Ronaldo's record, Gerrard's woes & reduced crowds - what has happened in the Saudi Pro League?

Cristiano Ronaldo

A roller-coaster first season in the Saudi Pro League for Steven Gerrard ended on Monday. After a good start, a worrying run of just one win in 12 resulted in concerns for the Liverpool legend's job before his Ettifaq side rallied to finish sixth.

However, challenging the ‘Big Four’ was never going to be easy. In June 2023, Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr of Riyadh, and Jeddah giants Al-Ahli and Al-Ittihad, were taken over by the same Public Investment Fund that also owns Newcastle United.

This quartet then led a spending spree, reported to be around £750 million, that shocked the world of football as a series of famous names touched down in the Kingdom, following in the footsteps of Cristiano Ronaldo who arrived at Al-Nassr in December 2022.

But what has happened to one of the most-talked about leagues in the world?

Ronaldo's record

Al-Hilal became champions for a 19th time, extending their own record meaning that Ronaldo missed out on the Saudi Pro League title for a second successive season. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner did have some consolation in the form of the Golden Boot and a new goalscoring record for the league.

His 35 goals, which came in just 31 games, took him past the record set by Abderrazak Hamdallah in 2019. It was a memorable season for the former Manchester United forward with four hat-tricks as well as 12 assists.

There were also two suspensions: one following a red card for an elbow in April and another in February for provoking Al-Shabab fans with a gesture after they had chanted ‘Messi, Messi’ at the 39 year-old.

No Neymar, no problem

Ronaldo’s goals were not enough to give Al-Nassr a tenth title as the Yellows finished the season second, 14 points behind Al-Hilal who swept to the title on the back of an impressive 34-game winning streak in all competitions. Once the Blues defeated Al-Nassr 3-0 in the Riyadh Derby in December, there was little doubt as to where the title was going.

All this was done without Neymar, their superstar forward. The 31-year-old ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his left knee in October while playing for Brazil in a 2026 World Cup qualifier.

He is likely to miss the August start of next season. “He’s a star player, he possesses exceptional talent,” said Hilal coach Jorge Jesus. “He’s currently in a crucial phase of treatment, and we’re hopeful he might be ready to rejoin the team and start practising by September or October.”

Aleksandar Mitrovic, signed from Fulham, stepped up and scored 28 goals, linking up well with fellow Serbian Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who chipped in with 11 from midfield. Throw in Ruben Neves, signed from Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Kalidou Koulibaly, a defensive addition from Chelsea, then it is no surprise that Hilal were too good for the rest.

Coach Jesus also has many Saudi Arabia national team stars at his disposal including Saud Abdulhamid and Asian Player of the Year Salem Al-Dawsari, scorer of the winning goal against Argentina at the 2022 World Cup.

“This season has been truly exceptional for the team – arguably our best ever.” said the Portuguese boss. “The credit goes to the immense talent within the squad and the incredible sense of unity that transcends both on and off-field interactions.”

Star power signings

Al-Nassr had star power of their own, and not just Ronaldo. Sadio Mane was signed from Bayern Munich, Marcelo Brozovic arrived from Inter Milan and Aymeric Laporte was recruited from Manchester City to shore up the defence.

The nine-time champions matched Al-Hilal going forward – both teams broke the 100 goal barrier this season – but they were not as tight at the back.

“Obviously, finishing second was not our target when the season started but there were issues that affected us,” said Al-Nassr’s coach Luis Castro. “Overall, though, the players have performed well.”

Al-Ahli finished third, 17 points behind Al-Nassr, to take the final Asian Champions League spot. Ex-Manchester City forward Riyad Mahrez and Allen Saint-Maximin impressed - recording 13 and nine assists respectively.

It took Roberto Firmino time to settle in Jeddah but the former Liverpool man managed nine goals. Striker Firas Al-Buraikan scored 17, the most prolific Saudi Arabian.

Of the 'Big Four', Al-Ittihad were the most disappointing. After strolling to the title last season under Nuno Santo, the Tigers strengthened with Karim Benzema, Fabinho and N’Golo Kante. It didn’t work.

Former Real Madrid striker Benzema had his moments but struggled with injuries, while Fabinho and Kante could not prevent a defence that was breached just 13 times last season, conceding 50 goals. Nuno was fired in November.

The Rest

Attendances were not as high as officials hoped with an average of just over 8,000. Only the 'Big Four' reached five figures with Al-Ittihad’s on-field problems seeing them slip from over 40,000 last season to less than half this time.

Clubs such as Ettifaq and Al-Shabab opened new boutique stadiums, facilities that have traditionally been lacking in the country. Their crowds climbed but there is still work to do to build bigger attendances around the league.

More strength in depth is needed on the pitch too. Six-time champions Al-Shabab had a poor season, finishing eighth despite adding Barcelona legend Ivan Rakitic during the campaign to link up with Yannick Carrasco. Al-Taawoun impressed to finish fourth but lack the spending power to become genuine contenders.

And then there’s Ettifaq. While the team from the eastern city of Dammam finished just one place higher than last season, overall, performances on the pitch were better. Star signing Jordan Henderson did not last long, however, heading to Ajax in January, but Gini Wijnaldum, another ex-Liverpool midfielder, made a real difference. Scottish international Jack Hendry played every minute with Moussa Dembele getting the goals.

A challenge for the top four next season would be a real sign of progress but it won’t be easy. Already there are rumours of English Premier League stars such as Mohamed Salah, Allison and Casemiro being high on Saudi Arabian shopping lists.

It could be another busy summer.