Low Hanging Fruit (or why Ramadan Sobhi is the best signing in England)

I had a pretty interesting thought last week as I was watching Stoke City play Pep’s City:

Ramadan Sobhi is the best signing in the EPL this year

I know that sounds crazy. But hear me out..

And no, it’s not because I’m Egyptian. Nor is it the fact that he has the best nickname ever (#Ramadona). Nor is it an opportunity for me to plug this awesome piece I wrote about him for Squawka:

It’s because his signing is exactly the type of signing a mid-table club like Stoke should be making.

  1. It’s a move supported by scouts
  2. And a move strongly supported by data
  3. It embraces age curves
  4. It embraces optionality

Scouts love Ramadan

Ramadan is Egypt’s most popular player despite only being 19. He plays for the local equivalent of Juventus (dominant), and is a starter on an attack that has scored >2 goals per game, and a team that scored 2.3 PPG. He’s been around for ages despite his young age, and he checks all the “eye test boxes”. He’s fast, physical, a good dribbler, good in the air, two-footed, the whole package. He’s also “shown up in big games”, assisting the equalizer for Egypt in a crucial AFCON qualifier vs. Nigeria, then scoring in the return leg to take the NT through.


Data loves Ramadan

As shown in that Squawka piece, Ramadan has strong, if not amazing numbers:

  • Leads the league in touches for a winger
  • 15% of Al-Ahly shots are either taken or created by him
  • 4 goals, 6 assists, 2 penalties drawn in 22 games
  • Most tackles and interceptions by an attacker
  • 4.2 complete dribbles a game (1 in the box per game!)
  • Most complete passes into the box

The only negative on Ramadan are poor shooting numbers for a league he should be dominating, as he only gets 1.2 shots away a game despite all the havoc he’s creating in the box.


He’s 19

Here’s the most important data point that proves Ramadan is a special talent: he’s getting minutes at 19. Really any negatives in the data can be wiped out with that simple fact.

This article by @Micheal Caley on age curves is fantastic, as is this one by @GoalImpact


It embraces optionality

This is perhaps the crux of the article, despite me putting it last. So for all of the above, Stoke City paid only £3.5m! In a window where the average EPL player is commanding fees of around 40m (sorry, Bolasie), this represents amazing value. And not value in the sense that Ramadan is better than a 3.5m player right now. But his upside is uncapped, something which can’t be said for 27-year old Bolasie.

So why is this the perfect move for Stoke?

Firstly, they’re mired in mid-table with no real chance at relegation, which means the bottom of their range is not all that scary. Their upside however is capped due to being out-priced by the Europa League regulars. This is exactly the type of move they need to be making in order to try to move the needle. If he busts, it’s 3.5m pounds. If he succeeds, it’s an extreme young talent tied down for a couple of years with amazing resale value.

The funny thing is, because Africa is so under-scouted and data is much more difficult to come by, one could even make the case that the risk Ramadan turns out to be a bust is much smaller than your average 3.5m unknown. The only thing that is in play here is we’re not quite sure what a star in the Egyptian League translates to in EPL terms.

Wait a minute…

Now I know this is a small sample size, but Mo Salah was a 20 year old winger with similarly impressive numbers for a much worse Egyptian league side in 2012 when he was picked up by Basel a few years ago, and his ceiling has become a CL-side’s top goal-scorer. Ramadan is younger, has more impressive numbers, and was playing for a much better side. Even assuming that his ceiling is another Salah, that’s definitely a home-run for 3.5m.

I don’t have data on Elneny but again played on (the same) mid-table team (amazing how Moqawloon had 2 CL level players in Egypt and finished mid-table) and his ceiling is a semi-starter for a team that’s comfortable top ten in the world.

So obviously, despite sample size issues, we’ve proven that upside is definitely an above-average EPL player. For 3.5m and with Ramadan’s profile checking out as even better than Salah’s, it’s definitely a risk worth taking. It almost doesn’t matter whether he’s a bust or not at this point.

More mid-table clubs need to embrace this type of optionality. And while typically, I’d say relegation threatened clubs shouldn’t due to needing to limiting their downside being more important, one could argue that because Africa is such a wasteland in terms of scouting and data, we could be vastly overestimating the risk of these talents flaming out. A quick look at the players who have travelled from the Egyptian league specifically shows a pretty high success rate (Salah, Elneny, Elmohamaddy) with busts usually not fitting in off the pitch yet producing on it (Saleh Gomaa, Shikabala, etc).

I’ll leave you with this:

Edit:

On a final and slightly less relevant note: the economic impact of diversifying your fanbase to include a huge Arabic-speaking market is also a plus I didn’t discuss here. Cairo is already in the top 5 cities that follow the club on Facebook

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