of changing quickly; Ettifaq has made more than 30 changes since the start of the century.

The new Ettifaq president Samer Al-Mishal declared in July that “we unquestionably have a world-class coach represented by the English great Steven Gerrard and notable players, and as a result, all international and domestic eyes will be looking at us. The prestige of the club must be preserved.”

Huge pressure and firings generally come after three or four losses for a manager in the Pro League. The firing of a coach by Ettifaq last season didn’t cause much of a stir outside of Dammam, but now the entire world will be watching and gossiping. With global exposure, will clubs still be as brutal when it comes to results?

Six Portuguese managers are in charge of Pro League clubs, including those of the top three teams from the previous campaign. Jorge Jesus and Luis Castro have joined Nuno at Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr, respectively. 

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