COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
It may have gone slightly under the radar, but Egypt international Ahmed Hegazy joined West Bromwich Albion this summer in a loan deal from Egyptian giants Al Ahly. The 26-year-old may have earned over 30 caps for the Pharaohs, but he is still considered something of a risk for two reasons.
To begin with, there is not a large market for Egyptian players in the Premier League. That is perhaps to do with the (in)famous insularity of Egyptian domestic football: Mido and Hossam Ghaly played for Tottenham in the mid-noughties, Amr Zaki decorated Wigan briefly, while Ahmed Elmohamady has established himself on English shores since joining Sunderland in 2010. These are all, however, exceptions rather than the rule.
The second factor is an unfortunate injury history.
Highly rated as a youth, Hegazy impressed with Egypt at the London Olympics in 2012, earning a move to Fiorentina, but only made three appearances in a nightmare stint that was truncated by two injuries to his anterior cruciate ligament. Released in 2015, he has had to work his way back to full fitness.
However, the Baggies needn’t worry – in terms of style, they have gotten the perfect fit.
With the worst behind him, Hegazy is set to thrive in the Premier League.
What is refreshing, and also surprising in light of this move to the Premier League, is how different Hegazy is from the modern imagining of the centre-back.
Increasingly, defenders are expected to be progressive in possession rather than simply palm off ball-playing responsibility; the higher up the pitch they are willing to play, the higher the midfield can position itself and influence the game, thereby preventing isolation of the forwards by shortening the distance to the attack.
Hegazy though is nothing like this.
In space, the Nesta of the Pyramids can sometimes be found wanting, especially due to the lack of a proper turn of pace. It is interesting to note that, while he was named in the tournament Best XI at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, his unwillingness (along with partner Ali Gabr) to play closer to the halfway line shaped Egypt’s entire approach.
Hector Cuper’s side were disconcertingly negative, and overly reliant of moments of genius by Mohamed Salah to progress. The Liverpool winger was frequently detached from the rest of the team as a result.
The Ahly man is, however, an outstanding defender inside the box. At 6ft 5in, Hegazy is an excellent physical specimen, a fact his robust physique buttresses perfectly. There are no frills to his defending. He simply aims to get between the ball and the goal at all times, a deep, stubborn refusal to be beaten.
Slightly amusingly, his most epic battle during the Afcon was with Aziz Bouhaddouz, himself a classic throwback number 9, short on finesse and technicality, but physically imposing and a constant menace; almost a kaiju-like clashing of two prehistoric mastodons.
While forwards in that mould are similarly endangered, the Premier League is one of their final outposts, being more direct in its overall style than the other major European leagues. Indeed, West Brom have one just like that: the barrelling, bustling Venezuelan Salomon Rondon.
Another would be Romelu Lukaku (he does incorporate some technical prowess as well), and it would be quite the spectacle when Manchester United and West Bromwich lock horns to see both giants go at it.
This affinity for physical confrontation will almost certainly satisfy the British eagerness to pare a game down into a series of individual duels, and will endear him to the Baggies fans.
It also fits in perfectly with the approach of manager Tony Pulis, the arch-pragmatist and high priest of mid-table security. The former Stoke and Crystal Palace boss makes no secret of his ethos, and there are no pretensions of Barcelona-style fantasy.
The Albion ranked fourth in interceptions, fifth in number of shots blocked in the league last season, and sixth in total number of fouls committed in the Premier League last season; all of these underline their overall approach, which is to defend deep inside their own half.
Hegazy’s daunting stature will also come in handy at the other end.
West Brom scored a whopping 16 goals from corner kicks in the league last term, an incredible number which accounted for 37 per cent of their total goal tally. Essentially, Pulis has upgraded at both ends of the pitch, investing in yet another commando for his guerrilla ambush tactics.
There will be (and indeed have been) flashier signings in the Premier League: more expensive, more headline-grabbing, but few will blend in as seamlessly into their new sides as Hegazy will for West Brom.
Cult hero status almost certainly awaits.