According to British government research in 2016, 52% of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) population follow or have an interest in Football.
This is higher than all three of Brazil, Spain and the UK. With the Qatar World Cup looming, this interest within will surely grow exponentially. This will undoubtedly bring further interest in players from the MENA region.
Looking deeper into the football structure of the middle east, there is certainly perceived lack of talent coming out of the MENA region. There are few obvious ‘world class’ players to point at, aside from the likes of Mohamed Salah and Hakim Ziyech, for example. Breaking down this stigma is important. Digging deeper, one can see there is talent coming out of many of the countries; especially in north Africa.
The 2021 UNICEF list of MENA countries are as follows: Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the UAE, and Yemen. Looking at this list, there are some countries that lack inherent footballing culture. Therefore it would only make sense to narrow the list down to: Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. There will also be a ‘best of the rest’ category to make sure all countries are taken into account.
The simple criteria for this player search is under twenty three, and has played 500+ minutes this season. Focus will be placed on the domestic league of the country in question. That being said, there may be a player in a foreign league that is just too hard not to include. Emphasis will not be placed on the more mainstream MENA wonderkids (I’m looking at you, Achraf Hakimi).
Egypt – Emam Ashour
Position: Central midfield
Club: Zamalek SC
Ashour is in scintillating form this season, with 3 goals and 2 assists in just 8 games for Zamalek. With these contributions mainly coming from central midfield, he has really stood out.
Signed from Egyptian Premier League side Ghazl Mahalla for £585,000 in 2019, he struggled in the 2019/20 season. Initially deployed as a winger, before various disciplinary issues meant he made only 12 appearances in the season. However, the 2020/21 season has been a different story, and with the young Egyptian seemingly putting his disciplinary issues behind him, he has seen an upturn in his form.
The key was Zamalek choosing to deploy him in central or defensive midfield. His technical dribbling skills allow him to resist the press, as well as being a fantastic progressive carrier of the ball – averaging just over 2 progressive runs per game. The is the second highest in the league compared to midfielders.
Alongside this, he has come along leaps and strides in his defensive game. He averages 10.9 Successful defensive actions (SDA) per90, much higher than players with the same progression stats as him. Alongside this he also averages 2.57 shots per 90. This is the third highest in the league for midfielders, which is seriously impressive considering his defensive output and more deep-lying progression play. The players that are above him in shots per 90 have much lower defensive stats, as well as poorer ball progression. This outlines that Ashour is effective in all areas of the pitch.
Although still uncapped for Egypt’s national team, he has gained five U23 caps, showing that his performances have not gone unnoticed. A truly talented player that is arguably the best in domestic Egypt football on his day, Ashour has a bright future. If he manages to keep his discipline under control, he could yet make a move to Europe. Both Mohamed Elneny and Mohamed Salah are examples of this path, and have made steps from the Egyptian Premier League to Basel.
Tunisia – Hamza Rafia
Born in Kalaat Senan, Tunisia, Rafia moved to France to pursue his footballing career. He played much of his youth career in Olympique Lyonnais’ academy. He also play for France U17 and U18, but eventually opted to play for Tunisia and has since gained seven international caps. Alongside this change of nationality, Rafia also made a low-key move to Juventus U23 in 2019 for a fee of £360,000.
The young Tunisian has appeared 16 times for Juve U23, scoring three and assisting five. He has mainly played on the left wing, looking to cut inside to use his favoured right foot, where he looks to be a direct threat on goal. Rafia can also play a more traditional winger role down the right hand side, where he has appeared intermittently this year. He made his Juventus first team debut on 13/01/21, coming on at left wing. A goal on his debut, although scrappy, is perhaps a sign of things to come.
His top quality is certainly his dribbling. He makes on average 13.65 dribbles per90 with a 56% success in Serie C. This is truly outstanding. It shows that he has some serious confidence in taking on defenders with one-on-one duels. He also has a good eye for a pass, and completes the most smart passes per90 in the league with 2.53 (compared to other wingers).
However he only has a 73% pass success – this suggests he often tries difficult passes, but perhaps also that it is something to work on. His shooting ability is something that could also be improved, as he is currently underperforming xG by 0.5. A goal conversion rate of 10% is by no means bad, but still something to work on. Next season it will be interesting to see whether Rafia will be given more first team action for Juve, or be loaned out to another club – he has certainly outgrown Serie C.
Algeria – Mohamed El Amine Amoura
Position: Attacking midfielder/Centre forward
Club: ES Setif
Diminutive forward Mohamed El Amine Amoura is certainly having his breakthrough season in Algeria for ES Setif. He has only played 495 minutes, but his talent meant he more than deserved his place on this list, being only 5 minutes short. Having been at ES Setif his whole life, Amoura is having a brilliant season so far: thirteen matches played, with six goals and one assist. Capable of playing either attacking midfield or as a centre forward, the young Algerian also has a habit of drifting wide to the left and right wings. Essentially he is comfortable playing wide and central in attack.
For a twenty year old, Amoura’s shooting stats are impressive. Alongside averaging 1.09 goals per 90, he also has 4.11 shots with 66.67% of them being on target. This is especially good when considering that he sometimes plays deeper in midfield – Amoura is not your stereotypical centre forward staying in advanced positions. What stands out the most with Amoura, however, is his work rate and desire. His pressing is good, eagerly winning the ball back, and shows good aggression in the tackle despite his small stature.
This desire and eagerness to get the ball and affect the play leads him to have quite an extraordinary stat. Despite being one of the smallest attackers in the league, Amoura has the most headed goals per 90 – 0.39. This not only shows his desire to score goals in what may seem unconventional methods for someone his size, but also good spatial awareness and movement to get in a position to head the ball into the net. He averages 3.13 accelerations per 90, the most in the league compared to other forwards. His pace, coupled with fantastic movement and direct running, make Amoura a fearsome threat for any defender in Algeria.
He doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses from what I have seen of him. His dribbling is good, and his height allows him to have a low centre of balance and good agility. His creative game is good, and he has the second most key passes compared to forwards in the league with 0.78. Although his passes aren’t always consistent, he is still one of the more creative forwards in the league. If he continues his form throughout the Algerian season, he really needs to be challenged in a better league. What is scary is that he is only twenty, with much room to grow – a serious talent indeed.
Morocco – Aymen Chabani
Position: Centre back
Club: FAR Rabat
Chabani has featured as the right centre back for FAR Rabat in their start to the Botola Pro league in Morocco. He is a technically proficient, ball playing centre-back, capable of switching the pay with raking long balls, as well as progressing play by carrying the ball.
He strikes a composed figure in the FAR Rabat back four. In terms of centre backs, he has the most defensive duels per 90 in the league, with 8.48. Chabani has a 65.96% win rate, which is not the highest, but considering his tackling volume this is understandable. He reads the game well, and although he doesn’t make the most interceptions, he tends to stay conservative in his defensive actions, with each effort being calculated. He has the most sliding tackles in the league per90 with 1.44, and is not afraid to turn to the ‘dark arts’ of defending, making some very good last ditch blocks as well as some tactically aware professional fouls.
Chabani’s main strengths are not in the defensive department however. His passing accuracy is 82%. Whilst not the highest in the league, this is due to his tendency to make line breaking passes. He has great vision, although not always the technical consistency to make these passes.
He averages five passes to the final third per 90, with a 71% success rate. His technical ability also extends to his dribbling skills. He enjoys stepping out of the defensive line to carry the ball; his1.44 progressive runs per90 are the second highest in the league. As mentioned earlier his awareness and composure in making the right decisions of when to make these runs. He often recognises when not to dribble and instead retain possession.
Where Chabani lacks is in his physicality. He has good height for a centre back at 1.89m and is good in the air, however can get bullied by more physical forward players. If he can improve his strength in one on one duels, he will improve significantly as a centre back. His pace is above average, and alongside his dribbling ability he could also be proficient at right-back.
Statistically Chabani is still one of the better centre backs in the Botola Pro, and at 22 he has many more years until he reaches his peak. A bright future awaits.
Best of the rest – Allahyar Sayyadmanesh (Iran)
Position: Centre forward
Club: Zorya Luhansk (loan from Fenerbahce)
Still only nineteen, Iranian Sayyadmanesh has had quite a career. He spent his early years playing for Saipa, before moving to Esteghlal in Iran. Eventually making his first team debut in 2018, he went on to make 14 appearances, scoring twice. A move to Turkish giants Fenerbahce followed in 2019, where he was loaned out almost immediately to second tier Istanbulspor. Currently he is loaned out to Zorya Luhansk in Ukraine, where he has played six out of seven games off the bench, scoring twice in the process.
Sayyadmanesh is a physically imposing forward, with a direct running style that often proves problematic for opponents in the latter stages of the game, which is when he often comes off the bench for Zorya. The young Iranian proved his dangerous striking abilities by scoring the winner for Zorya off the bench against Leicester in the Europa league, with a good back post run to convert into an empty net from a low cross. Although quite big for a forward, he looks to run in behind more often than hold the ball up, which is surprising considering his size and average speed. He is intelligent in making runs in behind the backline, using his strength to hold off defenders and either shoot or pass to a teammate.
With a near 28% goal conversion rate Sayyadmanesh is a generally solid finisher, and the few chances he does get tend to be finished well with both feet. In terms of his link up play, he is capable of playing short passes to teammates. However, he struggles with more technically demanding passes. As a result he has a 69% pass completion rate, much below average compared to forwards in the Ukrainian league.
An intelligent striker, he needs to be more technically proficient in his dribbling and passing. He is still very raw at only nineteen. With the right coaching this will improve his link up play a lot, complementing his physical skillset. He is in a good league in Ukraine that will give him good experience. Zorya hold an option to buy, so his move to Ukraine might well be made permanent.