Firmino followed back to Premier League by ex-Liverpool quartet in Saudi renegade XI
Aleksandar Mitrovic, Riyad Mahrez and Allan Saint-Maximin are among the players formerly based in Europe who appear to be having a right old time in the Saudi Pro League. But it’s not all been sunshine and roses for the sun-seeking money-grabbers.
Here’s an XI of players, led by chief renegade Roberto Firmino, who could follow the former Liverpool hero back to Europe.
GK: Edouard Mendy (Al-Ahli)
With captain Firmino two goals into a hat-trick, fellow Saudi Pro League debutant and former Fifa Best goalkeeper Mendy passed the ball straight to an opposition player, who immediately lobbed him.
Harsh though it may seem to include a goalkeeper who has a remarkable 11 clean sheets in 19 games, the former Chelsea star’s save percentage of 70.9 per cent is the 11th best in an 18-team division.
CB: Jason Denayer (Al-Fateh)
Denayer without Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld just feels plain wrong and the Belgian’s Saudi Pro League side have won just four of the 13 games he’s featured in this season, and four of the six he’s missed.
CB: Fabinho (Al-Ittihad)
He’s been fine in what would have been the dream double pivot five years ago with N’Golo Kante, but less fine having been moved to centre-back for the last three games. Al-Ittihad have lost them all, conceded 11 goals, with Fabinho getting sent off in the last one for hitting an opponent in the face.
CB: Jordan Henderson (Al-Ettifaq)
Playing at centre-back because Saudi Pro League owners selected their overseas players with very little view to preventing goals, with players like Henderson about as conservative as they got as kids in the European sweet shop.
Henderson got four assists across three games in September but has no goal contributions aside in 14 further appearances, and has captained Steven Gerrard’s side to one win in their last 11 games. A shame, in both senses. As in, what a shame! And also: SHAME. SHAME. SHAME. SHAME. etc.
RWB: Demarai Gray (Al-Ettifaq)
Hands up if you knew Gray had gone to Saudi Arabia. Anyway, he’s having a bit of a mare. Two assists in 24 substitute minutes on debut, but just two goals since in 11 appearances, having missed two matches for a red card.
CM: N’Golo Kante (Al-Ittihad)
He’s not been injured, which is a huge plus for him, but it’s hard to get away from feeling a team with him, Fabinho and Karim Benzema in it should be higher than seventh. His old club Chelsea are just three points off that position in the Premier League and they’re utterly pants.
CM: Seko Fofana (Al-Nassr)
Arsenal and Newcastle were keen and Kylian Mbappe gave his approval at Paris Saint-Germain, but one of the stars of Lens’ incredible 2022/23 season opted for Al-Nassr, where he’s found it rather more difficult to get into the team than he might have thought.
The side led by Cristiano Ronaldo, rather strangely, decided to spend £100m on three central midfielders in the summer, and manager Luis Castro has typically preferred Otavio and Marcelo Brozovic over Fofana, who’s started just nine of their 19 league games.
LWB: Jota (Al-Ittihad)
Signed for £25m from Celtic in the summer, Jota is currently limited to playing AFC Champions League games for Al-Ittihad. Nuno Espirito Santo – before moving to Nottingham Forest – decided not to select the 24-year-old as one of his eight foreign players to compete in the Saudi Pro League. Which of course begs the question: why sign more than eight foreign players if they can’t play?
Ange Postecoglou may offer the guy who thrived under him at Celtic a Spurs escape route.
AM: Georginio Wijnaldum (Al-Ettifaq)
Plays under Steven Gerrard, who’s rubbish, for Al-Ettifaq, who are rubbish.
ST: Sadio Mane (Al-Nassr)
Got off to a bit of a flyer, scoring six goals in his first six games, but has managed just a further two in his last 12, while captain Ronaldo continues to clean up with 20 goals in 18 games.
ST: Roberto Firmino (Al-Ahli)
He must have been convinced he had made the right choice on the back of being handed the captaincy and netting a hat-trick on debut. But he’s not scored in 16 games since, managing just two assists, and hasn’t started a game since the end of October. Fulham are one of the Premier League clubs offering solace.