And so we have arrived to the first big crossroads where we say goodbye to a large chunk of our U-23 AFCON talent pool. In total, we are paying farewell to 49 U-23s out of 136 (about 36%), which is not too bad, but still immensely sad. Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania all had very young rosters and won’t be taking part in the knockout stages – luckily not necessarily because of their respective bets on the youth.
Now the question is: did someone from the axed teams make it to our last group stage rankings despite the sour exit? Hold your breath, here we come…
First, for your convenience, here are the previous rankings that saw a total of 33 players featured:
Second, some raw Round 3 data so you have a general idea what we’re dealing 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 60 U-23s made their full starts in Round 2 (57 in R1 and 54 in R2)
- A further 21 U-23s made their appearances off the bench (18 in R1 and 22 in R2)
- That means about 59% of all U-23s were somehow considered
- The record involvement rate was this time set by two games, at 8 U-23s
- Only Senegal and DRC did not name a single U-23 player in their starting XIs
- To be fair to DRC, Merveille Bokadi was suspended (as the sole U-23 IIRC)
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’ve already lost Adama Traoré Noss after the first matchday, while Kasim Nuhu Adams had turned 24 before Ghana kicked the ball. And we can already forget about Youssouf Koné (Mali), as he turns 24 just before the Round of 16 and was rested for R3, so he won’t ever make his rankings debut. Is all of this cruel? Yes, it is. But that’s the kind of a person I am. Just ruthless. And we are not at 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: Baher El Mohamady – 22 years old – centre back (Egypt)
Main reason: While he defended well, particularly in battles body-on-body, and came up with one heroic block, I cannot rank the loudest supporter of the serial harasser Amr Warda who pulled out his no. 22 jersey after the final whistle. Sorry, but there’s enough players to choose from, no need to resort to someone who’s clearly morally corrupt.
20. Ryan Nyambe – 21 years old – centre back (Namibia) – 5th (R1); 9th (R2)
Played 90 minutes in the 1:4 loss to Ivory Coast
I’m not a big fan of Wyscout‘s “losses” category as it sometimes counts a perfectly fine clearance, eg., but I take it as a good sign when a centre back doesn’t record a single loss over 94 minutes of action. He can then even provide an unnecessary deflection on a goalbound shot to contribute to a 1:4 loss, and I’ll always find a way to fit him in.
19. Marcel Papama – 23 years old – central midfielder (Namibia) – not ranked
Played 62 minutes in the 1:4 loss to Ivory Coast
He got subbed off rather early and I had no idea why. I mean I did, he was subbed off for Stephanus who then spent most of the time as a right attacking midfielder, so it was clearly an attacking-minded change, but why Papama? His dynamic presence, ball-winning ability and simple, largely accurate passing had underpinned Namibia’s great first half after all. He was a valuable addition, while hailing from the Namibia Premier League.
In 62 minutes he featured in, Namibia virtually kept Ivory Coast at bay. In the first half it was true fully, when he was going off the pitch it technically wasn’t true anymore because Ivory Coast have since scored twice, but once you consider the nature of the goals (a fantastic long ball in behind the line + a deflected wonderstrike), you’ll see why I can’t blame Papama. And in the 38 minutes without him, Namibia’s midfield basically stopped existing and both Zaha and Cornet, two wingers tucking in, wreaked havoc.
18. Lumala Abdu – 21 years old – right winger (Uganda) – 17th (R1); 12th (R2)
Played 90 minutes in the 0:2 loss to Egypt
What else is there to say about the biggest find of the tournament for me personally? Lumala Abdu has cracked my top20 in each round so far (as only one of three U-23s), and the key to that has been his consistency (I mean… duh) coupled with a steady grow in confidence. He was the less efficient dribbler compare to Kyambadde, but he was now asked to do much more defensively and function more out wide which both limited him a tad.
17. Noussair Mazraoui – 21 years old – right back (Morocco) – not ranked
Played 76 minutes in the 1:0 win against South Africa
He wasn’t necessarily praised for his contributions against South Africa. In fact, he was mostly criticized, though with the reasonable caveat of him being either rusty or still partially injured. And truth is, he had next to no influence on the attacking phase.
That being said, I do not think Renard himself asked Mazraoui to do much more. He must’ve done his basic homework, after all, and found out Percy Tau tends to drift across the pitch and often overload the left, too. Mazraoui therefore would’ve been best served to rather play it safe and stay conservative, which he did; reading the game well and breaking up a considerable amount of unfolding attacking plays.
Yes, he seemed a little rusty on the ball, but his brain didn’t seem rusty to me at all and he stayed alert for much of the game. I imagine Renard was largely satisfied.
16. Eric Ouma – 22 years old – left midfielder (Kenya) – 15th (R2)
Played 90 minutes in the 0:3 loss to Senegal
We begin with four names that wound up featuring on the (wildly) losing side, but hang in there. They are all deserving in their own right, I’d say, Eric Ouma for his poking runs and destabilization of the intended (cite) Senegalese pressure in the first half. That half, you may recall, ended in a tie and Ouma held his own. Overall, he did well to elevate pressure on his team by carrying the ball outside of his own half (4 progressive runs) and managed to chip in with the highest xA value he’s recorded over group stages (0,16).
15. Samuel Kalu – 21 years old – left/right winger (Nigeria) – not ranked
Played 73 minutes in the 0:2 loss to Madagascar
It made for nothing remarkable, but for what it’s worth, I felt like Samuel Kalu did himself justice on his first full start for Nigeria when so many other Nigerians imploded. I mean… that’s got to count for something, right?
Samuel Kalu, whom I half-expected to open the Afcon as a starter (and maybe so did Rohr, if it wasn’t for the collapse in training), was noticeable on the right wing as well as on the left where he barely plays for Bordeaux. Over the 74 minutes on the pitch, he recorded 5 progressive runs and xA of 0,27, two numbers that top the best outputs from any of the other Nigerian U-23s (Iwobi, Simon, Chukwueze) at this tournament.
14. Moustapha Diaw – 22 years old – right back (Mauritania) – not ranked
Played 90 minutes in the 0:0 draw with Tunisia
As ever at this tournament, I go stubbornly against CAF and their choice for the official man of the match, ranking the Saudi Arabia based right back as only my third most impressive Mauritanian on the day. There’s mainly one reason for that: while he set up two shots for his team carrying a decent 0,23 xA, he was an uncharacteristic passenger defensively, and that’s never too good coming from a fullback, is it? Still, Tunisia didn’t score and were firmly on their backfoot for a large chunk of the game thanks – in part – to Diaw’s own exploits, so I feel pretty good about having him inside the top15 here.
13. Samuel Owusu – 23 years old – right winger (Ghana) – not ranked
Played 86 minutes in the 2:0 win against Guinea-Bissau
Finally, a Ghanaian arrives on the scene! It’s not too convincing a debut, mind; Samuel Owusu seems a bit like a one-trick pony to me (specifically the following trick: carry the ball down the right for a bit, then drag it to the left foot and cross/pass/shoot), but then again, so many modern wingers are just that, and Owusu was a permanent thorn in Guinea-Bissau’s side.
Besides, the slight winger contributed well towards stretching the opponent with cross-field passes deeper down and his pinpoint cross should’ve seen Kwabena score a goal.
12. Allan Kyambadde – 23 years old – left winger (Uganda) – not ranked
Played 78 minutes in the 0:2 loss to Egypt
This guy plays for Vipers, not even currenty Uganda’s champions, and he looked legit better on the ball than both Salah and Trézéguet did on the day for Egypt. The Liverpool star completed just three of his eight attempted dribbles; Trézéguet chipped in with three more (out of six attempts). Allan Kyambadde, meanwhile, was 100% on his 4 dribbles and won a dangerous set piece for (wasteful) Farouk Miya 2x during the game.
He was a threat on his own, too, putting both of his shots on target and always kept Egyptian defenders and defensive midfielders on their toes with his bursts of pace combined with a tricky low centre of gravity. Considering that Egypt fielded four of those centrally positioned defensive players, Kyambadde did superbly to find all that space and create all those opportunities (overall directly behind 3 Uganda’s chances).
11. Ismaël Bennacer – 21 years old – central midfielder (Algeria) – 4th (R1); 5th (R2)
Played 57 minutes in the 3:0 win against Tanzania
Here we go again. By far the best U-23 player of the group stages who would even crack my best XI without any age limit. He was incredible throughout; dependable in so many different areas of the game such as ball distribution, breaking up plays of the opposing side, creating space for teammates with clever movement, and even contributing in the final phase (Bennacer got an assist in Game 1, now had an interesting shot in Game 3).
The only reason why I now rank him lower is that he squandered way more passes than usual (79% passing accuracy), only played 58 minutes and… he’s Algerian and I didn’t want to be too partial towards them. Sorry. But this changes nothing on him being a potential steal for AC Milan if they really end up snatching him from Empoli.
10. Maxwell Cornet – 22 years old – right winger (Ivorty Coast) – not ranked
Came on for the last 22 minutes in the 4:1 win against Namibia
For the sheer lack of late drama or even a late surge from a dominant team at this tournament (honestly, wasn’t this an actual first for the whole Afcon?), this is the first sub featured in my rankings. But what a cameo it was! Cornet first started the move that saw Zaha score the third goal by picking the run of Kessié and then rounded out the score by bagging a goal through an emphatic, convincing finish hardly seen in Egypt.
9. Pierre Kunde – 23 years old – central midfielder (Cameroon) – not ranked
Played 90 minutes in the 0:0 draw with Benin
Cameroon expertly led their game vs Benin to a 0:0 draw to the tune of a frankly absurd 72% ball possession, but there was mostly one guy who tried his best to not make this a pedestrian, dull afair. His name was Pierre Kunde Malong. He was Cameroon’s main corner taker and his delivery from the right twice made for a chance, while his diagonals were an absolute delight, as seen on the screenshot below (courtesy of Wyscout).
If Clarence Seedorf does the sensible, he proceeds with both Kunde Malong and Zambo-Anguissa, not only to give us a central midfield tandem with the longest combined name, but also to provide his team with some useful passing range/cutting edge.
Then again, can we count on Clarence Seedorf doing the sensible?
8. Olivier Verdon – 23 years old – centre back (Benin) – 2nd (R2)
Played 90 minutes in the 0:0 draw with Cameroon
He’s just a rock and should feature in everyone’s discussion over the group stages best XI. Verdon and his partner Khaled Adénon are basically the same beasts; great positionally, decent in the air and virtually devoid of mistakes and lapses in concentration.
One major difference between the two: Khaled Adénon is 10 years Verdon’s senior.
Olivier Verdon had his work cut out for him again, though this time he wasn’t asked to do a single clearance, but rather he had to engage in body-on-body battles more. Needless to add, he was largely spot on in this regard, too.
Another great find of the tournament.
7. Aly Abeid – 21 years old – left back (Mauritania) – 19th (R2)
Played 90 minutes in the 0:0 draw with Tunisia
He nutmegged a Tunisian in the attacking third. I mean… that should do on its own.
But seriously, Aly Abeid grew into this tournament like no other U-23 player did. He was less and less erratic when defending, more and more involved in recovering balls – he made 16 (!) recoveries in Game 3 per Wyscout, more than his combined total for the previous two games (12) – and advancing play up the field. He absolutely owned Bassem Srarfi to the point the Tunisian right wing was rather subbed off at half-time.
6. Amadou Haidara – 21 years old – central midfielder (Mali) – not ranked
Played 73 minutes in the 1:0 win against Angola
His winning goal was a stunner. Well-placed, hard shot from just outside the penalty area with his weaker left foot no less. That in itself is a huge contribution, especially compare to his first full start at this tournament (vs Tunisia) when he was incredibly sloppy in possession and hardly contributed at all.
This time, Haidara’s passing accuracy neared 90% and most of his forward passes were on longer distance and to the final third. There’s no good reason why he shouldn’t start when Samassékou comes back in for Round of 16 and take care of some of the deep-lying playmaking; Lassana Coulibaly then completes the two with a more conservative, defensively responsible mindset, and it’s a full midfield package like no other at Afcon.
5. Ismaïla Sarr – 21 years old – right/left winger (Senegal) – 10th (R1)
Played 90 minutes in the 3:0 draw against Kenya
It cannot be overstated how well-taken his goal was. That was such an awkward position, and yet his finish left nothing to be desired. It also cannot be overstated how crucial that goal was for Senegal who were really struggling in the first half to figure out both Kenyan defence and Patrick Matasi behind it.
Sarr himself had a great header from an awkward position (see the pattern, whoa) saved miraculously, yet regardless ended up cracking Harambee Stars open eventually.
In that first half, Sarr was often the receiver of the ball deep down on the right wing, but he still managed to produce one of his signature runs followed by a tremendous pass across the penalty box for Gana Gueye who somehow didn’t bury the 100% chance.
After the break Sarr every so often shifted to the left to help out Sadio Mané and they showcased instant chemistry for the sake of one Niang shot and a penalty won by Sarr for (this time converting) Mané.
4. Bakary N’Diaye – 20 years old – centre back (Mauritania) – not ranked
Played 90 minutes in the 0:0 draw with Tunisia
The main difference between Tunisia and Mauritania on the day was how focused and alert Mauritanians were compare to their opponents; and Bakary N’Diaye is the epitome of that. Simply by reading the game superbly, he didn’t get himself into too many duels and too much trouble, he was literally on top of all Tunisians receiving (well, usually waiting for) a pass. As a result, N’Diaye doubled his previous highest total of interception per Afcon game (from five in Game 1 to ten now) and helped Mauritania’s stunning transition by three accurate long balls towards the edge of the penalty box.
3. Hichem Boudaoui – 19 years old – central midfielder (Algeria) – not ranked
Played 90 minutes in the 3:0 win against Tanzania
Ok, I genuinely tried to not have two Algerians who bullied a team that can’t defend in my top3, but turns out it’s really hard to overlook a 19-year-old youngster whose passing range already looks first class, and whose great sliding interception made for a second assist on the first Islam Slimani goal.
The Paradou AC midfielder just glides on the pitch. It doesn’t look as though he generates tons of effort while doing it, but boy isn’t he fast, and doesn’t he cover the whole pitch? It helps then to be able to support your team with a great piece of anticipation and all kinds of passes – from the simple ones to long diagonals and verticals, or kind of both…? He’s got it all, and seemingly has no limits technique-wise.
There are a few things to polish here and there. Firstly, his shooting technique seems intriguing at first sight – a bit of a Cristiano Ronaldo-esque swing in upright position – but he missed the target twice from a very good, similar position on the right. Secondly, his sliding tackles are often ill-advised, and five fouls commited are at least two too many.
But hey, Boudaoui is only 19 years old and still plays in Algeria. He’ll sure improve.
2. Adam Ounas – 22 years old – right winger (Algeria) – not ranked
Played 73 minutes in the 3:0 win against Tanzania
We all looked forward to what Djamel Belmadi’s rotation brings, and honestly, this was way better than what I had personally expected. And to be entirely fair, even Adam Ounas didn’t exactly set the world alight in his first 30 minutes at the tournament. He received just seven passes, squandered a few of his own and produces one tame shot.
What followed, however, was a stunning demolition job. His first assist on Slimani’s goal was just a sign of what’s coming – a long pass in behind the line from what seems like a woefully uncomfortable position and an almost impossible angle. Soon, he was on it again, making some stepovers on the way to a shot narrowly wide, and then he did that nice one-two with Slimani for his first goal for the national team. For his second, he rounded the keeper expertly when going one-on-one and put the game to bed with a whole half to spare.
What I liked the most about his performance? How every step(over) of his seems to fit in seemlessly in what he wants to achieve. Some dribbles tend to lose their head and feet a bit; they tend to tangle themselves up a little, or eventually stumble. Some dribblers control the ball perfectly when standing or moving slow, but may be a bit awkward in full swing.
Not Adam Ounas. His dribbling on display vs Tanzania was just spot on, used to beat a man and towards the goal, to create and opening for a teammate, or to turn it around and calm the game down with a backpass or a long stretch pass to the other flank. A true delight indeed.
1. Franck Kessié – 23 years old – central midfielder (Ivory Coast) – not ranked
Played 90 minutes in the 4:1 win against Namibia
Yes, Franck Kessié is still only 23. It indeed feels like he’s been around for ages, and for all those ages he’s also been very hard to pin down for me personally. Over the course of one game, he’d typically fill in multiple roles for Ivory Coast (a ball-winning DM, a deep-lying playmaker, a box-to-box midfielder) and none of them to a full, properly meaningful extent.
This time, he came closest if not full distance to an actual midfield all-rounder.
He collected three assists, while one (the first one, a long ball in behind the line) was a work of the deep-lying playmaker Ivory Coast would like him to be, and the other two (following well timed charges towards the penalty box) were both a work of the box-to-box midfielder Franck Kessié clearly envisions himself to be, usually popping up across the full length of the right flank.
I could still imagine Kessié channeling his strength in defensive duels better (especially since he’s notably strong when covering the ball, but finds it hard to recover it himself), but he’s growing into a true, mature leader this Ivory Coast side definitely needs him to be.