Ever since Cristiano Ronaldo became a member of the Al Nassr squad, there have been people on one side talking about him as the sole reason anyone cares about the team. People on the other side are at pains to point out that one player doesn’t make a team, and that there has been an Al Nassr for decades before he ever arrived. What is true is that although the team has existed before him, and will exist long after he’s gone, Ronaldo is the reason people are talking about Al Nassr and Saudi football in general right now.
It is, nonetheless, true that there is more to Al Nassr than Ronaldo, and it’s worth having a look at the team in which he plays to get an idea of what his impact on the field has been. While people with less of an understanding of the game might assume that he could win every game more or less on his own, that’s simply not the case; he’s good, but he needs a decent team around him if he’s going to deliver the results that the club’s ownership are expecting as a return on their investment. So who else is chipping in for Faris Najd?
If you’ve been paying any attention to global soccer in 2023, you’ll know that there has been a surge of talent to the Saudi Pro League this year, with the deep pockets of the Public Investment Fund playing a major part in that influx. Many of those new arrivals have landed at Al-Awwal Park, and Ronaldo isn’t the only one with a big profile. Senegal’s Sadio Mane, a champion in England and Germany, has joined CR7 and currently has six goals from his 12 appearances in yellow and blue, Meanwhile, Aymeric Laporte has left one cash-rich club for another, moving from Manchester City to partner Sultan Al-Ghannam in defence.
The midfield hasn’t gone unnoticed as an area for improvement either, with Portuguese coach Luis Castro adding compatriot Otavio in what has been the club’s biggest transfer in terms of fee paid, $60million having been forked over to Porto. Alex Telles, a former team mate of Ronaldo at Manchester United, plays down the left side and has brought attacking intent to the wing-back role. Marcelo Brozovic moved from Inter in the summer, and is the man who ties it all up in central midfield alongside Cote d’Ivoire’s Seko Fofana, who had been touted as a possible signing for most of Europe’s top clubs.
Saudi football didn’t wake up to the idea of talented foreign imports in the closing months of 2022; when Ronaldo showed up, it wasn’t into a dressing-room of starstruck Saudi players who’d never played alongside an expensively-acquired ringer. Anderson Talisca has been plying his trade with the club since 2021 – and overall, he has outscored his more famous captain this season, although CR7 has more league goals. The Brazilian attacking midfielder has never represented his country, but played with some distinction for Benfica over a period of four years.
Another player who had already got his feet under the table before the recent rush of new signings is Colombian international goalkeeper David Ospina. Formerly at Arsenal and Napoli, Ospina was one of the first wave of modern “sweeper keepers” favored by many coaches for their ability to start attacks with the ball at their feet, allowing the team to play a more dynamic style of soccer.
It’s been easy for media outlets to paint the new arrivals in the SPL as some kind of missionaries, bringing soccer in the KIngdom to a level way beyond the imagination of locals. But let’s remember that this is a country whose national team beat eventual champions Argentina at last year’s World Cup. The Al Nassr team provided no small number of the players in that squad. Al-Ghannam, as already mentioned, plays in defence alongside Laporte, and was club captain prior to Ronaldo’s arrival.
Perhaps the standout among the Saudi nationals playing for Al Nassr, midfielder Abdulrahman Ghareeb arrived four months before Ronaldo and fetched a fee of close to $5million in a transfer from Al Ahly. He’s certainly the player who has caught the eye most this season, running second behind CR7 in the team’s assist charts. Ghareeb has had a fight on his hands to maintain a place in the first team since the arrivals of Otavio and Ronaldo, but his eye for a pass makes him one of the best Saudi players overall right now, and there is reason for fans of the national team to be excited about how much he could improve with the talent now arrayed around him.
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