AFCON 2019: Ranking 10 best U-23 performances (QF & SF)


That’s right, it’s official. I’m getting desperate and tweaking the format of these rankings all I can to keep the series alive. This time, it’s indeed not performers, but performances, meaning we’ll have a double appearance from someone here and there. Another layer, I suppose, but mostly my way of making sure I don’t need to resort to ranking mediocre performances.

First, for your convenience, here are the previous rankings that saw a total of 52 players featured:

Round 1 (Group Stages)

Round 2 (Group Stages)

Round 3 (Group Stages)

Round of 16

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

  • For QF and SF combined, we now have a database of 45 U-23 players
  • Ismaïla Sarr (Senegal) was reported to be injured for QF, just FYI
  • We are working with a total of 15 full starts in QF and 8 more in SF
  • A further 12 cameos were made between QF and SF, and were considered
  • That means we are picking a top10 out of 35 U-23 appearances
  • Only Senegal in quarter-final didn’t field a single U-23 in starting XI
  • To be fair, usual starter Ismaïla Sarr was reported to be injured for QF

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.

◆ For the purpose of these rankings, we also 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: Alex Iwobi – 23 years old – attacking midfielder (Nigeria) – vs RSA (QF)

Played 90 minutes in the 2:1 win against South Africa

Main reason: His peripheral vision to effectively set up the first goal (it took a double effort from Chukwueze, hence no actual assist) was a sight to behold. But in a true Iwobi fashion, it was one moment of brilliance in a sea of average. At best.

My friend Wael Jabir of Ahdaaf said it bluntly but with a good reason: “Iwobi is a true symbol of how mighty Nigeria has fallen into mediocrity.” Or to put it in other, somewhat milder words: the Arsenal man is a good player for sure, but he simply won’t take over games for you; something Jay-Jay Okocha or even John Obi Mikel at his peak (2013) were able to do for Nigeria. And that really showed in the semis, too.

10. Moïse Adiléhou – 23 years old – centre back (Benin) – vs Senegal (QF)

Played 90 minutes in the 0:1 loss to Senegal

He made one crucial interception when he stuck out his right leg to excellently poke the ball out of the reach of incoming Keita Baldé who was just about to finish one-on-one. Then he did this; a last-ditch sliding interception AKA my favourite kind of interception.

It wasn’t necessarily about the quantity for Adiléhou, but quality of his plays was quite frankly out of this world.

9. Marco Ilaimaharitra – 23 years old – central midfielder (Madagascar) – vs CIV (QF)

Played 77 minutes in the 0:3 loss to Tunisia

A different kind of performance than what we had grown accustomed to. Much like Bennacer, Ilaimaharitra needed to be at his best defensively in QF, and it was precisely him who was holding Madagascar together in the first half before it all crumbled into pieces.

He very much owned the right-hand side in the early goings. Ilaimaharitra was winning most of the balls in the first half to feed the lively Lalaina Nomenjanahary and was a great two-way presence. After half-time, he switched more into his typical distributing role, but at that point, Andrea had already run out of gas, and so it all came to nothing.

8. Ismaël Bennacer – 21 years old – central midfielder (Algeria) – vs CIV (QF)

Played 120 minutes in the 1:1 draw with Ivory Coast

It was my feeling – and based on my Twitter timeline not just mine – that Ivory Coast actually made Bennacer very tame. As the first side at this Cup, they found a way to mute him. While he hit the highest pass completion rate (97% according to Wyscout), his passing wasn’t as incisive as it usually is, and some properly tight marking meant he didn’t complete a single dribble out of 3 attempted, which is super un-Bennacer like.

Yet, he returned the favour to Sangaré et co. with his by far most effective defensive shift of the tournament, winning more than half of his 13 defensive duels (two of them very close to Algeria’s own penalty box) and contributing with his personal best of 10 recoveries. It wasn’t necessarily the best and most vintage Bennacer we’ve seen, but make no mistake – it was still a quality Bennacer.

7. Franck Kessié – 23 years old – central midfielder (Ivory Coast) – vs Algeria (QF)

Played 120 minutes in the 1:1 draw with Algeria

There’s little doubt for me that had it not been for Franck Kessié’s strong presence in the middle of the park, even punctuated by some smart tactical fouling every so often (a remarkable six times to be precise), Ivory Coast would’ve been swept aside in regulation time. With him performing near his (defensive) best, Ivory Coast were this close to knocking out a tournament favourite. That’s the difference an elite player makes.

Kessié’s epic sliding block, of course, denied Bounedjah at the death of the first half, and his numerous interceptions on the left were a big reason why Mahrez never quite grew into the game and was eventually (oddly at first sight; less so at the second) subbed off.

6. Peter Etebo – 23 years old – central midfielder (Nigeria) – vs Algeria (SF)

Played 90 minutes in the 1:2 loss to Algeria

I’ve been a vocal critic of Etebo’s tournament. I’ve called him the prototypical jack of all trades who tries to chip in everywhere but contributes little on balance. I was told he has a great set piece pedigree and a fantastic shot from long-distance; while I genuinely haven’t seen either. And look, maybe this is just a matter of Rohr not finding a suitable role for Etebo, something he’s struggled with vis-à-vis so many players at this tournament after all (Iwobi, Mikel, Ndidi, Chukwueze all suffered for it, to some extent).

But without talking much about Etebo the player, let’s dissect his performance against Algeria a little bit. On the surface, the choice might seem odd; Super Eagles didn’t really have a midfield in that game, I hear you saying, and that much is true. Etebo, Ndidi and Iwobi are about as far removed from a controlling central midfield as they come, really.

But that takes nothing away from the fact Etebo himself put in his most focused performance at this Afcon. For once, his long passes weren’t delusional, and to date I haven’t seen a more impressive ratio of defensive duels undergone / won at this Afcon than the Stoke midfielder’s 7 duels won out of 10. He was legit reliable and this time didn’t even look like breaking anyone’s leg in the process, which is always a nice bonus.

5. Samuel Chukwueze – 20 years old – right winger (Nigeria) – vs RSA (QF)

Played 90 minutes in the 2:1 win against South Africa

I’ll go ahead and freely assume y’all expected this kid higher. And I’m willing to admit I was tempted myself, but… while it’s very clear he can beat his man 1-on-1, and his opening goal was a product of one great run and one determined follow-up, I just can’t shake the feeling he didn’t quite deliver on the night anyway. Given the amount of the ball he saw in and around the penalty area, that is. If I recall correctly, he attempted four dribbles inside the penalty area and still only sewed together a miserable 0,08 xA.

Chukwueze should’ve done way better with picking/directing his final pass, or alternatively should’ve been a more assertive shooter; then the top 3 would be a given. But at this point, I can’t help but feeling the hype surrounding this lad’s AFCON is a bit unjustified. A nifty dribbler with tons of potential, yes, but not much beyond that as of now.

4. Chidozie Awaziem – 22 years old – right back (Nigeria) – vs Algeria (SF)

Played 90 minutes in the 1:2 loss to Algeria

You could make a case for this performance being the more impressive one out of the two from Awaziem, and you would have me carefully listening. I probably wouldn’t end up agreeing, but there’s just so much to like on Awaziem’s game I would gladly hear you out nonetheless. He was under most fire against Algeria, finding himself entangled in 13 defensive duels according to Wyscout, but still came on top out of 69% of them.

This time purely focused on the defensive side of his game (and forced to be as well), Awaziem was a beast in the air again, sporting a perfect 3/3 record in aerials, and once again embodied the best tackler on the pitch.

A centre back by trade, there can’t be a single Nigerian who wouldn’t consider Awaziem the biggest positive of this tournament at this point. There simply can’t be, surely…

3. Ismaël Bennacer – 21 years old – central midfielder (Algeria) – vs Nigeria (SF)

Played 90 minutes in the 2:1 win against Nigeria

Curiously, Bennacer doesn’t show up any special in most advanced metrics (again, pin your blame on Awaziem if you must). Yet, going by eye test, I would rate this performance as his best one in the knock-out stages. He was a monster in 1-on-1 battles again and needed to be brought down a (personal) record five times – once on the left side of the penalty area and then, of course, before the Mahrez wonder free kick.

Besides, he produced a stunning rising shot that sadly crashed against the bar, and on another occasion produced a similarly stunning through ball that unfortunately also accounted for little. On another day, Bennacer would get on the scoresheet, for sure.

2. Chidozie Awaziem – 22 years old – right back (Nigeria) – vs RSA (QF)

Played 90 minutes in the 2:1 win against South Africa

The hero of the Round of 16, Thembinkosi Lorch, was utterly lost. He tried to make it work on the right, he tried to make it work on the left, and he ended up being a no-show.

All the passes he received successfully were limited to the first two thirds on the pitch; in the attacking third, there was always a shadow of Chidozie Awaziem, not necessarily the quickest makeshift fullback, but one with some superior positional sense and incredible poise in duels.

Awaziem just stares you down calmly and ultimately strips you with precision.

He’s impossible to dribble past, and statistically, it hadn’t been done by the end of the quarter-final either (then the rarity happened once out of 5 attempts). Against South Africa, his 4 successful tackles topped all performers on the pitch as ever, as he was again spot on with his footwork, didn’t foul on a single occasion, and was fouled three times himself.

1. Mohamed Dräger – 23 years old – right back (Tunisia) – vs Senegal (SF)

Played 120 minutes in the 0:1 AET loss to Senegal

Three things played in Dräger’s favour when I was deciding who to put first between him and Awaziem: his phenomenal defensive performance came 1) in the semi-final, 2) in his first full start at the tournament (only two 15-20min cameos prior), and 3) against a certain Sadio Mané.

Mohamed Dräger was absolutely fantastic. He lunged into six tackles and five of them were on point. He played it narrow when needed, and stepped out wide when it was advisable. His positioning was smart, he never overcommitted and looked incredibly composed throughout. I mean, to have multiple opponents run at you fifteen times over 120 minutes and only ever (half) surrender 5x, that’s a heck of a business card against one of the, if not the strongest left side on the continent in Mané, Gueye and Sabaly.

Whenever Dräger was doing something last-ditch, he was effectively deputizing for his colleagues. Everything else was calculated; including his long pass in behind the line to kick off the second half that really should’ve been converted by the ever-panicking Khenissi.


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