Southampton coach Nathan Jones had been looking for something different going forward and players do not come much more different than the club’s new record-signing Kamaldeen Sulemana – a unique dribbling threat sure to excite the Premier League.
This season, he is completing 4.27 dribbles per 90 minutes, well clear of the 3.77 by Allan Saint-Maximin, the Premier League’s top dribbler. Last season at Rennes, Sulemana beat his opponent more often than any other player in France – and it was not close.
This swarm-plot graphic shows the number of take-ons that he completed for 90 minutes compared to everyone else in Ligue 1.
Tom Vernon, founder of the Right to Dream academy that Sulemana joined at the age of 11, says that he will become one of the best players in the world. Watch this electric talent with the ball at his feet and his marker on the run and he might make you a believer too.
“His strength is coming inside as a wide player,” Didi Dramani tells Sky Sports. “He is very dynamic in his movement, very unpredictable where he wants to go with either foot. When he is in space, he is basically unstoppable in one-on-one situations.”
Few know Sulemana better than Dramani. It was at the academy in Ghana that they first met but the relationship between player and coach continued at Danish club FC Nordsjaelland and remains thanks to Dramani’s role di lui as assistant with the national team.
“For me, he is my son. He is my son in the sense that we come from the same area of Ghana. I know him deeper than others because I knew his mother, his father, his siblings, and I communicate with him in our local dialect. I know what he can bring.”
That was obvious from the start.
“I promoted him to the older group,” recalls Dramani. “You can imagine what it was like, a boy born in 2002 with a group born in 1999, but he had resilience coupled with that pace and dynamism. He soon showed that he was not afraid to express himself.
“I remember telling him to do whatever he wanted with the ball. That natural creativity of the African player, it is something that we try as much as possible not to kill. We want to continuously develop this speed and this creativity but just give him some structure.”
It is a template that has worked for others such as Mohamed Kudus, standout performer for Ghana at the World Cup. Both players have taken that same path from Right to Dream to Nordsjaelland and beyond. Progress tends to be smoother as a result.
“They serve as reference points for what is happening in Ghana, from recruitment to coaching to that transition phase of elite football. The character aspect is important. We develop our students from an education point of view and a football point of view.
“It is a clear model. We prepare them to play aggressively, to move on and off the ball. When in possession of the ball we want them to accelerate the game at speed and when we don’t have the ball we want them to press high and play with the right intensity.
“In terms of that game awareness and tactical understanding in different phases, he learned that early at Right to Dream and refined it at FCN. The staff worked hard to build him physically and that helped him hugely. He was disciplined and I saw that progression .”
There were moments where he was challenged, moments that appeared designed to accelerate his learning. Dramani recalls a game against AGF in April 2021 when Sulemana scored but was substituted late in the game after picking up a yellow card.
“He was fuming. But I told him that we had to protect him as a young player.” Sulemana had been sent off in the previous home game against the same opposition in November. He accepted the explanation and scored five goals in his next five appearances.
“You can use situations like this to educate the player on their game management. It is all part of the education of a young player. His transition to elite football was very deliberate and we stood firm on that, not doing what he wanted but doing what he needed.”
The pair have worked on his decision-making. “Highlighting when he should shoot and when he should pass or dribble to create a better chance.” It is worth remembering that Southampton are signing a 20-year-old prospect not the finished product here.
At Rennes, for example, only two of Sulemana’s 14 league appearances this season came from the start. He had to settle for a role from the bench at the World Cup too. “If you know the player you can help him so I just kept telling him to work,” says Dramani.
“His personality can be very deceptive. It can look like arrogance but he is just a very expressive person who says it how it is and is not afraid to speak his mind. He knows how important I am in his life and he knows I am genuine with him so he takes it seriously.”
It is tempting to think that in Southampton’s situation, they will need that hunger, the appetite to make an impact, that mentality of a player who does not want to wait. Sulemana’s flexibility is likely to mean that there are opportunities for him anyway.
“He can adapt to the preferences of the coach. He can play as a forward, as a No 9 who can make those runs into the spaces, and as a winger. As a wide player, he can use that half space when he has a wing-back coming past him. He can even play as a wing-back.”
Whatever happens at St Mary’s, Dramani will follow his progress back to Ghana – along with many others. “At the academy, we watch all the games, we follow all our graduates. They are role models for our kids and we send our congratulations and support,” he adds.
“He is about to turn 21 and he has that creativity, he has that speed and he has that aggression with the ball, as well as the ability to press very high, so only time will tell what player we will have in the next two years when he begins to hit his peak.
“But I know there is an elite player in the making.”