The 2021 Africa Cup of Nations is over, and we have a first-time winner with Senegal picking up their first title after disappointment in 2002 and 2019. The tournament had its fair share of shocks, with reigning Champions Algeria and traditionally strong Ghana both leaving in the group stages, but it was notoriously littered with low-scoring matches.
We sift through the data to tell the story of AFCON 2021.
Senegal arrived at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations in great shape. As the top ranked African nation in the FIFA Rankings (20th) ahead of the tournament expectations were high, but a Covid outbreak in their camp ahead of their opening fixture against Zimbabwe saw several players ruled out for the opening two group games.
Very rarely does the eventual winner of an international tournament hit the ground running from the opening matchday and impress from day one. This was certainly not the case with Senegal at AFCON 2021. They only defeated unfancied Zimbabwe 1-0 thanks to a Sadio Mané penalty with the last kick of the game, before labouring to two 0-0 bore draws against Guinea and Malawi.
But their attacking qualities came out in the knockout stages, with Senegal being boosted by the return from injury of Ismaïla Sarr to bolster their strike force.
But it was their defensive display that impressed the most, with Senegal not falling behind at any stage of their tournament success across seven games.
They faced shots averaging just 0.51 expected goals per 90 minutes across this AFCON, the lowest of any side in the tournament, while they conceded just twice in seven games.
Of the 52 shots that they allowed their opponents across the entire tournament, just four had an xG value of over 0.10 and three of those were saved (the other missed the target). In short, when Seny Dieng and Édouard Mendy were called upon in goal, they were reliable figures.
The Long Game
Egypt reached a record 10th AFCON tournament final in Cameroon, but they were unable to pick up their eighth title in the showcase game against Senegal on Sunday night.
They came within a penalty shootout of doing so, however, and had they lifted the trophy then they would have done it the hard way.
Carlos Queiroz’s side were the first team in history to have played extra time in as many as four matches across a single men’s World Cup or confederation tournament (UEFA/CAF/Concacaf/AFC/OFC/Conmebol).
Across the entire 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, Egypt played just 11 seconds shy of 802 minutes overall – an incredible 97 minutes more than Senegal.
Despite this, they only scored four goals – one an average of every 200 minutes – and posted chances totalling 7.20 expected goals. That tally was lower than Nigeria at the tournament (8.19), who exited the tournament in the round of 16, while Cameroon striker Vincent Aboubakar posted just shy of their entire expected goals total on his own (7.13).
Aboubakar’s Golden Touch
Coming into the 2021 tournament, Cameroon striker Vincent Aboubakar had hardly set the AFCON alight. Across both the 2015 and 2017 tournaments, he’d scored just one goal in eight appearances (363 minutes) from 18 shots.
If Cameroon were to impress on home turf this time around, their captain Aboubakar would need to find some form. He didn’t disappoint.
Two goals in the first half of the tournament opener against Burkina Faso set him on his way, before three more goals in the group stage against Ethiopia (2) and Cape Verde (1).
He then added three more goals after the group stage, with the eventual winner in the round of 16 against Comoros before a late brace in the comeback draw with Burkina Faso in the third-place playoff that they eventually ended as victors in a penalty shootout.
In scoring eight goals at AFCON 2021, he equalled Laurent Pokou’s tally at the 1970 edition with Ivory Coast but fell one short of the all-time tournament record held by Zaire’s Ndaye Mulamba in 1974 (9).
Unlike Mulamba in 1974, Aboubakar couldn’t fire his nation to AFCON glory, but he came close.
Keeping Them Out
One goalkeeper who stopped Vincent Aboubakar from scoring at AFCON 2021, was Egyptian goalkeeper Mohamed Abou Gabal.
His inspired performance in the semi-final victory against Cameroon saw him prevent 1.1 goals from three saves, based on Opta’s expected goals on target model, while in his four performances at the 2021 tournament overall he prevented more goals (3.8) than any other goalkeeper.
Not content with heroics within normal and extra time at the tournament, Gabal also became the hero in two shootout victories over Ivory Coast in the quarter-final (saving from Eric Bailly) before two more saves in the penalty shootout win against Cameroon in the semi-final.
In the final against Senegal, he saved Sadio Mané’s first half penalty in normal time, before another stop from Bouna Sarr in the shootout – but this was in vain, as Senegal eventually won.
Gabal only made his entrance at the tournament in the 88th minute of the round of 16 fixture with Ivory Coast following an injury to first-choice goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy. Amazingly, the second-best performing goalkeeper at the tournament based on Opta’s goals prevented metric was El Shenawy (2.2), meaning Egypt had the two best shot-stoppers at the tournament.
Egypt may have conceded the same number of goals as winners Senegal (2) during this tournament but having conceded an xG of over double the Champions’ total (8.35 vs. 3.77) it becomes clear that they had their heroic goalkeeping pair to thank for their progression to the final.
About heroic goalkeeping performances, we have to mention that of Comoros’ Chaker Alhadhur in their round of 16 tie with Cameroon.
Alhadhur – normally a defender – was drafted in to play his only game at the tournament following injuries and positive COVID tests to their three goalkeepers in the squad. He put in an inspired display, making four saves against the highest-scoring team at the tournament.
His performance came the closest to what you’d expect from a ‘rush goalkeeper’ in the playground, with 16 touches outside his own goal area.
Where Were the Goals?
AFCON 2021 looked like being one of the lowest scoring tournaments on record, with just 12 goals in 12 games across the opening round of group stage matches.
The scoring rate did pick up eventually, with exactly 100 goals scored across the tournament, but the goals per game rate of the 2021 edition (1.92) was the lowest seen in an AFCON finals tournament since 2002’s dreadful 1.50 per game.
Exactly half (26) of the 52 matches across the tournament produced one goal or fewer, with 18 of these games ending in a 1-0 scoreline (35%).
Excluding three own goals overall, there were 97 goals scored from an expected goals total of 133.8 – an underperformance of just under 37 goals across the whole tournament.
Shot selection didn’t help here – with the average xG per shot (0.11) lower than both Copa America (0.13) and Euro 2021 (0.12). These differences might not seem a lot, but over 1000 shots that adds up. In simple terms, 1000 shots of 0.11 xG quality would produce an xG total of 110, compared to a total of 130 from 1000 shots of 0.13 quality – potentially 20 goals difference.
These lower quality shots also affect shot conversion rate – as we saw at AFCON 2021. The average shot conversion rate at this tournament was 8.2%, which was much lower than the European Championships, Copa America and Gold Cup confederation tournaments from last summer. In fact, each of the last seven AFCON tournaments since 2010 have seen an average shot conversion rate of less than 10%, with the highest coming in 2012 (9.7%).
But looking back further over time, it appears the big difference between AFCON 2021 and the summer 2021 European Championship and Copa America tournaments might just be an anomaly.
Prior to Euro 2021, only one of the previous 10 European Championships had seen a shot conversion rate of over 9% (Euro 2000: 9.5%), while three of the last five Copa America tournaments in the last decade have seen less than 10% of shots converted into goals.
No Place for Tiki-taka
One thing that was noticeable across the 2021 African Cup of Nations was the lack of any considerable possession for a team over a sustained period.
In the modern game, we’ve come to expect longer sequences of possession and more considered build-up to shooting attempts; spending time trying to draw the opposition out of position and finding the perfect moment to breach the defence. We didn’t witness this at AFCON 2021.
This tournament averaged just under 11 sequences of 10+ passes per game, less than half seen at the European Championships last summer and lower than both Copa America and the Gold Cup in June and July 2021.
The longest passing sequence that we’ve seen leading up to a goal came via Musa Barrow’s strike for the Gambia against Guinea, ending a 17-pass move. This was one of only three goals scored following passing sequences of 10 or more passes, while just seven goals were scored overall with a passing build-up of seven or more passes at the tournament.
We’ve also seen a much lower average of passes per game both over the entire pitch and in the opposition half, with an inferior pass completion rate in both.
As stated earlier in the tournament, the reasons behind this could be a factor of many things – heat and humidity, the condition of the pitches, the lack of preparation ahead of the finals due to its timing, the effects of players missing because of Covid-19. That’s not something we can really provide a definitive answer on, but the data is there for people to make their own conclusions.
Of all 24 teams at AFCON 2021, it’s fair to say that hosts Cameroon were the most pleasing on the eye with the slowest and intricate style of play, combined with them being the highest scoring team at the tournament.
Cameroon averaged 11.1 open play sequences of 10 or more passes per game at the tournament, but they got to the same stage of the tournament as Burkina Faso, who averaged the third fewest per game in this metric (2.0). Does an easy-on-the-eye playing style get you further than a direct, fast method? It seems not.
Ethiopia may have gone out at the group stage, but it’s worthwhile praising them for their attempts to play an intricate style in their second major tournament appearance in 40 years and their first since AFCON 2013.
They had the youngest average starting XI age at the tournament (24 years, 271 days), showing that maybe the future is bright for Ethiopian football.
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