AFCON 2019: Ranking 20 best U-23 performers (Round 1)


If there’s two things we can safely infer from what kind of articles appear on the internet, and in what numbers, it’s that people absolutely dig any sort of rankings coupled with stuff other people have learnt from stuff. Now, I am arguably not smug enough to assume people would jump at an opportunity to learn what I’ve learnt, but I definitely think I can do my own rankings.

So there you go – my top20 young players to appear in Round 1 of 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.

First, let me throw some very raw data at you, just so we all have the same initial idea about what kind of a players pool we are dealing here with:

  • I have a database of 137 U-23 players at the moment. (Some will age out soon.)
  • A total of 57 U-23s made their full starts in Round 1
  • A further 18 U-23s made their appearances off the bench
  • That means about 54,7% of all U-23s were somehow considered for these rankings
  • Group D was the most miserable, with 6 U-23s in the 4 starting XIs (out of 19)
  • The Group E matchup Mali-Mauritania saw a record total of 12 U-23s involved
  • Egypt were the only side not to use any U-23 player, from the start or otherwise

Second, let’s set a couple of essential ground rules:

◆ For the purpose of these rankings, we only consider U-23 players, meaning anyone who’s at this point of the tournament 23 years old or younger. We don’t do dates of birth.

That means we can only include one Adama Traoré, and we can only do so for the first round (because he turns 24 on June 28, precisely on Mali’s second matchday!). It also means leaving out Kasim Nuhu, a talented Ghanaian centre back of Hoffenheim, who had opened the tournament as a 23-year-old, but turned 24 before Ghana first kick the ball in Egypt. Are these preconditions cruel? Yes, they are. But that’s the kind of a person I am. Just ruthless.

◆ For the purpose of these rankings, we do not care about reputation one bit. Play however you like on the club level, have whatever pedigree, but this is a different arena with its own rules, and if you don’t perform here, you don’t get to share the same space with Aishi Manula. Simple as that.

◆ That said, we do care about the context. Be it the strength of opposition, the player’s potential or his international experience; we do account for all of that, at least to some extent. That doesn’t mean we necessarily include a ton of obscure players with low ceilings who weren’t utterly rubbish on the day, but if I have a well-known striker from English Premier League who scored once and didn’t do much else on the one hand, and a little-known one-goal striker from Kenyan Premier League on the other hand, I am going to prefer the latter. I think that’s only natural.

◆ Speaking of natural – these rankings are correct and are not to be argued about.

No, naturally, I want to spark conversation with this, so please, as long as you keep those three above-mentioned points on your mind, argue the heck out of me!

Just missed the cut: Youssouf Koné – 23 years old– left back (Mali)

Main reason: He looked way better at first sight than he did at second.

Koné was lively, involved and always doing stuff, but not much of it to any high standard, especially when it came to passing on long distance, cross field or otherwise. But he still advanced play well, carrying the ball out of Mali’s own half multiple times and with sense.

20. Joseph Okumu – 22 years old– centre back (Kenya)

I know I promised not too many obscure names with low ceilings, but credit where it’s due: Joseph Okumu is as unproven internationally as they come, has never even come close to Egyptian heat unless he sought it out for a vacation, and yet he held his own. Okumu was strong in the air and wasn’t nearly a disaster in 1-on-1s, operating on the side with one keen dribbler (Belaïli) and the more attacking of the two fullbacks (Bensebaini).

You’ve got to appreciate Okumu definitely not drowning when thrown into the deep end by the stubborn coach refusing to deal with two injuries like a rational person – by opting for his most experienced CB (Owino). I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised if he got to know about his place in the starting lineup only seconds before the match warmup.

19. Patrick Kaddu – 23 years old – centre forward (Uganda)

Yes, I know many attacks kind of ended with him, and not on a good note, but hear me out. Before the tournament, all the talk centred around Farouk Miya and Emmanuel Okwi, so Patrick Kaddu – who at the time couldn’t even have called on the most basic qualifier for the most basic relevance (Wikipedia page) – scoring breaking the deadlock against DRC was pretty huge.

Kaddu scored with his head and wasn’t great with his feet, but his off the ball movement has seen major improvement since the qualifiers. Now less time spent offside, and more time spent getting chased and fouled; now more space created for Miya, and more touches made in the box as a result than usual.

And then there’s the nicest/weirdest by-product of them all: his brand new Wikipedia page curiously makes for a way more elaborate read than that of Miya. Heh. Talk about overcorrection…

18. Amadou Diawara – 21 years old – central midfielder (Guinea)

Remember that we won’t be looking too much at the player’s pedigree and reputation? This is one such case. Diawara may have been the best of the Guinean (initially Naby Keita-less) midfield trio, but he still wasn’t all that special. Guinea lost control of the game vs Madagascar especially after half-time, and that’s nothing to write home about indeed.

Besides, while Diawara was active in building up attacks (15 attempted passes to final third; one more than Ibrahima Cissé and Mady Camara combined for), it didn’t really amount to much, and his assist on the first goal was more of a clearance than a set up.

17. Lumala Abdu – 21 years old – right winger (Uganda)

One significant knock on his performance: a lacking end product. While Uganda offered a fair lot on attack, Abdu wasn’t as involved or instrumental in those moves as a right winger would’ve been expected to be. But for a 21-year-old unproven lad from the second Swedish division, he showed a fantastic first touch and some great poise on the ball. He put in a hell of a shift and while somehow not fouled even once, finished the game banged up.

16. Aishi Manula – 23 years old – goalkeeper (Tanzania)

I am aware he was shaky for the whole of the first half at the very least, and his “solution” to an incoming pass to the penalty box (try to push it outside the said box rather than just simply catch it) was hilarious, but let’s be clear about one thing: his great shot-stopping saved that game from being a full-on embarrassment for Tanzania.

Aishi Manula made the most saves out of all goalkeepers in Round 1 (8), and a stunning seven of them are categorized by Wyscout as saves with reflexes, hence nothing routine. That’s insane. And it did feel like a tough job in real-time, too. Plus, even on that Niang miss which didn’t require a save, his sprint off the line and consequent angles were on point.

15. Krépin Diatta – 20 years old – attacking midfielder (Senegal)

A nice goal, albeit deflected, and we should(‘ve) enjoy(ed) this talented kid until we can because Sadio Mané inevitable replaces him for the rest of the tournament, but I still have a hard time finding a spot any higher than this for him.

For much of the time, I felt, he was just there, but not too involved in the oft-brutally fast, sometimes very vertical attacks. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t necessarily think he’s slow or anything, but it did strike me he might’ve been more suited to knocking down an actual defence than destroying what didn’t even resemble a defence most of the time.

Does it make sense? I don’t know. But for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t say it’s especially harsh to expect more from a player in the hole inclining slightly to the right (curiously, he’s more deployed on the left by Club Brugge and seems to deliver a pretty different output for them) who received 27 balls against a rubbish team, yet still didn’t dribble and didn’t set up his teammates all that often (both just once).

14. Marco Ilaimaharitra – 23 years old – central midfielder (Madagascar)

I’d say the Charleroi midfielder made a good name for himself and was one big reason behind Madagascar stepping it up ofensively after the half time and tying the game up eventually. Only 0,05 expected goals were measured for them in the first half; it was 0,93 xG after the break. That’s a significant improvement in generating danger, and the man with arguably the sharpest delivery on the pitch had something to do with that.

Ilaimaharitra didn’t contribute much to defence, but with Amada and Anicet next to him, he didn’t have to, and he was a very dependable distributor for Madagascar. All his seven passes into the final third were accurate, one directed straight into the box, and he altogether completed 35 passes out of 40 attempted (88%) on a generally sloppy team.

13. Christian Bassogog – 23 years old – centre forward/winger (Cameroon)

Hey, so… did we all know he was such a great crosser of the ball? Seriously. I had come to know he can run past, dribble through and outmuscle anyone, the fact he has a decent vision was also never lost on me, and I have long been aware he can’t really finish (on display here again, and two years ago, too – he did collect the MVP award without scoring more than once, after all), but his delivery was a bit of a revelation for me yesterday. From left or right, I don’t think he put in any poor cross whatsoever.

12. Samuel Chukwueze – 20 years old – right winger (Nigeria)

Look, we both agree this kid can go places and is a tremendous dribbler already. It’s pretty much impossible to rob him of the ball, so impressive is his close control and body strength, and it’s indeed no coincidence he completed as many as eight dribbles per Wyscout, but my question is: was he really that scary to Burundi’s defence?

I frankly didn’t have the feeling. Some of it was on Rohr – I thought Chukwueze was asked to stay too wide at times and could’ve drifted more. But then again, once he crossed over to the other side, his atrocious finish well over the bar popped out.

I’d summarize his performance like this: he was asking questions of the opponents but ultimately provided no real answers for his own team. That’s a bit of a problem.

See also: Alex Iwobi (23). I’d rather just package them in one point; so consider it done here. Iwobi himself did alright (+ bagged a second assist), but he had no business operating as a left midfielder for much of the game, which also largely rendered him a non-factor. With the right usage, he’ll trend upwards, I have no doubts about that.

11. Omar Moussa – 21 years old – right back (Burundi)

Speaking of Alex Iwobi being largely a non-factor in that game: meet Omar Moussa, the unfazed right back of Burundi, who was mostly on him and came out like a winner from a good half of his defensive duels. I thought Moussa was really responsible in the back end and did extra well to tame the potentially deadly super-sub Ahmed Musa who came on with 30+ minutes to spare and left a thoroughly negligable mark on the game.

10. Ismaïla Sarr – 21 years old – right winger (Senegal)

Sarr has two things going for him compare to, say, Chukwueze: 1) He was effectively playing against no fullback, which is unfortunate for the comparison, but it’s hard to hold it against him too much when he was absolutely flying on his wing; 2) I could reasonably argue the case it was more on his teammates than himself that he didn’t end up getting on the scoresheet, because he put in some decent crosses and wound up with 0,43 expected assists (Chukwueze finishied with 0,23 xA, and he too set up 2 shots).

Besides, there’s something to be said about someone who’s fouled four times, looks absolutely knackered after at least three of those really cynical tackles, and still gets up every time to continue in his tormenting. Take a bow, Ismaïla!

9. Mohamed Yali Dellahi – 21 years old – holding midfielder (Mauritania)

On the face of it, four conceded goals don’t reflect too good on a holding midfielder, but when you consider how they were scored, it becomes a little more irrelevant. And when you’re the lowest midfielder for the whole of 95 minutes and you can only be blamed for two misplaced passes, one lost ground duel (in the attacking half) and one lost routine aerial duel against two opponents, I’d suggest you can be pretty happy with yourself.

Five losses and eleven recoveries were measured by Wyscout for this lanky Algeria-based guard, amounting to a positive differential of 6, and that’s a fantastic ratio for a CDM/CB, as is three successful defensive duels out of seven against two Adama Traoré.

8. Youcef Atal – 22 years old – right back (Algeria)

He was the fullback with a heavier workload and harder task on his hands, yet impressed more than Bensebaini anyway. Trust me, it’s not easy to see Eric Ouma, the Kenyan “Marcelo”, inserted into the game as a fresh HT sub, but I felt Atal handled him very well.

He proved to be an unbelievable tackler, collecting twice as many successful tackles (6) as the next Algerian in the line per WhoScored, and a hardly stoppable athlete whose solo before the penalty was just breathtaking. Great attacking instincts, very good compete level.

7. Ola Aina – 22 years old – left back (Nigeria)

I have a sneaky feeling Nigerian Twitter may not be too fond of me after these rankings. His genius assist is obviously worthy the top10 in and of itself, and I don’t have many reservations towards his performance vs Burundi, with him being the most inventive, dangerous Nigerian on the whole left half of the pitch, but I just don’t think he was better than the guys ahead of him. It’s just that, really. I thought he was great. I swear.

6. André-Frank Zambo Anguissa – 23 years old – central midfielder (Cameroon)

While I do, on some level, appreciate his willingness to pull the trigger with his left or right foot, especially on this Cameroon side, his wasteful shooting (he tried his luck five times, not once hitting the target) is ultimately the one reason why Zambo Anguissa doesn’t rank higher.

Apart from that? Very enjoyable.

At times when Cameroon seemed ready to bore us to death with sideways passes deep down, Zambo Anguissa was typically the one to add some courage and cutting edge to their game. Some of his chopped passes forward were outright cute.

5. Ryan Nyambe – 21 years old – centre back (Namibia)

I have a lot of time for 21-year-old right backs debuting competitively (and making their second appearance overall) for their national team at centre back – and next to the ever-restless Larry Horaeb, a wrecking ball of a right back, no less. Ryan Nyambe basically acted like a babysitter for Namibia and that’s just impressive, however you slice it.

He cleared an incredible eight balls, often as the lowest positioned defender, fouled just once, and was a rock throughout with his no-nonsense attitude and tight marking on En-Nesyri. As dominant a debut on this scene as they come, genuinely.

4. Ismaël Bennacer – 21 years old – left central midfielder (Algeria)

I love the complexity of his game, how he gets stuck in one time and then dribbles seemlessly past two players the other time; I love the combination of tenacity, precision and silk he brings to the table; I simply love how full a package he already is at 21; and I decidedly don’t love my club letting him go as a reserve player for a bag of peanuts a mere two years ago. Honestly, what the heck actually happened there?

Okay, I know there are no teams in English Premier League quite at the level of Kenya – I mean there might even be Kenyan Premier League sides that are better than Kenya – but considering Bennacer was going up against the one Kenyan from English Premier League (Victor Wanyama) and still managed to hold onto just about every ball and do more damage on the left flank than the actual left winger, creating a goal with this brilliant run and a pull back… yeah, it’s fair to say Ismaël Bennacer is a decent baller.

3. Adama Traoré (Noss) – 23 years old – attacking midfielder (Mali)

I promised myself not to make any more Adama Traoré jokes, so I hope we are all on the same page as to which Adama Traoré we are talking about here.

No, not that one, the other one; the one who scored a stunner, get it?

Anyway, it’s the “Noss” we are dealing with here. The 23-year-old attacking midfielder I had (half-jokingly) branded a “washed out U-20 WC star” in order to spark a fake rivalry with Sékou Koita despite all the best attempts from my PR team to stop me.

Turns out, Adama Traoré is a perfect no.10 for this team; great in tight spaces, very aware, with a tricky shot and a final pass. He set up three shooting opportunities, which is a great number, and had to be brought down three times with a foul. A proper handful he was.

2. Diadie Samassékou – 23 years old – central midfielder (Mali)

The real reason why Mali delivered the most lopsided result of Round 1. Yes, those were some beautiful goals, but you could trace the beginning of pretty much all of them to Diadie Samassékou breaking up Mauritania’s play like it’s the easiest job on earth.

He started off wider to the right, doubling down on the more dangerous flank of Mauritania, and he neutralized it very much on his own. In the end, he put in the most rounded performance of all. Accurate long passes, alert shorter passes; most tackles (3), interceptions (4) and blocked shots (2; all per WhoScored) on the team…

You name it, Mali got it from Samassékou.

1. Farouk Miya – 21 years old – attacking midfielder (Uganda)

We all knew Uganda were going to rely a lot on Farouk Miya when it comes to creating offence, but I’m pretty sure nobody’s ever seen him being this effective for the national team. He received just 11 passes, less than during any of the three other Africa Cup of Nations appearances. He wasn’t all that involved. But boy, did he do some damage!

He carried the ball more than ever and with great purpose, with the opponents usually just resorting to fouling him, didn’t misplace a single one of his passes (17), and apart from that – tiny little detail – confirmed he’s one of the best set piece takers on the continent, providing an assist twice and once coming close to scoring by himself from a direct free kick. Besides, sharp inswinging corner kicks to the near post are the best.

Farouk Miya basically created everything out of nothing, did so in the insane Egyptian afternoon heat no less, and so he’s hands down my Player of the Round.


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