2022/23 Premier League: Eight Potential African Breakout Stars
Africans have become a cherished part of the Premier League furniture in the competition’s three-decade history, and each season sees one or two (or more) from the continent perform with distinction.
This season, we know who the usual stand-outs would be; beyond the Mohamed Salahs and Riyad Mahrezes, though, here are eight that could excel.
Mwepu started just 12 league games (coming off the bench in another six) for Brighton & Hove Albion, after joining the Seagulls ahead of the 2021/22 campaign, but he certainly made his mark.
The Zambia captain scored twice – both stunners, with one of them voted Brighton’s Goal of the Season – and laid on five assists; this, despite struggling with injuries for considerable periods.
He did play an important role in Brighton’s impressive run to a top-half finish, and head coach Graham Potter would be rightly optimistic that Mwepu – provided he has put his fitness issues behind him – is ready to feature even more prominently in his plans.
Daka, Mwepu’s bestie and international teammate, had a similar first season in England, sans the injury plague. He’d have been pleased with his participation in 23 of Leicester City’s league games, and with his eight direct goalscoring contributions.
Would he get the chance to do even more this season, though?
Well, there will be no guarantees. Leicester haven’t boosted their offensive ranks – they’ve not added to their squad at all – but Jamie Vardy, the 35-year-old veteran whose extended spells on the sidelines last term offered Daka sizable portions of playing time, is good to confirm his status as Brendan Rodgers’ go-to man for goals.
Directly behind him in the pecking order is Kelechi Iheanacho, Daka’s fellow African. Still, Daka would retain legitimate hopes of making a decent case for himself. His pre-season form has been strong – the most prolific of Leicester’s attackers, actually – and Rodgers would be taking notes.
England was Awoniyi’s first destination when he left Nigeria as a teenager, joining Liverpool in 2015 on the back of success at youth level for his country, but he failed to break into the first team, largely due to an inability to secure a United Kingdom work permit.
A loan move – then a permanent transfer – to German outfit Union Berlin saw Awoniyi’s stock soar, and now he returns a more mature player, a full-fledged Super Eagle, a star in his own right, and newly-promoted Nottingham Forest’s record signing.
Awoniyi has the physique and hunger to succeed in the Premier League, and most defences would find him a handful. He brings Steve Cooper’s team more than just raw power, however, with Awoniyi’s game also defined by immense intelligence.
His eye for goal, too, is sharp, and if he fulfills the potential that first brought him to England, replicating his sparkling two-season streak for Union, Forest would do more than just survive; the £17 million spent on Awoniyi could prove a proper bargain.
Ahead of each season since he joined Liverpool in 2018, Guinea’s Keita has borne the ‘feels like a new signing’ tag, yet he hasn’t really fulfilled those expectations or hit the heights his talents are capable of reaching.
The message to Keita would be that he’s trusted to come good, even if that means he’d be offered extra time to do so. And maybe, should he stay reasonably fit throughout the season, that’s just what Keita could do.
There is some buzz around Doucoure, who sealed a move to Crystal Palace from Lens earlier in the window, and it’s easy to understand why.
Doucoure carved out quite a reputation for himself during his four years in France, with few young midfielders impressing more than he did in that period. His numbers, per both defensive and attacking metrics, make for exciting reading, and would remind Palace boss Patrick Vieira a bit of his own terrific self back when he bossed Premier League midfields.
Among the ever-growing African/Francophone contingent at Selhurst Park, The Malian – who could also do a job at centre-back, if pressed into service there – shouldn’t have too much trouble settling at his new club and in a new league. Doucoure’s debut in Friday’s season-opener against Arsenal was encouraging, if not exactly spectacular.
The spectacular, in good time, will come.
If Southampton fans weren’t over the moon about the signing of Joe Aribo from across the border, they certainly would be after the ridiculous solo goal he scored in the Saints’ final pre-season game, a 2-1 loss to Villarreal.
They wouldn’t be getting too many of that kind from Aribo when the season starts, but what would be served with regularity is playmaking quality, highlighted by the ability to pull the strings from midfield as elegantly as he has done for Rangers and the Nigerian national team in the last few years.
Aribo will, for sure, find English football tougher than what he had to face in Scotland, but he would be expected to make that step up. A great run in Europe last season showed Aribo has what it takes to deal with higher-profile opposition; now he gets the chance to do it week in, week out.
Chelsea signing a centre-back on the wrong side of 30?
Yea, we’ve seen that before, but Stamford Bridge won’t complain about the recent arrival of Kalidou Koulibaly any more than they did when Thiago Silva became a Blue two years ago.
Like Silva, Koulibaly plays as though still in his prime (well, isn’t he?), and the link-up between this grizzled pair – as part of what, if trainer Thomas Tuchel stays true to form, should be a three-man backline – would get Chelsea faithful roaring in delight.
But, while the system may remain unchanged, it has been retooled, with Koulibaly brought in to anchor the reinforcement of a defence picked apart by Spain’s two biggest clubs.
What wouldn’t be new to Koulibaly is the identity of the goalkeeper in front of whom he’d play most days, Senegal teammate Edouard Mendy, with whom he won the Africa Cup of Nations and qualified for the 2022 FIFA World Cup earlier this year.
On that pre-existing platform of familiarity, Koulibaly – quietly imposing and calmly powerful – should be able to get off to a strong start to life in the English capital, after eight successful years at Napoli.
Koulibaly isn’t the only African centre-back who just moved into West London for at least £30 million; Nayef Aguerd, over at West Ham, is the other.
Aguerd, from Rennes, is younger, but he’d take a bit more time than Koulibaly to get off the mark, after hurting his ankle and having to go under the knife in pre-season.
When he returns, the Morocco international would likely find a starting spot in central defence waiting for him, reserved by Hammers boss David Moyes who’d be keen to see his team concede considerably less than the 60 league goals they shipped last season.
Anyone who has monitored the development of Aguerd would have few doubts about his ability to make that berth his own. He will be backing himself, too, no?