There was a time when the Premier League’s summer trading was more about Alan Shearer or Alan Smith than Al-Ittihad and Al-Ettifaq. If those are distant days, the anomaly in the current window feels the possibility that the greatest threat to Shearer’s divisional record of 260 goals – Harry Kane – might move to the Bundesliga, to Bayern Munich and not the Middle East.
The Premier League’s reigning champion and current chief executive have nonetheless struck different tones. “Saudi Arabia has changed the market,” said Pep Guardiola at the weekend. “I wouldn’t be too concerned at the moment,” Richard Masters argued a few days earlier.
None of which necessarily means one has to be wrong, though Guardiola’s verdict rings especially true. He lost Riyad Mahrez, due to an “incredible offer” from Al-Ahli and is fighting a rearguard action to keep Bernardo Silva; even treble winners are not immune to the lure of the Saudi millions. Officially the 58th best league in the world until recently, it will not have that status for much longer: it certainly has a budget in the top 57 and the majority of the best-paid players in the world could soon be found in the Pro-League.
All of which could leave Masters sounding complacent when he stated it took the Premier League 30 years to reach its current eminence. The Saudi ambition would seem to be fast-tracked: the symbolic significance of some of their signings and targets could make it likelier others are tempted to follow.
If the Liverpool captain can go, maybe anyone is attainable. If one England international, Jordan Henderson, moves to Saudi Arabia, perhaps others will follow. And should Al Hilal succeed in their pursuit of Kylian Mbappe, it will be harder to characterise Saudi Arabia simply as the most lucrative of footballing retirement homes.
And yet Masters may be correct. For its 32nd season, anyway, the Premier League may have no immediate cause for concern. For all the bids for the big names, offered still bigger salaries, how many of those bound for Riyadh, Jeddah or Dammam were due to command a place in the strongest side of English top-flight teams?
Very few. Definitely Ruben Neves, who was Wolves’ best player. Certainly Aleksandar Mitrovic, should he trade Fulham for Al-Hilal. Probably Fabinho, assuming he leaves Liverpool for Al-Ittihad. And maybe N’Golo Kante: were the Frenchman at his magnificent peak, there would be no need to qualify it and for most of his seven years at Chelsea, he was their outstanding individual but there has been a clear intent at Stamford Bridge to shift to a younger generation, including the pursuit of Moises Caicedo, and Kante’s injuries bring the question if he is the force of old.
But that is probably it. Henderson’s importance lay in part in his influence behind the scenes, in his medal collection, even in his previous political statements that suggest that principles can be surrendered if the sums are big enough. But after the signings of Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai, he was unlikely to be a first choice – though he would have been a valuable squad player – at Anfield this season.
Mahrez is another who has been recognised as the pick of the division – the 2016 PFA Player of the Year, while Henderson was the 2020 FWA Footballer of the Year – but, while his last two seasons at Manchester City produced 39 goals, he spent the Champions League final on the bench; he was the most deluxe of deputies. Meanwhile, Roberto Firmino, while a Liverpool great and a talismanic force in Jurgen Klopp’s first great side at Anfield, would probably have been sixth-choice forward this season.
Edouard Mendy was, according to Fifa, the best goalkeeper in the world a couple of years ago and, according to Chelsea, the second best goalkeeper in their squad. Kalidou Koulibaly was one of the finest centre-backs of the last decade but one of the bigger disappointments of the last season. Allan Saint-Maximin is a great entertainer who proved a stylistic misfit for Eddie Howe’s Newcastle. And the winter departure, Cristiano Ronaldo, ranks among the greatest footballers ever but, at almost 38, did not merit a place in the Manchester United team. The other to leave Old Trafford, Alex Telles, is a player United were desperate to offload: while Liverpool have been disrupted, United and Chelsea have used Saudi Arabia to find a home for their unwanted players.
For now, anyway, the Premier League might sense a difference with LaLiga, stripped of Karim Benzema, and Serie A, which has lost Marcelo Brozovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, two of the finer midfielders and, unlike Henderson, Firmino, Ronaldo, Koulibaly and Kante, still at or near their peak.
Logically, it will be easier to pick players off from Serie A, with its lesser finances, than the Premier League. But scan down the lists of foreign players at Saudi clubs and there are some – former Swansea and Reading winger Modou Barrow, for instance – who might fear they will be displaced by another wave of more glamorous imports.
Certainly Guardiola thinks so. “It is not about the threat, it is a reality,” he said; Henderson and Mahrez may offer proof that no Premier League club may be safe from raids for those they hoped to keep. Yet for now and for all the vast amounts on offer in the Saudi spending drive, the Premier League may not be weaker because of it. Although, in 2024, that picture may be very different.