Saudi Pro League: The winners and losers of a historic summer transfer window

Mitrovic's exciting arrival, plus top marks for Al Ahli but disappointment for Al Shabab

Aleksandar Mitrovic celebrates after scoring during the Saudi Pro League match between Al Ittihad and Al Hilal. EPA
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Midnight on Thursday, September 7, marked the end of the most memorable transfer window in the history of not just Saudi, but Arab and Asian football. In the space of just a few weeks the Saudi Pro League (SPL) jumped from being a regional competition on the periphery of the global sport to the single most discussed league in the world.

Lionel Messi and Mohammed Salah might not have arrived but Karim Benzema, Neymar, Sadio Mane, Jordan Henderson and many more made the SPL a viable destination for football’s elite. As the window shuts and attention turns to the football on the pitch, we review the best, the worst and the most surprising of the summer transfer activity in the kingdom.

Best transfer window - Al Ahli

After a difficult year in which they lost many of their key players upon relegation, Al Ahli returned to the top division and were in dire need of a rebuild. The Jeddah club went about their business quietly and expertly, adding as many as 15 players, including eight new imports and a new head coach in former Red Bull Salzburg boss Matthias Jaissle.

In goal, Edouard Mendy was signed from Chelsea. The defence was strengthened by centre-backs Roger Ibanez from Roma and Merih Demiral from Atalanta, while two of the best local left-backs in the league were recruited: Abdullah Al Ammar from Damac, and Saad Balobaid from Al Taawoun.

In midfield, Al Ahli signed Franck Kessie from Barcelona and one of Spain’s brightest young talents in Gabriel Veiga from Celta Vigo. They also added local talent in the form of Al Taawoun playmaker Sumayhan Al Nabit and the experienced Abdullah Otayf from Al Hilal.

Up front, the stellar trio of Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino and Allan Saint-Maximin was recruited, and their attacking ranks were further bolstered in the final week of the window with the signing of 23-year-old Feras Al Buraikan, the Saudi Arabia national team’s main striker and last season's highest scoring Saudi player with 18 goals.

With 12 points from their first five matches, things look promising for Al Ahli and it is difficult to look beyond them as the ultimate winners of this transfer window.

Worst transfer window - Al Shabab

When the privatisation program was announced in June, with the Public Investment Fund acquiring a 75 per cent stake in the nation’s top four clubs – Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Ittihad and Al Ahli – it was widely thought that Al Shabab, the country’s 'fifth giant' would follow suit. They were after all one of Saudi Arabia’s most successful clubs and one that over the years produced legends like Saeed Al Owairan and Fuad Anwar.

Instead, the summer saw a complete unravelling of the club who saw key players such as defender Hassan Tambakti, midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak and striker Aaron Boupendza all depart with no replacements incoming.

Within five games of the start of the season, the majority of Shabab's directors had resigned, forcing the Ministry of Sport to dissolve the club's board. Al Shabab were languishing in the relegation zone with just two points and manager Marcel Keizer was sacked.

A late attempt to rescue the situation saw Belgian winger Yannick Carrasco and Moroccan defender Romain Saiss signed in the closing stages of the window, while Al Hilal’s bloated squad offered a chance for some loan and low budget deals, including midfielder Gustavo Cuellar, defender Hamad Al Yami and young forward Abdullah Radif.

Unlocking the doors: Football transfers in the Saudi Pro League

Unlocking the doors: Football transfers in the Saudi Pro League

Best five signings

Aleksandar Mitrovic (Al Hilal)

Al Hilal have always been a club that relies on a big name striker to carry their dreams. It was Bafetimbi Gomis who delivered the long-awaited AFC Champions League success in 2019 and 2021, and Odion Ighalo did a commendable job after him, winning the top scorer award as Al Hilal won the league title in 2021-22.

In former Fulham number nine Mitrovic, the Riyadh powerhouse have their new goal machine, and the Serbian has already repaid a chunk of his fee, reported to be around €52 million, with a match-winning hat-trick in the Saudi Clasico against Al Ittihad. It is fair to expect Mitrovic to be at the heart of every great moment for his new club, both in the league and on the continent.

Aleksandar Mitrovic scores hat-trick as Al Hilal beat Al Ittihad in seven-goal thriller

Aleksandar Mitrovic scores hat-trick as Al Hilal beat Al Ittihad in seven-goal thriller

Otavio (Al Nassr)

A club that already had Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks and added the likes of Sadio Mane, Aymeric Laporte, Marcelo Brozovic, Alex Telles and Seko Fofana over the summer, looked in crisis as the season started, losing their first two games and finding themselves in the drop zone.

Enter Otavio, the Portuguese midfielder arrived from Porto having been named the best player in the Portuguese League last season, and his impact in linking midfield and attack has been instant. In their three games since his debut, Al Nassr won all three, scoring 14 goals and conceding just once. The 28-year-old is the piece that links it all together for Luis Castro’s side.

Steven Gerrard (Al Ettifaq)

He might not be putting on his boots and taking to the pitch in Dammam, but the impact of appointing Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard as head coach has been transformative for Al Ettifaq. Without his presence, things would have been very different for the club who are not one of the nation’s most successful, not one of its most popular and not supported by the deep pockets of the PIF.

It is mainly Gerrard’s presence that saw Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, his Anfield midfield partner Gini Wijnaldum, former Scottish Premiership players Jack Hendry and Moussa Dembele and even former Everton winger Demarai Gray make the move to the Mohammed bin Fahd Stadium, and the green and red side already look the best version of themselves since their 1983 unbeaten league title. Exciting times are ahead in Dammam, thanks to Gerrard.

Fabinho (Al Ittihad)

Despite landing the reigning Ballon d’Or winner Benzema, it has not been a dream window for defending SPL champions Al Ittihad. Uncertainty over the futures of club stalwarts such as Romarinho, Abderrazak Hamdallah and Igor Coronado was followed by the failed chase of Salah plus the arrival then potential shock exit of former Celtic winger Jota. It all gives a chaotic impression of the Al Ittihad camp.

But on the pitch, Nuno Espirito Santo’s men have looked more assured of themselves, more functional as a unit and more capable of delivering results since the arrival of midfielder anchor Fabinho from Liverpool. The Brazilian plays the dual role of breaking opponents attack and starting his side’s own from deep, partnering the more mobile N’Golo Kante at the base of midfield. With Fabinho in good form, they can go into the AFC Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup with confidence.

Ruben Neves (Al Hilal)

Another Al Hilal player makes the top five thanks to his impact, not just as a performer, but also as a de-facto leader on the pitch. Neves was the youngest-ever UEFA Champions League captain when he wore the armband for his childhood club Porto at 17, and he went on to become Wolves captain during his six-year stay at Molineux.

Those leadership qualities, coupled with exceptional technical ability and vision, made Neves the beating heart of Al Hilal almost instantly. His flexibility in playing as the deepest midfielder, or higher up as a number eight, have allowed his coach Jorge Jesus the chance to tinker around with his set-up and find solutions in tricky situations, which is a theme that we can expect to see often throughout the season.

Underrated signings

Away from the glamour of the superstars and the record spending, there has been some shrewd business across the league. Al Taawoun, for example, find themselves joint-top thanks to their smart recruitment.

Under Pericles Chamusca, the club signed some lower profile but incredibly talented Brazilians. Andrei Girotto arrived from Nantes to lead the defence and has looked a top class player already. Mateus Castro, the playmaking winger who was signed from Japan’s Nagoya Grampus, has bagged two of the finest goals of the season so far, and with the departure of club legend Leandre Tawamba, Al Taawoun wasted no time in signing former Bani Yas and Al Wahda forward Joao Pedro, one of the most exciting strikers to play in the UAE Pro League in recent years.

Top Saudi Pro League signings

Updated: September 15, 2023, 2:59 PM