AFCON 2019: Ranking 20 best U-23 performers (Round 2)


Our much anticipated promised rankings of the best 20 young performers in Round 2 of 2019 Africa Cup of Nations have arrived! And contrary to the initially outlined plans, we won’t complicate things and won’t be doing an update of the Round 1 rankings. Instead, we’ll simply consider the Round 2 performances in isolation. It’s going to be easier this way, and hopefully no less fun. At the end of the group stages, I’ll take an average rating per each player featured and see if we could field an All-Star team!

First, here you can find the Round 1 rankings.

Second, 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 currently maintain a database of 136 U-23 players
  • Only Adama Traoré Noss has moved past the age bracket since Round 1
  • A total of 54 U-23s made their full starts in Round 2, down from 57 in Round 1
  • A further 22 U-23s made their appearances off the bench, up from 18 in Round 1
  • That means about 55,9% of all U-23s were somehow considered for these rankings
  • Well… eg. Samuel Kalu and Romário Baldé played just a few seconds.
  • Group D was the most miserable, with 5 U-23s in the 4 starting XIs (out of 19)
  • The Group B matchup Nigeria-Guinea saw a record total of 10 U-23s involved
  • Only Egypt and Ghana did not name a single U-23 player in their starting XIs

Lastly, let me remind you of all our 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’t include Adama Traoré Noss any longer, as he turned 24 precisely on Mali’s second matchday. Are these preconditions cruel? Yes, they are. But that’s the kind of a person I am. Just ruthless. And we are not U-21 Euros or anything to be soft.

◆ 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!

Missed the cut: Gelson Dala – 22 years old – centre forward (Angola)

Main Only reason: Because for the sake of preserving my love for football, I forgot about the (possible) reality that the whole Saturday action also involved some attacking and near-goals. Sadly, pretty much all of them, I think, were the work of Gelson Dala.

20. Faridi Mussa – 20 years old – attacking midfielder (Tanzania) – not ranked

I didn’t really notice him otherwise, but his through ball on that second goal was a-m-a-z-i-n-g. That’s his spot in these rankings warranted, and I’ve got nothing to add.

19. Aly Abeid – 21 years old – left back (Mauritania) – not ranked

I called him a poor man’s Abdulkarim Hassan and I think it really fits to some extent. He also sometimes leaves a gapping hole behind himself but is a threat going forward; explosive, strong, with a decent pass on short or long distance. Aly Abeid wasn’t perfect by any means and Angola’s RB Bruno Gaspar shouldn’t have been afforded so much space to attack, but Abeid did some damage on his own and had it not been for a last ditch interception he would’ve bagged an assist, too.

18. Lassana Coulibaly – 23 years old – central midfielder (Mali) – not ranked

He did the little, not so noticeable things, and he did them responsibly. Coulibaly completed 91% of his passes and seemed alert on the ball, while Haïdara was at times trying too hard to do something and Samassékou was caught somewhere inbetween two roles in this second game, not fulfilling either quite as masterfully as is usually the case. Coulibaly was the stabilizer of this side, meanwhile: providing considerate support to offence while not overcommiting and still contributing in defence. He was important.

17. Moussa Djenepo – 21 years old – left winger (Mali) – not ranked

I’m still not convinced he’s worth the 15,7million price tag associated with his move to Southampton, but what is obvious at first sight is that he’s a heck of a dribbler. Fairly low centre of gravity, quick feet and lots of twists and turns to offer; Djenepo is always a pain and got fouled seven times in the second game while completing 86% of his (other) seven dribbles. There’s little doubt he would’ve contributed with some (x)A, too, had Moussa Marega – his striker – not spent the whole game just randomly blooming around midfield, utterly lost.

16. Youcef Atal – 23 years old – right back (Algeria) ⤋ 8

Okay, I’ll clarify straight off the bat – I didn’t think he was very good defensively, and attacking was not an option for him in this game. Yet I still include him in these rankings, because I’m willing to cut him a considerable chunk of slack for the fact he was up against Mané and Sabaly. He wasn’t quite able to keep up with Mané’s pace and didn’t look at all good on that yellow foul, but hey, he sometimes plays as a winger and he wasn’t a tire fire (as opposed to Bensebaini on the other side who totally was). In fact, he seemed to grow into the game and contributed to solidifying the fort eventually.

15. Eric Ouma – 22 years old – left winger/back (Kenya) – not ranked

He can still be all over the shop defensively, but he began the second game above a conservative fullback and showed some of his qualities that’d earned him the “Marcelo” nickname. There haven’t been too many better crossers of the ball, if any, at this tournament as three of his eight deliveries found their address in Round 2, and he advanced the ball well, too.

The right flank of Kenya is still where most danger is and will be generated, but considering Eric Ouma is very much on his own on the left, this wasn’t half bad!

14. Achraf Hakimi – 20 years old – left back (Morocco) – not ranked

I am generally a lot sceptical about Achraf Hakimi the player and the same deficiencies were on display in the second game, too, but I still felt he worked at least on some of them. He wasn’t crossing senselessly anymore and looked more solid defensively, often in the right position and ready to recover the ball or at least engage in a duel and do the dirty work.

That said, Hakimi is still immensely frustrating on balance and not nearly as good as he could be. While he has great attacking instincts and pops out in all the right positions, his end product ultimately leaves a lot to be desired. Still, let’s not forget his alert pounce on a pass towards Morocco’s penalty box was at the very start of that great move that saw Amrabat pull off a wonderful dummy and En-Nesyri miss a golden chance.

13. Alex Iwobi – 23 years old – attacking midfielder (Nigeria) – not ranked

I still consider myself a fairly big critic of the Arsenal man at this tournament, but credit where it’s due – this game was always more about his play without the ball and less about what he does on it, and he held his own in that regard.

Otherwise, Iwobi’s second match can be nicely split into two halves. The first 45 minutes he was very frustrating; taking too many touches in the box, unable to pull the trigger on two occasions, and taking too little touches anywhere else where he rushed/forced a lot of plays. But after the restart, he was fine – playing a little deeper and spraying balls forward with accuracy and sometimes even poking curiosity.

Simply put: even on the ball, he was okay. He wasn’t a Peter Etebo, for example.

12. Lumala Abdu – 21 years old – right winger (Uganda) ⤊ 5

The Syrianska winger is slowly but surely becoming indispensible for Uganda and has been a key to their rejuvenated attack. His palmed shot effectively made for an assist on the only goal and he was constantly asking questions otherwise, too. As many as four times did Zimbabwean players have to resort to fouling him and he overall stood out as the most resourceful Ugandan on the ball, improving his dribbling efficiency as well (completed 83% of his 10 dribbles in Round 2, compared to 30% out of 11 in Round 1).

11. Jonathan Nahimana – 19 years old – goalkeeper (Burundi) – not ranked

I’ve already spent a disproportionate time hyping this “second coming of Hervé Koffi”, but I can’t help it, and we always have to keep in mind this guy plays in Burundi and is only 19 years old. For a goalkeeper of that age and pedigree, it’s an impressive feat to just be considered for these rankings.

But before we get too patronizing, let’s appreciate how calming his presence can be in the air and how he’s only conceded twice so far. He hasn’t been asked to do much in terms of actual saves (six), and most of them weren’t even spectacular, but he reads the game so well he prevents a fair few of them from either needing to be spectacular, or even happening in the first place. One steady custodian which is a rarity this year.

And he’s still only 19 years old!

10. Chidozie Awaziem – 22 years old – right back (Nigeria) – not ranked

Quiet but very effective presence. As a sub in the first game, he helped Nigeria a lot to settle down and bring some no-nonsense attitute to the table, now he’s done a similar job for them from the beginning. A centre back by trade, Awaziem did little in terms of supporting offence, but he was incredibly focused and strong in defensive duels and emerged as a winner from over a half of them (5/9 per Wyscout). As opposed to Ndidi, whom I also considered for these rankings as the energetic “heart” of the side, Awaziem wasn’t losing his head and ultimately fouling as often, while he topped the whole team in successful tackles (2:5 fouls/tackles ratio per WhoScored; Ndidi was 3:2).

9. Ryan Nyambe – 21 years old – centre back (Namibia) ⤋ 4

I actually don’t think he did any worse than in the first game, he just didn’t need to deal with as much nonsense from his right back Horaeb and as much threat from opponents, hence the lowering of his stock. Any Namibian leakage was down to (defensively) bad midfield, though, and purely on his own, Ryan Nyambe remained strong positionally and otherwise. He virtually erased South African striker Mothiba from the air, too.

8. Ola Aina – 22 years old – left back (Nigeria) ⤋ 1

Nigerian fans might complain about his lacking support to offence, but hey, you don’t get to overlap a freaking Ahmed Musa that often! No, Super Eagles needed Aina at the back mostly, playing responsible game, moving up and down with open, alert mind and he was definitely spot on in all those regards. A hugely dependant fullback, even more than Awaziem, albeit not playing against the best attacking player of the other team.

Aina basically didn’t make a mistake and his positioning was a particular highlight for me. It’s not just how he positions himself on the pitch, it’s also how he sets himself up for duels. Aina is not especially bulky or anything, but he’s learnt to use every bit of his frame to project as much strength as possible and win the battle. These traits should become even more obvious as we proceed, and he will be essential to Nigeria in the knockout rounds.

7. Marco Ilaimaharitra – 23 years old – central midfielder (Madagascar) ⤊ 7

He’s one of the more experienced U-23s at the tournament, and that showed in his fantastic free kick. We don’t get nearly enough of these strikes kind of across the goal, to the far post, when it comes to free kicks situated just at the doorstep of the penalty area, and that’s a huge shame, because they are awesome as any compilation of Ronaldinho’s free kicks will leave you in no doubt. Just for that, Ilaimaharitra bags many plus points from me, and when you consider the free kick gave Madagascar their first AFCON win on their Independence Day, it’s a pure homerun really. Besides, Ilaimaharitra remains a good deep-lying playmaker; a role we frankly don’t see too much at this tournament.

6. Sessi D’Almeida – 23 years old – central midfielder (Benin) not ranked

If I went purely by stats on Wyscout, I’d brand him a passenger in the 66 minute-period he featured in, but I personally felt he was anything but. The pitch was full of this Yeovil Town midfielder whose hair is absolutely fabulous when he’s in full swing. D’Almeida popped out near both penalty areas, and wasn’t nearly as rash in everything he did as he was at first count.

In the second game, on the contrary, D’Almeida was someone to quickly play off of for his teammates as he didn’t mess around with the ball, and someone to rely on when it came to harassing the great dribblers of Guinea-Bissau. He often shadowed the main star Piqueti and contributed to him being a no-show despite only registering two tackles according to WhoScored.

That figures; he doesn’t go on the ground too easily, but there is some value in staring a tricky player down and the sassy Sessi was a king of that discipline yesterday, I felt.

5. Ismaël Bennacer – 21 years old – central midfielder (Algeria) ⤋ 1

It’s not easy to stand out in the middle of a game marked above all by cynical fouling and too many pauses, but the Algerian midfield dynamo managed to do so regardless. He always seemed on top of the game, with sharp movement and first touch, and ended up with an impressive fouled/fouls differential of +3 (fouled 4x, himself guilty once), which is something neither Guédioura nor Feghouli managed. I didn’t necessarily like his passing range as much as per usual, but he played an essential role for Algeria nonetheless.

4. André-Frank Zambo Anguissa – 23 years old – central midfielder (Cameroon) ⤊ 2

Did he eradicate his wasteful shooting? Yes, just one shot instead of five, so that’s got to count for something. Plus, he offered very much the same that had me ranked him 6th overall last time.

Anguissa wasn’t as active in searching for runs in behind the line (because Cameroonian attackers largely didn’t make them this time around), but his close control and majestic dribbling skills were on display even more and he was an active tackler, too.

Anguissa single-handedly makes Cameroonian flair a decent value. And I love me some flair.

3. Youssef En-Nesyri – 21 years old – centre forward (Morocco) not ranked

Let’s begin with a brief appreciation of how the lanky Moroccan striker made his finish on the goal look so routine. That shouldn’t be taken for granted, not as part of a tournament that has already some outright shocking finishing when presented with a clear-cut chance. So (cautious) kudos to Youssef En-Nesyri for that in the first place.

On another note: that was some incisive, clever movement from the rumoured Arsenal target. He was appearing exactly where his colleagues needed him to, and at the right time too, so he finished the game with 6 shots and three of them on target. Could he have been more convincing on one or two occasions? Absolutely, though once it was his weaker right foot, and in another instance his smart, albeit weak backheel was flagged offside anyway.

But En-Nesyri’s presence on defensive set pieces (four clearances) was vital for Morocco and his connection with Belhanda and Amrabat is definitely a good sign for Renard.

2. Olivier Verdon – 23 years old – centre back (Benin) not ranked

Once he was guilty of an ill-advised run with the ball that resulted in a blocked shot for Guinea-Bissau. Other than that? Perfection. It was advertized before the tournament that Benin’s left centre back had hardly put a foot wrong in the qualifiers, and while he wasn’t 100% in the first test (he most notably fell asleep on Ghana’s second goal), Olivier Verdon was his old self yesterday. He cleared eight balls, intercepted eight more attacks and largely dominated in the air. The Sochaux mainstay was the full package.

1. Moses Simon – 23 years old – right winger (Nigeria) not ranked

In what surely must be viewed as the most inspired change between Round 1 and Round 2, Gernot Rohr replaced Samuel Chukwueze by Moses Simon and got even more from him than he could’ve possibly wished for.

It was a pragmatic move in essence – it was clear in the first game that Rohr wanted his right winger to stay on the flank and provide Super Eagles with constant width, which a left-footed Chukwueze (naturally) struggled with. Moses Simon, on the other hand, didn’t have any problem with it and in exchange offered some great two-way influence.

Had Ighalo not been inexplicably selfish, Moses Simon would’ve bagged a wonderful second assist to go along with his four shot assists (by far the most of all U-23s featured in this round) and careful dribbling, while his exemplary backtracking bought Awaziem out on more than one occasion particularly in the first half.

All boxes plus a couple ticked for Rohr, I imagine.


3 thoughts on “AFCON 2019: Ranking 20 best U-23 performers (Round 2)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s