Why Ahmed Hegazi is the perfect Tony Pulis defender
After Ahmed Hegazi became just the ninth-ever player signed by Tony Pulis from a non-British team, showing the faith that he has in the Egyptian, KingFut‘s Luke McBride analyses why Hegazi is a perfect fit for Pulis’ stubborn West Brom side.
Hegazi joins on loan from domestic giants Al Ahly with an option to buy, and will be remembered by African fans for his performances in Egypt’s 2017 AFCON campaign, as well as in the 2012 Olympics in which Egypt reached the quarter finals while facing Brazil, Belarus, New Zealand and Japan. Hegazi was one of Egypt’s standout performers, particularly in the 3-2 defeat against Brazil, in which he had a memorable game against current Barcelona superstar Neymar.
Following on from the latter tournament, Hegazi earned a move to Italian giants Fiorentina. However, his three seasons there (including a season-long loan to Perugia) were blighted by injuries, namely two ACL injuries in the same leg; this would be a huge setback to his progress, and he eventually returned to Egypt giants Al Ahly.
Eventually, Hegazi has finally come into his own and has started to live up to the potential he showed at Ismaily, after nailing down a starting centre-back place in the Egypt national team, a position that has been lacking since Wael Gomaa’s international retirement in 2013. A lot of this is due to his two coaches, Hector Cuper and Hossam El-Badry, playing very defensive systems in which Hegazi’s positioning and height can easily account for his lack of speed.
Now onto Pulis – as the Welshman enters his 10th season as a Premier League manager, he has earned himself a reputation over the years for playing negative, defensive football out of necessity as he does whatever it takes to keep his sides in the top flight. Because of these tactics, Pulis boasts the record of never being relegated in his managerial career, despite managing several teams that would normally be considered relegation fodder.
A common feature of Pulis’ style is the ‘flat back four’ system, in which he has often used centre-backs as makeshift full-backs (Dawson and Evans for example) in order to maintain a rigid back-line. As a result, more often than not the back 4 will play incredibly narrow, sometimes with the entire defence in the penalty area accompanied by the defensive midfielders.
Due to this narrow shape, opposition teams will be forced out wide to launch crosses into the box which is an unsustainable way to score goals, and even more so against Pulis sides that are famed for their towering defenders.
At Albion, this system has produced excellent performances from the likes of Gareth McAuley, Jonas Olsson and Jonny Evans, who stand at 6’5, 6’5 and 6’2 respectively. Similarly, in the past Pulis has managed the likes of Robert Huth, Ryan Shawcross and Scott Dann, who all stand over 190cm in height.
Hegazi is statuesque himself, and standing at 196cm he is the joint-tallest centre back that Pulis has ever managed in the Premier League, alongside Scott Dann. This feature will endear Hegazi to Pulis, and especially while McAuley is injured for the opening games of the season.
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Some people may have doubts about Hegazi due to his lack of speed, especially with the fast-paced nature of the Premier League. Earlier in his career, the Egypt international was quicker than he is now, but both ACL injuries have really taken their toll on the player’s physique. This will be less of an issue at West Brom, however, as they focus a lot more on organisation and putting everyone behind the ball so that defenders are never isolated in one-on-one situations which is a potential weakness in Hegazi’s game. As previously mentioned, Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley were both able to perform as serviceable defenders despite their shortcomings similar to those of Hegazi.
There is also a chance that Hegazi may start to have more influence at the other end of the pitch too. Last season, West Brom scored the most goals from set pieces in the league (leading by a comfortable distance), with many coming from the likes of Rondon, McAuley and Dawson who are similar to the Nesta of the Pyramids in build. Egypt are often criticised for lacking a “Plan B” when playing through Salah doesn’t work, so perhaps Hegazi’s movement on set pieces can improve and provide another option.
Last but certainly not least, the move should benefit the Egyptian national team too. Hector Cuper’s setup is similar to that of Pulis in that it focuses a lot on putting large numbers behind the ball, and so the rigid organisation that will be instilled into him can be easily transferred potentially into next summer’s World Cup, should Egypt qualify. Furthermore, although the English football calendar is a long one Hegazi will still find more time to rest than he would in Egypt, and for a player who has had as many injury problems as him over the years this can only be a good thing.
To conclude, barring a repeat of his injury problems from his Fiorentina days, it is difficult to see how this move will not benefit a player of Hegazi’s profile in more ways than one, and I would even go as far as to say that this has the potential to be the most successful spell that an Egyptian has ever had in English football.
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