Hani Amamou: Tunisia’s Talented Centre-Back

Hani Amamou made his debut for one of Tunisia’s most successful clubs CS Sfaxien on 15 October 2016 at the age of 19 against JS Kairouan. He played the full 90 minutes as his team won 3-0. He had come a long way in a short space of time. From his humble beginnings in the small Tunisian town of Moknine inhabited by less than 60,000 residents, where he was born in September 1997, to starting for CS Sfaxien in a Tunisian top division fixture. 

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In Amamou’s debut season he played in 11 league matches including seven starts in a row between March and May 2017. The following season, he remained in the first-team squad, playing in 16 out of the 26 domestic matches. This included 12 starts and four substitute appearances. He also played in two Coupe de Tunisie matches.

The 2018/2019 season was Amamou’s breakout season. He became a key defender for CS Sfaxien, playing in 22 out of the 26 league games including 20 starts. He was also heavily involved in their Coupe de Tunisie triumph as he played every minute of all five cup matches which culminated in a penalty shoot-out victory over rivals ES Sahel. In the CAF Confederations Cup, he started in 13 out of 14 matches for CS Sfaxien. They performed admirably by reaching the semi-finals before losing to Moroccan side RS Berkane, 3-2 on aggregate. 

In the 2019/2020 season Amamou reaffirmed the integral role he occupied in defence for CS Sfaxien. He has started in every single league game, 20 in total as of 20 August 2020, as well as in two Coupe de Tunisie matches. In the CAF Confederations Cup, he started both games as his club succumbed to a 3-1 defeat to Algerian outfit Paradou AC over two legs in the first qualifying round. 

As of yet, the 22-year-old Hamamou has only played for Tunisia at youth level and has not featured for the senior national side. In club competitions he has made 90 appearances for CS Sfaxien, an impressive feat for a youth player.

Position, Attributes and Style of Play

Amamou is right-footed and can play as both a right-sided and left-sided centre-back. CS Sfaxien usually play in a 4-3-3 formation and he is rotated between the two roles depending on who is available to partner him. 

In the centre-back role Amamou is assigned he is expected to be commanding in the air, capable of defending in 1v1 situations and cover for his nearest wing-back teammate or fellow centre-back if the ball is played in behind them. When his team have possession, he is required to be comfortable receiving the ball in defensive and midfield areas and starting attacks with purposeful forward passes to help contribute to the build-up play through the defensive and midfield phases.

Amamou’s physicality aligns well with his centre-back position. He is 1.87m which is a good height for a central defender, is strong enough to bully attackers and deceptively quick so is rarely out-sprinted by opponents. His height and strength combined with solid positioning, controlled aggression and expertly timed jumps is evident in aerially duels. He consistently wins high balls whether that be from defending set pieces, long-balls from opposing outfield players or from goal-kicks. He does this by carefully positioning himself in line with the incoming high ball and then uses his timing and height to leap towards the ball at the opportune moment and head it. In some instances, he also utilises his strength and controlled aggression to unbalance or discourage his opponent from jumping without committing a foul and then jumping to head the ball. Not only does he usually win these aerial duels he is also adept at guiding his header to a teammate which helps his team maintain possession. 

The speed Amamou displays is helpful when covering for teammates caught out of position or if a ball is played in behind them and he has to cover for them. His speed also partly explains why he is so comfortable coming out to the wings to face opposition attackers in a 1v1 clash. In conjunction with his strength he can match an attacker stride for stride and then step across them, discreetly brush them aside and gather the ball or guide the ball out of play. Alternatively in 1v1’s he uses his physical pressure smartly to unbalance opponents and force them to hastily shoot, play a cross or pass therefore increasing the likelihood of their action being inaccurate. 

Other important facets of Amamou’s game which aid him in defensive situations, especially in 1v1’s is his clever reading of the game, inch-perfect tackling and composed nature. When faced with an opponent in a 1v1 battle in central or wide areas he is good at anticipating the opponent’s body movements and predicting how they will manipulate the ball to try and evade him. Consequently, he is able to execute his tackle at the perfect moment. Just as they attempt to shift the ball past him he will win the ball off them without diving in or fouling them. Many times, he just nicks the ball off the attacker’s foot enabling him to retrieve the ball and play it to a teammate which alleviates pressure on his team’s defence. Staying on his feet in these ground duels show his composure and makes it more difficult for opponents to dribble past him. 

From a technical standpoint Amamou is generally proficient, with his passing catching the eye. In particular, he can easily produce impressive cross-field passes with both foot from either the right or left centre-back position to a teammate wide on the opposite flank. He is also capable of playing incisive line-breaking ground passes from defence into the midfield and attacking third. These types of passes are useful in opening up the play and helping start attacks from deep. His touch and ball control are decent as exemplified in a segment of play during a CAF Confederations Cup match versus ES Sahel in 2018/2019 season. He anticipates a chipped long-ball for an opponent to run on to and places himself between the opponent and the bouncing ball. He then flicks the ball over his own head and that of the pressing attacker and turns rapidly to collect the ball bouncing ball. As he takes a delicate touch to bring the ball under control he spots another opponent attempting to close him down so allows the ball to bounce again then audaciously lofts the ball over their head with the outside of his right boot into the path of a a teammate. Without a decent touch, the ability to control bouncing balls under pressure and remaining calm in the face of challenges he would have made a terrible mistake which his opponents could have capitalised on. However, it should be noted that he looks somewhat clumsy when receiving the ball on occasions as it can get stuck under his feet and he looks as if he will trip over it. Although he rarely gives up possession as a result and is quick enough to sort his feet out and release the ball before an opponent can press him. This slight flaw in his game can be improved upon by him ensuring he stays concentrated when receiving the ball, particularly when there is no pressure on him as this is when the clumsy touches most regularly occur. 

Noticeably, Amamou sometimes likes to vacate his centre-back position and step out of the defensive line to press opponents in central areas when they have the ball just inside the final third. This can cause disruption to the flow of the opponents attempted attack and he can be seen winning the ball in these areas and creating a fast transition by playing a direct forward pass into space for an attacking teammate to gather. Nevertheless, this approach can be problematic sometimes because when he fails to win the ball and the opponents play the ball around him he is then out of position and having to run back towards his own goal to recover his position. This puts greater pressure on the defence and leaves them exposed to the opposition attacking the space he left. Luckily for him, in the games reviewed, when he did this and was unable to win the ball the opponents failed to capitalise on the space he vacated. To reduce the risk of presenting opportunities for his opponents to create chances when taking this action, he should only do this:

  1. when he communicates to his teammates he is going to do this so they expect it and can react accordingly to cover his space properly; and
  2. when the opposition are employing a very slow build-up because if he is unable to win the ball he can easily return to his position before any attacking threat materialises; or
  3. if the opponent has very few players ahead of the ball because if he fails to win it the opposition will not have equal or more players ahead of the ball which would pose great danger for the defence.

An area of Amamou’s game which he needs to improve on is his awareness of opponents when attempting to fend off crosses. It is important to highlight that he usually positions himself correctly to deal with crosses which land in the area where he is located. The problem is that on some occasions despite his sound positioning he can be caught ball-watching instead of monitoring the ball, marking the closest attacker in the box and anticipating off-the-ball runs other opposition players are making into his zone of the box. This means attackers can sometimes create space between themselves and him inside the penalty box without him noticing. While other opposing players can make runs from outside the box into the box, in behind him, as a cross is delivered and he is unaware of where they are too. It is a difficult skill to be focusing on the ball, the nearest attacker in the box and possible runs into the box from other opponents but all world class defenders have to demonstrate it every time they step on the pitch. This shortcoming in his game can be improved upon by him ensuring that he takes repeated glances at the ball whilst also continually scanning his region of the box and looking over his shoulder to watch the movements of his nearest opponent and any possible runs in to the box. 

Long-term Potential

Amamou is a talented young player who has shown that he has the qualities required to succeed at the highest level. Having watched him across a number of matches in the Tunisian Ligue Professionelle 1 and the CAF Confederations Cup he can certainly establish himself as an accomplished centre-back for a club in Europe’s top five leagues. 

Potential Future Clubs

Amamou has reached the stage of his career where a move to a new club is needed. He has starred at centre-back for CS Sfaxien over the past two seasons and is unlikely to improve by staying at the Tunisian side. 

At 22 years of age and having gained a wealth of experience playing in one of Africa’s best leagues along with numerous appearances in the CAF Confederations Cup, Amamou is ready to take the next step in his career. So, let’s take a look at two clubs that would be suitable for his next move:

  1. Stade de Reims (Reims)

Reims exceeded expectations in the 2019/2020 season achieving a highly commendable sixth-place finish. This position in the final Ligue 1 (France’s top division) standings qualified them for the UEFA Europa League, starting in the second qualifying round. Due to their varying commitments across three competitions next season they will be looking to add more quality and depth to their squad.

Recently, Reims sold their prized asset, French-Congolese centre-back Axel Disasi to the 2016/2017 Ligue 1 champions AS Monaco for around £13m. They will therefore need to recruit a new centre-back to replace him and partner the ever-reliable 32-year-old Yunis Abdelhamid. A sensible option as Disasi’s replacement is Amamou. Amamou is only 22 years of age, has the physical, defensive, mental and technical profile suited to high quality European football and has gained significant experience at CS Sfaxien. Favourably his contract is expiring in summer 2021 which means he could be signed for around £1-2m leaving them extra money to strengthen other areas of their team. On top of that he has parts of his game he needs to work on and a broad scope for development. If they bought him, he would be ready to start in Ligue 1 but could also be rotated with their other centre-backs, the young Austrian, Dario Maresic and Wout Faes. 

Transferring to Reims would be a perfect next step for Amamou. He would get to play for a a relatively small club, in a much higher quality league, who have affirmed their status over a number of years in that league and look to be heading in the right direction from a footballing perspective. Last season they were built on incredibly strong defensive foundations conceding only 21 goals in 28 games. This was the fewest in Ligue 1. Joining a club with such a strong defensive structure would make it easier for him to adapt to a new league, handle the increased quality of opposition attackers and slot in smoothly to the starting XI. He would most likely play alongside Abdelhamid who was instrumental in their defenisve prowess last season and with his experience in Ligue 1 could help guide and support Amamou the way he did with Disasi last season. 

Playing at Reims for a couple of seasons would give Amamou the opportunity to develop as a player, iron out some of the identified flaws in his game and showcase his talents with the possibility of moving to a more prestigious club afterwards. 

  1. Real Betis

Real Betis finished a hugely disappointing 15th place in the La Liga (Spain’s top division) table for the 2019/2020 season. This led to the sacking of their previous manager and the appointment of the very experienced English Premier League title-winning manager Manuel Pellegrini for next season. With him at the helm they will be looking to get as a minimum a top 10 finish and probably have the aim of reaching the top 8. 

In analysing the Real Betis squad, it is noted that they have three ageing centre backs. Marc Bartra is 29, Aissa Mandi is 28 but will be 29 later this year and Sidnei is 30 and will be 31 later in the year. Added to that Mandi has been heavily linked with a move to both Liverpool and Fenerbahce and with his contract ending in summer 2021 it is likely they will look to sell him this summer for around £5-10m rather than risk losing him on a free next summer. While Zouhair Feddal, who was a back-up centre-back last season, has recently joined Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon for a fee in the region of £3m. As Feddal has already left, they need to recruit at least one new centre-back and if Mandi were to depart as well, that would leave at least two centre-back spaces which need to be filled. 

In light of this, Amamou would be a clever centre-back purchase for Betis. He is only 22 years old and would give them a younger centre-back option with years ahead of him to develop and improve. He also has plenty of good experience in domestic and continental African football, has the technical skills to transition smoothly into La Liga for a ball-dominant side as well as the physical characteristics and mental qualities to handle a major step-up in opposition. 

Joining Real Betis would be a sizeable jump for Amamou to take. However, he certainly can handle it. He would be joining a major Spanish club who have consistently under-performed for years but with Pellegrini in charge that could easily change. He worked wonders at Malaga and Villarreal taking both to the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League in the last 15 years. He is a manager who likes to play possession football whilst ensuring defensive solidity. Amamou would suit playing under Pellegrini due to his pragmatic attacking philosophy and his tendency to rotate those players who he does not consider to be integral to the team’s success. This rotation policy would be good for Amamou’s continued development as he would likely get a respectable number of minutes in La Liga and in the Copa del Rey in his first season. After that first season of adaptation he has the capabilites to become their key centre-back.