AFCON 2021 Players to Watch
The 2021 Africa Cup of Nations will finally take place this month, following a seven-month delay. 24 teams from Africa will battle it out to be the AFCON champion. We wanted to give you a guide on some of the players to watch at AFCON 2021. This is a selection of 12 players who we think will make an impact at the tournament – some are obvious, some less so.
Probably the best performing player in world football across 2021-22 will be at AFCON 2021, with Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah hoping to lead Egypt to their first Africa Cup of Nations title since 2010.
Salah has been in frighteningly good form in the domestic season so far, continuing his excellent career at Liverpool since joining the club in 2017-18. In all five seasons he’s been at the Premier League side, Salah has scored at least 20 goals, with his goal in his last appearance against Chelsea his 23rd of 2021-22.
With 16 goals and nine assists, the Liverpool star has 25 goal involvements in the Premier League already in 2021-22, having played just 20 games. He’s averaged a goal involvement every 71 minutes in the Premier League this season, which is his best rate in any top-flight league campaign across his career.
Across all competitions, Salah has 23 goals in 26 appearances this season for Liverpool. The record for a player across all competitions for Premier League clubs is 44 goals which is currently held by Salah himself from 2017-18, level with Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2002-03 for Manchester United.
A major part of Salah’s game is his ability to run at opposition defences in the build up to a goal. In the Premier League this season, he’s scored five goals and assisted four more following a ball carry of at least five metres – those nine goal involvements are four more than any other player.
Salah’s ability to find great goalscoring positions in matches also contributes to his goal tally. The Egyptian’s non-penalty xG of 12.1 is the highest in the Premier League this season, with only teammate Diogo Jota (0.69) averaging a higher non-penalty xG per 90 minutes than Salah (0.61) in the competition in 2021-22.
Salah comes into this Africa Cup of Nations tournament with 10 previous appearances and four goals across his two tournaments in 2017 and 2019, with Egypt hoping his goals can fire them to glory this time around after a disappointing exit in the Last 16 to South Africa in the last edition.
The transfer of Kamaldeen Sulemana from FC Nordsjælland to Rennes wasn’t headline news outside of Denmark, but the move for a reported €20 million came with some pressure attached. That fee was record tally received by a Danish club, but it’s proven money well spent for the Ligue 1 side so far in 2021-22.
Still only 19 years old and the third youngest name in Ghana’s squad for this tournament, Sulemana has enjoyed his time at Rennes across the first five months – he’s scored four goals and assisted two more in just 996 minutes of Ligue 1 action.
What attracted Rennes to the young Ghanian star? In last season’s Danish Superliga, he attempted 246 take-ons – almost double the number of Louka Prip, who attempted the second most (126). If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. Only Lionel Messi attempted more (261) in the entire top five European Leagues last season.
Kamaldeen harnessed his pace and dribbling skills to also lead the Danish Superliga for take-ons in opposition half (199), nearly double that of Jesper Lindstrom in second (104) also led the league for take-ons in the opposition box (34).
That style hasn’t changed in 2021-22 at his new club, with the winger having 23 shot involvements from ball carries – the second-best average in Ligue 1 at one every 43 minutes. The only player to have played 900+ minutes and have a superior rate is Kylian Mbappé (every 42 minutes), which is not bad company to keep.
Sulemana made his full senior debut for Ghana in October 2020 in their match against Mali. At the time of writing, he is yet to score in six appearances for the Black Stars, but there’s every chance he could break his duck in this tournament.
Still only 22 years old, Edmond Tapsoba’s qualities have been obvious since he joined Bayer Leverkusen in January 2020 from Portuguese club Vitória Guimarães.
The Burkina Faso central defender is dependable – only making one error leading to an opposition goal in his 54 Bundesliga appearances – but also comfortable with the ball at his feet.
Across his Bundesliga career, he’s rarely given possession away, averaging a 90% pass accuracy, but should passing options be unavailable, Tapsoba is also one of the most adept defenders at carrying the ball out of defence and progressing the ball up field.
Since 2020-21, only one player has averaged more ball carries per 90 minutes than the Burkinabé defender (24.3), while Bayern’s Alphonso Davies is the only player to average more progressive ball carries per 90 than the Burkina Faso international (13.5). At 6-foot-4, he is an imposing figure in both boxes and will be a threat at set-pieces for Burkina Faso at this tournament, as shown with his recent Bundesliga goal against Greuther Fürth in December.
Despite having host nation Cameroon in their group, Burkina Faso should expect to qualify for the knockout stages at AFCON 2021. Having an in-form Edmond Tapsoba in the heart of their defence will be crucial to securing that.
André Onana comes into AFCON 2021 with little football under his belt. The Cameroon goalkeeper will likely be the first choice in goal for the host nation in the tournament, despite playing just two competitive matches for Ajax in 2021-22 after a global ban following a failed drugs test.
Now backup at Ajax, Onana has agreed a deal at Serie A side Internazionale when his contract runs out in the Netherlands this summer and there’s little doubt at the quality that the reigning Italian champions will be getting with his signature.
Before his suspension, Onana was one of the best performing goalkeepers in the Dutch Eredivisie. According to Opta’s Expected Goals on Target data, across 2019-20 and 2020-21 the Ajax shot-stopper prevented 10 goals with his saves.
In 2018-19 he was a key part of the young Ajax side that progressed to the UEFA Champions League semi-finals, where he became the first ever African goalkeeper to play in a semi-final in the competition since its inception in 1992 – a record that was surpassed by Édouard Mendy in 2020-21 when his Chelsea side reached the final before defeating Manchester City.
Across that successful UCL campaign, Onana had a goals prevented total of 5.7, conceding just 13 goals from shots totalling an expected goals on target value of 18.7 and a season later – in 2019-20 – Onana prevented a further 5.3, another competition-high. Those two values are the best by a goalkeeper in a single Champions League campaign across the last six seasons.
Onana will be playing in his second Africa Cup of Nations tournament this time around, following 2019. In that tournament, Onana and Cameroon kept a clean sheet in all three group stage matches but were eventually undone by Nigeria (3-2) in the Last 16. They’ll be hoping that they can go further as host nation on this occasion, and their goalkeeper will be key to any chance they have.
Mohamed Bayo comes into AFCON 2021 as Guinea’s major goal threat following a brilliant 18 months at club level. His nation are expected to qualify for the Last 16 from Group B, but they’ll need Bayo to continue his club form to do so.
Only two players have scored more goals in Ligue 1 this season than the Clermont man (9). His nine goals mean he’s scored 45% of his side’s league total so far in 2021-22.
This follows an exceptional 2020-21 domestic season, in which Bayo topped the Ligue 2 scoring charts with 22 goals to fire Clermont Foot to the French top-flight. Last season he averaged a goal every 140 minutes in the second tier within France, and so far, the step up to Ligue 1 hasn’t phased him at all, with Bayo currently averaging a goal every 149 minutes in 2021-22.
Despite previously being a winger earlier in his career, Bayo has adapted to the needs of a striker within the box. His eight non-penalty goals in Ligue 1 this season have an average distance of 7.4 yards, which is like last season where he scored all 22 of his goals from inside the box. In fact, no player has scored more goals inside the six-yard box than Bayo in Ligue 1 this season (four).
Of the top 10 scorers in Ligue 1 this season, Bayo averages the fewest touches per 90 minutes (33), but 14% of his touches in the opposition box have been goals – he’s not a player you want to leave unmarked in the box. Only one of Guinea’s last six Africa Cup of Nations participations have seen them fail to make it out of the group stage (2012), so there’s a good chance they can progress to the Round of 16 and beyond in this tournament, so Bayo could have a great outside chance of finishing as top scorer.
In 2021, Ilias Chair cemented his place in the Morocco squad, winning seven caps and even netting his first goal for his country versus Guinea-Bissau in October. Chair, who cuts a diminutive figure, is a player whose stock has been on the rise in England in recent years. AFCON 2021 might prove to be the stage in which Chair establishes himself as a starter for the Atlas Lions.
From a player struggling to make his way in the game as a teenager, Chair has developed into one of the most exciting talents in the Championship and has been QPR’s main man in the last two seasons. With six goals and five assists in 24 appearances in all competitions for QPR this term, Chair has matched his assist total from 2020-21, despite playing 23 fewer games.
Considered one of those most elusive and technical players in the Championship, Chair is a player to get you off your seat and has a penchant for long-range goals. His knack for the spectacular makes him a dangerous prospect for defenders and one that requires close attention. Indeed, his last three goals for club and country have all been netted from outside the box, one of which was directly from a corner.
Since the start 2020-21, Chair has created more goalscoring chances than any other QPR player in the Championship, setting up 111 shots for his teammates. He’s also a player unafraid of getting into opposition’s penalty box from midfield, registering 221 such touches; 22 more than any other QPR player since 2020-21.
Much of QPR’s play runs through Chair, with the Moroccan involved in more open-play attacking sequences in the Championship this season than any player at the club (109). Of those 109 sequences, 48 have ended in him taking the shot himself, while 25 ended in him creating the chance that led to the shot. He will be hoping to have a similar influence for Morocco, given the chance.
Morocco are not a team short of attacking options and Chair will first have to establish himself by making the most of any opportunity given to him at AFCON 2021. One thing is certain, if Chair can replicate his club form on the international stage, he will be a huge asset for Morocco.
Nigerian winger Moses Simon joined Nantes on loan from Levante in 2019-20 after struggling to make an impact in Spain, but in the three Ligue 1 seasons since coming to France, he’s proved to be a great acquisition for Nantes – permanently joining ahead of 2020-21.
Simon’s threat from the left-side of the pitch for Nantes over the last two Ligue 1 seasons since becoming a permanent Nantes player is clear.
He’s attempted 26 shots and created 27 chances for his teammates following a ball carry since 2020-21 in Ligue 1. That total of 53 has only been surpassed by three Ligue 1 players across the two seasons, with Kylian Mbappé leading the way on 83 overall.
Despite just 18 appearances and 1417 minutes on pitch in Ligue 1 this season, this is already Moses’ best season for assists (6) and chances created (42), while he’s averaged 0.31 expected assists per 90 – the third best rate in the French top-flight in 2021-22 of players to have played 1000+ minutes, behind only Dimitri Payet (0.35) and Benjamin Bourigeaud (0.32).
Overall, his 3.9 xA from open play is the best in Ligue 1 this season by any player to not play for Paris Saint-Germain, with only Kylian Mbappé (4.5), Lionel Messi (4.3) and Ángel Di María (4.0) ahead of him – not bad company to keep.
His ability to run with the ball at pace is a constant threat to opposition defences. In Ligue 1 this season, only four players have attempted more take-ons in the opposition half than Simon (64), while his 12 take-ons in the opposition box are the fourth most in the French top-flight in 2021-22.
Simon has started all seven of Nigeria’s World Cup qualifiers in 2021, so looks set to be a key part of their quest for AFCON glory in January – they’ll hope he can provide as much a threat in the tournament as he has for Nantes in 2021-22.
There’s little doubt that one of the most talented players on show at the Africa Cup of Nations in January will be Algerian star Riyad Mahrez – but the pressure will be on him to lead his nation as captain to successive AFCON titles after their victory in 2019.
Mahrez feels like a vital player for his club side Manchester City, despite not getting the playing time a player of his quality would expect. Mahrez is in his fourth season as a City player and has only played 44.5% of possible Premier League minutes in 2021-22, while he’s never played more than 57% of Manchester City’s total Premier League minutes in a season since joining.
Despite this, he’s still posted 56 goal involvements in the Premier League for the Manchester club (33 goals, 23 assists) and averaged one every 108 minutes, proving his worth to Pep Guardiola’s side.
So far this season, Mahrez has six goals and four assists in the Premier League at a rate of one every 84 minutes. Of players to have played at least 800 minutes, only Trent Alexander-Arnold (0.34 expected assists) has proved more creatively dangerous from open play than Mahrez (0.30 expected assists), while he’s posted a non-penalty xG per 90 of 0.36 on top of this.
Manchester City will be losing their top goalscorer (13 goals) and top player for goal involvements (18 in 25 games) for January, with Mahrez’s participation at the Africa Cup of Nations, but City’s loss is certainly Algeria’s gain.
The winger was instrumental in Algeria’s 2019 AFCON victory – their first in 29 years. He scored three goals, with the most crucial being a last-gasp injury time free-kick winner against Nigeria in the semi-finals. If Algeria are to become the first reigning Champions to seal back-to-back AFCON titles since Egypt in 2010, then Mahrez will undoubtedly be a key driver towards that success.
Sébastien Haller heads to the Africa Cup of Nations in the form of his life. The Ajax forward has already scored 22 goals and assisted six more for Ajax in all competitions, with those 28 goal involvements coming in just 24 appearances at club level.
Twelve of his 2021-22 goals have come in the Dutch Eredivisie, and for critics who would suggest the competition isn’t as challenging as some other European leagues, he’s proved his credentials in the UEFA Champions League. Haller has scored 10 goals in the UCL already in 2021-22, as he leads the goal charts in the competition with only one coming from the penalty spot. He’s posted both the highest expected goals total overall (7.72) and from non-penalty shots (6.93), while averaging a phenomenal 53% shot conversion rate.
Haller’s feats have led to him reaching 10 Champions League goals in fewer appearances than any other player in the competition history (six appearances), while he became only the second player in UEFA Champions League history to score in all six matches of a single group stage, after Cristiano Ronaldo in 2017-18. The striker is also only the second Ajax player to score 10+ goals in a single season of the Champions League/European Cup after Søren Lerby in 1979-80.
Including a previous spell in the Eredivisie at Utrecht between 2014-15 and 2016-17, all 64 of Haller’s goals in the competition have come in the penalty area – making him the player with the most goals exclusively inside the box this century in the competition.
Getting off to a good start in games will be key for the Ivory Coast at AFCON 2021, and with Haller at their disposal they have a player adept at doing just that. He’s scored nine Eredivisie opening goals in 2021, the most for one player in a single calendar year since Graziano Pellè in 2013 (13).
Haller is still in the early stages of his international career, despite being 27 years old. In his six competitive appearances for the Ivory Coast he’s scored three times, including a both goals in a 2-1 World Cup qualifying win over Cameroon in September. These goals weren’t enough to help them qualify from the group, losing out to the Cameroonians in Group D of qualification for Qatar 2022 – they’ll be looking to put that right in this tournament with Haller’s help.
There have been some critical voices about the output from Sadio Mané at Liverpool this season, but following five very successful seasons at Liverpool, the expectations from the Senegalese forward are now very high.
His goal against Chelsea in his final game for Liverpool before heading to AFCON 2021 was his 10th in all competitions for the club in 2021-22, just six away from his competitive tally in 2020-21, but still with 18 games to go before he matches his appearance total from last season. True, he’s only provided one assist for a teammate in 2,050 minutes this season, but perhaps critics are jumping on his back too soon.
His underlying numbers are more impressive than last season for both expected goals and expected assists. He’s averaged 0.48 xG per 90 (up from 0.43 in 2020-21) and 0.16 xA (up from 0.15 in 2020-21) in competitive action for Liverpool this season, with his passes having a total of 3.7 xA overall – which would suggest his teammates’ finishing is not helping his actual assist tally. His shot conversion is above last season (14.3% vs. 13.3%) but 2020-21 was the lowest it had been at Liverpool in a competitive campaign. His crucial second half miss against Leicester City before the New Year – when it looked easier to score – was one of few big chances he’s missed this season overall.
With 26 goals at the time of writing, it seems only a matter of time before Mané breaks Henri Camara’s record tally of 29 goals for Senegal, while he’s now in the top five for appearances for his country overall. He’s scored nearly three times as many goals for Senegal than any other player in Aliou Cissé’s squad for this tournament, and with Watford seemingly refusing to release Ismaïla Sarr for January due to injury, reliance on Mané for goals will be more important than before.
Senegal probably have the best goalkeeper in the tournament in Édouard Mendy, and if Mané can work his magic at the other end then Senegal will hope to win their first-ever AFCON title and put to bed the disappointment of losing to Algeria in the 2019 final.
Yves Bissouma is currently in his fourth season as a Brighton & Hove Albion player, but it could well be his last. His performances at the club – over the last two seasons, in particular – have been so impressive that a host of the ‘bigger’ Premier League clubs have expressed a keen interest in grabbing the central midfielder off the Seagulls.
Bissouma is an all-action midfielder, adept in possession but even better at winning it back off the opposition. Since the start of 2020-21, no player has made more tackles or interceptions than the Mali international in the Premier League (245) with only three players to have played 2000+ minutes averaging more than him on a per 90 basis (5.1). This style of play often comes at a price, however – Bissouma has been given 14 yellow cards in the Premier League since 2020-21, with only three players having received more.
He has been involved in more open play passing sequences both overall (2010) and ending in a shot (43) than any other Brighton player since the start of last season, while 16 of Brighton’s shots have come after Bissouma regained possession from the opposition to start a passing sequence – six more than any other teammate in this period.
After successive third place finishes at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012 and 2013, Mali have struggled to make an impact at the last three tournaments – exiting at the group stage in both 2015 and 2017 before a Last 16 exit to Ivory Coast in 2019. Bissouma was not part of the squad in any of these tournaments, with this being his first participation in the tournament – they’ll be hoping that his presence can take them further this time around.
Assan Ceesay’s transformation into a regular goalscorer across 2021-22 has come as a welcome surprise to all FC Zürich supporters – Gambia will be hoping the same happens at AFCON 2021.
Ceesay has scored 11 goals in the Swiss Super League for FCZ so far this season, trailing only Basle’s Arthur Cabral (14) in the goal chart overall. His goals helped his side lead the league by seven points heading into the winter break, as FC Zürich look for their first top-flight league title since 2008-09.
His 11 goals in 17 league appearances this season are more than in his previous four seasons combined (nine in 83 appearances), with the Gambian striker posting an average minutes per goal of 123 in 2021-22 – nearly halving his average of 236 minutes per goal in the four Swiss Super League campaigns he’d played in before now.
Ceesay set a new club record for the fastest FC Zürich player to score 10 goals in a Super League season (which began in 2003-04), doing so on MD13. This was helped by four goals in a single match against Sion in October, where he was the first ever player to score four times in a single Swiss Super League game for the club.
His recent form has cooled slightly, with just one goal in his last five appearances and that strike coming from the penalty spot in his last appearance against St. Gallen before the winter break.
Ceesay has also impressed creatively in Switzerland this season, with his five assists only topped by two players in the league across 2021-22 before the winter break – his teammate Adrian Guerrero (6) and Miroslav Stevanovic of Servette (12). Gambia are rank outsiders at the tournament, with this being their first ever Africa Cup of Nations appearance. It was Ceesay’s goal in a 1-0 win over Angola in qualification that got Gambia here, so it would be fitting if he was to be their hero at the finals, too.
Additional research support provided by Jack Supple, Chris Eggenberger, Yeun Au and Alexandre de Moussac
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