Stoke City supporters have undoubtedly had their noses bloodied somewhat since the summer transfer window opened in early June.
Marko Arnautovic, arguably the club’s most influential offensive player, has handed in a formal transfer request and has continued to reiterate his desire to leave the Bet365 Stadium during discussions with Mark Hughes over the previous two weeks.
West Ham United appears for the Austrian winger, with Sky Sports reporting a fee has been agreed between the two clubs, although it is debateable whether a move to East London would match the player’s claims that he wishes to move due to his superior ambition. Stoke have finished above The Hammers in six out of the last eight seasons and the move looks little more than a sideways step to a club of similar standing in the modern game.
The Potters have resigned themselves to losing the 28-year-old and are set to receive a fee in the region of £24 million if latest reports are to be believed. That money will be immediately invested by Hughes in his ageing playing squad, remembering that in the modern game the amount being quoted is hardly a mind-blowing figure, with a replacement firmly at the top of his wish list.
However, the importance of Arnautovic’s contribution to Stoke’s success over the previous three seasons should not be underestimated. The Austrian has been directly involved with over 25% of the club’s goals since his arrival in the summer of 2013 and his general influence around the club, with his charisma and self-assured swagger making him a favourite in the dressing room and among supporters, surely making him a hard man to replace.
A ray of light
But there is a slight ray of light for those Stoke City supporters who are mourning Marko Arnautovic’s impending departure or are fearing the worst as the start of the new season closes in.
That ray of hope goes by the name of Ramadan Sobhi.
The 20-year-old Egyptian winger was signed by The Potters in the summer of 2016 for £5 million from al-Ahly, located in Cairo, and arrived with a prestigious and exciting reputation. He was already an established international and was widely regarded as the brightest, young player that the country had produced in a generation. Sobhi had won two league titles and two domestic cup competitions in three seasons with his pace, trickery an outrageous skill capturing the imagination of football supporters throughout the region.
The fact that he was able to rise to prominence at all is a major achievement. Sobhi made his first team debut at the age of 16 but emerged following a period of social turmoil and sporting chaos in the country. Egypt was at the forefront of the so-called Arab spring protests which sparked months of violence in major cities whilst the Port Said disaster, where 70 supporters died during a riot at a match between al-Ahly and al-Masry, resulting in domestic football being suspended for almost two years.
Yet, Sobhi emerged as a genuine superstar during 2013, cementing his place in the al-Ahly team and going on to make his international debut for Egypt before he had reached the age of 18. The excitement throughout the country regarding his talent and potential is remarkable. He has over 450,000 followers on Twitter and when his transfer to Stoke was confirmed in 2016 the club website and social media servers crashed due to the increased activity from Egyptian supporters.
A ready-made replacement
So Stoke City have a genuine talent on their hands with Ramadan Sobhi, although his arrival in English football has been a slow-burner.
He made 19 appearances for The Potters last season, half of which were from the bench, and the winger was unable to cement a consistent place in Mark Hughes starting eleven. Ironically, it was Marko Arnautovic that was blocking Sobhi’s route into the first team and his impending departure could leave the door open for the Egyptian to fill the void left by the Austrian. When one door closes, another door opens.
The current Stoke squad is characterised by experienced players and aging model professionals. Almost half of the contracted first team players are over the age of 30 and last season there was a definitive lack of youthful exuberance, enthusiasm and pace in The Potters’ performances as the club finished in the bottom half of the table for the first time since Hughes arrived in 2013. Sobhi became the first teenager in nine years to start a Premier League game for Stoke – emphasising the issues that the club have experienced with developing and blooding their own young talent over the previous decade.
The good news for Stoke supporters is that Sobhi possesses all of the attributes that were so badly lacking during the previous campaign. His pace, power and trickery on the ball make him a genuine attacking threat whilst his direct running creates issues for opposing defenders. He was extremely impressive when utilised by Hughes last season and he already has considerable experience of both first team and international football despite being just 20 years of age.
With Stoke resigned to losing Marko Arnautovic in the coming days, Mark Hughes must surely now turn his attention to his Egyptian starlet and place his faith in the youthful exuberance of Ramadan Sobhi.