Saudi Arabia money has turned transfers into ‘chaos’ – will it last?

The ambition and wealth of the Saudi Pro League has disrupted the transfer market and created a window like no other – is it a sign of things to come?

Miguel Delaney
Thursday 22 June 2023 15:33 BST
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Louise Thomas

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In the days after winning the treble, Manchester City had a meeting to discuss recruitment this summer, but they have not acted with the decisiveness usually expected. The club have long known their list of potential targets but any moves are dependent on who leaves. As many as six players could go, and two of them – Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva – have had offers from Saudi Arabia.

Even City, who have become the most assertive force in the game through their Abu Dhabi ownership, have had all their plans affected by this summer window’s most disruptive force. The key figures in Saudi Arabia might say this is the natural order, since they are the main power in the region.

It has had an immense influence on this summer’s market, maybe the biggest since Paris Saint-Germain bought Neymar for what remains a record fee. Many involved insist it surpasses the effect of the Chinese Super League in the winter of 2016-17.

While the headline element in all this has been the staggering money offered for so many prime players, the main effect has been how it has abruptly changed the plans of every major club. It is difficult to remember anything like it.

It’s all the more pronounced since this was expected to be a frenetic summer anyway. All of Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United planned significant comings and goings while Arsenal and Liverpool have been aiming for at least two major signings each. The competition for strikers was meanwhile set to be the driving force, from Eintracht Frankfurt’s Randal Kolo Muani through Harry Kane to Atalanta’s Rasmus Hojlund.

Even that has been overtaken. Many of those plans have been almost totally put off because the market has been completely transformed.

A number of Premier League clubs have had new meetings this week as they attempt to untangle so many connected issues. There is, first of all, the fact that the nature of every negotiation has changed. Saudi Arabian interest weighs over everything, even with players that wouldn’t yet dream of going there.

It points to the biggest issue of all. Saudi Pro League money has completely inflated the market. Many within the industry are complaining that it has introduced instability. Fees have gone up and wages have gone up.

As an example, United had been looking at Hojlund for a potential price of £45m but, in the last week, Atalanta have almost doubled the price. Players that would have been £40m two years ago are now available at £70m.

This is one other reason plans have been put off. Some clubs are waiting to see if all this settles down.

Man City’s plans have been impacted
Man City’s plans have been impacted (PA Wire)

Right now, though, various sources are describing a situation of “chaos”. It makes it worse that so many intermediaries are trying to get involved. It’s almost a new gold rush. Some officials have complained they have had figures come to them making promises about certain players or signings, only for them to go nowhere.

It may ironically mean few players go anywhere for a while. This is seen as a huge week for the Saudi Pro League itself as it attempts to convince a number of big names to join. Losing Lionel Messi was a blow and checked momentum. Ruben Neves is a fine player but he doesn’t quite match up to the megastars they want. Ilkay Gundogan, who also received an offer from Saudi Arabia, is set to rebuff them for Barcelona.

As one figure who has been involved in negotiations with the Saudi league says, the next few days will determine how big this wave of signings is.

It has still caused huge ripples in the wider game, though. While some deals like Kai Havertz to Arsenal and Mason Mount to Manchester United should be completed, an increasing feeling is that most of the main business won’t start getting done until mid-July.

It could be a fractious window. It is certainly one unlike any other, but may be a sign of things to come.

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