Predicting the AFCON 2021 Quarter-finals
Soccer

Predicting the AFCON 2021 Quarter-finals

The pre-tournament favourites are out. Who now? Senegal. The 2019 runners-up have jumped Morocco and Egypt in our latest AFCON predictions with a quarter-finals-best 24.4% chance of winning the tournament.


Senegal and Cameroon – they’ve each got about a 75% chance of reaching the AFCON 2021 semi-finals with dream quarter-final draws, but that’s about where the similarities end. We’ll start this off with one of those teams and end with the other while weaving through the remaining six sides with key numbers for each. A disclaimer before reading on: Teams playing attacking football (looking at you, Morocco) will be handsomely rewarded with more words.


Senegal

Win the tournament: 24.4%

Key number: 0

It helps to not concede in a tournament, but it also helps to finally prove you can score from open play as Senegal did in the last 16. And it also helps for your path to be cleared of pre-tournament favourites Nigeria and a Mali side that may not have impressed in an arduous last-16 match but weren’t going to sit back and let Senegal have the ball. Mali would have been Senegal’s quarter-final opponent, and Les Lions de la Téranga would have been on a collision course with Nigeria for the semis had the Super Eagles not faltered against Tunisia. Senegal instead play Equatorial Guinea now and then the Burkina Faso-Tunisia winner in the semis, and Sadio Mané & Co. now hold a slight edge over Egypt to claim the continental crown:

AFCON quarter-finals predictor

They got here by (finally) scoring two non-penalty goals, and though the match against Cape Verde was goalless for over an hour, a half-hour in the lead was a big improvement after leading for 1% of their playing time in the group stage. Consider course correction underway:

AFCON Ball in play game state

Tournament-long finishing deficiencies aside (their 12 shots on target are seventh among the remaining eight teams), they’ve made it here without conceding. Senegal have a successful tackle rate of 67.4%, which is the highest of the remaining teams. The impact of that doesn’t creep too far up the pitch, though. This isn’t an effective pressing side if we’re measuring by scoring chances to come from a high press. Their one high turnover ending in a shot comes from 55 pressed sequences. Seems like a lot of energy to expend for a single sniff. Four other teams have one shot-ending high turnover or less, and none of them have more than 35 pressed sequences. But if you’re impossible to score against and have a Champions League-winning goalkeeper to ensure that, what’s a little extra exercise?

What does a numerically more effective press look like? Unlikely as it may be, this brings us to…

Equatorial Guinea

Win the tournament: 1.4%

Key number: 8

We pointed out last week the National Thunder were creating a diversity of chances but it wasn’t resulting in goals. The optimist would hope those chances were converted in the round of 16. The pessimist might expect the trend to either continue or regress to the lack of goals being accompanied by a lack of chances. The pragmatist might just have watched the game vs. Mali and found it to have been harder to get through than The Irishman with two combined shots on target in 120 minutes:

Mali Equatorial Guinea AFCON Round of 16

A potential bright spot is the – at least on paper – threat they’re creating from pressing. They haven’t scored off a high turnover yet, and their 46 pressed sequences is seventh among the last eight, but their eight shot-ending high turnovers lead the entire tournament:

Equatorial Guinea AFCON high turnovers

Perhaps the next one goes in and they’re onto a semi-final against…

Tunisia

Win the tournament: 13.2%

Key number: 6

If you beat the favourite, do you become the favourite, or have you merely become a feast for a future favourite?

Tunisia have faced six shots on target, which is fewer than everyone in the entire 24-team field not named Senegal. Half of those came in their loss to the Gambia on Matchday 3 after their team was hit by a rash of Covid-19 cases, meaning they’ve only allowed one in each game against Nigeria, Mauritania and Mali. A consistent XI hasn’t yet proved necessary – nor has a converted penalty as they’ve missed three – but one can imagine both would be nice.

Tunisia AFCON shot locations

Through four matches, they’ve used 20 players for over 65 minutes, which is the most at the AFCON despite other teams going to extra time in the round of 16.

The Eagles of Carthage allowed that single shot on target against Nigeria, got by, and could now have Wahbi Khazri in the starting XI. He hasn’t played significant minutes since Tunisia’s second game, but he’s still joint-third at the tournament with three goal-ending sequence involvements.

Back to that original question here. The answer is you’ll be one step closer to being both if you beat…

Burkina Faso

Win the tournament: 8.8%

Key number: 2

Burkina Faso’s 254 ball recoveries are the most of remaining teams and second most in the entire field. Their 54 interceptions are joint-most in the field. So, with just 44.2% possession, all this really tells us is they’ve had to be active defensively. Good information to have, but it’s not exactly code-cracking content. They’ve scored four goals from 6.43 xG, so they’re not finishing particularly well. However, they’re in the quarter-finals because they haven’t broken down at the back, have proved to be effective enough ball winners, and then haven’t been against going long. Two (see key number) of the four goals they’ve scored have come from their tournament-leading 11 direct attacks.

Off to the other side of the bracket we go, starting with…

Morocco

Win the tournament: 17.2%

Key number: 17 on the back of Sofiane Boufal’s shirt

Eliminate paths to the final and any additional forthcoming variables like an impending meeting with the AFCON hosts, and on paper Morocco are probably the most numerically attractive football team left in this tournament: Highest xG (9.94), joint-lowest xG against (2.06) with Senegal, and a 7.88 xG difference better than next-best quarter-finalists Tunisia and Senegal combined.

That’s just the start of it. If we look at sequences and pressing, their 65 pressed sequences are the most at the AFCON. Their 6.6 opponent passes per defensive action (PPDA) is a.) the lowest in the tournament, and b.) a low number in general for this metric. So that’s fun. It amounts to their start distance for sequences being farther from their own goal than any other team (45.2 metres). A team such as Cameroon takes considerably more time with the ball (you have to read to the end for that), while Morocco’s average sequence duration is only fifth highest (9.2 seconds), as is their total of 10+ passing sequences (30).

So, they generate shots without messing around with the ball all that much. Perhaps you’re into that kind of entertaining football, or perhaps – and we’re not judging – you have first-hand knowledge of how The Irishman ends.

Individually, Sofiane Boufal has been dangerous as a goalscorer and playmaker with two goals from 2.77 xG while ranking second among remaining players in expected assists (1.11) behind Cameroon’s Nicolas Moumi Ngamaleu (1.65). His 10 open-play chances created rank second to Mohamed Salah:

Sofiane Boufal AFCON chances created

He’s playing on the left and when measured by average position, his touches in the round of 16 were more advanced than any other Moroccan player. But this doesn’t mean the Atlas Lions are overloading the left. Right back Achraf Hakimi has more successful passes ending in the final third (59) than anyone at the tournament. Against Malawi, 43.4% of Morocco’s attack came up the right (32.2% on the left). The same happened in their wins over Comoros (43.0% right, 29.1% left) and Ghana (50.0% right, 34.1% left), which may be freeing up some space for Boufal on the left and giving him the option to drift into the middle.

Morocco Attacking Thirds

Yes, Morocco have been impressive, but this is a tournament in its knockout stages, and in some ways a team is only as attractive as their next opponent isn’t. For Morocco, their next opponent hasn’t dazzled but is a bit more problematic than they may have wanted…

Egypt

Win the tournament: 24.1%

Key number: 37

Morocco were our round of 16 team with the highest chances of reaching the quarter-finals. This is where the story hits more of a snag for them up against what has been a defensively stout Egypt. Combine that with Mohamed Salah, and we’ve actually pegged Egypt as the favourites to progress from this fixture.

For Egypt, advancing from a last 16 penalty shootout after 120 minutes of goalless football might not ooze the kind of confidence you want, but there’s something to be said for a clean sheet against Ivory Coast after some of us had said they had the quality to win the tournament. Egypt’s defensive record has been good enough to win the tournament, and that’s been adequately tested with matches against Les Éléphants and Nigeria.

There’s more to it than defence. Mohamed Salah’s 37 touches in the opposition box for the tournament are more than any other player, as are his 11 chances created from open play. Now, it gets more complicated against quality opponents. Only 11 of those touches in the opposition box came in a combined 210 minutes against Ivory Coast and Nigeria, but it seems Egypt got smarter with how they used him against Ivory Coast because seven of those tournament-leading 11 open-play chances created came in that match after having zero in the team’s opener against Nigeria.

Mohamed Salah chances created vs Ivory Coast

If that continues, Egyptian goals will eventually be celebrated.

Just not as emphatically as any further goals scored by…

The Gambia

Win the tournament: 0.9%

Key number: 0/75

Musa Barrow is the only player at the AFCON with two goals and two assists, and his two assists have gone to Ablie Jallow, so there’s no question of who’s doing the attacking work here.

There’s perhaps more of a mystery around how teams are not scoring against the Gambia. This gets lost in the excitement of the 150th-ranked team in the world advancing to the quarter-finals of a major tournament, but the Scorpions have only conceded once. It’s hard to say it’s because they’ve defended exceptionally. Their 6.34 xG against is highest among remaining teams, and their +5.34 overperformance of that is either astounding or alarming or sending analytics to its grave. Whatever it is, it’s the result of one goal coming from a tournament-high 77 shots faced. Even better, that one goal was a penalty. Their opponents are 0 for 75 on non-penalty shots and aren’t getting chances from within the six-yard box:

Gambia AFCON xG against

That’s a lot of empty circles, and small ones at that. 0.06 xG per non-pen shot – so yeah, it’s hard to say it’s because they’ve defended well, but it’s not impossible.

The Gambia are also one of two remaining teams actually outperforming their xG (four goals vs. 3.02 xG). The other is…

Cameroon

Win the tournament: 10.0%

Key number: 10

It has been the ideal knockout path for the hosts. First it was 132nd-ranked Comoros without a keeper. Now, it’s the 150th-ranked Gambia. But we talked about that path last week. Let’s talk about their football.

Cameroon have scored more goals (nine) than Senegal, Egypt and Equatorial Guinea combined (seven). They have strung together 51 sequences of 10 passes or more, which is nine more than next-highest Mali. They’ve completed more successful passes (1,654) than anyone at the tournament. The Indomitable Lions’ average sequence duration of 11.8 seconds is more than two seconds longer than the next remaining team (Tunisia’s 9.4).

But a high-scoring tournament this is not, and their 4.93 xG against is third highest among the eight remaining teams, ahead of only the Gambia (6.34) and Burkina Faso (5.41). Cameroon have conceded more goals than Senegal, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea and the Gambia combined, and their 20 shots on target faced are the most among the final eight and equal with their shots on target for. That’s why weren’t not yet convinced Cameroon, with all their advantages, can win this.

Cameroon AFCON xG against

They’ve conceded at least 1.07 xG in each of their four matches with a goal allowed in each, so there hasn’t been a truly impressive defensive effort yet against the following opponents: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Cape Verde and Comoros. Are there defensive issues here? In reality, it might take us another round to know that.

So for now, here’s your key number: 10. Tournament leading scorer and Cameroon No. 10 Vincent Aboubakar has 10 shots on target. So do the Gambia’s 10 outfield players combined.

It seems we’ll be writing about the hosts at least once more.


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