Michael Emenalo is one of the most powerful men in football, currently helping to oversee the transformation of the Saudi Pro League as their director of football.
The spending of the Saudi Pro League during the summer was one of football’s biggest talking points, with Neymar, Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante among the superstar names to follow in the footsteps of Cristiano Ronaldo, who ventured to the Middle East at the start of 2023.
What Saudi chooses to do next will be fascinating, with the January transfer window on the horizon, and speaking to exclusively to 90min as part of Talking Transfers‘ Inside Recruitment series, Emenalo admits there’s work to do in order to convince some within the game that they are here to stay.
“I am incredibly proud of what we have done, we are working around the clock at this,” the 58-year-old says. “Is there some snobbery? Yes, but that is human reaction to change, to competitiveness, we don’t always embrace competition initially but we see from the European countries they are also adapting and changing to us.
“We have come in wanting to expand, to improve and to win. We will compete and we want to be one of the best, we have the resources to be one of the best but we have to put the work in. Is there going to be an increase in ambition? Of course. Are we going to continue to go for what we believe is the best? Yes we are.”
Emenalo is quick to point out that despite many deals involving vast sums of money, throwing more of it is not the answer for the Saudi Pro League – instead the focus is on creating the right infrastructure and working practices.
“That is the big fallacy in football right now, that money solves all problems. Of course it is helpful but if you don’t use it well and apply it right, then that is a problem.
“I remind people football is a business, but it is football – people forget it is a football business and you are in charge of what happens on the pitch. This has always been my personal belief that if you want to get return of investment right, if you want to create value for the club you have to get it right on the pitch and put in place the right systems and then these get better and better. This is the remarkable thing about the evolution of football and this copies that of life.”
In regards to his actual role and what being director of football of the Saudi Pro League means, Emenalo adds that he’s there to offer guidance and support rather than take things over.
“I strenuously try to emphasise that I don’t come here as a Tzar of football. Fortunately for me, my background has given me this opportunity and we are working and collaborating with 18 clubs – there are some that are set in their ways, but many who need help and want to try a different pathway.
“I am here to offer them options and work with them. I have this experience and there are many ways of doing it. They could use analytics, but with that it is how you use the data, what are you identifying? People still don’t understand what football system might be best for them, the idea is to bring that knowledge to the whole scouting and recruitment process and create bespoke platforms that we can all use.
“I think that part of the work that I have done in the past was based around good recruitment, good intelligence and forward-looking recruitment.”
Emenalo, himself a former Nigeria international, admits that he stumbled into working in football and it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time with his former boss Avram Grant.
“It was not a decision I made myself,” he replies when asked about his path into recruitment.
“t was something I was entrusted with when I joined Chelsea when I joined my former coach Avram Grant, I played for him at Tel Aviv and when he got the interim manager’s job, he needed to someone he could trust with knowledge of the game and that was me.
“My first job was on scouting and looking at the opposition and that is when I started evaluating players, both opposition and of interest to the club and gradually through this I garnered more respect and as that moved on I was tasked with looking and finding players. At that point I was moved into the role of technical director and I set up recruitment and systems to be able to do that in a more professional manner.
“I remember at Chelsea we wanted to invest in a bespoke platform to input our reports and we created that, which gave us an advantage in the transfer market – obviously now this is very different with many different platforms available, but this was important as fundamental to any success in football is recruitment.”
Despite having many platforms available, Emenalo admits that some of the basic fundamentals remain for him, for instance watching a player and having eyes on a potential new signing is crucial.
“It is important for me to see a player, and ideally know him, and it is not always easy but we have to watch a player – you can’t be successful unless you love football, like we do. I loved being on the pitch and now I love being an administrator. What I do is watch a lot of games, but no matter what the algorithm says, I have to watch them.”
The Saudi Pro League has made huge strides signing players from within Europe, but where next? South America is a hot bed of football and currently one of the favoured hunting grounds of the Premier League, and Emenalo admits they are ready to get involved.
“Absolutely we are looking at South America. It’s one of the historical football enclaves, history, culture – we know that opportunities are there to look at these players, there is an incredible production of quality and talent.
“But in my role as a league patron I have to give the clubs the opportunities, it is not easy to focus on every part of the world – they have to decide and what type of players they want but we have a wider outlook in the future.”
READ MORE FROM 90MIN’S TALKING TRANSFERS X INSIDE RECRUITMENT SERIES