AFCON 2019: Ranking 15 best U-23 performers (Round of 16)

source: theguardian.com (Samuel Shivambu/EPA)

Oh, you thought we are done once the group stages are over? You couldn’t be more wrong! We are seeing this all the way through, y’all. And so here is my ranking of the best U-23 performers of the AFCON Round of 16 just scrapped from top20 to top15 due to a smaller pool of players to pick from.

First, for your convenience, here are the previous rankings that saw a total of 46 players featured:

Round 1 (Group Stages)

Round 2 (Group Stages)

Round 3 (Group Stages)

Second, some raw Round of 16 data so you have a general idea what we’re dealing with:

  • I currently maintain a database of 86 U-23 players
  • Only Youssouf Koné (Mali) has moved past the age bracket since Round 3
  • A total of 33 U-23s made their full starts in Round of 16
  • A further 18 U-23s made their appearances off the bench
  • That means exactly 60% of all U-23s were somehow considered
  • That is when I consider Marco Ilaimaharitra was unavailable (suspension)
  • The Nigeria-Cameroon matchup saw a record 11 U-23s involved
  • Only Egypt and DRC 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’ve already lost Adama Traoré Noss after the first matchday, while Kasim Nuhu Adams had turned 24 before Ghana kicked the ball. 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: Olivier Verdon – 23 years old – centre back (Benin) – 2nd (R2); 8th (R3)

Played 120 minutes in the 1:1 draw with Morocco

Main reason: This time, he was arguably the least involved CB, which isn’t a bad thing. Morocco led most of their dangerous attacks down the left-hand side and when he was asked to step in, Verdon was again largely reliable. That said, he once wonderfully blocked a shot from the incoming En-Nesyri, and then he took on the responsibility to be the first Beninese penalty taker in an AFCON shootout ever, and dealt with it calmly.

15. Wajdi Kechrida – 23 years old – right back (Tunisia) – not ranked

Played 120 minutes in the 1:1 draw with Ghana

The Tunisian right back is still not playing a good tournament overall and outright struggled tucked in vs Angola in the first game, or pinned back by Mali later. But he was much more of a force against Ghana; his heatmap for once shows a fairly big smudge inside the attacking half too, and he was visibly unleashed by the introduction of Khazri.

Kechrida then started overlapping, initiating build-ups and of course assisted on the only goal where everything came together. Can we get this for the whole 90-120 minutes next time?

14. Chidozie Awaziem – 22 years old – right back (Nigeria) – 10th (R2)

Played 90 minutes in the 3:2 win against Cameroon

I think it’s now fair to say Awaziem has gotten accustomed to his new role as a makeshift right back. In Round of 16, he did a good job as the original centre back, too – chipping in with five clearances (having previously contributed zero) while getting involved in the attacking aerial duel that preceded the first Ighalo goal.

And is it just me, or is Awaziem growing into a greater influence in the attacking third generally? His crosses have started to find their targets and one of them made for a great 2nd assist on the 2:2 goal.

13. Pierre Kunde – 23 years old – central midfielder (Cameroon) – 9th (R3)

Played 87 minutes in the 2:3 loss to Nigeria

I praised Pierre Kunde last time for how he stretched the pitch with brilliant, mostly just accurate diagonals, and how he expertly took corner kicks… and now I’m going to praise him for the exact same things, because his pass map remained essentially the same, and he once again set up three shot attempts, with two of them resulting from corner kicks.

There were a couple of significant changes, though: on the one hand, Kunde was way less involved in the build-up now than he was against Benin (naturally, since Nigeria don’t concede possession nearly as happily). On the other hand, his own shots now carried more danger and his shot assists now carried way more potential value (0,39 xA instead of a mere 0,03), so I see no good reason to cut Pierre Kunde Malong short.

12. Samuel Owusu – 23 years old – right winger (Ghana) – 13th (R3)

Played 107 minutes in the 1:1 draw with Tunisia

His criticism during the game was largely unfair, I felt. Firstly, most of it was along the lines of “he’s not doing enough” while surely coming mostly from the same fans who’d expected next to nothing from Owusu before the tournament, so that’s more a testament to his rise in prominence than anything else.

Second, I genuinely believe Owusu was in the right to try catch Hassen off guard with that shot from tight angle instead of a pass; the keeper was well off the line, cheating for the said pass.

And finally, Owusu was his poking self most of the time, he was trying hard to make something happen, and that it all didn’t amount to much was ultimately down to his teammates being tone deaf rather than his own fault.

11. Christian Bassogog – 23 years old – left/right winger (Cameroon) – 13th (R1)

Played 90 minutes in the 2:3 loss to Nigeria

On the last count, finally, the 2017 Afcon MVP showed how he can effectively occupy both flanks to an almost equal extent, completing three successful take-ons on each of the sides. Nonetheless, he was the real tormenting self on the left-hand side this time.

His low left-footed cross for the Bahoken equalizer (1:1) was an absolute work of art, carefully considered and measured, and what’s interesting: he almost set up another equalizer from virtually the exact same spot, and also for Bahoken, in the 89th minute.

10. Moise Adiléhou – 23 years old – centre back (Benin) – not ranked

Played 120 minutes in the 1:1 draw with Morocco

For some reason – and I’m happy to be corrected by you, dear reader – I have a rather hard time to rank Beninese centre backs especially high. One of them must be a nailed-on top15, by all means, and limiting Morocco to one goal seems fantastic on paper, but I just can’t quite put the finger on how exactly they’d themselves contributed to that.

Neither of them seemingly posted some mind-blowing numbers (clearances, interceptions – they look pretty pedestrian to me), they all seemed not 100% on one or two occasions, and… well… Morocco did reach 2,27 xG despite all of their best efforts.

Still, I will say this much: Adiléhou played in his first game since the 2:2 draw with Ghana at the beginning of the tournament when he was withdrawn as a centre back soon after the hour mark, and he definitely held his own here, being asked to recover 15 balls (hence five as many as in his first start) and putting Benin ahead with a very well taken volley off a corner kick. I mean seriously, it was one heck of a volley. I’m not sure how many of us, shocked onlookers, noticed in the heat of the moment. I sure didn’t.

9. Farouk Miya – 21 years old – attacking midfielder (Uganda) – 1st (R1)

Played 90 minutes in the 0:1 loss to Senegal

He was largely muted in open play, but after disappointing over the dead ball in Game 3, the set piece expert bounced back in a great style vs Senegal. Uganda only ever looked like scoring from (indirect) set pieces, and Miya was of course behind all of those.

Once, he casually picked out Aucho at the far post, whose chest control of the ball was a let down. Then he put in one more great corner kick delivery, only for the flag to go up eventually, which was a bit of a downer. And finally he found Okwi again, only to see his header from a good position go wide off the target. Again, a major let down.

In other words: Miya needed his teammates to do better to ultimately get on the scoresheet. But his own delivery in isolation? Oh my… *chef’s kiss*

8. Wilfred Ndidi – 22 years old – central midfielder (Nigeria) – not ranked

Played 90 minutes in the 3:2 win against Cameroon

I’ve been a fairly big critic of Wilfred Ndidi at this tournament, but even I’ve got to admit he grew into this game and made the victory eventually happen with his tight marking of Choupo-Moting.

In Nigerian kit, Ndidi is still finding his groove and usually tries to do a bit too much; this time, he was more focused and largely limited himself to defensive duties (though his bad passing was still on show, now even marked by the tournament-low 71% accuracy) which he carried out to near perfection. Ndidi got himself entangled in more duels than usual and came close to winning half of them, which is a very good rate for a supposed holding midfielder, especially when the said midfielder isn’t the conservative kind. And somehow anyhow, Ndidi was now credited for 8 cleared balls by Wyscout; having registered no such thing prior.

This is the Ndidi Nigeria need to be able to call upon for the rest of the tournament. Then they may be set to win it all.

7. Samuel Chukwueze – 20 years old – right winger (Nigeria) – 12th (R1)

Played 30 minutes in the 3:2 win against Cameroon

This basically came down to Iwobi vs Chukwueze for me. And for the second time at this tournament (in Round 1, I was similarly deciding between the two), the Arsenal man loses out to his younger colleague who this time only came off the bench no less.

It’s harsh on some level, I am aware; it was Iwobi’s well-taken goal, after all, what sent Nigeria to the quarter-final. But the 23-year-old is just so raw otherwise, I can’t possibly give him a nod ahead of a 20-year-old who was introduced at the hour mark, within six minutes oversaw Cameroon’s collapse, and while he wasn’t involved in any of the goals, remained a steady handful otherwise.

Chukwueze’s three shot assists equal the total of Iwobi (over 60 more mins) and the xA value stemming from those shot assists comfortably tops that of Iwobi (0,85 vs 0,05). If you recall, Ighalo absolutely should’ve completed a hat trick thanks to his brilliant set up, and had Musa put in a first-time effort the other time like any reasonable person would, Chukwueze would’ve bagged a pair of assists over some 10 minutes.

I’d call that a very good shift from the youngster. Yes, he was working with a opened up Cameroon, but he still did some tremendous damage, easily warranting his place here.

6. Moussa Djenepo – 21 years old – left winger (Mali) – 18th (R2)

Played 90 minutes in the 0:1 loss to Ivory Coast

At half-time, Moussa Djenepo looked firmly set to crack my top 3. He was an absolute beast and looked worth every penny of the pricetag he carries over to Southampton. He was fouled four times and seemingly any time he corralled the ball, things tended to happen. He’d create from deep; he’d confuse players with his one stepover and quick two steps; he’d help out his fullback with Nicolas Pépé and recover balls all the way near the corner flag, too; and his one pass to the box definitely looked convertable… until you noticed it’s Moussa Marega incoming and readying himself to inevitably miss the target.

Unfortunately, the foundations were not exactly built on. Djenepo still ended up being fouled seven times, because that’s what he always does – draws fouls (though four of them inside his own half this time around). But the end product simply wasn’t there, and so the sixth place still looks kind of high. But he was just so much fun early on, and led the onslaught Ivory Coast were clearly unable to deal with in the first 45 minutes.

5. Lebo Mothiba – 23 years old – centre forward (South Africa) – not ranked

Played 90 minutes in the 1:0 win against Egypt

The tournament as a whole won’t come down as a memorable one for the only U-23 member of the squad who ended starting all games including the quarter-final. For the best part of it, he was fouling stupidly and failing to get himself in the game at all. When a striker goes three games out of four without registering a single shot, questions have got to be asked – and when it’s this bad, his teammates really can’t be the only ones answering. Mothiba wasn’t doing enough; always heavy on the feet and with his first touch.

At least against Egypt, however, the striker uncovered a considerable part of his potential. He was diligently cutting off Tarek Hamed, finally channeled his grit and combativeness in some useful hold-up play and was of course instrumental in the deadly counter-attack that delivered the KO, timing his run and pass for Lorch to perfection.

It was a complex performance, with Mothiba eventually showing he can properly and to a great effect frustrate the oppposition too, not just Bafana fans (and teammates?).

4. Ismaël Bennacer – 21 years old – central midfielder (Algeria) – 4th, 5th, 11th

Played 90 minutes in the 3:0 win against Guinea

He’s now the only player to feature in all our rankings so far, and it doesn’t quite matter he’s never cracked the top 3. He definitely would’ve, had he not been part of such a well-balanced, well-oiled team that simply doesn’t allow him to take over games on his own. I mean… Wyscout counted just 12 passes received by Bennacer over the 94 minutes he played against Guinea. That’s really not a lot of ball enjoyed by a central midfielder.

It’s what he does with the rare ball what actually counts, though, and even with the benefit of hindsight, pretty much all action involving Bennacer seems to be of note. I still don’t quite understand how one little look over to the side allowed him to produce such a pinpoint long pass for the scoring Mahrez, but it’s not just that.

His dribbles are often short, economical and purposeful; and he just never loses the ball (exactly 7 times out of 7 vs Guinea he didn’t). His forward passes are always sharp. And he’s such a good teammate in how he’s seemingly never too far away to support and double down on an opponent. Ismaël Bennacer has simply been immaculate.

3. Mamadou Fofana – 21 years old – centre back (Mali) – not ranked

Played 90 minutes in the 0:1 loss to Ivory Coast

He was one of the youngest starting centre backs at Afcon, and he was one of the calmest too; very mechanical on the ball and nonchalantly winning duels, it was sometimes hard to notice him.

It wasn’t that hard against Ivory Coast, though, as he functioned like the stopgap against Pépé and recovered the ball a (personal) record 17 times. Once, he was clearing a ball while sitting on the ground and still looked sort of cool when doing so. And very early on, he was there when his CB partner got outsmarted by Zaha in the air to eventually block the Ivorien forwards’s goalbound shot. Pure positional intelligence on show.

Fofana was a great insurance to have at the heart of the defence throughout the Afcon.

2. Meschack Elia – 21 years old – right winger (DR Congo) – not ranked

Played 120 minutes in the 2:2 draw with Madagascar

In retrospect – and even after fully taking in his underwhelming performance in the opener – it feels so odd to now realize that Meschack Elia was made one of the early scapegoats and wouldn’t be included in any of the following three starting XIs.

Elia was, however, introduced pretty early against Madagascar and caused a remarkable amount of damage in the 79 minutes and with the vast space on the right he got. Had DRC ended up going through, as they should have given their dominant late surge, Elia would’ve been the reason behind it no matter what, since he was the one constantly taking advantage of tired Malagasy bodies or creating mismatches via corner kicks.

Seriously, though. Mbemba first should’ve done better after one of his corners, then he equalized from a similar spot in the last minute, and in the extra time, the two somehow combined for yet another huge chance, only getting denied by the keeper’s amazing fingertip save. From the other side of the pitch, then, Elia’s short corner routine with Maghoma almost led to a late ET winner, too. The ever-present mastermind, he was.

1. Youcef Atal – 23 years old – right back (Algeria) – 8th (R1), 16th (R2)

Played 90 minutes in the 3:0 win against Guinea

Okay, I swear he’s not topping my rankings because he topped the WhoScored rating table in the Round of 16. But I didn’t hold the fact against him, if you know what I mean.

As a matter of fact (and I’m well aware of how flawed their rating system is), Atal is the leading remaining Afcon defender according to WS and second-best U-23 player only lagging behid his teammate Adam Ounas, posting an average rating of 8,02 so far. All that as part of a rating system, that will 1) never fully accentuate the reserves he still shows when facing a man 1-on-1; and 2) never fully appreciate his attacking support.

Here’s a news flash for you: Youcef Atal is very smart. He reads the game so well he can afford to be incredibly resolute in coming out of the line and intercepting, which is usually promptly coupled with a sudden burst of pace, and just like that, the opponent is outnumbered. He’s always an outlet for Feghouli when building attacks from deeper down, and he targets free areas very well which showed on his fantastic assist, too.

Once Atal starts reading opponent’s movement on the ball when facing them as well as he reads the flow of the game and opponent’s distribution, he’ll be flat out elite. And based on his Afcon showings, he’s already way outgrown his current club, OGC Nice.

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