Ones to Watch at The Africa Cup of Nations

Written by Max Taylor and Philippe Stengel, Data Visualizations by Jamie Kirke

Over the next few weeks, 24 countries will compete for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, seven months after its initial delay. The likes of Mohamed Salah and Riyad Mahrez will headline this year’s tournament, but who are some other names to keep a close eye on? We’ve shortlisted 10 players, complete with data visualizations, that we believe you should look out for over the next few weeks:

Joe Aribo – Nigeria/Rangers

Joe Aribo’s route to international football has been rather unconventional, starting in non-league football before moving to Charlton at 19 and Rangers four years later, where he’s quickly established himself as one of the best players in the SPL. He’s expected to play a large role for the Super Eagles, especially with Victor Osimhen ruled out.

The 25 year-old has had a superb season thus far, scoring six and providing another three in 20 league games, often from the right of a midfield three. At 6’0, Aribo’s lengthy strides help him cover distance really quickly, and he uses a combination of his stature and technicality well to constantly drift into dangerous attacking areas. The above pizza plot emphasizes his tendency to carry the ball on the dribble and how often he aims to impact games in the final third. Full of flair, inventiveness, and a wonderful left foot, this could be Aribo’s time to announce himself to a wider football audience.

Kamaldeen Sulemana – Ghana/Rennes

Over the last year or so, Kamaldeen Sulemana has truly broken through as a promising talent for everyone to see. A product of Ghana’s famed Right to Dream Academy, which notably produced the Boateng brothers, he spent two seasons at Nordsjaelland in Denmark, drawing the attention of a number of larger clubs. Last summer, he joined Rennes in Ligue 1 and has made a promising start, scoring four league goals at the midway point of the season.

Sulemana, as he does, has shown flashes of brilliance throughout the campaign. Despite standing at just 5’8”, he plays a lot bigger, combining masterful ball control and intricate dribbling with long strides to create separation and space to operate. Only Neymar has completed more dribbles per 90 than Sulemana in Ligue 1 this season. He’s able to play one-twos to get in behind, rotate positionally in half spaces and out wide, and, most importantly, keep the ball when on the move (a crucial skill when making the step up in competition level). Most of the goals he has scored and created have been measured and well-fashioned. His take-ons are relentless, but often combined with mature decision-making — a really important combination.

Despite his relatively recent emergence in international football (just 7 caps), this could be his moment to shine. With several other top-flight players in the Ghana team, Sulemana has a platform to thrive at AFCON. Tournament football is built for exciting players and moments. Sulemana could wow everyone.

Ilias Chair – Morocco/QPR

Ilias Chair was born in Belgium, moved to QPR at 19, had a notable loan spell at League Two Stevenage in 2018-19, and ended 2021 with seven caps (and a goal) for Morocco. It’s been some journey.

The diminutive, skillful advanced midfielder has enjoyed a productive campaign at QPR this season, scoring six goals, creating another five, and forming a blossoming partnership with fellow Championship standout Chris Willock. Chair stands at just 5’6 but uses his low centre of gravity to his advantage, shifting into and out of tight spaces with the ball before looking to progress closer to goal. He has an eye for the spectacular, attempting a large number of shots (2.49 per 90) and scoring a huge proportion of his goals from outside the box, but also persistently looks to create danger inside the area — averaging 3.18 touches per 90 in the opposition box.

The Moroccan squad is filled with attacking talent (including En-Nesyri, Achraf Hakimi and Sofyan Amrabat), but if given ample opportunity, Chair could impress massively this month.

Mohamed Bayo – Guinea/Clermont

Growing up to be the striker for your hometown team feels like the dream we all once had, but it’s reality for Mohamed Bayo. After notching 22 goals in Clermont’s promotion campaign last season, he’s now doing so at a very consistent rate in Ligue 1 (only two players have scored more than him in Ligue 1 this season). He has eight non-penalty goals from 7.3 non-penalty expected goals, a rate that should make all data enthusiasts smile devilishly.

Perceived as a target man, Bayo can do much more. Most of his goals seem to result from positioning and “right place right time” factors (all 31 of his goals since the beginning of 2021-21 have come from inside the box), but it’s the way he moves that interests me. His game revolves around the element of deception: feints and fakes before shooting, agile turns around defenders, and reverse passes to teammates running beyond him. Bayo is extremely comfortable hanging between the lines, allowing midfielders to run beyond him to connect and progress play towards the opposition area. When in the penalty area, however, he’s ruthless — he averages just 3.26 touches in the box per 90, but no Ligue 1 player has scored more in the six-yard box this season (4). Don’t leave Bayo unmarked.

In tournament play, Bayo’s presence will play a massive factor in Guinea’s fortunes. His ability to score reliably while combining with the likes of Naby Keita, Ilaix Moriba, and Aguibou Camara will pose a serious threat to any side they face.

Jordan Zemura – Zimbabwe/Bournemouth

Jordan Zemura’s journey over the past six months has been remarkable. The left back had played just three minutes of Championship football before this season, but has quickly established himself as first-choice under Scott Parker, consequently earning a spot in Zimbabwe’s squad for this tournament.

The 22-year-old has developed an exciting partnership with fellow youngster Jaidon Anthony on Bournemouth’s left-hand side, making constant dangerous attacking runs and combining effectively in final-third areas. This is aided by an explosive and directional first-touch, setting him up for his consistent carries from deep (he’s averaging 2.97 progressive runs per 90). He’s excellent at maneuvering away from markers on the byline, rotating into the half-spaces, or creating separation with powerful bursts to springboard forward moves.

Zimbabwe face a tough task in a group involving Senegal and Guinea, but Zemura will be extra-motivated for his first international tournament and especially confident after a terrific start to his domestic campaign. Watch him if you can.

Odilon Kossounou – Ivory Coast/Leverkusen

When Odilon Kossonou moved to Leverkusen last summer, he became the most expensive Jupiler Pro League (Belgian top flight) export ever, a record previously held by Jonathan David. Since moving to Germany, he has hit the ground running. Both Jonathan Tah and Edmond Tapsoba were out for the start of the season, so Kossonou was immediately chucked into the deep-end, but has shown a level of maturity and quality that proves he belongs.

There’s a real elegance to Kossonou’s ability in possession. He looks at ease when bringing the ball out of defense, while line-breaking and diagonal passes are a key component to his game. He’s an accurate but risky passer, often kickstarting forward moves for Leverkusen. Despite standing at 6’2”, he doesn’t often use his height to his advantage, occasionally getting himself into the wrong challenges or appearing weaker than he presumably should be in the air. He does time his ground challenges much better, however, using his frame and reading of the game to make important interventions and recoveries.

Kossonou looks poised to start for the Ivory Coast at AFCON. If my words on his talent above weren’t persuasive enough, he wears the number seven for his country. With calculated positioning and comfort in defending in open space, he looks a fantastic prospect.

Ismael Bennacer – Algeria/Milan

Many of you may already be aware of Bennacer, especially considering his exploits in the previous Africa Cup of Nations (he won Player of the Tournament in 2019). Such is his talent (and progression over the past few seasons), we felt we couldn’t leave him out.

Diminutive but robust, all-action, and extremely gifted in possession, Bennacer has oddly had less game-time than he has probably deserved at Milan this season. His ability to facilitate possession in midfield but also combine that with consistent, accurate forward passes is excellent. No player in Serie A has averaged more progressive passes than Bennacer this season. The 24-year-old couples clever body positioning to receive in ideal areas with a diverse passing range, often operating under pressure in tight areas with comfort, but also able to stretch opponents with accurate long passes or carries into open space.

Algeria, with a squad containing Riyad Mahrez, Saïd Benrahma, and Bennacer, are arguably favourites once again. Don’t be shocked if he’s the standout this year, too.

Musa Barrow – Gambia/Bologna

Musa Barrow is set to lead Gambia into their first ever Africa Cup of Nations, and if they’re to make any sort of run, he will have to play a big part.

The 23-year-old wide forward is into his 3rd season of regular first team football at Bologna and had a very productive 2020/21 campaign, with 16 non-penalty goal contributions in 34 league starts. Comfortable carrying the ball from wide areas but also a consistent threat in behind, Barrow regularly uses his sharp burst of pace to find space beyond backlines and shooting opportunities for himself. The combination of this speed and clever movement means he creates separation very quickly, and tends to drift into areas between the opposition right back and center back. He’s also a high volume shooter (averaging 2.67 per game this season), but doesn’t always pick the most opportune moments to try his luck. He is, however, capable of the unexpected and has shown an ability to score difficult shots from distance.

That tendency to shoot often, and in all areas, may be exactly what Gambia need if they are to stage any sort of shock tournament run. They’ll need moments of surprise and quality — something Barrow could certainly provide.

Mohamed Camara – Mali/RB Salzburg

The 22-year old is halfway through his third season of Austrian top-flight football, establishing himself as a key member of Salzburg’s midfield with a number of impressive domestic and Champions League performances.

Camara has the ability to dictate the tempo from a deeper midfield position with some very clever passes, but he’s also extremely active defensively – making tackles, intercepting loose balls, and disrupting opposition moves. Although quite slight in frame (5’9), he uses his body excellently to make challenges off the ball and position himself with it. The volume of his defensive actions are aided by his smart positioning, knowing when to drop or press at the right times.

His numbers highlight his all-action profile. He’s also an excellent progressor of the ball, averaging 8.43 progressive passes and 2.13 progressive runs per 90. This high-volume isn’t a huge shock in a possession-dominant Salzburg side, but it does highlight Camara’s ability to execute forward passes and break lines with his ball-carrying. Camara’s passing is calculated, but not overly safe — he often picks the right moments to attempt riskier balls into potentially dangerous areas. Mali have a number of gifted midfield options, but Camara should impress if he plays.

Pape Matar Sarr – Senegal/Metz (on loan from Spurs)

Pape Matar Sarr really broke out in 2020-21, earning a £14.6m move to Spurs in the summer before being loaned back to Metz for the 2021-22 season. Another Génération Foot product (like Sadio Mane and Ismaila Sarr), the 19-year-old will be hoping to make an impact in Senegal’s midfield this tournament.

A really rangy but dynamic midfield ball-winner, Sarr is incredibly active out of possession. He harries, presses, tracks back, intercepts loose passes, and disrupts opposition moves, using his lengthy strides to cover ground and intelligence to position himself for those actions. Sarr’s qualities in possession are improving with time/experience – his ball-carrying ability into space is his most notable strength – coupled with a positive first-touch that allows him to glide past opponents to give him ample space for his next action.

Learning to combine his frame with his technicality in a more effective manner is the next stage of development for Sarr, but he offers qualities that could be hugely beneficial to Senegal if they’re to make a deep run this AFCON. Whether from the start or off the bench, keep a close eye on Pape Matar Sarr.

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