This has been one of the best Africa Cup of Nations tournaments ever seen for a number of reasons. Here, we explain exactly why.

The Africa Cup of Nations is often remarkable in one way or another.

The last tournament stood out for a lack of goals, when just 100 were scored, and for Egypt coming within a spot-kick of winning the whole thing despite drawing all four of their knockout games.

The 2023 edition, now at the quarter-finals, has been exceptional for several reasons. Here, we have come up with eight ahead of the last-eight stage to show just how incredible this tournament has been.

No Team From the 2021 Quarter-Finals is There This Time Around

The final eight teams at the 2021 tournament were Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Cameroon, Egypt and Morocco.

This time around, not a single one of those teams remains. The final eight in 2023 are Nigeria, Angola, DR Congo, Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast, Cape Verde and South Africa.

For the turnover to be so great between two tournaments played just two years apart (AFCON 2021 was played in early 2022) is genuinely incredible. The reason this has happened in 2023 is simple…

There Have Been Shocks Galore

In 2021, five of Africa’s top seven teams according to the FIFA Rankings at the time made it to the last eight stage. Three of those teams were in the top 30 teams in the world, and the last eight had an average ranking of 62.1 – a number skewed massively by the presence of Equatorial Guinea (114th in the world) and Gambia (150) in the quarter-finals.

Those two had thrown up a few shocks merely by getting as far as they did. Gambia beat Tunisia (30) in the group stage, for example, and Equatorial Guinea knocked out Mali (53) in the round of 16.

But AFCON 2023 has been something else. The shocks have been relentless.

The final eight this time includes none of the top five FIFA-ranked African teams and only one of the top seven. None of the remaining teams are in the world’s top 40 at present, and they have an average FIFA ranking of 68.1 – six higher than in 2021.

We’ve already seen Tunisia (28th in the world) and Algeria (30) finish bottom of their groups after losing respectively to Namibia (115) and Mauritania (105), seven-time winners Egypt (33) crash out to DR Congo (67) and World Cup semi-finalists Morocco (13) lose to South Africa (66).

Morocco v South Africa xG race

Angola (117), Guinea (80) and Cape Verde (73) are still in the competition this time around and will have their eyes on some more big scalps. Talking of which…

We Could See a New – Or at Least a Surprise – Winner

None of the last three AFCON winners – Cameroon (2017), Algeria (2019) and Senegal (2021) – remain in this year’s tournament. What’s more, of the winners of the last 13 AFCON tournaments, only two remain – Nigeria (2013) and Ivory Coast (2015).

Nigeria are now the favourites to lift the trophy this month, while resurgent hosts Ivory Coast are certainly in with a chance. Those two are AFCON heavyweights, boasting five titles between them. It wouldn’t be surprising to see their names added to the history books if either of them won it this time around (although Ivory Coast winning it after the group stage they had would be a fairly big surprise).

The six other quarter-finalists, meanwhile, have just three titles between them; only one of those has come since 1974 (South Africa’s 1996 triumph) and the other two were won by DR Congo under different names – as Congo-Kinshasa in 1968 and as Zaire in 1974.

That means 50% of the remaining teams would be maiden winners, and 75% of them would count as a shock were they to win the tournament. We could be in for a genuine surprise this time around.

It’s Been a Goal Fest

After the group stage, we analysed the stats that proved this was the most exciting AFCON tournament ever. One of those was the goals-per-game rate, which now stands at 2.38, making this the sixth-highest scoring AFCON ever, and the highest-scoring in 13 years.

Recent tournaments have been far more cagey than this one. Already at AFCON 2023, we have seen more goals (105) than in the whole of the 2021 (100) and 2019 (102) editions.

But Are the Goals Drying Up?

There appears to have been a little more caution as the tournament has worn on.

The first eight knockout games produced 16 goals, with four of those coming from the penalty spot. That means an average of just 1.5 non-penalty goals per game, down from 2.2 per game in the group stage (although from a much smaller sample size).

afcon goals fact

That follows on from a goal-shy end to the group stage, which saw just one goal scored in the final four matches.

As the stakes get higher, it appears as though teams might be taking a more careful approach to AFCON 2023.

Big-Name Flops

Many of the planet’s best players hail from Africa, so it follows that there are plenty of huge names at AFCON 2023. But instead of putting on a show, the big names have largely flopped.

Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez, Achraf Hakmi and Mohamed Kudus are just a few of the stars to have disappointed at the tournament. All of them and their many illustrious teammates have already gone home.

Then there is Nigeria’s star striker, Victor Osimhen. Ahead of the quarter-finals, the Napoli man had the most shots (15) and the highest non-penalty expected goals total (2.8) of anyone at the tournament, and yet he’s scored only one goal. And he netted that from about a yard out.

victor osimhen xg afcon 2023

This hasn’t been a tournament for the stars to shine.

Penalty Joy

Already at AFCON 2023, we have seen more penalties (excluding shootouts) successfully converted (13) than at any other AFCON tournament. The previous record was 11 in both 2008 and 2021.

VAR is having an impact here, with the 17 penalties awarded so far the second-highest total in AFCON history after 2021 (21), but there has also been more quality from the spot. Just 52% of the penalties awarded in 2021 were scored; that success rate has skyrocketed to 76% at the current tournament.

Direct Football is Dominating

The three teams to have had the most shots from counter-attacks at AFCON 2023 – Nigeria, South Africa and Angola (four each) – have been three of the most impressive teams and still remain at the competition.

Meanwhile, only three teams to have averaged more than 50% possession – Ivory Coast (61.8%), Mali (56.8%) and Cape Verde (53.8%) – remain in the last eight, and only one of the top seven teams for pass success rate – Ivory Coast (85.3%) – is still there.

AFCON 2023 Playing Styles

The overall quality of the players at AFCON has unquestionably gone up, but it looks as though direct play could end up the route to winning it.

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