Saudi Pro League minnows in the midst of a cinderella story

An interesting story is brewing in the SPL – and it’s got nothing to do with the eye-watering transfer fees that put the competition on the map

The transfer market was irrevocably changed by the emergence of the Saudi Pro League as a realistic – and even attractive – destination for football’s biggest stars over the summer. Buoyed by state-backed buyouts, the country’s traditional big four: Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli and Al-Hilal, led the way for the league’s eye-watering spending, bringing the likes of Karim Benzema, Neymar and Sadio Mane to the Middle East.

Even sides outside of this elite bubble ended up recruiting talent who would have viewed a move to Saudi Arabia as unthinkable just a few months earlier. Al-Ettifaq managed to tempt Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson to Dammam, and Al-Shabab snapped up big-contract enthusiast Yannick Carrasco from Atletico Madrid.

But for the minnows of the league, these types of signings were a rarity compared to the business conducted by the top four. As a result, the state-owned clubs were expected to leave all challengers in their wake this season – but that’s not quite how it’s played out so far.

Al-Taawoun’s current resurgence has been masterminded by Brazilian coach Pericles Chamusca. A veteran tactician who’s managed well over 30 clubs in a meandering career that’s taken him to every corner of his homeland as well as across the Middle East and Japan, he registered on the club’s recruitment radar in 2021.

At that time, he was in charge of Al-Faisaly, who he led to victory over Al-Taawoun in the King’s Cup final. This performance helped convince Sukri Al-Qasito to appoint Chamusca as their new manager when John van de Brom departed in summer 2022.

It has proved to be an inspired decision. In his first season at the helm, he guided Al-Taawoun to fifth, and things are going even better this year despite the competition getting far stronger.

So, how has he done it? Key to Al-Taawoun’s recent success has been their superb defensive organisation and midfield control. Only table-toppers Al-Hilal have conceded fewer goals than them this season, while just four sides are allowing fewer shots on target per 90 minutes. This solidity stems from Brazilian goalkeeper Mailson, who boasts the best save percentage in the division, and the sense of assurance he provides permeates throughout the defence and beyond.

In midfield, another Brazilian, Flavio, ensures that the opposition never has an easy afternoon. The Trabzonspor loanee is not afraid to get stuck in, with just three Saudi Pro League players completing more tackles this season.

It’s not all about limiting the opposition’s effectiveness, though. Al-Taawoun also have a spate of highly-unpredictable creative and attacking players at their disposal. The Brazilian flavour continues with Mateus, who never stops trying, even when things aren’t going his way. Only Aleksandar Mitrovic and Cristiano Ronaldo have fired off more shots in the Saudi Pro League this campaign, but Al-Taawoun’s frontman has only scored twice.

He has at least chipped in with five assists – as has undisputed star Alvaro Medran. A Real Madrid youth-team graduate who also enjoyed a spell at Valencia, Medran acts as the team’s creative fulcrum and has been one of the standout midfielders in the division recently.